While arguing with a friend about 28 Days Later and how those aren't actually zombies, my friend stated that all zombie media have to follow Romero Rules of zombies or else they aren't actually zombie movies/books/whathaveyou.

While reading Our Zombies are Different, it shows that Romero himself never actually used the word 'zombie' and he called his creatures 'ghouls'.

But the article actually classifies the different type of zombies and how they act.

Why is there a general consensus in literature and film that dictates what 'real' zombies are? Why aren't 28 Days/Weeks Later monsters considered zombies?

Are the creatures in the new versions of Romero's movies considered zombies since they can run and seem to have some problem solving skills?

When did this trope become so concrete?

  • 27
    Next you'll be saying vampires can't walk out into the sun or have glitter on their skin – Eight Days of Malaise Dec 26 '11 at 4:59
  • 5
    @EightDaysofMalaise: They can't. Would you like some brain bleach so you can forget those books/movies? – Jeff Dec 26 '11 at 14:23
  • 5
    @MartinSchröder is correct. Dracula was sighted during the day. He did not have his powers while in sunlight (but I don't think he was easily killed), but the part about vampires not coming out in the sun came later. But vampires never sparkled. At least real ones never have. – Tango Dec 27 '11 at 0:59
  • 7
    Who, exactly, would enforce any such Rules? – John C Dec 27 '11 at 16:41
  • 2
    @JohnC - Romero, presumably. Or Satan. – Jeff Dec 29 '11 at 12:29

It's up to the viewer, in the end, but I have always considered the 28 Days Later monsters to be zombies.

In short, if it craves human flesh, reproduces through bites and/or scratches (or anyone who dies reanimates), lacks higher intellect, and is hard to kill, it's a zombie.

Romero DID have rules his monsters had to follow, but he himself admitted to breaking them whenever convenient in order to make a better movie.

  • I would argue even the second rule isn't cut-and-dry. See - Voodoo Zombies, which are simply very strong, very dead, very mindless humans. – Zibbobz Mar 12 '14 at 13:34
  • 5
    @Zibbobz: Very true, but voodoo zombies don't fit any of the tropes of modern zombies. They aren't dead or diseased, they are controlled by others, and they aren't mindless. In short, the word 'zombie' has moved so far from its origins that voodoo zombies are actually no longer zombies! – Jeff Mar 12 '14 at 16:15

While there are pretty consistent guidelines for zombies that are well accepted, they come not from the literature, but from the gaming industry.

Dungeons and Dragons had a huge list of various types of undead, making clear categorical distinctions. Zombies and Ghouls are different under their imposed taxonomy, with Ghouls eating the dead, and zombies the living. This distinction may be inspired in part by Niven's Ghouls in the Ringworld series (but noting that Niven's Ghouls are not undead).

Many other Role-Playing games maintain the distinction, and much of the literary side doesn't bother with making clear taxonomies at all.

Likewise, the actual Haitian Zombi isn't actually undead, but a drugged and duped individual forced into slavery, whose death was simulated with tetrodotoxin. The myth that they were undead was a means of keeping them from breaking their captivity.

On the other hand, there is an official US Government position on them... http://www.bt.cdc.gov/socialmedia/zombies_blog.asp (archive.org archived copy)

  • Are you referring to this: Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse Your link is broken. – slybloty Dec 27 '12 at 17:32
  • @slybloty it wasn't when it was put it ... a year ago. And it's not on the web archive at the moment. But, not, it's not the same page, tho' its not bad and is similar content. – aramis Dec 27 '12 at 21:53
  • Oh, I found the archive.org mirror of the original link. Edited it in. – aramis Jun 14 '15 at 20:53

Yes, but there is no single set of zombie rules, and no one is obliged to follow any rules whatsoever.

