In an earlier post, I addressed the question of what makes a zombie. My preliminary conclusion was if it looks like a zombie, acts like a zombie and isn’t something else, it’s a zombie. Here, I’d like to help nail that down with a definition and a look at the key question of zombiedom: is it dead?
Zombie: a) a dead human that’s been reanimated to a state between life and death; b) a human in a death-like state that strips them of cognition, will and other mental or spiritual traits most considered unique to humanity, esp. the soul.
Many zombie fans would argue that the second definition is incorrect. To their point of view, if it isn’t dead, it isn’t a zombie; nothing else matters. It’s frequently the justification given to deny zombie status to the infected in 28 Days Later, for example. But it isn’t that simple. The zombie is all about blurring the lines between life and death. After all, in real life, dead people do not walk around, much less try to eat people’s faces off, right? So it seems a wee bit absolutist to argue, “If it isn’t dead, it isn’t a zombie.”
Is the zombie alive? Dead? Well, there’s a reason they created a word – undead – for it. It’s neither, really. Not technically alive, not technically dead, but in a third state. And again, since this state is largely imaginary, it’s impossible to definitively say what that means — at least until the real zombie apocalypse breaks out, which I expect any day now. But that’s another story.
To my way of thinking, the unlife/undeath of a zombie is all about the corruption or loss of humanity. This is frequently represented by the horde in zombie movies: i.e. the loss of individuality, subsumed into a mindless, unthinking mass. In this light, the Rage zombies of 28 Days Later are just as easily seen as zombies, despite being technically alive. Certainly, they’ve lost their cognitive functions, their identities and their ability to exercise free will. They act only on the impulse to kill and to infect. The heart beats, but something vital — the spark of humanity itself, whether you call it a soul or a mind — is gone. How is that not a zombie? (There’s also the fact that they are clearly in a zombie movie, but that’s a subject for another post entirely…)
There can’t be any absolute answer, since we’re talking primarily about fiction. What makes a zombie for me might not for you, and we could both be “right.” I do think that when trying to determine the validity of a potential zombie, the death question is absolutely key. If it isn’t dead, or in a death-like state that strips some essential component of its humanity from it, then no, it isn’t a zombie.