Of the three chief classes of Supernatural Creature most popular in fantastic fiction – the others being Vampires and Werewolves – zombies seem the least supernatural and the most easily rationalized in sf terms. At their simplest, the traditionally shambling and usually cannibalistic hordes could plausibly have been reduced to this state by brain damage resulting from toxins or disease, the latter "explaining" why zombie bites or contamination with zombie blood should so often doom the victim to become in turn a zombie. Less rationally explicable is the frequent appearance of co-ordination by a Hive Mind going beyond mere crowd dynamics.
Although the zombie myth of will-less (whether drugged or undead) Caribbean slave workers is far older, its modern version has been irrevocably shaped by George A Romero's Horror film Night of the Living Dead (1968) and its increasingly sf-like sequels Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985) and Land of the Dead (2005). Further zombie or quasi-zombie movies include: Creature with the Atom Brain (1955) in which corpses are reanimated using Nuclear Energy; Mutant (1983); Night of the Comet (1984); Lifeforce (1985), in which victims of psychic Vampires become zombies capable of spreading zombiism among others; Re-Animator (1985); Braindead (1992) (> Bad Taste ); and Resident Evil (2002) plus its sequels, based on the popular game Resident Evil (1996) and its sequels, which posit a "T-Virus" causing zombiism. Like any popular subgenre, the zombie movie has established its own Clichés and attracted Parody, a notable example being Shaun of the Dead (2004).
Many further sf novels rationalize zombiism in terms of disease as above, such as Robert Moore Williams's The Day They H-Bombed Los Angeles (1961) – whose victims recover to a seemingly normal state, but with the traditional zombie compulsion to kill or infect others – and Brian Stableford's Year Zero (fixup 2000). Other sf rationales for the phenomenon appear in: William Tenn's "Down Among the Dead Men" (June 1954 Galaxy), where "human protoplasm reclamation" creates fully human and intelligent (though sterile) new soldiers who are subject to discrimination and abuse as "zombies" or "blobs"; Robert Sheckley's Immortality Delivered (October 1958-February 1959 Galaxy as "Time Killer"; 1958; exp vt Immortality, Inc. 1959), where technology and metaphysics intersect; Barbara Hambly's The Ladies of Mandrigyn (1984), which despite being Fantasy invokes Alien mind-eaters causing a rapid degeneration to zombie-like status; and John Meaney's Bone Song sequence, opening with Bone Song (2007).
Zombies are exploited commercially in George R R Martin's early story "Override" (September 1973 Analog). A Villain's plan to profit from cheap zombie labour is foiled in Leslie Charteris's Saint story "The Questing Tycoon" (December 1954 The Saint Magazine). In Harry Harrison's "At Last, the True Story of Frankenstein" (September 1965 Science Fantasy), the purported Frankenstein Monster displayed in a carnival sideshow is in fact a zombie which is periodically replaced by inquisitive reporters zombified with Drugs. Even in the nonfantastic cartoon strip Doonesbury by Gary Trudeau (1948- ), one character (Uncle Duke) spent several 1980s episodes as a zombified slave in Haiti but later recovered. Peter Dickinson's thriller Walking Dead (1977) contains no literal zombies but meditates interestingly on the underlying beliefs and superstitions as seen through the eyes of a Scientist. Lucius Shepard takes an original and revisionist view in Green Eyes (1984), boldly mingling biotechnological research, graveyard bacteria, a lush Southern US bayou atmosphere and Psi Powers.
Twenty-first-century zombie novels are very numerous, ranging from the classic Romero-style disease-induced zombie apocalypse of Autumn (2001 web; 2010) by David Moody (1970- ) to zombie/Technothriller hybrids like Patient Zero (2009) by Jonathan Maberry (1958- ). Stephen King's Cell (2006) has victims worldwide converted to zombie hordes by that popular focus of modern Paranoia, the cellphone. Disease is again the cause in the ambitious World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (2006) by Max Brooks, filmed as World War Z (2013); in The Forest of Hands and Teeth (2009) by Carrie Ryan, an effective Young-Adult treatment mingling horror with romance; in Feed (2010) and its sequels by Seanan McGuire writing as Mira Grant; in Zone One (2011) by Colson Whitehead; in The Return Man (2012) by V M Zito; and in the mildly revisionist The Girl with All the Gifts (2014) by Mike Carey as M R Carey. The popularity of the theme has led to purported nonfiction spinoffs like the spoofish The Zombie Survival Guide (2003) by Max Brooks and the humorous Dr Dale's Zombie Dictionary: The A-Z Guide to Staying Alive (2010) by Ben Muir (? - ) writing as Dr Dale Seslick. A Videogame treatment of the zombie theme is The Last of Us (2013).
Another trend is for "mash-ups" like the best-selling Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009) by Jane Austen (1775-1817) and Seth Grahame-Smith (1976- ) – the latter having inserted copious zombie and ninja-warrior action into the former's 1813 text. Adam Roberts's I Am Scrooge: A Zombie Story for Christmas (2009) plays similarly with Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas (1843), with a titular nod to Richard Matheson's I Am Legend (1954; vt The Omega Man: I Am Legend 1971); but Roberts has the grace to tell a fresh low-comedy story rather than take liberties with Dickens's prose.
Relevant anthologies include The Ultimate Zombie (anth 1993) edited by Byron Preiss and (anonymously) Martin H Greenberg, The New Dead: A Zombie Anthology (anth 2010; vt Zombie: An Anthology of the Undead 2010) edited by Christopher Golden and Zombiesque (anth 2011) edited by Martin H Greenberg, Stephen L Antczak and James C Bassett. As a publishing phenomenon, the shambling march of zombie hordes seems unstoppable. [DRL]
see also: Matthew Farrer; It Conquered the World; The Mask of Fu Manchu.
Previous versions of this entry