The most popular "zombie rules" are the so-called "Romero rules", named for the director of the first modern zombie film, Night of the Living Dead, George Romero. However, the rules were not invented by Romero, and his later films break most of the rules named after him. These rules are basically as follows:

  • Zombies are dead

  • Zombies are slow

  • Zombies are stupid

  • Zombies eat living flesh, or recently killed flesh, especially human flesh

  • Zombies can only be killed by the destruction of the brain

  • Being bitten by a zombie turns you into a zombie

These very vague rules were later expanded and explained more thoroughly by subsequent writers and directors, most notably Max Brooks, who wrote The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z (the book, not the movie). The expanded rules have come to include such items as:

  • Zombies can't talk

  • Zombies can't think

  • Zombies rot very slowly

  • Zombies can't use tools or weapons

And so on. Because Brooks put so much effort and attention to detail into his work, and because Romero's subsequent films have been so horrible, I actually prefer to use the term "Brooks Rules" rather than "Romero Rules". As it happens, The Walking Dead follows Romero/Brooks Rules, but the World War Z movie follows "Fast Zombie Rules" (see below for more information).

There are other types of zombies, but the rules, such as they are, are much looser.

One alternative set of zombie rules is known as "Fast Zombie Rules":

  • Zombies are still stupid

  • Zombies are still dead

  • Zombies are still cannibals

  • Zombies are somewhat uncoordinated, but are quite fast

  • Zombies still have to be killed by destroying the brain

  • Bites still turn you into a zombie

In fact, zombies can be/do anything you want them to. So we get fast zombies, talking zombies, smart(ish) zombies, etc.

I don't know if you could consider this a formal set of zombie rules, but there are what are called "Return of the Living Dead Zombies", for the schlocky comedy horror movie of the same name. The general idea behind this type of zombie is as follows:

  • Zombies can talk, but not very well (most of the time, they basically just moan "Braaaaaaaains!" constantly, but sometimes they are more articulate and even clever and tricky)

  • Zombies eat brains, not just flesh

  • Zombies retain some elements of their former personalities

  • Zombies can do anything necessary to obtain a cheap laugh from the movie audience

  • Otherwise, the Romero/Brooks Rules still apply

As far as 28 Days/Weeks Later is concerned, no, they aren't zombies. These are living people infected with the so-called "Rage Virus". They die very quickly, because they don't eat or drink anything, and they can be killed the same way regular people can be killed. They are a bit like zombies, in that they are stupid and aggressive and infect others through bodily fluid transfers, but strictly speaking, they do not meet the requirements for zombieness. I don't have time to find it now, but I believe the director of the 28 ______ Later movies specifically said that the infected people I'm his films are not zombies, and were never intended to be zombies.

If you are interested in learning more about zombie rules, the best place to begin is with Max Brooks' books. * World War Z* is far better than the movie, and is more readable than his other book, The Zombie Survival Guide, which is exactly what it sounds like - it reads like any other survival guide, but with zombies. It can be a bit tedious at times, and isn't much fun to read, unless you are a true zombie fanatic.


What I have learned to be standard zombie rules are

  1. Eats human flesh. Brains are like the caviar but all flesh is good
  2. To kill a zombie you destroy the head/brain.
  3. Zombies don't remember personal facts or details but may be able to remember how to open doors or sense indications of human presence that would otherwise require memory. They can't do anything that requires intelligence. no empathy or sympathy or anything like that.*
  4. Zombies tend to breed other zombies. I don't think there was any disease in "Night of the Living Dead" but there was still some kind of magic that turned the people killed by zombies into zombies. Essentially if you get bitten by a zombie and survive you are pretty much going to be a zombie.
  5. For some reason zombies travel in herds. They don't communicate with each other but still seem to operate as a group for some reason.
  6. Zombies don't eat other zombies. It seems like they would eat each other, especially slow zombies because they would be easy prey but no, they bite uninfected people. Zombies also don't eat regular food. Only living food, preferably people and preferably brains

* has been contradicted by one "zombie" movie I know of. I do not know whether "I Am Legend" is considered a true-to-form zombie movie. I go into detail about this below.

