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Entry updated 25 September 2023. Tagged: Theme.


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, though at its origin the term clearly described an entirely supernatural entity, and was so understood in the late nineteenth century, when it was used by such authors as Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) with specific reference to imagined practices in the French West Indies. In The Magic Island (1929), William Seabrook (1884-1945) described the zombie as a soulless corpse endowed with life through sorcery, a definition which continues to underlie popular usage, though other agencies usually substitute for sorcery; and like other early writers, Seabrook was not sensitive to the heavily loaded metaphorical association of zombies and Slavery. At their simplest in more recent uses of the term, 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 Monster Movies include: Creature with the Atom Brain (1955) in which corpses are reanimated using Nuclear Energy; Dr Satan (1966), featuring "scientific" resurrection into zombiehood using a special Drug; The People Who Own the Dark (1976; 1980 US), with victims of nuclear World War Three reduced to a blinded but murderous zombie horde directly echoing Night of the Living Dead; 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) (see Bad Taste [1987]); Resident Evil (2002) plus its sequels, based on the popular game Resident Evil (1996) and its sequels, which posit a "T-Virus" causing zombiism; 28 Days Later (2002); and Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror (2007). Like any popular subgenre, the zombie movie has established its own Clichés and attracted Parody, a notable example being Shaun of the Dead (2004); there are also parodic elements in the Anime show Zombie Land Saga (2018).

A rationalizing suggestion (see Medicine) that zombies may be suffering from a variant of the Cotard Delusion, whose victims believe and act as though they are dead, seems to have had little influence, though the zombie-like protagonist of Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York (2008) is named Cotard, and some tales may explicitly embody the concept, an example being Dolores Redondo's La Cana norte del corazón (2019; trans Michael Meigs as The North Face of the Heart 2021). Many further sf novels rationalize zombiism as the consequence of a Pandemic 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 Ron Goulart's "Chameleon" (September 1964 F&SF), featuring the gala opening of a factory that processes the dead into "reactivated workers" at a rate of "Forty-two zombies an hour"; and again 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. Pandemic 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 Joe McKinney's Dead World sequence opening with Dead City (2006); 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; in John Ringo's Black Tide Rising sequence opening with Under a Graveyard Sky (2013), later also a Shared World anthology setting; in the mildly revisionist The Girl with All the Gifts (2014) by Mike Carey as M R Carey; and in Survivor Song (2020) by Paul Tremblay. Zombie labour-force exploitation recurs in Nate Crowley's The Death and Life of Schneider Wrack (omni 2017). 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.

There are numerous Videogame treatments of the zombie theme, including Resident Evil (1996), Prototype (2009), the fitness app Zombies, Run! (2012) and The Last of Us (2013) – the last of these adapted for Television as The Last of Us (2023-current). Less specifically, zombies and similar undead have long featured in the range of Monsters encountered in First Person Shooters such as Doom (1993). Board Games which centre on zombie hordes include Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game (2014), The Walking Dead (2012), Zombie 15' (2014) and Zombicide (2012).

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; School-Live!.

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