It is well known that the modern zombie derives from George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), in which the director imagined corpses rising up to attack and consume human flesh. Romero called these creatures “ghouls,” after the Arabian folkloric ghuls (probably via the Gothic novel Vathek or pulp work inspired by it) that “wander about the country making their lairs in deserted buildings and springing out upon unwary travellers whose flesh they eat” (Arabian Nights, Night 31).
As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, the Arabian ghul may in turn derive from a type of Mesopotamian underworld demon called the gallu, who dragged the damned to hell, including Dumuzi, the god who died, went to hell, and rose again.
That modern zombies hunger for brains also derives from the legend associated with ghouls, who previous to Romero had been considered living humans possessed by evil spirits. As Elliott O’Donnell described in 1912, “A ghoul is an Elemental that visits any place where human or animal remains have been interred. It digs them up and bites them, showing a keen liking for brains, which it sucks in the same manner as a vampire sucks blood.”
That Romero’s ghouls were corpses derives from Romero’s commercial need to alter Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, a book about vampires, significantly enough to avoid copyright violations. The undead nature of the creature is a legacy left over from Matheson’s original.
But once that connection had been made between the (living) ghoul and the (corpse) vampire, the modern zombie appropriated the iconography and the mythology associated formerly with vampires. The zombie took on the unceasing cannibalistic cravings, as well as stories about the existential sadness of seeing a loved one transformed into a Creature. From the earliest folkloric vampires (not Hollywood’s version), the zombie also borrowed the rotten corpse shape, as well as the iconography of rising in a shambling, half-aware way from an unhallowed grave. Even the method of dispatching zombies—destroying the brain stem—is merely a scientific gloss on actual vampire-hunting techniques of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which involved decapitating the alleged vampire corpse and destroying its body.
(Nor were zombies the only creatures to do such borrowing; Boris Karloff’s portrayal of The Mummy, in its early scenes, follows much the same pattern, and later mummy movies would make mummies essentially zombies with better wardrobes. Much earlier, Mary Shelley was conscious of vampire folklore in creating the risen corpse-creature, the Frankenstein monster, whose portrayal by Karloff in Frankenstein helped define the shambling, stumbling gait of future walking corpses in movies.)
The only real difference, in a practical sense, between folklore vampires and zombies is number: The zombie operates en masse. But even this is an accident of history. Romero’s zombie hordes exist because Richard Matheson depicted his hero trapped in his house by herds of mutant vampires, and Romero wanted to replicate this key scene with his variant monster. But even this was not without precedent: Consider the group of skeleton warriors who attack Jason and the Argonauts in the 1963 film of the same name, or their clear inspiration, the terrifying skeletal warriors of Pieter Breughel the Elder’s Triumph of Death (1562, drawing on earlier Danse Macabre imagery), which would today pass for a Zombie Apocalypse.