How do The Walking Dead zombies compare to zombies of folklore?
You can ask any zombie fan which zombies are the best, and you’ll likely rouse a heated debate. There are those who love slow zombies, those who want ’em fast. Some stand firmly on the premise that a zombie infected with a virus, like in 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead, aren’t true zombies in the purest sense of the meaning. Not to mention the endless debates over the best way to kill a zombie. Mythbusters even did a zombie special that tested out various theories.
Modern day zombie lore pulls elements from various cultures and legends. The first that usually comes to mind are the Haitian zombies. There’s also the evolution of zombies in film, from those depicted in classics like White Zombie from 1932, to George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead zombies in 1968, to modern-day movie zombies.
Here’s a look a the various zombie legends that influenced that zombie myths we have today.
The origin of the word “zombie” allegedly comes from the Kongo word “nzambi” and is another word for soul. When slaves were brought to the Americas from African they brought with them the Vodou religion. This is the where the concept of voodoo and zombies originated.
Zombies, however, are found on the fringes of the Vodou religion. It is not a common practice and the making of a zombie is shrouded in mystery. (Though many now attribute the main ingredient to be from the puffer fish.) A zombie created through the seemingly magical process was more of a slave than a monster. They were used for hard, manual labor.
The book, which was adapted into a movie in 1988, The Serpent and the Rainbow, is a real-life investigation of a man who was poisoned and brought back with an herbal concoction and made into a zombie.
Early Hollywood Zombies
Haiti was the backdrop for early zombie movies such as the previously mentioned White Zombie. The 1936 movie Revolt of the Zombies moved the location to Cambodia. In 1943 the first acclaimed zombie movie, I Walked with a Zombie, took place on a Caribbean island. All these early zombie movies had voodoo as their central theme.
These zombies weren’t the flesh-eating monsters that Hollywood imagined later. The zombies in early movies were mysterious, often sad creatures, who were lost souls controlled by an evil master. The real monster in these early films was the human.
It wasn’t until 1985 that zombies started asking for brains. The Return of the Living Dead was the movie, and it was NOT done by Romero. In a 2010 interview with Vanity Fair, he insisted, “I’ve never had a zombie eat a brain! I don’t know where that comes from. Who says zombies eat brains?”
Cannibalism and Zombies
So where did the concept that zombies were flesh-eaters originate? It may have began with the traditions of cannibalistic cultures such as the Fore tribe in New Guinea. Famous for practicing cannibalism, they also became well known for contracting the kuru disease.
A degenerative neurological disorder, kuru affects people by making them shake and loose control of their body, much like a zombie that can only control the most basic motor functions.
Zombies v. Vampires
Legends about vampires rising from the dead and feasting on the living abound. They permeate many legends and seems to blur the lines between vampire and zombie traits.
The Rakasha in India was a creature created when a child was (for some inexplicable reason) forced t eat human brains. The creature would stalk its victims intend on drinking their blood. It could shape-shift and cause people to become sick if they came too close.
Vlad Tepes, or Vlad Dracula (which means son of the dragon), was the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. He was a fifteenth century Romanian ruler who was renowned for impaling his enemies and drinking their blood.
The Wendigo is a North American Indian legend. The demonic creature was believed to stalk and posses those who practiced cannibalism. The person then develops an intense craving for human flesh and wants more and more.
There are many inspirations for zombie-like traits throughout history. Today our Walking Dead Zombies owe and homage to their predecessors. What are your favorite zombie traits? Do you like them fast or slow? Infected with a disease or supernatural in nature?
George A. Romero’s Original Night of the Living Dead