Whether you’re deeply invested in their modern lore or roll your eyes at the mere thought of undead fever, there’s no denying it: zombies have infiltrated pop culture. Found throughout contemporary culture, zombies can be fast, slow, sexy, goofy, or just gross, and their headcount just keeps growing.
Believe it or not, though, today’s zombies all descend from the same series of characters—ones that united diverse spiritualities against the real-life horror of slavery, and which have helped us explore our greatest fears and faults, from contagion to consumerism.
WHERE DO ZOMBIES COME FROM (OTHER THAN THE GROUND)?
According to BBC Culture, the word “zombie” may come from any number of terms in West African and colonial-era languages, such as ndzumbi, the Mitsogo word for “corpse,” and nzambi, “spirit of a dead person” in Kongo. In several West African traditions, such terms have alternately referred to harnessed spirits of the dead, fairies, humans transformed into animals, and even misbehaving children, to name a few. According to the book Race, Oppression and the Zombie: Essays on Cross-Cultural Appropriations of the Caribbean Tradition, “Aside from being scary monsters, what all of these [figures] share in common is an idea of subjugated agency.”
The closest relative to modern brain-hounds, however, is the Haitian zombi. It’s often been depicted as a soulless human shell that may be reanimated by potion, enchantment, or other foul means to toil for all eternity under total command of a bokor, or sorcerer, of the Vodou religion. Not to be confused with ‘voodoo,’ Vodou is “a loosely affiliated, syncretistic religion ... [that] began when slaves of wide-ranging African backgrounds were brought together in what became the hub of the slave trade—Haiti … [and] systematically 'converted' to the Catholic Church,” according to Race, Oppression and the Zombie.
According to Farewell, Fred Voodoo author Amy Wilentz, the idea of zombies developed among these Haitian slaves. As the slaves endured notoriously cruel conditions through the 17th and 18th centuries, West African traditions evolved to reflect these horrors. Between the new spiritual traditions of Vodou in Haiti, Obeah in Jamaica, and la Regla De Ochá (a.k.a. Santería) in Cuba, BBC Culture says, “[it] gradually coalesced around the belief that a bokor or witch-doctor can render their victim apparently dead and then revive them as their personal slaves, since their soul or will has been captured.”
Overall, said Wilentz, the zombie was "a very logical offspring of New World slavery. For the slave under French rule in Haiti—then Saint-Domingue—in the 17th and 18th centuries, life was brutal: hunger, extreme overwork, and cruel discipline were the rule.” BBC Culture pointed out, too, that while the new figure was real-life horror manifested in myth, it also threatened something even worse: an eternity on the plantation, “without will, without name, and trapped in a living death of unending labour.”
VOODOO SPREADS—AND CREATIVITY ERUPTS
In 1791, a slave rebellion erupted against colonial rule and the fatally cruel conditions in French Saint-Domingue (then renamed Haiti), and after a long revolutionary war, Haiti became the first independent black republic in 1804. Word of the carefully engineered overthrow spread as far as Europe and the Americas, inspiring slaves and troubling their oppressors. Soon after, bolstered by plantation owners and investors, shocking rumors of so-called voodoo practices among slaves began spreading around the world.
“The imperial nations of the North became obsessed with Voodoo in Haiti,” BBC reported. “From then on, it was consistently demonized as a place of violence, superstition, and death ... Throughout the 19th century, reports of cannibalism, human sacrifice, and dangerous mystical rites in Haiti were constant.”
Artists from imperial nations began picking up those stories and putting them to enthusiastic use. Articles, short stories, and novels in English on the imagined ‘dark magic’ of voodoo were popular fare in the 19th and early 20th centuries, according to filmmaker Gary D. Rhodes. Generally, however, “those English authors who wrote of Haiti were not in the least concerned about the negative repercussions of their work,” Rhodes wrote in White Zombie: Anatomy of a Horror Film, saying “such depictions of Haiti and voodoo both echoed and inspired dominant U.S. prejudices that have existed through the 19th and into the 21st centuries.”
According to Rhodes, it was information and flourishes from this kind of writing—and particularly material in William B. Seabrook's 1929 book The Magic Island—that inspired the first full-length zombie flick in history: 1932’s White Zombie. Starring Bela Lugosi (and with a plot not unlike Dracula’s), the film depicted a betrothed young woman being forced into a romance in Haiti using a version of the island’s "black magic."
The movie impressed audiences enough to earn its producers a small bundle but never garnered much critical success. However, along with a series of scary-to-goofy films that also took up these premises in the ‘40s and ‘50s, according to Rhodes, White Zombie provided key, largely invented details about voodoo, its practitioners, and "zombification" that future directors would bring to shores around the world.
ROMERO’S LIVING DEAD TAKE OVER, CHANGING ZOMBIES FOREVER
Over the past several decades, zombies in popular films and television series have alternately run or walked, groaned or chatted, and chewed human flesh or rather saved themselves for brains; however, according to Kim Paffenroth, author of Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero's Visions of Hell on Earth, they all reflect the work of a particular filmmaker. Paffenroth explained, “When one speaks of zombie movies today, one is really speaking of movies that are either made by or directly influenced by one man, director George A. Romero.” Beginning with his “landmark” 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, Paffenroth said, Romero established a new and now widely accepted set of rules for the undead that has shaped modern zombies across all mediums.
Oddly enough, the director didn’t set out to reinvent the concept of zombies. In fact, Romero told WIRED that the famously slow-but-unstoppable undead characters in his first film were simply called “flesh-eaters.” His legions of fans consistently called them “zombies,” though, so for 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, he gave into popular demand and renamed the hordes. Romero’s choice to drop the Haitian context for zombies (realistic or demonizing) led to major changes for the genre, too. “I just took some of the mysterioso stuff of voodoo out of it, and made them the neighbors,” he told WIRED. “Neighbors are frightening enough when they’re alive.”
Intentionally or not, Romero's work with zombies had a big impact on the horror genre from the get-go. In the post-Romero film tradition, zombies are no longer living people who’ve been rendered powerless supernaturally, Paffenroth explained. “Such zombies are more victims than monsters, and can usually be released from the malevolent control by killing the agent that is controlling them, thereby returning them to human status, or to the peaceful rest of death,” he said. “The new type of zombie, on the other hand, is a horrifying killing machine in its own right that can never revert to 'human.’”
With these fundamental changes, Paffenroth said, Romero and his colleagues pivoted modern zombie stories not just into new shapes and geographic regions, but also new areas of meaning. Whether it’s caused by a virus, a solar flare, or an otherworldly scheme, the revolutionary “zombie apocalypse” scenario popularized by Romero’s films has allowed artists to explore the fears and potential consequences of contemporary society, from authoritarianism to pandemics.
“In the movies, the cause of [zombism] is, of course, more or less irrelevant: it is only a necessary plot device to get us to the point of, 'What would happen if corpses got up and started walking around?' And the story that each movie offers is to look at one very small band of survivors in their struggle to survive, not to find explanations.”
SO, WHAT HAVE THEY BEEN UP TO LATELY?
In recent years, zombies have pretty much invaded Western culture, popping up everywhere from popular comedies to blockbuster video games. In some ways, they’ve become welcome figures (or, at least, more manageable ones) as part of a favorite new world fable. As such, the zombie apocalypse is even starting to serve as a kind of shorthand backdrop for tough times that may lie ahead—or, put another way, for when "all hell breaks loose."
The CDC, for one, has been pushing Zombie Preparedness as a way to help get humans better equipped for handling a host of different disasters. There’s the potential impact zombies could have on international politics, too, while the inevitable challenges of “Death and Taxes and Zombies” continue to be areas of concern.
For zombie expert Max Brooks, who authored The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z, the immense popularity of zombies makes perfect sense. "The [zombie] genre cannot exist outside of the apocalyptic," Brooks told The Independent. "Since we are living in times of great uncertainty, zombies are a safe way of exploring our own anxiety about the end of the world."
And while, from certain angles, the modern zombie may seem to have branched far away from its Haitian roots, experts aren’t so sure. In many ways, this character that “sprung from the colonial slave economy [is] returning now to haunt us,” and for good reason, said Wilentz. She explained to The New York Times:
"The zombie is devoid of consciousness and therefore unable to critique the system that has entrapped him. He’s labor without grievance. He works free and never goes on strike. You don’t have to feed him much. He’s a Foxconn worker in China; a maquiladora seamstress in Guatemala; a citizen of North Korea; he’s the man, surely in the throes of psychosis and under the thrall of extreme poverty, who, years ago, during an interview, told me he believed he had once been a zombie himself."
No one knows if there’s a zombie apocalypse in our future, but given our long cultural history with the undead, it seems likely that many humans can already see bits of ourselves and our civilization reflected in those zombie hordes—and vice versa.