Zombies are by far my favorite sub-genre of horror. There’s something about them – something that makes them, as a subject, so much more fun than other types of monsters. Zombies have the potential to be exploited equally for horror or comedy, and the horror can ramped up to apocalyptic levels. Much like vampires and werewolves, there are “rules” to zombies, even though many have taken liberties with them, or made up their own rules altogether.
Because of this, there a few distinct categories of zombies, bound by specific rules. How the zombie came to be, what their behavior is like, and how to dispatch them are the major variables at play. I’ve collected four types here, though there could be more that I’m missing.
1) Romero zombie
Attributes: The most common type of zombie, and my personal preference. Romero zombies first appeared in Night of the Living Dead, and their portrayal in that film was so influential that the prevailing myths of zombie-ism in popular culture followed this template for years (and continues to do so). Romero zombies tend to be only the recently dead who have returned to life. You don’t normally see them climbing out of graves or surviving advanced decomposition. They are slow, somewhat weak, lack the ability to speak, and only act on the most basic of impulses – to feed. They are driven to consume the flesh of the living, and do not attack or “cannibalize” other zombies. The biggest threat with Romero zombies is numbers. Once they discover living humans, it doesn’t take too long for hordes of them to surround and ultimately overpower whatever stronghold the humans have claimed.
Origins: Interestingly, the lore of Romero zombies has always been rather vague. It has been strongly suggested that some nondescript virus is responsible, though none of the Romero movies have been terribly clear about specifics. World War Z gets a bit more in-depth, telling the story of “patient zero”, a Chinese boy who is bitten by something while diving in a lake. The media later names the disease “African Rabies”, although this is later termed a misnomer. The origins of Romero zombies are usually not supernatural. Like pretty much all zombies, the virus is extremely contagious and is spread by zombie bites that break the skin, or introduction of infected blood into the bloodstream. In the Resident Evil series, this was called the “T-Virus” (later the G-Virus), and was developed by a shady corporation for military use.
How to eliminate: Remove the head or destroy the brain. This simple rule is the primary basis of defeating Romero zombies. This can be accomplished by decapitation, blunt force trauma, impalement of the head, breaking the neck, or sometimes immolation. This rule also explains why only the recently dead qualify for zombie-ism, because decomposition destroys the brain.
Notable appearances: Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead (original), most anything ending in “of the Dead”, World War Z, Shaun of the Dead, Resident Evil series, Dead Rising.
2) Modern zombie
Attributes: Also known as “running zombies”, the modern zombie first appeared in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, and went on to appear in most zombie-related entertainment after the year 2000. They share much in common with Romero zombies – they share much of the same weaknesses – except for one important difference – they run. And they run fast. They also tend to be quite strong. Modern zombies resolve the one thing that always threatened to deflate the horror of zombies. You can no longer simply powerwalk past them, and you probably are not stronger than them, so potentially only one could pose a serious threat. They still eat flesh but are also equally motivated to simply maul you to death.
Origins: Another similarity to Romero zombies – Modern zombies typically are the result of a virus. In 28 Days Later, this was a seemingly man-made virus called Rage, that was tested on animals who were subsequently released by fanatical animal rights activists and spread the disease to humans. Unlike Romero zombies though – the Modern zombie virus can infect the living and turn them into a zombie within moments. The Romero virus typically takes hours to take effect and usually kills the victim just prior to bringing them back as a zombie.
How to eliminate: Pretty much the same as the Romero zombie – destroy the brain.
Notable appearances: 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks later, Dawn of the Dead (remake), Zombieland, Left 4 Dead series.
Attributes: Contrary to popular belief, Night of the Living Dead was not the first zombie film, not by a mile. Zombies have been part of cultural lore since before 1900, and have appeared in films since the 1930’s. White Zombie, starring Bela Lugosi is usually considered the first zombie film. Proto-zombies are deeply connected with voodoo and are used as slaves by whatever master managed to bring them back to life. They are recently dead humans, resurrected and looking very much like a normal person, but under a trance-like state. At this point zombies did not eat flesh, but they were frequently used to attack humans as an endlessly subservient army under the control of their master. Like the later Romero zombies, Proto-zombies can be seen as a social critique, specifically of slavery.
