Zombies are creatures in a human form, created by the reanimation of a dead body. In Haitian folklore – and in other Caribbean and African stories – a sorcerer or ‘bokor’ revives a dead body by magic or witchcraft and sets it to carry out his bidding. A zombie is unrelenting and ferocious, and it revels in human flesh. If it bites you, you get infected and you become a zombie too. Zombies don’t any longer have blood; they have a pus-like dark, thick liquid. They run in a predatory pack and overwhelm you with their number. They aren’t easily killed, because they are “undead”; a stab or a bullet won’t deter them. You must shatter their brain before they stop to function. In most stories, they nearly overrun humanity, which survives by ruthless measures to identify and destroy zombies all around.
Zombies have no long-term plans to start a world-wide revolution, like Che Guevara, or take over the world, like the Bolsheviks. If they had, the story would get more complicated and I suspect it would lose some of its appeal that derives from its very simplicity. The zombies want nothing more than to have a pound or more of your flesh. They are childlike in their simple desire and childish in its expression; they simply want to come and bite you. They don’t even march up to you, they shuffle and slither to reach you. They do their very best to make themselves execrable. So, what a jolly celebration it is when our heroes take out their big guns to blow off the zombies’ silly heads. Or, lacking a handy gun, use a sledgehammer to crack them open for our delectation.
The zombies are packing people in because of their very ordinariness. Zombies are not like Dracula, King Kong or Godzilla, possessed of immense, immeasurable strength. Nor are they like vampires, x-men or werewolves, equipped with supernatural powers. Those qualities may make a villain impressive, but they also make a rogue distant. When a zombie comes shambling with no more than a craving to have a bite of you, you not only recognize its commonness and universality, you associate it readily with the covetousness of your greedy relatives, your cutthroat colleagues, even your own worst selves when faced with a competitive situation. Your heart exults when the zombies get their comeuppance and get their heads chopped.
It is also why the movies do so much better than the books. Words can only describe the final violence visited on the zombies. The screen can show it much better. With a wider screen, computer-graphics enhancement and greater technical finesse, one can show the eventual mayhem vividly and colorfully: the maimed body, decapitated torso, severed limbs, smashed head, dark liquid that spurts from a zombie’s body – all are minutely depicted and lovingly lingered on. No depiction, the pious churchgoer will recognize immediately, is closer to the vengeful Leviticus prescription for sinners, “fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.”
Starting from a low-budget black-and-white flick fifty years ago, through books, graphic novels, big-star films and major serials capturing twenty million eyeballs, zombies have already captured the world. They keep coming, undead, undeterred, to grab our eyes and minds and fill them with mindless murder and mayhem. They tell us what we want to hear: that our adversaries can be not only defeated but quite annihilated. They give us the vicarious joy of breaking our enemies into pieces, crushing their skulls, dismembering their bodies, with a fearful diversity of murderous weapons. It remains only to replace those monsters in our minds with our chosen dearly-loved hate objects: bossy bosses, nasty neighbors, defiant employees, sassy servants, fez-wearing heathens, beef-eating infidels, even ungrateful children and undocile wives.