I think it is important to distinguish between terms before going into the histories of the subsets of undead creatures. Revenant is the blanket term for any undead being–usually once human–that should be peacefully rotting in the ground, but has the gall to instead walk (or lurch) around and harass the living. A number of beings are considered revenants: vampires (which I covered in a previous post), ghouls, zombies, and, I would argue, Frankenstein’s monster (sort of, more on this later). The term zombie, now used to mean any shuffling mortal coil, is originally a term from Haitian voodoo (and originating even further back from African tradition, but brought to the Caribbean due to the slave trade), and indicates a reanimated corpse in a trance-like state and enslaved through magic. Often, the zombie is not truly dead, merely catatonic, presumed dead, buried, and exhumed later by the bokor–the Haitian term for sorceror–who caused the death-like state in the first place.
A Classification System for Quick Recognition of Revenant Subtypes
What most people now consider to be zombies are not zombies in the true sense of the term. The mindless, flesh-eating beings so often called zombies are just reanimated corpses devoid of soul. The body continues to rot, but the humanity in that body fled at death. They are revenants in the purest sense, but in the tradition of eastern European folklore they are far too aimless. The revenant, as we would recognize it, became a staple belief of European folklore in the Middle Ages. It was particularly prevalent in eastern Europe, where vampires and revenants were nearly synonymous entities. These undead usually remembered themselves, and they also made a point of targeting their families or communities. Revenants did not return from the grave due to random occurrence, or a virus, or radiation, or what-have-you. In this tradition, people believed wicked people, and those who rejected God/Christianity, were likely to become revenants. Basically, the smae rules apply for revenants and vampires in eastern Europe, and these are outlined in my post on vampires, found here.
Ghouls are a different entitiy than the eastern European vampiric revenants, and their mythology originates in the Middle East. I also consider them to be the creepiest subtype of revenant, and the most dangerous of the ancient varieties. The name itself is an Anglicized version of the Arabic word ghul or guul, depending, I guess, on dialect and region. This thing is actually a demon, but in some traditions it behaves like a revenant. The ghoul devours a corpse, takes on the appearance of the deceased, and proceeds to snack on living flesh. Diabolical, yes? These creatures do not typically range abroad, however. They tend to lurk in the nearest convenient cemetery, graveyard, or crypt. Although not technically an undead entity, they share the misappropriation of a corpse’s identity with some eastern European vampire traditions, and so enter the fringes of the revenant classification that way.
Another borderline member of this category of monster is Frankenstein’s monster. He is formed from the parts of deceased humans, reanimated. I would say the similarity ends there though, because he is neither conscious of his pre-death history nor a mindless slave to his maker. He has a new and unique self, separate from the selves put together to make him.
The Modern Revenant Revolution, or Surviving an Invasion of the Undead
Zombie apocalypses are becoming more prevalent in film and TV every year. Even non-zombie epidemics with flesh hungry, mindless humans are appearing often in pop culture. The George A. Romero classic film, Night of the Living Dead, is the root cause of the modern zombie motif. Until this film, zombies remained in the realm of voodoo, as single beings recalled to life for a dark purpose. In fact, the undead were called “ghouls,” not zombies, in this first of modern horde-zombie flicks. Just as vampires have remained fascinating to us for centuries as the mysterious undead, so too have zombies, but for vastly different reasons. Instead of the singular, suave entity of the vampire, who picks and choose his victims like a connosiuer and rarely creates another vampire, zombies are a mass destructive multitude, insensitive to their victims and tearing through crowds, leaving mutilated corpses and new zombies in their wake with equal disregard. The difference lies in both numbers and seductiveness. Vampires are frightening yet alluring. Zombies (in the modern sense) are simply terrifying. Even so, the imagination continues to mull over the possibility of a zombie apocalypse. I believe this is due primarily to the globalization of humanity. Everything is instantaneous and interconnected, but all this convenience and technological development can also breed fear and panic.
Night of the Living Dead was in some ways a response to Cold War tensions. It was both science fiction and horror. The undead were reanimated by radiation from a space probe returning from Venus. That is a very sci-fi start to a horror movie. This seemingly random generation of the undead is the point at which the cultural definition of zombie shifts from Haitian voodoo to apocalyptic proportions. Older zombie movies were firmly grounded in voodoo legend. White Zombie, with Bela Lugosi (he comes up a lot in old horror flicks), combines voodoo with romantic tragedy. The Oblong Box, (actually released a year after Romero’s film) with Vincent Price and Christopher Lee (both of campy horror fame), mashes voodoo with disfiguration and family dysfunction. George A. Romero’s cult classic dispenses with all of that, and makes zombies ravenous and anonymous. His film is essentially a survival movie.
Zombies have become such a part of pop culture (at least in the English speaking world–I have no global stats) that there are zombie-themed video games, music videos, songs, TV shows, spoof movies/parodies, and numerous film franchises with their own variations on the living dead phenomenon. Bookstores have pocket survival guides, and some areas use the threat of a zombie apocalypse to make disaster preparedness more interesting and “fun.” I know a guy who works at a city morgue who thought it would be clever to paint his pickup as a “Zombie Apocalypse Response Unit” vehicle. It looks good, too. So what is the fascination with this brand of undead? The uncontrollable, insatiable, empty creatures we call zombies seem to be a permanent fixture in the public imagination, along with vampires, and they are regularly reinvented and reworked into new, more terrifying (or ridiculous) forms. Is it that they were once human, once dead, and now neither, but only by a few degrees? It certainly has much to do with the fear of a global pandemic; whether due to radiation, mutation, or mismanaged science, there is a deeply lingering fear in the general populace centered around something like the zombie apocalypse happening. A comparable scenario is seen in the public response to the threat of nuclear fallout during the Cold War. Actually, modern zombies owe a lot to Cold War tensions. A major zombie problem could send us back to zero, just as easily as irradiation from a nuclear war. At least zombies are something definite and physical that can be fought. And hey, if you are bitten, it is not necessarily curtains. You might get a new lease on life as one of the living dead…