Is it a zombie?

Posted by Cory Casciato On March - 5 - 2009

kirsty1What is a zombie? It’s an obvious and necessary question for any blog that seeks to cover the wide variety of zombie media. In my research and writing, I’ve encountered a number of different definitions for what is or isn’t a zombie. It’s something that really, really seems to get zombie lovers riled up. If you want to see an example, check out the discussion page for the Wikipedia list of zombie movies (it’s in my blogroll links). It has pages of discussion over 28 Days Later, much of which can only be described as frenzied.

Many people take what I feel is a ridiculously narrow view. In a list of the best zombie movies of all time I wrote a while back, some of the commenters complained that The Serpent and the Rainbow didn’t belong. Another commenter said if it wasn’t an ambulatory, flesh-eating corpse, it wasn’t a zombie (in other words, it’s a Romero clone, or it’s not a zombie). That’s just ridiculous. For one thing, it makes the list of zombie movies and media about a ten percent of what it actually is, or should be. For another, it completely ignores the history and development of the zombie. Worst, it completely excludes some of the coolest zombies of all time.

Personally, I take an expansive, inclusive position on what is or isn’t a zombie. I use what I consider a common-sense approach: if it looks like a zombie, acts like a zombie and/or is called a zombie, then it’s (probably) a zombie. I know that might seem like a circular argument, but we are talking about a largely fictional creature here — a zombie is what the people who make zombie media say it is, and, to a lesser degree, what the people who experience that media think it is.

It’s not quite that simple; there are other considerations. For starters, it’s definitely worth noting that zombies are, in one incarnation, a real thing. You can’t say that about too many other monsters! The first zombie stories came from reports of Westerners who visited Haiti and witnessed or heard about the creations of Voudon practitioners. From there, zombies were incorporated into film and theater, then later books, video games, etc.

On the other hand, things that are clearly and definitively something else, such as vampires, demons or ghosts, are not zombies (although there are some special cases that might qualify as zombie hybrids). These creatures have their own traditions and tropes associated with them. Trying to encompass them in the definition of a zombie simply dilutes the definition beyond usefulness.

That’s the basic premise: if it looks like a zombie, acts like a zombie and/or is called a zombie (i.e. is based on the reality of the Voudon practice of zombification or any of the fiction inspired by that practice) and isn’t something else, it’s a zombie. I’m not done with this topic, not by a long shot. I’m actually working on a super-scientific method for determining zombieness and I intend to address several specific characteristics of zombiism in later posts, but I think I’ve poked the fire enough for one day.

15 Responses to “Is it a zombie?”

  1. leila says:

    You are entering the realm of semiotics here. Sign, signifier and signified. Signs have no meaning without general cultural consent. It is a zombie because a majority says and agrees that it is a zombie. But signs are arbitrary. There is no actual connection between the letters Z-O-M-B-I-E and the actual zombie, nor is there any connection between the phonetic sound created when we utter the word “zombie”. I think if you look more closely at the etymology of the word zombie, ghost or departed spirit, that we can include objects/beings that are considered by hardcore zombie fans as being outside of the canon. The spirit of certainly seems to have departed the ‘zombies’ in 28 Days Later. However, signs being arbitrary, and language being shifty, the definition of zombie will continue to evolve and never rest on a single, fixed meaning.

  2. Wyozach says:

    In a word: yes.
    In more than one word: I also take an expansionist view on zombies. The only real authentic, historical zombie is the Haitian Voodoo zombie. But pop culture has taken that concept and taken it further, adding many more layers of mythos to it.
    In short: If the creature was previously a living, sentient human and through some process of infection, radiation, or other outside force, the body died and became reanimated to then attack and reinfect or eat other humans, it is then a zombie.

  3. Joel Tagert says:

    I’m sorry, my friend, but on this you’re completely off the mark. There are three viable criteria for identifying a zombie. First, is it clearly dead, i.e., rotting? Second, is it still moving around despite being dead, i.e., lurching toward you trying to gnaw on your neck? Third, does the test performed by mad scientist Dr. Jericho Jenkins reveal the presence of the zombie-creating virus, zombius origanus mysterius? (Maybe it’s a dead person that’s about to become a zombie.)

    Then, and only then, can you be certain and blow the thing’s head off with your elephant gun. Otherwise, who knows? It might just be some pasty jerk with a taste for human flesh. That’s not a zombie. That’s Dick Cheney.

  4. Joshua says:

    Ok, i will try and keep this short and to the point, despite my lagging on saying anything at all.

    As we discussed briefly, I think what makes a zombie is a scale describing how much fun it is to kill. I’ll go over a couple popular examples.

    1. your classic, pervasive romero zombie: these have an incredibly high fun factor when it comes to killing for a few reasons, not the least of which is that they are already dead and so any guilt at dispatching them in a variety of exciting manners is whisked away by their having been taken beyond the veil of life. they are slow moving and stupid, giving the intelligent zombie hunter ample time to plan and execute elaborate attacks, and as long as you can keep the numbers fairly thin, you really have little chance of being overwhelmed and made one yourself.

    so, this is why this is the best zombie, and the one people fight so hard for. when the zombie apocalypse comes, we don’t want to be running in fear from screaming zombies that can keep up a good clip… that is not fun. we want them slow.

