Zombie: a dead person who is able to move because of magic according to some religions and in stories, movies, etc.
Recently the question was posed, "why are zombies cannibals?" I immediately responded that they are no longer human, therefore, not cannibals. They're just zombies and zombies do what they've got to do. "Well, yes, but they are still humans eating humans." At this point, I conceded that if you were speaking of the "original" zombie (i.e.) a zombie created via voodoo, then, perhaps they could be considered a sort of cannibal. This conversation nagged at me all day as I began to ponder the myriad versions of zombies. How many different variations are there?
The word "zombie" is first recorded in English in 1819 in a history of Brazil by poet Robert Southey, spelling it "zombi". The Oxford English Dictionary puts the word's origin in West Africa, comparing it to Kongo words nzambi (god) and zumbi (fetish).
Though the word "zombie" became a normal part of our vernacular when the Bela Lugosi film White Zombie came out in 1932 and also, effectively, pigeonholed the zombie into horror specifically, the Voodoo religion has spoken of zombies long before this. Zombies originated in the Congo where the word "nbzambi" refers to a person's soul. It was during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade that zombies made it into Voodoo. According to Voodoo, there are four types of zombies; the Great Spirit, the Spiritual Soul, the Herbal Zombie and the Bargained Zombie.
The Great Spirit zombie, or Li Grand Zombi, is the snake spirit in Voodoo. Given the Congolese name for snake, this is the original and proper meaning of the word "zombie". It has been said that the snake Marie Laveau used was called "li grand zombi" and, often times, the Louisiana Mud Snake is used in rituals.
A Spiritual Zombie comes from the African belief that a person has two souls; one called the Great Angle and another called the Little Angle. When a body dies, the Great Angle knows the body is dead and immediately departs the body, but the Little Angle may take up to three days to realize the body is dead and it is during this time that a witchdoctor is able to invoke a Congolese spirit which allows the Little Angle to believe that the body is not dead. The body is now reanimated, using the Little Angle as it's motor. It is this version of a zombie that we most commonly see in movies and television. It can come in two different versions; spiritual and chemical.
The chemical, or herbal zombie, originates in the West Africans where master chemists used herbs and poisons to reanimate a corpse. The basic poison comes courtesy of the blowfish; a nerve poison, it is put into someone's shoes where the feet absorb it until the natural conductivity of the nervous system renders the person visually deceased. After this occurs, the antidote, a paste made from the seedpod of the Angel's Trumpet flower, is applied. Containing both atropine and a hallucinogenic, this leaves you with a person who appears to have died, been resurrected and is now physically functional, but not mentally functional. In Haiti, becoming a zombie is believed to be a fate worse than death because a zombie is an immortal slave. Haiti also happens to be the only place in history that is the direct result of a successful slave revolt.
Lastly, the Bargained Zombie is one that has come to this voluntarily. When a person volunteers their soul to a Voodoo Queen, she can protect and give advantages to the volunteer, but ultimately, she will own the soul 100%.
In 1954 Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend came out and introduced a new kind of vampire that was later the influence for George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead. Funny enough, the word zombie is never uttered in Night of the Living Dead; it was a word used by fans to describe the film. The Romero films are where the now common sight of zombies eating human flesh came from and, later, it was The Return of the Living Dead that popularized the concept of zombies craving brains. The "Romero zombie", if you will, is also the standard for slow moving zombies. It wasn't until 2002 that we saw the fast moving zombie courtesy of Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later. Though created by a virus, they still fall under the original category of zombie. To this day, the debate over slow vs. fast zombies lingers and it seems to come down to a personal preference or a nostalgic leaning.
Ever since Boyle revolutionized the zombie landscape, we have been blessed with a plethora of different types of zombies. At this point, it seems fair enough to say that "zombie" is a genus and "slow", "fast", "viral", "chemical" or "voluntary" are just some of the different species. Truly, this could go on forever and ever by continually breaking down slow zombies into "viral" or "chemical" and breaking down chemical zombies into "fast" or "slow", ad nauseum. Or you can take The Walking Dead route and refuse to use the term "zombie" at all, instead preferring the term "walker".
Whichever species of zombie you prefer, there is no denying that they have become firmly rooted not just in the horror genre, but in the general culture as well. The zombie is such an easy and wonderful way to express the kind of anger, fear and feeling of helplessness that can result in apathy (slow zombie) or fury and vitriol (fast zombie). Well, at least, that's how I have always viewed it. Seeing as how I am neither a biologist or a scientist of any kind, I would love to know how you view the ever popular zombie. Please, feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section.
(Voodoo History Source;VoodooMuseum.com)