Being of a logical and scientific bent, zombies have intrigued me simply because they break a lot of rules, especially in film portrayal. Zombies tap into that primal fear of the dead and especially of the recently dead returning. Ghosts fill a certain amount of the genre of returning dead, but zombies really bite into the role.
One way that archeologists measure a culture is by their treatment of the dead and by the amount and types of grave goods. In Paleolithic times, grave goods were minimalistic and there was an edge of appeasing spirits and keeping the vengeful dead in their graves along with equipping the dearly departed into the happy hunting ground. Sometimes keeping them in their place is accomplished by big rocks or a deep burial. Apparently ancient man was pretty worried about returning dead.
Of course a lot of veneration of the dead along with appeasement meant not only a nice burial service and lots of grave goods, but then follow up services and maybe a nice monument or tomb. They could get pretty elaborate by the Neolithic era. Much later tombs got as big as to be listed as two of the seven wonders of the ancient world: The Great Pyramid of Egypt and the Tomb of Halicarnassus in Asia Minor (now Turkey).
Zombies are a specific kind of returning dead and quite corporeal. Whereas ghosts and spirits could ruin your day by moaning and issuing curses, zombies returned in the flesh, generally decaying and smelling somewhat. You don’t want them at your family picnic.
Classic Caribbean zombies are the result of a magician or sorceress, bruja/brujo & etc capturing a spirit and forcing them back into their body to the do the will of the necromancer. Basically, these island zombies were slaves and bound to their masters to do whatever zombies do best which might be a bit of manual labor as long as dexterity is not needed. Classic Caribbean zombies stop being zombified when the necromancer is done with them or if released/destroyed by another person or power.
In a sense, the standard Egyptian mummy is a kind of zombie because it is here because of a powerful will (sometimes their own), a curse or a necromancer has raised them. There are lots of typical mummy movies around, so you get the gist.
Now we get to “modern” zombies. Generally, these are the Zombie Holocaust type, where not specific zombies are animated by the will of a necromancer or a curse, but a pandemic of zombification, where whole populations are zombified. Plague of one sort or another, either from space, mad scientists or incompetent government experiments or crazy corporation experiments gone wrong.
Plagues zombies may have been killed by the same plague that zombified them or just animated by the zombifuying virus. These zombies differ completely from classical zombies in that they have the power, via zombie plague or virus, to infect others and create new zombies. Generally, nobody controls plague zombies and they wreak great havoc by infecting others and being pretty hard to stop. Just one bite can make a new convert to zombiedom in just a few hours if the virus is virulent.
These new plague zombies often to seem to crave living flesh, human generally and some types even prefer brains for a snack. They generally feel no pain, have no sentient capabilities although some might have vestige memories. Generally plague zombies are slow, clumsy, and not very strong. But they are persistent and appear in great masses. They also seem to hibernate for long periods and seem to be able to smell living persons at a good distance. They are attracted to sounds and can hunt in packs.
Although pretty much immune to bullets in the body in general and even dismemberment, a blow to the head or bullet to the head destroys the zombies. Fire seems to work pretty well, although in some movies, each and every cell is a living zombie and will move to the attack. At that point, things are pretty grim for the living.
Now to the logical part: Classic zombies seem to be a moving corpse and fall apart pretty well, although the brain shot may not work with them. They seem to be as limited as an animated rotting corpse under the will of a necromancer. So obviously classic zombies have a limited time to get their work done until they fall apart or decay.
Plague zombies seem to be actual parasite organisms inhabiting the dead and moving them around to their will, as limited as the wishes of a zombie virus might be. Clearly, there has to be a kind of half-life with these zombie plague hosts. If classic zombies are magic, plague zombies are scientific and should fall under some biological rules for organisms. They use neurons to move muscles and electro chemical energy is required from somewhere. Admittedly they have a very slow metabolism and so don’t need as much energy as a living person, but they indeed inhabit human bodies and using their mechanisms to get around, so a few rules must exist.
There must be a life cycle on these zombified humans, and even given super low metabolisms and the ability to cannibalize their own cells (live humans do that too) to keep up a modicum of energy, they have to run out of juice sometime. I just don’t see zombies staggering around malls for hundreds of years like it is an after Christmas sale. Clearly, if you want to use zombies in your game, you need some basic rules, be they classic zombies or plague zombies. All organisms have a life cycle, even zombies.
There are a few categories of non-zombie zombioids out there: Dr. Who spinoff Torchwood has the Miracle Day episodes, where people just don’t die. They are not mindless zombies, just a kind of undead. If you have not watched these episodes, they are a very mindful pondering on living forever. Secondly there are self-zombies in the sense of H. P. Lovecraft’s Cool Air, a short story where somebody has willed themselves to live on and have preserved their body from decay. I guess they are a class of undead, uh unliving, whatever.
Here are some real zombies that occur in nature:
If you like my logical zombie article see also my blog article about the classic wolfman.
A new blog entry about vampire hunting kits: