By now we’re all pretty sure we know what the definition of a zombie is, yeah? Well, what if we’re wrong? Or, what if, like most things, there exists this middle ground – this grey area – where our definition, and that guy’s over there, are both correct. Mind-blowing, right? Only if you’re a puritanical zombie acolyte.
In case you’ve been living under a rock, in which case you may be a zombie yourself, zombies are defined as “the undead” or “the living dead”; reanimated human corpses with an insatiable hunger for human flesh, and most cravingly, the human brain. But what if we just define a zombie as undead. All things undead = zombie. This puts the zombie sub-genre in an all-encompassing place.
By definition vampires are undead. They aren’t rotting. Sometimes, eye-rollingly so, they glitter. More often-than-not they are over-sexualized. But they are vampires, not zombies. You know who else was undead? Frankenstein’s monster. But he’s clearly classified as a monster. We know these other creature-feature creatures aren’t zombies, without question, so the question remains: what makes a zombie a zombie? How do we recognize one? How do we continue to abide by the definition of zombie we know, love, and trust?
The film that brought the modern definition, along with appreciation, of the zombie to the masses was George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. This was, by no means, the first zombie movie, but it is the movie that gave birth to modern zombie horror and, for decades, it was the movie by which we defined “zombie”. Romero’s zombies were undead, meandering, mindless, rotting, hungry, night-gowned, and relentless. They would have been laughable had the idea of them not been so terrifying.
So, our first markers to recognizing and defining a zombie are: undead, meandering, mindless, rotting, hungry and relentless. Good. That helps narrow things down a bit.
But what happens when new filmmakers and new ideas enter the mix? What if they replace some of these definition markers? In 28 Days Later we see zombies as infected, undead, super-fast, understanding, rotting, hungry, rage-fueled, and relentless. We also learn that they weren’t initially dead. Instead, they were infected with a “rage virus” that turned them into these “zombies”.
After 28 Days Later came along and turned our definition of zombie on it’s side, other movies came along and tweaked the defining markers, ever so slightly, so that we didn’t question them or wonder if the definition we hold on to is still accurate. Land of the Dead brought us zombies that were undead, faster moving, calculating, rotting, hungry, self-aware, and relentless. Later Fido gave us zombies that were undead, almost human paced, trainable, rotting, hungry, and almost respectable. Later we even had radioactively-induced mutant zombies in Planet Terror that, by all accounts, stuck with the defining markers of zombies but still had us question: are they also mutants?
You’ll notice the markers, while being tweaked and played with, have been relatively consistent with the whole undead, rotting, hungry and relentless bit. But what happens when these markers start to become blurred in the hands of filmmakers, writers, and artists in general?
With the onset of the unnecessary sub-genre of fuckable zombies we lose some of these key defining points. In Warm Bodies we are given zombies that are undead – but can become un-undead – they are barely rotting, mostly hungry, and curable through love. Making these zombies more like Disney characters than unliving, unbreathing, zombies. With the impending season premier of iZombie we are shown a PART-zombie that is half-dead, not at all rotting, hungry, and completely intelligent.
And, lets not forget the origin of the zombie outside of modern media. In some African cultures their belief in ‘zombi’ comes in many different forms. Some zombies are incorporeal and some are the dead whose body has been taken over by a witch to use them as slaves. In some modern voodoo beliefs, zombies can actually be hypnotized people, there is nothing dead or undead about them. (For further information about these undead, hypnotized zombie-people – without psychotropic drugs or other internal influences – check out NatGeo’s The Truth Behind Zombies) As you can see, these definitions don’t apply any of the consistent markers of a zombie, and yet, we can, and do, define them as such.
I know that within the horror community, specifically within the zombie sub-genre, how you define a zombie can make or break you. The debate about the 28 Days Later zombies still rages on. The fuckable zombie sub-sub-genre attempts to remove the dead aspect from zombies, but still plays in the necrophiliac’s playground. If you have to question whether a zombie can be healed, cured, put back together and made living again, is it really a zombie? If religious beliefs reign supreme in regards to zombies that may or may not be living, do they count?
These are the tough questions, people.
My own personal definition of zombie is: They are dead, there is no blood pumping through their veins to keep them alive, so they are in a state of decomposition. They are hungry for human flesh and brains to keep them moving, it’s a primordial hunger; an instinct. They are relentless, they will give up when they have been killed or when they have decomposed to nothing. They cannot be cured, their undeath cannot be reversed. Their speed and intelligence is inconsequential, as is how they became a zombie. I don’t care if they were injected with a rage virus or if they contracted some reanimation plague, if they meet my other markers, they are zombie. You do not keep them as pets, you do not train them as laborers, and you do not fuck them.
How do you define zombie? Discuss!
Originally written for and posted at The Horror Honeys.