Origins: Proto-zombies take their inspiration primarily from African and voodoo lore. The primary antagonist resurrects the dead individually by the use of black magic and controls the zombies’ minds.
How to eliminate: Since Proto-zombies appeared in films and literature much earlier in history, stories were less violent and typically didn’t portray zombies being murdered. Usually the primary antagonist was the evil magician that brought the zombies to life, with the zombies themselves being unwitting henchmen and only ceasing to be after the master was defeated. They seem to have the same weaknesses and characteristics of normal humans, though without the power of independent thought.
Notable appearances: White Zombie, I Walked With a Zombie, Plan 9 from Outer Space
4) Invincible zombie
Attributes: The least common type of zombie. As far as I know, they have only appeared in the Return of the Living Dead series of films, which confusingly, have nothing to do with the Romero films. John Russo, who worked on Night of the Living Dead with George Romero, had a totally different vision of where the zombie genre should go. He was more interested in using zombies for comedic, over the top purposes. George Romero continued his “…. of the Dead” series in the same tone, while Russo began the Return of the Living Dead series. Russo’s zombies are far more dangerous than Romero’s. They are not limited to the recently-deceased, nor are they strictly human. Anything that once lived at any time has the potential to become a zombie, regardless of how decayed or dismembered they are. A single dead finger can be a zombie finger, still wriggling. Invincible zombies eat flesh, but specifically hunger for brains and have the ability to vocalize that hunger. In fact, they can speak as well as a living person. Return of the Living Dead is the origin of one of the most famous zombie tropes – moaning for “braaaiiiiins”.
Origins: Return of the Living Dead is very upfront about how their zombies came to be. A military-developed gas called 245-Trioxin has the ability to bring anything dead back to life on contact. The gas need only drift by a dead body and BAM – instant zombie. Of course, human beings killed by these zombies are also exposed to the gas and subsequently become zombies. Interestingly, living humans seem invulnerable to the gas in small amounts, but if breathed in in bulk, it will turn a living person into a zombie. Oh, and the reason they eat brains? The movie explains this as well. After capturing and binding the top half of a zombie, it explains that it hurts to be dead, and only the consumption of brains can ease the pain. Bummer for us.
How to eliminate: I called them Invincible zombies for a reason. You cannot kill them. Destroying the brain has no effect. If you dismember them, each body part will continue to move and attempt to attack. Burning them down to ash and vapor seems to work, but the smoke and vapor produced will spread and create more zombies, especially when it comes down in rain. The Invincible zombie has the highest potential to bring about an early apocalypse, which is why at the conclusion of Return of the Living Dead, the government ultimately enacts their “containment plan”, and nuke the entire vicinity of the outbreak. Of course, the numerous sequels provide a hint as to how that turns out. Remember what happens when you burn them?
Notable appearances: The entire Return of the Living Dead series
Of course, this list does not cover every single type of zombie. Other depictions include: I Am Legend, in which they seem to be a cross between zombie and vampire; Resident Evil 4 and 5, zombies created by a parasite that latches onto the brain stem; and The Descent, humanoid psuedo-zombies that evolved to live in pitch black caves. These are just a few examples.
For the most thorough, respectful, and realistic depiction of zombies I’ve ever encountered, read World War Z by Max Brooks. It tells the story of a worldwide zombie apocalypse after the fact, from several different viewpoints all across the globe. It covers practically every conceivable facet of zombie invasion on society, and a film adaptation starring Brad Pitt is currently in pre-production.
The current wave of murder sweeping the Eastern third of the nation is being committed by creatures who feast upon the flesh of their victims. . .