Written by Luke Greensmith Originally published on June 1st, 2021
I thought I would have a little fun with one of my favourite horror tropes today, and I will be talking the living dead: zombies. This time out, since I can see me coming back for regional variations from all corners of the world. This episode will be going pretty broad, looking at pop culture benchmarks and where these archetypes came from.
So let us venture forth, to a Field Guide to Zombies!
SECTION BREAK - Actual zombies
The word "zombie" as it is used now is something of a relatively recent bastardisation. As with most things in wider storytelling, there is older folklore that’s something of a foundational basis, even though zombies as we know them now are pretty different. A zombie, originally, was someone enslaved via some form of magic, often some form of voodoun. Typically by causing a chosen victim to rise from the grave, and their master taking control of the living dead. Something of a fate worse than death that a practitioner of certain magic can use.
It’s not often that you can find these original zombies in cinema, although they’re out there and they did come first. "White Zombi" from 1932 has a good three decades on George Romero, and there are the occasional revivals of the idea such as when Wes Craven made "The Serpent and the Rainbow" in the 80s. Given the topics of slavery and the appropriation of actual spiritual beliefs, these verge on pretty controversial territory but tend to have enough value and introspection they haven’t caused too much controversy.
How likely these zombies are to occur in real life starts to tread on faith and spirituality, but there are some interesting theories out there. There’s been a lot of speculation that the stories of these zombies come from the deceptively simple technique of actually making someone into a zombie servant with a chemical cocktail, one suspected key ingredient being tetrodotoxin from a pufferfish. In the right quantity with other ingredients in the mix, the theory goes that people are put into a state so close to death families begin funeral preparations. The zombie master then recovers the near corpse, and gives them enough of a treatment to make them mobile again, the neurotoxin destroying the personality of the victim but leaving them mobile and able to carry out simple tasks.
Living death doesn’t necessarily mean dying all the way and then coming back. While there are some more visceral entries to come, there’s a special terror to a traditional zombie. To be broken as a human, as an individual, and used as an automaton under someone else’s control is a special personal hell. That it could be done with a chemical cocktail is not in any way a reassurance that it isn’t in some way a “proper” magic curse.
As an offshoot to this, there do seem to be some foundational tales which feed into modern interpretations of zombies. That a voodoun zombie should not be given salt, as this could start to break the spell and the now enraged zombie would violently turn upon their former master. For the most part though the roots of the folklore are a form of ensorcellment and magical control, with the added elements of death and undeath unique to the traditions these stories originate from.
So, true zombies come from Haitian and West African traditions, and in a way I'm glad that filmmakers just kind of stopped messing with them as pop culture zombies became something else. I would enjoy a high fidelity return to the concept in the hands of people well versed in the original traditions, but zombies mean something very different now.
SECTION BREAK - Flesh eating ghouls
Here's where we get modern zombies as the zeitgeist understands them, starting with the break out success of George Romero's 1968 Night of the Living Dead. This is what horror purists mean when they say zombie, or anyone says something else is a zombie and a semantics argument breaks out. A reanimated corpse, their top speed being a hungry shamble. Easy to outrun, but dangerous in large numbers. To be bit by a zombie, is to become a zombie yourself, should you the living dead get too close your choices become being eaten alive or fleeing infected to inevitably become another one of their number. The best zombie movies out there focusing on social commentary, using the shambling hordes as a parable.
Except they were never supposed to be zombies.
In the original Night of the Living Dead, they were never referred to as zombies. Not in the movie, not in the marketing. It was fans who later dubbed these cannibalistic living dead as “zombies”, and the term caught on so hard that any and all subsequent media just ran with it. The script referred to them as ghouls, which is weirdly accurate to folklore.
Flesh eating ghouls are effectively a branch of vampire myth, the Very Not Sexy branch made up of the more visceral details Bram Stoker dropped when codifying folklore into Dracula. The novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson somewhat revived the idea, and was a direct influence on Night of the Living Dead. As you go back to a lot of the original folklore, it isn’t just blood being consumed, and there’s a significant lack of sexiness. All living dead, whatever the word, were feeding on the living, and that was about it. Wanpir, strzyga, vjesci, or just plain ghoul, they were grounded in much simpler fears. The dead are hungry, and they’re coming home to take the rest of their family with them. The magical powers and specific weaknesses of assorted vampires are there scattered across the older stories, but the popularity of Dracula at the turn of the 20th century and beyond caused a definitive split in the folklore. Vampires as we now know them got all the cool stuff, and ghouls got the grittier more grounded end of the stick. Something causes the corpse to get back up, and it’s mindlessly hungry for the flesh of the living.
Despite how iconic they are, these are the least likely zombies to actually occur. They are grounded in folklore and the supernatural without a strong potential scientific equivalent unless they overlap with the other three categories I have to share today. There is a minor exception with corpses animated by parasites, so think Night of the Creeps, but the basic modern era zombie is pretty simple up until around the 90s, which we’ll talk about next.
