I am curious as to the evolution of the zombie concept. In old horror movies from the 60s and into the 80s, zombies were depicted as "true" undead beings; people who have died and been inhumed, and then mysteriously their corpses are reanimated, with no scientific explanation available.

From Dawn of the Dead (1978), the following is uttered:

Peter: Something my granddad used to tell us. You know Macumba? Vodou. My granddad was a priest in Trinidad. He used to tell us, "When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the Earth."

This, to me, created a feeling of uneasiness and inescapable doom. The forces of hell, or nature, or what have you, inflicted this plague on humanity and there really is no "way out" of that.

In the 90s and onwards, zombies changed. They are now "infected" with a virus or some kind of pathogen that resembles a super-charged variant of rabies. In many franchises such as Resident Evil this pathogen is the result of botched scientific experiments. Many of these types of zombies resemble "mutants" and can be extremely large, and even possess intelligence such as the character Nemesis:

The Nemesis-T Type (also known as the "Pursuer") was an experimental form of intelligent Tyrant created by the Umbrella Europe Sixth Laboratory in France under the direct administration of Umbrella Headquarters. Its purpose was to prove that a t-Virus infected creature could retain most of its intelligence and follow specific orders.

Now, I understand that fiction and storywriting is always a reflection of society and the zeitgeist, and it is quite obvious that this "new" type of zombie is very relevant to our brave new world of ebola, swine flu, mad cow disease and other epidemics, as well as relating to stem cells, DNA research, cloning and being a "modern extension" of the classic "mad scientist" story.

But, in these zombie stories, there is always a "way out"; the vaccine, the antidote, the "blow em all up routine". I am curious how the more ominous approach that I described in the beginning of my question, became replaced with the "new approach" and why it seems to have become a main-stay version of zombiism in popular media - my bottom line being that a metaphysical force that cannot be "reasoned with" is much more terrifying than genetic experiments gone awry. Why are these things even called zombies anyway?

  • 2
    It's because the society and the zeitgeist have gone to pot.
    – user14111
    Commented Mar 11, 2016 at 4:39
  • 3
    I would say that the question of where the idea of the "infected" started is a valid one. Asking why is more of a discussion question where I doubt there is a definitive answer.
    – FuzzyBoots
    Commented Mar 11, 2016 at 4:52
  • 4
    I think it must have happened when sci-fi people said "hey, why do fantasy people get all the zombies?"
    – Misha R
    Commented Mar 11, 2016 at 9:58
  • 1
    Whilst I think that we do need to change the question to not include the discussion bit, I also don't think this is a duplicate of the other one. They're asking two different things.
    – FuzzyBoots
    Commented Mar 11, 2016 at 11:22
  • 2
    You mention Dawn of the Dead, but in Romero's earlier Night of the Living Dead (1968), it was strongly hinted that radiation from a satellite returned from Venus was responsible for the zombie plague. I don't think that statement by Peter in Dawn of the Dead was meant to be any sort of definitive explanation from Romero, just one character's creepy speculation. Also don't forget that Dawn of the Dead did suggest some sort of spreadable infection, since merely being bitten by a zombie could turn a person into one.
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Mar 11, 2016 at 15:59

1 Answer 1


Arguably, The Last Man on Earth did it in 1964. The victims of the plague were ostensibly "vampires" but they moved and groaned like zombies.

Still image from film

First film I've found where they're identified as zombies and it spreads as infection is Peter Jackson's Braindead (Dead Alive in the USA) in 1992 where it's a virus contracted from a Sumatran Rat-Monkey and spread through bodily fluids.

  • 1
    Good answer. There's also a little Sci Fi serial that sticks in my mind called Quatermass and the Pit, which aired in the late 1950s. Basically the general plot reveals that aliens were secretly abducting humans and returning them to earth as warmongerers who almost seemed crazed and non-sentient in their agenda. Very zombie-like to me. It's not the typical zombie infection story, but neither is it a consequence of something beyond human control.
    – John Bell
    Commented Mar 11, 2016 at 16:37
  • Didn't even know but there's even a series that preceded this, with the same protagonist and author called The Quatermass Experiment", where a group of astronauts are sent into space, and return as plant/human hybrids. It's up to the police to destroy them before they destroy the world. This aired in 1953.
    – John Bell
    Commented Mar 11, 2016 at 16:42
  • 2
    In the Last Man on Earth and the source book I am Legend, the central idea is that what we called vampires were in fact victims of a disease. The book elaborates: People whose died are reanimated and are the "insane" (dumb, zombie-like) vampires who nonetheless retain some intelligence; the "sane" vampires are humans who need blood to live but are not brain damaged. The Will Smith movie alternate ending touched on this slightly; the Last Man on Earth I think went into this idea more and clarified the title of the book.
    – Jeff
    Commented Aug 23, 2017 at 22:49

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.