Defining the dead: What is a zombie?

Posted by Cory Casciato On March - 31 - 2009


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.

14 Responses to “Defining the dead: What is a zombie?”

  1. Sid Pink says:

    Um… wha?
    This is not even up for discussion.
    Zombies can be anything that transforms into a ghoul of a being that seeks brains or flesh or just fucking hates people. Dead? Alive? These terms don’t apply thus. Sure, zombies can be re-animated corpses. But don’t most, even ‘classic’ interpretations lean on the old – “don’t get bitten” rule, wherein someone in our group of heroes gets bitten and we all await and hope against the inevitable transformation [and subsequent showdown of who has to kill it and who tries to get in the way of someone killing it; due to emotional connection or certainty that there’s some ‘other way’]?

    Zombie – any old undead-ish humanoid that seeks to disrupt humankind, probably isn’t very smart [but *could* be], and has the power to make more of itself; either by killing suckas, biting them, getting their goo on innocents, etc.

    Them’s my 1/100th of a Euro

  2. Zombie Aaron says:

    It is getting so difficult to define what a zombie is. My take on the subject is anything who harbors blood lust and acts exclusively in this nature. However the line is a blurry one. I would be happy to link, I’m sort of new to blogging, but will do my best to figure it out. If you have any hints don’t hesitate to let me know. Thanks!

  3. Doc Zombie says:

    I agree with your post cory. Do you then not agree that aliens coming from outer space to inhabit the bodies and minds of humans would be considered zombies (examples: Slither/Alien Raiders)? I mean isn’t that sort of related to the original voodoo style zombie? Someone had to create/curse an individual into their zombie state (“zombie slave”)? Also, does this then not include humans who’ve somehow been transformed into cannibalistic mutants? not the undead, but a new type of monster all together (example: view the new trailer for Mutant here: Would it also include humans turning into mindless crazies due to some sort of electronic signal or contamination? (example: The Signal/Romero’s Crazies)

    I think the loss of humanity or soul and a basic human thought process is the key to this argument. The emergence of truly basic human instinct is all that remains. Feed, Hunt, Survival (fight/flight).

    To only limit the zombie genre to Romero is way to narrow. If you do that then you’ll miss out on some good stuff.

  4. ParanoidWierdo says:

    When my redneck gun-nut friends and I get together to clean our assault rifles and raise money for the construction of our eventual fortified compound, we use ‘zombie apocalypse’ as a catch-all phrase for any large-scale cataclysmic breakdown in civil order. The zombies in that scenario, regardless of root cause, would be starving, desperate refugees. They are, almost literally, the walking dead. We can’t feed them for more than a week, during which time they’ll eat all our supplies for winter, and probably us… The zombie apocalypse is only funny until it happens, man!

  5. Cory Casciato says:

    Well, that’s a cheery thought! And in my experience, the zombie apocalypse is funny about 30 percent of the time, depending on director and script, but your mileage may vary.

  6. […] the zombie? I admit, at least a couple of these films challenge my definition of zombies (set out here and here) and it seems like if some are included, all should be (or vice versa). I welcome any […]

  7. Daft Zombie says:

    I agree with Doc Zombie, The original “zombies” from Haiti were not corpses, but individuals rubbed down with paste that slowed thier heart, dropped thier body temperature, and made them appear dead, from there they were used by a “zombie master” (I forget the actual term). From here, America began making movies about the zombie and we’ve added to the definition from there. To say that a zombie MUST die in order to complete this transfermation would in essence be the definition of a new creature, not a zombie.

  8. […] Another aspect to the Easter story that fascinated me as a kid was the question: when Jesus comes back to life, is he technically a zombie? […]

  9. Paul Wehrle says:

    This is easy science….Zombies comprise the majority of present-day voting Republicans and their elected leaders….most are truly brain dead.

  10. Zombie Expert says:

    Politics should be left out of this discussion, but I would go one step further to say anyone who votes for Republican or Democrat specifically no matter what election is brain dead to vote for one just because they are a republican or democrat is retarded you should way options and vote on meirt not on party. which today is difficult since its not about what we can do for the country, its more about what can i say to make you look like a liar a cheater and an abuser of power

  11. […] at noe skal være en zombie så må det være dødt. En lengre diskusjon og dette emnet kan du lese her. Konklusjonen hans er verdt å bite seg merke i som en god huskeregel: Om det ser ut som en zombie, […]

  12. […] Living Dead Girl This is one of those movies that really makes you look at those hard-and-fast definitions of “zombie”, which is probably its sole saving grace. The plot concerns a dead girl brought back to life via […]

  13. […] The Inevitable Zombie Apocalypse summed it up a bit differently by saying that if it looks and acts like a zombie and it is not something else then it is a zombie… […]

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