Nerds love to classify things, codifying a set of rules and forcing the material to fit wherever possible. Take anything that people get obsessive over and you’ll find that, while there may seem to be a set of rules on the surface, diving deeper will reveal hundreds of different ways those rules have been bent or broken to accommodate different kinds of stories, modernize dated themes and tropes, or just because the writer was an iconoclast. Vampires, for instance, are extremely malleable creatures. Some vampires cannot stand even a hint of daylight, wither at the sight of a crucifix and are warded away by the smell of garlic. Others can go outside during the day so long as they stay out of direct sunlight and have no problem with crosses, garlic, running water, or any of the other “classic” anti-vampire weapons. Some sparkle.
Zombies are no different.
On the surface, there appear to be three main types of zombies (although the first is practically unheard of these days): the classic Voodoo slave zombies, the Romero-style slow shamblers, and the 28 Days Later-inspired viral horde. These are very different types of creatures that are scary for very different reasons, but they’re still generally considered zombies by most.
Of course even casual fans of the genre should find some obvious exceptions to these three basic types of zombies, such as the intelligent zombies of Return of the Living Dead (wence came the oft repeated “Braaaains”), or super-powered zombies from movies like the Day of the Dead remake and La Horde. These types of zombies defy the normal classifications we’re used to, so much so that they may make some of us question whether they should still be considered zombies and not some other sort of creature.
The question of whether a creature is actually a zombie is oddly important to fans of the genre, and it can be quite a divisive one. Take, for example, people infected with the Rage virus in 28 Days Later. On one side of the aisle people argue that rage-infected people are zombies because they fit most of the traditional zombie traits: lack of reasoning ability, chasing and killing humans while ignoring each other, etc. On the other hand, there are those who maintain that rage-infected aren’t zombies because 1. They aren’t (un)dead, and 2. They don’t actually eat the living.
So who’s right? Well, considering zombies don’t actually exist, and there is no sort of empirical way to test whether a creature is a zombie, you can’t really make any sort of objective claim one way or the other.
The infected in 28 Days Later will always be zombies to me because that’s that roll they fill in the movie. They’ve been tweaked a bit to fit the type of film Danny Boyle was making, but we must remember that he was ultimately making a zombie film (even if he’s tried to distance the film from such labels). That said, I can certainly respect the other side of the fence; I don’t agree, but they make perfectly logical and well-reasoned points.
Let me propose a slightly different approach to the question: why don’t we determine whether the monsters in a given story are zombies the same way doctors determine whether a patient is autistic: based on whether they are displaying a certain number of characteristics. Zombies, even those in the more fantastical stories, tend to display a few of the following:
- Dies and reanimates
- Does not recognize friends and loved ones
- Pronounced lack of intelligence
- Pronounced lack of coordination often to the point of being extremely slow
- May use items as bludgeons if they happen to pick them up, but make no efforts to find or create tools
- Extremely poor physical appearance
- Extreme aggression toward living/uninfected humans
- Complete lack of aggression toward the undead/infected
- Consumes the flesh of the living
- Extreme communicability of “zombie” infection
- Ignores traumatic injuries
- Tireless pursuit of a prey
- Can only be killed by destroying the brain
- Inability to use language (speaking/writing/reading)
- Verbal communications tends to consist of guttural sounds and moaning
Taking that thought a step further, wouldn’t it also be useful to take a look at the movie, book, comic, or game to see if it offers any similar sort of symptomatic approach to identifying itself as being part of the zombie genre? Here’s a brief list that might serve as a useful starting point:
- Government officials miss important clues about the nature of the outbreak
- Government officials understate/lie about the nature of the outbreak, often exacerbating the situation
- Government officials unable to contain the outbreak
- Characters are either:
- Everyday people with no special survival/combat training
- A small group of soldiers/police officers who are cut off
- Resources (food, water, weapons, shelter) are extremely limited
- Characters find and use improvised weaponry
- A location is fortified by nailing boards over windows and doors and/or pushing furniture and other heavy objects against any points of ingress
- Characters hide a dangerous infection from the rest of the group
- Characters largely fail to form a tight group, there are often many fights over group decisions, assignment of duties, distribution of weapon, and leadership.
- Despite the lack of cohesion, there is a very definite “bad guy” in the group
- The group will be drastically reduced throughout the course of the story
- Most will be killed, but some may abandon the group
- A member or members of the group will be killed by their companions after they are infected
- The story makes oblique references and comments about social and/or political issues
This way, being a zombie isn’t just a yes/no exercise. Creatures and the stories they occupy might meet a number of characteristics typical of zombies and stories in the zombie genre. Fit enough of them and we’ll call it a zombie story. It’s certainly not a perfect system, but it’s important to remember that the definition of a zombie is a lot more liberal that most people typically think, and that’s probably not a bad thing.
Zombies exist in a variety of creative mediums, all of which are becoming more accessible to the common man. If everyone stuck to the same set of rules, things would get boring pretty quickly.
Don’t forget, Night of the Living Dead broke all the established zombie rules of the day and started off as a loose adaptation of I Am Legend, a story about vampires.