First, it should be noted that there are two extant notions of what constitutes zombie-hood. The first is the oldest, and arguably the classic definition of zombie, a human body that has been reanimated and can move about, but has no soul/spirit and no will of it’s own. This type of zombie is created to be a slave to the will of the sorcerer who created it. It should be noted that science has dismissed this as rubbish.
The second type of zombie is the classic movie zombie made popular by George A. Romero, beginning with Night of the Living Dead. There were many B-grade movies that featured the classic zombie before George turned the genre into something more gruesome. The earliest i’m aware of is King of the Zombies, 1941.
The origin of the original zombie, the reanimated corpse used as a slave comes from Haiti, where a religion called Vodou, or sometimes Vaudou, arose. This is turn appears to have it’s roots in the Congo/Niger region of Africa. When slaves were brought to Haiti in the 16th century they were forced to convert to the religion of their owners, but while they converted outwardly, they largely still followed their traditional African beliefs which they subsequently mixed with Roman Catholicism to created Vodou.
As you will have guess by now, Vodou morphed into Voodoo when it reached Louisiana, Most of what people understand of the original notion of zombism is derived from the classic New Orleans description of what a zombie is. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word zombie entered English circa 1871; it’s derived from the Louisiana Creole or Haitian Creole zonbi, which in turn is of Bantu origin, which is a Congolese tribe, taking us back to the origins of Vodou.
According to the tenets of Vodou, a dead person can be revived by a bokor or sorcerer. Zombies remain under the control of the bokor since they have no will of their own. “Zombi” is also another name of the Vodou snake god Damballah Wedo.
Vodou claims that a living person can be turned into a zombie by two special powders being entered into the blood stream (usually via a wound). The first, coup de poudre (French: ‘powder strike’), includes tetrodotoxin (TTX), the poison found in the pufferfish. The second powder is composed of dissociatives such as datura root. Together, these powders are said to induce a death-like state in which the victim’s will would be entirely subject to that of the bokor. Just a little how-to guide for those of you who might wish to create your own zombie. 🙂
Modern zombies, as portrayed in books, films, games, and haunted attractions, are quite different from both voodoo zombies and those of folklore. They are typically depicted in popular culture as mindless, unfeeling monsters with a hunger for human brains and flesh. While that didn’t start with Romero, it established the pattern once and for all. Several Italian directors were hugely inspired by Night of the Living Dead and created films that to this day are banned in many places, and have an X rating where they are allowed, such is the over the top graphic violence they portray. I have seen the DVD
covers for such, and some of the stills, and it’s certainly nothing i’d care to watch. One, I understand has a scene of a fight between a great white shark and a zombie that’s apparently a cult classic.
Typically, these modern day zombies can sustain damage far beyond that of a normal, living human (generally these can only be killed by a wound to the head, such as a headshot) and can pass whatever syndrome causes their condition onto others. While this is far removed from the original notion of zombies, it makes for more entertaining cinema and gives scriptwriters a lot more leeway. We like to think of that as progress, I guess.
In addition, modern zombies are depicted in mobs, seeking either flesh to eat or people to kill or infect, and are typically rendered to exhibit signs of physical decomposition such as rotting flesh, discolored eyes, and open wounds, and moving with a slow, shambling gait. They are generally incapable of communication and show no signs of personality or rationality, not unlike Republican voters. Modern zombies are closely tied to the idea of a zombie apocalypse, the collapse of civilization caused by a vast plague of undead. The ideas are now so strongly linked that zombies are rarely depicted within any other context, again, not unlike…ok, i’ll stop now.
Anyway, that’s your ten-minute primer on zombism. I hope you enjoyed it.