In general the above six rules are the universal zombie rules. Below explains a potential loophole to rule number 3

Traditionally zombies move very slow, traditionally they chant "braaaains" while moving slowly but there have been movies with quick-moving zombies. Essentially it is horror/science fiction so there can't be strict rules but to break any of these six rules would probably piss a lot of people off. I guess a zombie with some memory would be an interesting concept. I saw "28 Days Later" a long time ago and don't know whether they find a cure in the end. I know in "I Am Legend" they do find a cure and the zombies demonstrate some level of humanity. 1: the guy gets mad when his daugher is killed and actually seeks revenge. 2: it seems like one of the zombies sets a trap. I don't know how well that movie is respected amongst horror/zombie fans since Will Smith has such a reputation of being a goodie two shoes that horror fans wouldn't like him. In general zombie movies are dark and show the darke

  • 3
    While the film version of I Am Legend turned the infected into something that is arguably closer to zombies (I'd argue against, but I get the other side), the infected are definitely modeled after vampires in the book. – phantom42 Apr 9 '13 at 11:00
  • @Paul D. Waite: with some possible exceptions, zombies only ever chant "braiiins" in comedy sketches, cartoons, etc. so more of what TV Tropes calls a Unicorn Trope, i.e. a trope believed to exist that doesn't. the possible exceptions: the horror-comedy RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (a sequel to the original NIGHT OF THE LVIING DEAD, but not set in George Romero's continuity), which introduced the "zombies eat brains" concept and had taking zombies. it had a few sequels. – Ria Byss Sep 18 '20 at 17:13

Zombie rules evolve. Now I find them very simplistic. If by zombies the OP was refering to zombies in movies only, then the first rules must have appeared with Romero. So I couldn't agree with Paul's third rule above: some of the original zombies have memory and feelings. In "Day of the dead", there is one zombie who remembers part of his past (long term memory) and remembers also short-term memories such as the one military guy whom he takes revenge of. IMHO he did express complicate feelings such as hate and empathy.

I would also add as a rule that the "zombie sickness" spreads through the blood and you can (if you act quickly) stop the infection by cutting off a limb for instance. It happens in original Romero movies and it is a regular rule in more modern zombie movies. I found it interesting in the Walking dead comics that the characters learn the rules little by little, and sometimes group of survivors disagree about the rules.

Now if you take movies such as WWZ, then I found it completely wrong to call it zombies, the same as in 28 Days later. Zombies must walk slowly: if they don't, then the main problem for survivors is not the herd (as in original zombie movies) but individuals. It is not the herd overwhelming the survivors situation, which kills. It's only individual running wild super-beings. Zombies which are not slow and clumsy aren't the same threat, so it breaks all the other zombie rules. It could be called World War Rabid-Dogs.

  • Interesting that moving quickly is the trait you think disqualifies WWZ zombies. That seems like the least important of the traditional zombie traits. – DCShannon Jun 9 '15 at 22:09

I say that Haitian Zombies are the only true zombies. I say it is an insult to the poor oppressed undead Haitian zombies to use the word zombie to refer to Romero's undead ghouls.

How will people ever have enough sympathy for the Haitian zombies to free them from their cruel oppressors if they think that zombies are creatures of terror, horror, and disgust who must be destroyed?

Efforts to free the Haitian zombies have been postponed year after year, decade after decade, because people have applied the term zombie to evil, cannibalistic, undead shamblers in modern horror movies.

Many people think that zombies are terrible menaces, but the Haitian zombies were normal, average e people in life, and most of them have no desire to harm anyone - except possibly people who carelessly use the word zombie to refer to horrible monsters in horror movies.

So the Zombie Liberation Society asks everyone connected to horror movies to come up with another term to use instead of zombie for the evil cannibalistic undead creatures in horror movies. Perhaps they can be called ecucs, for evil cannibalistic undead creatures, or horrozoms, for horror zombies, or hormozoms for horror movie psuedo-zombies.

