How Zombies Work

Zombies in Popular Culture

Many movies follow the example of "Night of the Living Dead" and portray zombies as far more dangerous in large groups.

Although zombies appeared in movies as early as 1919 [ref], many people credit George A. Romero with setting the standard for modern zombies. In the classic movie "Night of the Living Dead," Romero portrayed zombies as slow-moving, flesh-eating corpses, reanimated by radiation from a satellite returning from Venus. The radiation affected the recent, unburied dead, and the resulting zombies were invulnerable until someone destroyed their brains or separated their heads from their bodies. In "Night of the Living Dead," zombies were neither intelligent nor self-aware. They had a very limited use of tools, mostly confined to using blunt objects as cudgels. In Romero's later work, zombies became somewhat capable of thought, and in some cases self-aware. They still generally moved slowly and had minimal intelligence.

Many movies and video games have used Romero's concept of zombies. For the most part, zombies are:


  • Newly dead corpses reanimated by radiation, chemicals, viruses, sorcery or acts of God
  • Human, although some depictions include zombie animals
  • Very strong, but not very fast or agile
  • Impervious to pain and able to function after sustaining extreme physical damage
  • Invulnerable to injury, except for decapitation or destruction of the brain
  • Relentlessly driven to kill and eat
  • Afraid of fire and bright lights

In some portrayals, zombism is contagious, and people bitten by zombies become zombies themselves. In others, people die from the bite and are reanimated by the same force that created the other zombies. In general, this continual spread of zombies leads to a zombie plague in which the undead vastly outnumber living humans.

Some recent zombie movies, like "Shaun of the Dead," adhere faithfully to the Romero zombie conventions and make frequent references to his work. Others depict faster, more intelligent zombies. Films like "28 Days Later" keep the basic structure of a zombie film but do not portray actual zombies. (In "28 Days Later," people are infected with a virus that takes effect in seconds -- they don't actually die until they eventually starve.) A few recent movies and games throw all these conventions aside, presenting zombies that move quickly and can think for themselves, much to the chagrin of zombie purists.

Next, we'll review how to defend yourself from a zombie attack.