It’s been a while since we last saw a truly good horror film. Last night, I watched The Girl With All The Gifts with the girls. They were trying to recall when zombies transformed from lumbering and unthinking creatures to ones that could move faster than humans. World War Z, Alex said, or was it Zombieland? That prompted me to ask about the origin of zombies—who coined the term and who first introduced the concept to the world. No one was sure, not even Sam-who-has-seen-all-zombie-films. Early this morning, after my first cup of coffee, I started Googling the origin of zombies.
Zombies, it seems, were not invented by Hollywood. Although George Romero is credited for introducing them to Western pop culture via Night of the Living Dead, Romero never used the word “zombie” to refer to the undead in his 1968 film. Zombies trace their origin in the folklore of Haiti. The zombi was a dead person revived to physical animation by a witch or sorcerer.
The definition is an interesting one. People rising (or transitioning) from the dead is something we find in many other cultures. The re-animation may be via witchcraft (stereotyped as “evil”) or via spiritual faith (stereotyped as “good”). Think vampires, for instance. And Jesus Christ. Seriously. Cast the non-logic of religion aside (faith defies logic, after all) and consider… If a zombie is a dead person brought back to existence (note that I say “existence”, not “life”) by someone with beyond-human powers, Jesus Christ fits the description.
Today, however, zombies as we know them have departed from Haitian mythology in many ways. And the interest—nay, the obsession—with zombies is no longer (perhaps, it has never been) the exclusive domain of movie fans of the horror sub-genre. Even academics have devoted time to unravel the evolution of the creatures in pop culture as well as its psycho-philosophical underpinnings in modern thinking. And crucial to the discussion is whether physical death prior to “zombification” (for lack of a better word) is a requirement.
In Better Off Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie as Post-human (edited by Deborah Christie and Sarah Juliet Lauro), various types of zombies found in contemporary culture are enumerated.
While zombies in Haitian mythology are physically revived dead people, in Western pop culture, death is not a requirement at all. In fact, in many zombie films, a human can turn into a zombie by mere infection (with a virus or by being bitten by a zombie).
In The Girl With All The Gifts, the transition was caused by a fungus. The flesh-eating undead were called “hungries”, not zombies. The “hungries” are mostly unintelligent but a small group of “hybrid” children have retained the capacity for thinking (as we know it) and human emotions. I am not a fan of zombie films but I must admit, that the premise of the film is quite though-provoking—in a world populated by “hungries” and non-infected humans, why do we presume that it is the non-infected humans that must prevail? What if the opposite happens? Intriguing, to say the least.