  • Unfortunately, what they most act like is the vampires of medieval folklore. And Dracula has pretty much killed that usage. – Mary Sep 18 '20 at 0:17

It depends on how strictly you're speaking.

The term 'zombie' can be used loosely to refer to any fairly mindless group of creatures that attack others, and can spread whatever is causing them to attack.

More strictly, it refers to undead creatures that crave human flesh. These creatures tend to have other attributes, such as being slow moving, being interested in eating brains, and ceasing to function when their brain is destroyed.

Encyclopedia Entries

There's a Wikipedia article on zombies.

It says that "Zombies are undead creatures, typically depicted as mindless, reanimated human corpses with a hunger for human flesh". There's a section on "Modern Fiction" which states that "The modern conception of the zombie owes itself almost entirely to George A. Romero's 1968 film Night of the Living Dead".

There's another Wikipedia article called "Living Dead". This has a section comparing two different, well-known types of zombies: Romero's versus O'Bannon's zombies.

This article discusses differences in Infection, Memory, Intelligence, Locomotion, Speech, and Termination. O'Bannon's films were made as spin-offs of the Romero films, showing the great variety of zombie traits even within related canons.

Dictionary Definitions

Dictionary definitions generally include the idea of a dead human attacking the living, but vary on the details, and may not even require that the body be dead (Oxford).


(fiction) A deceased person who becomes reanimate to attack the living.

Oxford Dictionaries:

(In popular fiction) a person or reanimated corpse that has been turned into a creature capable of movement but not of rational thought, which feeds on human flesh:


the body of a dead person given the semblance of life, but mute and will-less, by a supernatural force, usually for some evil purpose.


a dead person who is able to move because of magic according to some religions and in stories, movies, etc.


So, strictly speaking, the monsters in 28 Days Later are not zombies because they are not undead.

Loosely speaking, they are zombies, because they move around and attack people without thinking.


I think what happens, as so often, is that a film, book or whatever introduces a new "type" of being - say, a zombie. They may not call them zombies, but their idea comes from Haitian zombie ideas, and the item becomes popular enough that the connection is made.

Then another set of films, books, articles appear that take the same idea and explore it further, often defining the rules that apply far more rigorously than before. These works are often based around The Rules, and this is how they are defeated.

This second level may have one item that becomes reasonably well known, and so defines the trope initially. There is then a third level of material that takes these rules as accepted and known, and continues to build the mythology. Once this has happened, the rules are accepted, and any following material has to follow these rules, or they are criticised. At which point the trope is clearly defined.


Okay i haven't read the whole thread but zombies can be either fast or slow, by the strictest definition of the term (which existed before Romero ever thought of making a film) a zombie is a mindless being. There are 2 modern categories of zombie; fast and slow. As far as rules of a good zombie film go there are only 3 set in stone rules that im aware of. Rule 1: you cannot mix fast and slow zombies. Because the cause of the condition will effect humans consistently across the board. (which seconds as the foil for rapid pandemic) and will therefore have similar and consistent symptoms. Rule 2: the cause of the zombie condition must be clearly outlined. Top 3 most used are viral, radiation, and religious. Rule 3: zombies must be zombies. Absent of logic and driven by simple necessities.

Like any rules these can be bent but not broken i.e. 28 days later a zombie is released. In turn the zombie does not attack but runs attacking others. This exception is created by the condition source. The zombie condition having been caused by pure rage overwhelming the conscious mind ... therefore the conscious mind still exists but is suppressed to the point of a zombie like state. However when the rules are broken i.e. zombies having a conversation (return of the living dead) the most the film can achieve is a successful "B rate".

  • Hi, welcome to SF&F. I admit this question is a bit of a mess, since it really contains at least 4 distinct questions. That said, you could improve your answer by stating which question you are addressing and focusing specifically on a single question; this seems to be general commentary and doesn't clearly answer any of the questions. – DavidW Sep 18 '20 at 0:56

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