A zombie is a fictional undead being created through the reanimation of a corpse.
Zombies are most commonly found in horror and fantasy genre works. The term comes from Haitian folklore, in which a zombie is a dead body reanimated through various methods, most commonly magic.
Modern depictions of the reanimation of the dead do not necessarily involve magic but often invoke science fictional methods such as carriers, radiation, mental diseases, vectors, pathogens, scientific accidents, etc.
The English word “zombie” was first recorded in 1819, in a history of Brazil by the poet Robert Southey, in the form of “zombi”.
The Oxford English Dictionary gives the origin of the word as West African, and compares it to the Kongo words nzambi (god) and zumbi (fetish).
A Kimbundu-to-Portuguese dictionary from 1903 defines the related word nzumbi as soul, while a later Kimbundu–Portuguese dictionary defines it as being a “spirit that is supposed to wander the earth to torment the living.”
One of the first books to expose Western culture to the concept of the voodoo zombie was The Magic Island by W. B. Seabrook in 1929.
This is the sensationalized account of a narrator who encounters voodoo cults in Haiti and their resurrected thralls. Time claimed that the book “introduced ‘zombi’ into U.S. speech”.
Zombies have a complex literary heritage, with antecedents ranging from Richard Matheson and H. P. Lovecraft to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein drawing on European folklore of the undead. In 1932, Victor Halperin directed White Zombie, a horror film starring Bela Lugosi. Here zombies are depicted as mindless, unthinking henchmen under the spell of an evil magician.
Zombies, often still using this voodoo-inspired rationale, were initially uncommon in cinema, but their appearances continued sporadically through the 1930s to the 1960s, with notable films including I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959).
A new version of the zombie, inspired by, but distinct from, that described in Haitian folklore, emerged in popular culture during the latter half of the twentieth century.
This “zombie” is taken largely from George A. Romero’s seminal film Night of the Living Dead, which was in turn partly inspired by Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend. The word zombie is not used in Night of the Living Dead but was applied later by fans.
The monsters in the film and its sequels, such as Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, as well as its many inspired works, such as Return of the Living Dead and Zombi 2, are usually hungry for human flesh, although Return of the Living Dead introduced the popular concept of zombies eating brains.
The “zombie apocalypse” concept, in which the civilized world is brought low by a global zombie infestation, has since become a staple of modern popular art. After initially peaking with zombie films such as Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Michael Jackson’s music video Thriller (1983), interest in zombies declined during the late 1980s in the Western world.
A zombie revival later began in the Far East during the late 1990s, with the success of the Japanese zombie video games Resident Evil and The House of the Dead, which re-popularized zombies in mainstream popular culture from the late 1990s onwards. In addition, The House of the Dead introduced a new type of zombie distinct from Romero’s classic slow zombies: the fast running zombie.
The success of these zombie games was followed by a wave of low-budget Asian zombie films such as the zombie comedy Bio Zombie (1998) and action film Versus (2000), and then a new wave of Western zombie films in the early 2000s, including films featuring fast running zombies such as 28 Days Later (2002), the Resident Evil and House of the Dead films, and the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake, while the British film Shaun of the Dead (2004) popularised the zombie comedy subgenre.
The success of these zombie films and video games led to the zombie genre reaching a new peak of commercial success in the early 21st century.