Typically zombies are viewed as a cinematic fictional commentary of the mindlessness of the masses and later the great danger of chemical experimentation or a social commentary for the nature of humans in the bring of the Apocalypse.
This is all true but actually the origin is in Haiti from where slaves from West Africa were shipped, thus bringing the Voodoo religion with them. Haiti was a Catholic establishment, but Voodoo practices were present during night and zombification was taboo and yet used for selling slaves.
In Haitian – the belief of zombification comes from the “dark voodoo priests” that are practicing the black arts. According to the Haitians Voodoo is actually a spiritual experience of a trance-like-state where you come one with the rhythm of the drums performed in the ceremony and the spirits of the land.
The Oxford English Dictionary gives the word’s origin 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. And here is the belief that the dark arts of a Voodoo priest steals the soul of a person for the gods of death, and the body becomes a fetish or a tool of the gods. Then they’re sold as slaves.
But as the traditional term of “zombies” is to the Haitians culture and practice, the idea of the raising an undead is far more ancient. Although, it can be traced all the way to Ishtar and Mesopotamia’s beleifs but their version is strictly to the dead and “the land of no return“, as zombies are returned dead. So, there is a difference between a zombie and undead.
Actually, in the Bible there are a sign of a zombie – Lazarus, raised from the dead by Jesus. It fits the description:
38 Then Jesus, again groaning in Himself, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.”
Martha, the sister of him who was dead, said to Him, “Lord, by this time there is a stench, for he has been dead four days.”
40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not say to you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” 41 Then they took away the stone [a]from the place where the dead man was lying. And Jesus lifted up His eyes and said, “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. 42 And I know that You always hear Me, but because of the people who are standing by I said this, that they may believe that You sent Me.” 43 Now when He had said these things, He cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!” 44 And he who had died came out bound hand and foot with graveclothes, and his face was wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Loose him, and let him go.”
Scandinavia – The Nordic draugr can be classified as an “undead zombie” or “undead” and a “zombie”. They’re most famously depicted in “Game of Thrones” as The White Walkers. Traditionally, they are undead resurected in a zombified body that have a superhuman strength and the stench of decay.
Their purpose is to guard their tresure, cause troubles and persue the ones that wronged them. Their appereance is foretold with a mist or darkness. They are said to be hel-blár (“death-blue”) or nár-fölr (“corpse-pale”). They walk the cold night. Only a bad, greedy, marginal person can become draugr, and their motivation can be only of evil, jelousy, greed. Their resting place is a tomb from where they go out at night to do their dirty deeds.
Ways to stop them is to rest the dead body in a straight position (a foretold of draugr is when the dead bodi is upward); carry a deceased body through a hole in the wall of the house and then plundge the hole quickly; or build a very tall wall, so the draugr can’t overcome it.
Draugr are often thought as an obsticle for a Hero, and only a Hero can defeat them, so in that regard it has more of a path to glory and heroism, opposite to the Haiti beliefs of slavery to the Gods of Death.
Zombie in Media
In classic and later modern cinema, we see all of the above characteristics used in different varieties, but always persistent.
The one that started all is the legendary George Romero’s series. There are other classics like “White Zombie” (1932), but only Romero did a whole series and defined the whole genre and perception of zombies in popular culture (also horror genre in general, too). His “Dead Series” are 6 films in the span of 1968 to 2009 – 41 years in total of screen presence of the zombie movie genre.
It starts with “Night with the Living Dead” which sets the tone of the zombies, then it is followed by “Return of the Living Dead” which is not a Romero film but it’s strongly influenced, mentioned and build of “Night of the Living Dead”. It is interesting that in “Dawn of the Dead” the main charachters go to a shopping mall and it is the perfect subtle social commentary that compares consumers with zombies.
There are more than 270 movies about zombies.
Books, Games, Shows
Here I want to mention a few examples, which are legendary in their influence of pop-culture.
“Frankenstein” (1818) – a classic novel in the early 19th century, the genius doctor Victor Frankenstein re-animates a corpse of corpses and give it life. It is not a zombie per-say, but it has the idea of the dead body back to the world of the living and it is more of a psychological commentary to science and the dangerous blurry line where man is not permitted to cross – some things in nature are better left alone, if we lack the understanding.
“Lord of the Rings” (1937-1949) – when Aragorn goes to the cave, actually he is looking for the dead army of the traitors that betrayed Isuldur. Tolkien is known to be inspired from old celtic, bretonic, nordic myths and it is shown in all of the ideas in the novel and in the fictional languages of the world’s lore. But in the cinematic version it is interesting that this undead army of cursed souls are presented visually as Draugres – hideous, cunning, treacherous coming with a mist and ready to do bad things. And their faces – ever-changing between a zombified and skeletal look. Definitely a vision of a true Draugr.
“I am Legend” (1954) – the book of the american author Richard Matheson. The creatures are more presented like “vampires”, but they have also the charachteristics of zombies and it is the main influencer of “zombie Apocalypse” scenario that is seen in later movies.
“Hellboy” (1993) – the dark comic brought to life on the big screen from director Guillermo del Toro.
In the need of guidance where the entrance of the Rasputin’s inner layer, Hellboy raises from the dead Ivan Klimatovich. He was an ex-communist that had to infiltrate Lenin’s army. Hellboy rasises him with a talisman and “in the name of Ahriman, a soul to this corpse”. This is an example of a zombie and a Draugr in one – because of the mentioning of a destructive force or a god of death and the vision of the draugr.
“Warcraft” Series (1994) – one of the most famous video games has the epic battles between humans and orcs and then came the undead. But what stands out is the expansion “Warcraft 3: The Frozen Throne”, because there Prince Arthas, once prominent leader of the human race, became a Draugr cursed by the sword Frostmourne and enslaved by the Lich King. In one of the cinematics of “World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King” he awakens an undead dragon with bluish aura hovering above a horde of skeletons, just like “Game of Thrones” where the Night King awakens the dead dragon of Khaleesi – with a blue eye.
“Resident Evil” (1996) – the popular horror game-series that spawn also 6 movies. It started in 1996 and was with the slow moving zombies but introduced a lot of variations like zombie-dogs, zombie-mutants, zombie-experiments.
“The Walking Dead” (2010) – not much to be said here. It is an obvious revival in a TV-series form of the classic zombie movies with “walkers” that are fast and running. Basically, it revived in a decent manner the zombie movies. Before that, all of the 2000’s, were filled with zombie movies but more for a cheap scare.
“Game of Thrones” (2011) – maybe the best example from a popular show for a Draugr is George R.R. Martin’s creation. It is heavily influenced from Tolkien’s work from the idea of the undead, but here Martin is more towards nordic myths. One of the ways to stop the draugr is to build a very tall wall in nordic tales, and here we can see The Wall literally guarding the world of humans of the White Walkers. The Night King takes every dead man, woman and child and even a whole dragon later in the series – all with the blue aura and pale skin (draugr – hel-blár – “death-blue” or nár-fölr – “corpse-pale”).