ByDrew Grimm Van Ess, writer at
Horror aficionado/nerd. Follow my blog for film reviews, book reviews, and interviews.
Drew Grimm Van Ess

Despite the popularity of zombies, they're fiction. Always have, and always will be. The populous have begun to really think a zombie outbreak is within the confines of happening in reality. This of course is false because zombies don't, nor will they ever, exist aside from people dressing up in fully detailed makeup and costumes to appear undead for whatever reason. Either way, the genre of film has been exhausted almost beyond saving. If you watch horror as much as me, you'll find maybe one good zombie movie out of ten or more that you watch. Most of them are cheaply made with zero budget and inspiration, and have cheap drug store makeup for the FX. AMC's smash hit show The Walking Dead has a big part to play in the adoration of walking corpses, and the part they play in society. There's even ads for public transportation that have zombies on them! It's obvious that the idea of corpses coming back from the dead has become a pop culture trend.

World Record Zombie Walk (2006)
World Record Zombie Walk (2006)

However, is crawling out of a grave all it takes to be a zombie? Most would say yes, because a lot of people are ignorant as to what really qualifies a zombie, so allow me to open your eyes. In order to answer what truly constitutes as "zombie", we're going to have to look at a where we've been, and where we're going in cinema.

In 2002, the critically acclaimed British post-apocalyptic film 28 Days Later brought about a new kind of zombie- the infection zombie. See, in this kind of story, no one dies to become an attacking and rabid savage who hungers for flesh. They're simply infected by a virus that sends them into a blood thirsty craze. However, due to this reason, most people (including fans of the actual film) say that the characters portrayed in 28 Days Later aren't real zombies because they aren't undead. Even the director Danny Boyle won't acknowledge his own film as a zombie film, but not because it's isn't one, but because in doing so he puts himself in a category of filmmaker that a lot of smart filmmaker's tend to avoid.

28 Days Later (2002)
28 Days Later (2002)

So, if they're just afflicted with a strain of some sort, does that count? Or are you only a zombie if you die?

Most people, including myself, grew up with what we now deem "The Romero Zombie"; a living corpse that's hungry for flesh. They're slow moving, not intelligent, don't speak, and want nothing more than to eat living beings. It all started in 1968 with George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead. Night of the Living Dead terrified audiences everywhere, and broke the mold wide open for the genre to go to new places. George A. Romero became an icon of the genre not just for redefining zombie movies, but for capitalizing on their popularity and making some of the greatest zombie motion pictures ever made even to this day, like Dawn of the Dead (1978) and my personal favorite, Day of the Dead (1985). Both of which complete a perfect trilogy along with Night of the Living Dead. Throughout the trio of movies, we see zombies evolve, and learn more about what they're capable of, like in Day of the Dead when star zombie Bub is being taught how to read, talk, and even shave and shoot a gun! Up until this point, we've seen zombies dissect people and eat their insides, and we've seen them viciously bite. But, where does the eating brains part come in?

It wasn't until 1985 in the horror-comedy Return of the Living Dead that brains became the preferred food for the undead. Tarman is the first zombie ever to crave brains on screen, and since then brains have been the focus of a lot of genre pictures such as the 2013 motion picture Warm Bodies, in which we see someone's head cracked open and the brain being eaten. So all it takes to be a zombie is to be a decomposing corpse, regardless of how fresh of a corpse you are, and eating live tissue including brains, right? Wrong!

George Romero on the set of Day of the Dead (1985)
George Romero on the set of Day of the Dead (1985)

If you want to know what a zombie really is, and what it takes to be one, all you have to do is read the real definition:


usually zombi

a : the supernatural power that according to voodoo belief may enter into and reanimate a dead body

b : a will-less and speechless human in the West Indies capable only of automatic movement who is held to have died and been supernaturally reanimated


a : a person held to resemble the so-called walking dead;especially : automaton

b : a person markedly strange in appearance or behavior


: a mixed drink made of several kinds of rum, liqueur, and fruit juice

— zom·bie·like adjective

The following two excerpts are taken from Wikipedia:

