In the beginning, zombies were created by magical and alchemical means, and it was not contagious.

Later (mid 20th century?) zombie fiction treats it as an illness/virus, and bitten people turn into zombies in a matter of minutes or at most hours.

However, lately you can find zombie fiction where getting infected does not turn the victim into a zombie, if they are not killed by the encounter itself. They live completely normally, and turn into zombies only after death (natural death, or any other death which leaves enough of the body intact to be able to function as a zombie).

Notable examples are "the Walking Dead" and "The Zombie Hunters".

Is this concept fairly new? Where does it originate from?

  • possible duplicate of Where do zombies come from?
    – phantom42
    Commented Jan 6, 2014 at 21:23
  • @phantom42 : no, the question is not where the "zombies as walking dead" concept originates from. It is where the concept of "getting infected does not turn you (yet) into a zombie" originates from. In most fiction (like Resident Evil) getting infected turns you into a zombie. That's not what I'm looking for.
    – vsz
    Commented Jan 6, 2014 at 21:25
  • In such media what I'm looking for, usually the whole (or most of) living population is infected, society is usually not (fully) collapsed, and the danger is for example in grandma dying in the bed and turning into a zombie, or otherwise people dying in cleared zones and starting a new outbreak.
    – vsz
    Commented Jan 6, 2014 at 21:34

2 Answers 2


The Last Man on Earth (1964), incorporates this concept. In this case a great plague spreads across civilzation killing many.. then the dead return and wreak havoc. The particularly interesting thing about this movie is that unlike most recent takes on zombie movies, the dead remember who they were and even return home and can speak, though they are still aggressive and hostile.


But to answer your question, the concept goes back to 1964 in film. And BTW, it's a pretty darn good film even by today's standards.


  • This is a good answer, but the connection to Richard Matheson/I Am Legend confuses things. They were explicitly vampires in the novel and "cannot stand sunlight, fear mirrors, and are repelled by garlic" in the film.
    – nomen
    Commented Dec 3, 2020 at 18:42

The first "zombie apocalypse" movies (as opposed to a few actual "zombies as the slaves of a voodoo witch doctor movies) always hinted that it was a supernatural phenomenon, complete with some elements of a Christian rapture where the dead walk the Earth.

In the original Night of the Living Dead, they're in a cemetery when the zombie attacks, having presumably just dug itself out of a grave or perhaps crawled out of an unfilled grave. Very soon though, we start seeing science fiction elements to these movies, even Romero adopts this tact. I haven't been able to nail it down to the first that does this, but certainly by the 1970s this is the case. By the 1980s, many are considering the cause to be any or many of the following:

  1. Biological weapons that have malfunctioned or been tampered with
  2. Chemical weapons that have malfunctioned or been tampered with
  3. Herbicides that have been tampered with
  4. Exotic radiation
  5. Strange pathogens/substances that have arrived from spaceships or meteorites

Often, these explanations are not explored in depth, and come off as highly implausible. Worse, they tend to depict phenomenon that could never be plausible in the real world. Already on The Walking Dead we've seen putrefaction and damage that would make it impossible for the cadaver to be mobile at anything more than the pace of a slime mold. It takes constant and high levels of energy to move a human body around, and no blood is pumping oxygen and nutrients (not to mention the state of decay of muscles).

But a supernatural explanation would be unpopular outside of tiny niches. Supernatural explanations always seem to retreat back to Abrahamic mythology, and I suspect rather strongly that no one wants to go there. (The television show Supernatural does just this, and while people enjoy it, it's somewhat niche.)

The new variation where you aren't killed by the pathogen, but become a zombie after something else kills you... I'm fairly certain this starts with The Walking Dead, and then only in later seasons. In season 1, the black man tells him that when bitten you get a fever and die in a matter of days.

The recent remake of Dawn of the Dead however has this happening, and much more quickly. The sickness doesn't seem to last longer than 48 hours, and is highly transmissible (a scratch is enough).

I don't watch any of the really schlocky movies, so I might have missed a few. But I'm going to say this is The Walking Dead, and it only (so far).

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