SECTION BREAK - Viral biohazards
This is pretty much where zombies have settled now. It's not cosmic radiation or hell hitting the No Vacancy light, but some sort of reanimation virus. Resident Evil, or Biohazard in Japan, really codified this with the fictional T-Virus and all of its successors. Cinema has had viruses causing cause chaos before, such as with The Crazies or even something like Cujo. But now, if you have an out of control variation of rabies, odds are you’re going to end up with some equivalent of the walking dead on the loose.
While disease linked zombies can have all the familiar tropes of a Romero shambler applied, this was also the rise of the undead sprinter.
You talk about 28 Days Later in some circles, typically online, and you risk the wrath of a "Well Actually" comment about how they're not real zombies. They're INFECTED. I guess that distinction is a personal preference at this point. I'm happy enough covering the whole branch as "viral zombies", although my mum for one draws a line in the sand at running zombies. Zombies don’t run! (although Return of the Living Dead and a lot of recent versions such as Zombieland or the Dawn of the Dead remake just roll with the running zombie as a concept). "Zombie" works for me as a broad category, since even slow shambling corpses aren't technically zombies themselves compared to the original folklore.
Cinema loves viral zombies for their walking dead, such as in The Walking Dead, but there’s not really been a real world equivalent thankfully. We have worryingly seen zombie like states induced by drugs in the news though, or just where people party too hard, weirdly tying contemporary pop culture zombies back into the tetrodotoxin cocktails speculated about in traditional zombie lore. Spice, being a cheap and dirty drug made up of the old technically not illegal at the time (although very illegal now) laboratory concoctions to imitate a weed-like high. Actual results vary, especially as they get stronger and cheaper by any means necessary, but “Spiceheads” sure as hell look like zombies when you spot one, being slow moving and oblivious. To add the violence back into the equation to get a Romero style zombie though, you needed the street drug referred to as “bath salts”. These were another of the technically legal highs until the law caught up to them, similar to how Spice was a marijuana replacement these were one for MDMA. Only there were some noteworthy stories that reached the news were users were less huggers, and more biters. Some news outlets even sensationalised these reports as “zombie attacks”, causing a spike in panic for the extra attention.
Can I quickly add a PSA about not taking drugs just because they’re not technically illegal yet? That’s not the same as “good for you” people, we’re talking about them in a podcast on zombie flesh eaters!
That important aside done, let’s get on with the worst of the bunch. Content warning for nature being terrible.
SECTION BREAK - The new growth
I’ve kind of skipped over regular parasites here, I now realise. Feel free to think of parasite based zombies as a bridge from biohazards to here and let’s get stuck in.
The next big thing in zombies, is parasitic fungus.
Anyone who has played The Last of Us will have seen this in action, and everyone else will catch up soon as the show based on the game gets out there.
I say I glossed over regular parasites, because as disturbing as they are they just tend to ride shotgun and drain resources of the host in the real world. Gross, but not zombification levels of gross at least. I have the bad news that the fungus in The Last of Us is based on a real type of Cordyceps which has over 600 varieties in the wild, and while it only effects insects this stuff actually changes the behaviour of what it infects.
Now, in the wild, cordyceps isn't as violent as the strain depicted in The Last of Us. But if anything it's stranger than simply provoking violence. A lot of variations just do odd tricks to make infected insects more likely to be eaten, entering the next stage of its parasitic cycle as the predator species then spreads the fungus in fecal matter. But then there’s what is possibly the most notorious version of cordyceps, giving it the nickname “the zombie fungus”. Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, a rainforest strain which targets ants.
Once an ant comes into contact with the infectious spores the mature fungus emits, it’s doomed. The ant’s behaviour completely changes. It somehow pushes an ant to find purchase above an entrance to the ant colony it came from, and then it latches its jaws down to secure what is about to become its corpse. Once secure, the fungus erupts from the shell of the ant's remains where it can rain spores down on the colony below. Now... This terrifies me in multiple ways. The parasitic infection, having a fungus eat up your insides to grow OUT of you, but what the actual hell is going on to cross a creature's wires to the point it will change its behaviour so much? Cordyceps is definite nightmare fuel.
This is weirdly where The Last of Us is closest to cordyceps as we understand it in the wild. Within the world of the game human habitations are infested with spore releasing growths, it just chucks raging zombie creatures on top as an extra threat.
I do have some bonus bad news... This isn't the only high profile parasitic fungus out there at the moment. Another one popped up recently, with a 2021 cycle of cicadas. This parasite harnassing the powers of horniness to spread, infecting cicadas in such a way that their breeding frenzy part of their life cycle is spreading a psychedelic parasitic fungus called Massospora cicadina. Even to the point of modifying the bodies males so they behave as females seeking to breed, to spread the fungus even faster and further! This one sadly feels like one we would fall for given half the chance, so it can feel free not to jump species barriers along with Cordyceps.
This next level nightmare fuel DOES have me looking forwards to The Last of Us on Netflix though, it should be some pretty awesome horror if they get it right.
That’s all for this episode. I hope everyone managed to bear with me through this episode without getting too freaked out. The fungus especially is pretty disturbing, and this kind of turned into an entire episode about how zombies could really happen.
To any listeners out there, I am most definitely looking for living dead leads! Let’s get together a truly weird and fun episode on specific regional variations.
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Goodbye for now.