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The Evolution of the Zombie: the monster or intelligent being?

Three weeks ago, I discussed the evolution of the vampire in literature and television. That got me to thinking about the evolution of zombies. Seems fitting, with it being October and all.

I find zombies come in two different forms. The first is the mindless monster that runs around eating people. I, for one, never understood this concept. In vampires, they drink blood because it is a symbol of life. Therefore the action would create everlasting life and youth. But to eat someone has no other allusions…it’s just horror. This feeling stems from two sources. The first is the predator/prey dynamic. Humans don’t have to worry often about being eaten by an animal…and when we hear a rare case on the news we tend to think it stemmed from idiotic behavior. The idea of being pushed out of the top of the food chain and hunted is probably the scariest feeling. The second source of horror is the aspect of cannibalism. Zombies are something that used to be human eating another human. And isn’t it interesting that the action of eating another is what makes zombies no longer human? Or maybe it’s just me…

The evolution of this particular character has been to turn them into robotic soldiers of sorts. One Dresden Files book I read recently showcased zombies as monsters controlled by a powerful wizard as his own personal army. It was an interesting concept, but still left the undead as unintelligent. 

When a program wants to break a stereotype, they go for the intelligent zombie. Think of the newest Sprint commercial in which the zombie becomes offended at the saleswoman throwing out a stereotype. It leaves a sense of comic relief in the commercial mainly because this goes against the “monster” image we have. 

But, you don’t have to look hard to find a thinking zombie. I would venture to say the first “zombie” would have to be the monster from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. From high school through college, I had to read this novel three times. This would be great if I had liked the book, but it has never been my favorite classic. It was doomed on the first read when I discovered there was no character Igor. Then, I discovered that Frankenstein is not the name of the monster; that Dr. Frankenstein is a bit of a whinny, spoiled baby; and that the monster is probably the most intelligent character in the novel. Aside from Shelley, the other thinking zombie I could think of is from Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods. One of the characters is enchanted after death and walks around as a rotting corpse, but still a thinking human. Just a note: both of these cases do not involve cannibalism.

As with anything in literature, I am always fascinated with the evolution. How did the zombie mold from Shelley’s free thinker to the mindless monsters? Even more interesting, I can’t find a genre split between the two forms. Both wander through horror as well as fantasy. Happy October, everyone!