Zombies are, quite simply, the resurrected bodies of the not-yet-completely-decomposed dead. These lifeless bodies are animated by some supernatural force – witchcraft, alien science, a weird virus, etc. – and are free to walk the Earth once more. Technically, Count Dracula and Jesus Christ are both zombies.
The traditional idea of the zombie, for many years, came from the weird religious mix between Catholicism and animistic African rites known as voodoo (or voudoun, to the more politically correct). While nearly all cultures have enjoyed myths and legends about the reawakened dead, it was voodoo that gave us the name and really brought the idea out into popular culture. In older films like White Zombie with Bela Lugosi, zombies were portrayed as black men who had worked on plantations in the Carribean and died, and then their corpses were animated to become an inhuman army of the undead by this or that wicked voodoo priest. We kids who grew up in the 1970’s and earlier knew that to stop a (traditional) zombie, you had to find where its body lay when it wasn’t walking around, pour plenty of salt into its mouth, and sew up the lips. Or, like in the movies, kill the mad scientist/priest/ whatever and burn down his hideout.
All of that changed with the popularity of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Suddenly, zombies weren’t zoned-out, creepy black dudes haunting some sugar plantation in South America; they were now in your face, blood-thirsting, unstoppable by normal means, still slow-moving but relentless bastards. Worse of all, they were folks from right out of the local cemetary, just over the hill from your house: your elderly neighbors, that Martin kid who got knocked off his four-wheeler, your friend’s alcoholic stepdad who fell asleep with a lit cigarette. Mister Johnson, remember me? You taught me in fourth grade. You said I was your best… Mr. Johnson? No – keep away from me! Don’t – don’t – aaaaauuuuuugghhhhh!
Well, you get the idea. Zombies were suddenly hungry for the flesh of the living, and were absolutely relentless in their pursuit of it. Also, anybody they bit or mangled – assuming that person wasn’t chewed up completely – also became a zombie. So if a zombie army attacks your home one night, and you manage to get your family into your underground fortified bunker in time, but little Suzie received a nasty teeth mark on her delicate little arm… well, sorry, kid, but you’re outta here.
It took a while for this new paradigm of zombiism to become a part of pop culture, supplanting the old idea. Romero’s original film didn’t quite get widespread distribution, at least on television, for about a decade or so – probably with all that cannibalism, it was too graphic for mid-70’s Sunday-afternoon-at-the-movies. At any rate, it wasn’t until the sequel, Dawn of the Dead, ten years later that the new idea started to catch on. The Italians, always extreme in their genre filmmaking, started cranking out shuddery gross-outs like Zombie II directed by Lucio Fulci; pretty soon zombies could be seen and enjoyed all over the place. But Romero’s idea of the zombie – the new, flesh-eating, these-could-be-your-neighbors zombies, caught on and stuck. Nearly nobody thinks of the old Haitian type anymore.
Along with this idea came the idea of the ‘zombie holocaust’ – i.e., that if the bodies of the undecomposed dead all over the nation (or the planet) started to rise up and come after the liviing, it would mean basically the end of civilization as we know it. Think about it – would you be willing to pack little Billy off to school if you thought his bus could be stopped by an army of ravenous, unstoppable ghouls? Not to mention what it would do to the price of gasoline. In any case, this idea – a perfectly logical extension of the original – tended to give many of these later zombie films a very downbeat quality. In the aforementioned Dawn of the Dead, for example, the few living survivors huddle together in a closed-up Pittsburgh shopping mall, while the living dead prowl all around them, often acting out consumerist mall rituals unconsciously, as if by some residual memory.
The popularity of zombies has continued to grow and grow, until now these stinky carnivores are all over the place – there’s even a series of comic books where the Marvel superheroes become zombified. It doesn’t look like the trend is going to let up anytime soon, either.
But as is sometimes asked on geeky message boards, could it ever happen? Could the bodies of the dead become somehow revivified and start lumbering stupidly after us, the living, seeking the sweet meat that hangs upon our bones? Well, the idea is absurd on its face, but… well, doesn’t the Bible talk about how the dead will rise from their graves, and all that kind of shit?
Well, it’s best to be ready, just in case. Right?