In Haitian folklore, a zombie (Haitian Creole: zonbi, Haitian French: zombi) is an animated corpse raised by magical means, such as witchcraft.[1]

The English word "zombie" is first recorded in 1819, in a history of Brazil by the poet Robert Southey, in the form of "zombi".[2] The Oxford English Dictionary gives the origin of the word as West African, and compares it to the Kongowords "nzambi" (god) and "zumbi" (fetish).
Return of the Living Dead (1985)
Return of the Living Dead (1985)

See, most people who are fans of horror grew up with the "Romero Zombies", so we define them by what George Romero has made them and allowed them to become. But, you need to rewind farther than Romero's films to truly know what it takes to be a zombie. in 1932, almost two decades before Romero put a new face and definition on zombies, White Zombie, the first zombie movie ever made was released. In White Zombie, we see a voodoo potion used to bring the dead back as slowly moving drones. They didn't eat anyone or turn anyone into a victim, they were victims themselves and were used for labor. Most notably, Wes Craven's cult horror movie The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) was based on the book of the same title by Wade Davis who was a real life scientist. Wade found a poison that he claimed would put those who take it in a "zombie-like state". Although his theories and chemical analysis' were later challenged and somewhat disproved, the point is that with a movie being based on Wade's work, living zombies who aren't dead at all exist within the expanding definition of what it takes be be a zombie.

White Zombie (1932)
White Zombie (1932)

So again, do you have to be dead to be a zombie? The answer is simply no. But, an even better question to ask is, do infection movies count as zombie movies? And the answer to that is yes. Though some will try and disagree, the truth of the matter is that zombie films have mostly been social commentaries that reflect society. In the the 70's when Dawn of the Dead was made, the big fear was consumer shopping and how it effects people, hence the fact that the movie takes place in a mall. Fast forward to now, when we've got fears and threats about plagues and man-made viruses going on all the time, it would only make sense that the zombie genre would yet again evolve to meet the standards of what we're scared of today. That's the beauty of it all, zombies have no set story. They can come from anything and anywhere, at any given time for whatever reason necessary. They're the impending doom that we can't outrun (no pun intended). The infection-film zombies are just another step in the evolutionary chain of what all ground they can cover in terms of how versatile they can be.

So let's take a count.

1. We've got zombies that talk and function

2. We've got zombies that don't talk and only barely semi-function

3. We've got zombies that aren't dead at all and are just in a "zombie-like state"

4. We've got zombies that are totally dead and just dug themselves up out of their own grave

5. We've got zombies that don't eat people or brains or living beings

6. We've got zombies that eat living beings, brains, and even tree bark (see Night of the Living Dead)

7. We've got zombies that are just humans afflicted with a disease or virus such as rabies (see [rec])

[Rec] (2007)
[Rec] (2007)

By this point, you understand just exactly what zombies can do. They're virtually limitless and have many physical definitions.

In the end, the answer is plain and simple. Zombies aren't just one type of being. They aren't just undead. They're everything and anything they need to be. Because someone got infected with a disease doesn't mean they're not a zombie, they're simply another form of zombie. The term zombie is vague and allows many interpretations of what they are and can be. Infection zombies are just another breed of an on growing species of a fictional condition. The difference between infection zombies and "Romero zombies" are as drastic of a difference as the zombies from decades before Night of the Living Dead, when it was unheard of them to eat flesh and be hungry beings. But does that mean that the Night of the Living Dead zombies aren't zombies because in the films prior they didn't eat flesh or brains? No. It's the same difference. So to say one isn't a zombie is ultimately to say that the other isn't either. It's an adaptable genre that can mold to any specification within the bounds of its true definition. A lot of people have simply either forgotten where the entire origin really came from, or were just never informed and were raised on George A. Romero's versions. But, if you can be called a zombie for being alive and entranced, then it would only make sense that you can be alive and infected with something and also be called a zombie. And it won't stop with the controversial infection zombies. You can rest assured that in the future the sub-genre will take another step in evolution and be defined by a new breed that no one's seen before, probably reflecting what fears are relevant in the world at that time.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
"By all means let's be open-minded, but not so open minded that our brains drop out." -Richard Dawkins

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