    2. the 28 days later zombie is brought into question because of what i just said, they can fuckin’ move, and they are dangerous, no one can have fun fighting that.

    the second reason the level of fun is reduced is that they’re not really dead and so you have the guilt of killing a living person every time you swing your axe. no one can feel good about that. i mean, what if there is a vaccine? and who can kill something that looks at you with such sad eyes while it tries to rip your throat out?

    in closing:

    so, since the 28 days later zombie is so low on fun we can go ahead and say it is not a zombie, but merely a person who has been infected by a particularly fucked up virus, because, dude, it -could- be killed, all film references aside, you can’t cure undead.

    except!

    except by a masterful and enjoyable swing of the sword, fire of the shotgun or application of flaming whatever.

  5. scalpod says:

    I agree with Joshua. No one wants to confront agile, frenzied zombies?! Therein lies the crux of this issue.

    What exactly is the difference between one of these new-fangled olympic sprinting “zombies” and a psychotic cannibal Flo Jo who just really has it out for you for some reason? Other than them being dead that is?

    I guess my beef has more to do with the homogenization of horror and less with the specifics? I haven’t actually read or seen “Twilight” yet, but I know vampire purists are spinning in their crypts at the complete and total de-vampification of these “vampires”.

    I mean, why even distinguish between imaginary monsters at all? When you get right down to it aren’t Godzilla, Dracula and the monster-under-your-bed all just the same externalization of deep-seated primal fears?

    If there’s anything I’m less tolerant of than intolerance, it’s abject tolerance.

  6. scalpod says:

    One more quick point and I’m done, I swear.

    As I understand it, Hollywood zombies have very little to do with Haitian zombies, considering the latter are people who were drugged, buried alive and survived with brain damage or at least the unimaginable trauma of having endured such treatment.

    They’re not dead (or undead), they don’t hunger for human flesh, let alone brains, and they certainly don’t act as a vector for the transmission of their “zombiism”.

    I’m well and truly curious about this system you’re devising which takes into account these completely divergent circumstances while not “diluting the definition” of what a zombie actually is?

  7. Strawberry says:

    I favor a definition that includes the “infected” in 28 Days/Weeks Later, but not the usage of the word by Ash in Alien when he said “I think it’s safe to assume it’s not a zombie.” Zombies have to have been human before they became zombies.

  8. lexabear says:

    I don’t have anything against fast zombies. I see the core of the zombie idea as the loss of humanity, not the loss of mobility. I see a zombie is a human-looking thing that, through one means or another, has lost its humanity and coherence, and attacks other humans. Obviously this is not an air-tight definition (e.g., Buffy-style vampires could fit for loss-of-humanity but not loss-of-coherence). It does definitely include 28-Days “rage virus” zombies though. Zombies inhabit the uncanny valley.

  9. [...] an earlier post, I addressed the question of what makes a zombie. My preliminary conclusion was if it looks like a [...]

  10. Steve says:

    if you don’t know what a zombie is, then you’re going to be one of the ones killed during the zombie apocalypse. you shouldn’t even be on this website. BE AFRAID!!!

  11. [...] 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 thoughts and [...]

  12. [...] Early on, I spent two posts attempting to define exactly what a zombie is. The first of those was “Is it a zombie” and I followed that with “Defining the dead: What is a zombie?” which elaborated. There [...]

  13. While I do love zombies that are of the flesh eating variety, I do consider those that appear as mindless slaves a part of any zombie conversation. Keep in mind that the only reason people don’t talk about the pre-Romero zombie is that he completely overhauled the genre. There were some decent films made before Romero’s creation and a few good ones after (Serpent and the Rainbow).

  14. Ugh… this discussion is something you will never escape if you’re going to talk zombies, believe me. But I like the common sense approach.

  15. I think it is important to distinguish between the Haitian “zombi” and the Western/modern “zombie”.

    The former is a part of Vodou and is still practiced today in some areas. This type of zombi can occur in a number of different forms – only one of which is the mindless corpse we are most familiar with. The zombi is ancient and has spiritual significance for practitioners of Vodou.

    The latter – “zombie” – is a modern creation and largely the brainchild of George Romero. He never called the creatures in The Night of the Living Dead “zombies” because he didn’t consider them to fulfill the basic requirement of zombi-ism – the relationship to Vodou. Instead he called the “ghouls” and somewhere along the line the general public misappropriated the term “zombi” and applied to his creations. Usually the only thing “zombis” and “zombies” have in common is the lack of will and general mindlessness.

    So, as far as “zombies” go – if it hasn’t died then it isn’t a zombie. Brain and bodily function must cease before the corpse can be reanimated. I don’t care if it takes 5 seconds or 5 days for the reanimation to occur so long as during that time the physical body is dead. Therefore:
    28 Days Later = not zombies
    World War Z (film) = not zombies

    Resident Evil (film franchise) = zombies, even though I really dislike the mutating thing they have going on
    Dead Snow = zombies, with some added mysticism and cognitive skills thrown in

    White Zombie = Haitian zombi

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