What 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.