In popular culture, zombies are animated corpses. Unlike (at least modern) vampires, zombies are generally subject to decay and have little or no intelligence. In the source myths, zombies are raised to serve by Voodoo priests. In modern fiction, zombies are reanimated by things such as radiation, chemical compounds, or micro-organisms; they may even be technically alive, just altered in behavior by whatever created the zombie effect. Magically re-animated zombies still appear in modern fantasy literature, as well, usually as low-end cannon fodder and/or as defensive measures.
Typical movie zombies possess the following attributes to varying degrees:
- Poor cognitive abilities: Zombies are usually capable of only basic tool use, like using a rock to break a window. Zombies do not make plans or organize, they just respond to stimuli. They usually have little, if any, problem-solving ability, nor do they learn from experience.
- Hunger: They usually have a primal urge to kill and eat live animals, but not carrion (meaning they don't attack other zombies). It's not clear why dead zombies hunger, but feeding may slow their rate of decay. Even living zombies won't attack other zombies, although the reason for such behavior is unclear.
- Contagion: People who are bitten by zombies typically die and reanimate as additional zombies (presuming they are not consumed by other zombies). Even if the condition isn't spread solely by zombie bites, the infection from a bite is certain to kill (or "turn") the victim.
- Slowness: Zombies generally don't move very quickly. Unless pursuing prey, they tend to wander aimlessly or become dormant, although some have dim memories of their past lives, which causes them to repeat common behaviors from when they were living. "Fresh" (or living) zombies may be able run as fast as a living human, but decay and accumulated damage tend to slow them down over time. On the other hand, zombies don't suffer from fatigue, so they will pursue prey as long as they can detect it.
- Relentlessness: Zombies generally don't feel pain and will continue to attack or pursue prey regardless of damage. Some zombies are afraid of fire, but many will not react to it. In most zombie movies, the most efficient way of destroying them is to shoot them in the head: the brain is still needed to coordinate their movements, despite the loss of higher cognitive functions. Some zombies can only be defeated by enough damage to make them immobile and harmless, such as total dismemberment. Zombies that are technically alive can be killed by any mortal wound, although lesser injuries will not deter them, and even a "dying" zombie will continue to attack.
- Strength: Because zombies don't feel pain, they will exert themselves to the point of self-injury without hesitation. This allows them to outperform living people of similar size in feats of strength.
- Longevity: Although it isn't clear whether zombies need to eat to survive, it's certain that they can become dormant for long periods of time and still "awaken" to function normally in response to stimuli. Zombies that have been dormant for years can still awaken if disturbed.
Individual zombies can be a danger, but a person who is knowledgeable and reasonably prepared can usually defeat one. Zombies typically only pose a serious threat in large groups, although their ability to spread disease is always a hazard. Although the reason isn't clear, zombies often tend to move in large groups or "herds".
A common scenario in fiction is that of a zombie outbreak which threatens or destroys human civilization. However, such scenarios are unrealistic. Modern weapons (particularly armored fighting vehicles, belt-fed automatic weapons, artillery, and airpower) are more than capable of bringing down large numbers of zombies with minimal risk to the humans operating them. Zombies typically lack the mental ability to counter these tools; they have no foresight and no planning ability, they simply attack prey on sight.
Despite the limitations of zombies, a number of of Zombie Survivalist Fanwhores believe that the military could not contain a large-scale zombie outbreak.
Use in Fiction
In zombie fiction, the zombies themselves are typically a secondary threat. They function as an environmental hazard that the protagonists must deal with while seeking a safe haven and possibly pursuing other goals, such as rescuing friends or family. The primary antagonists in zombie fiction are usually living humans. A common theme in zombie fiction is that "humans are the real monsters".
- "Headshot" zombies
- Night of the Living Dead, and it's many sequels (also known as "Romero" zombies)
- Walking Dead
- Shaun of the Dead
- Highschool of the Dead
- World War Z: More dangerous than most, as they seem to have a collective purpose of spreading their plague. Their bite will "turn" a victim in seconds, and a zombie that has bitten someone will immediately move on in search of another victim.
- "Live" zombies
- 28 Days Later
- Feral ghouls in Fallout
- "Total destruction" zombies
- Most fantasy zombies, such as zombies from the Dungeons & Dragons game. Because they are created by intelligent magic practitioners, such zombies often have weapons and sometimes armor that their creators order them to use. While unintelligent themselves, they can follow orders from intelligent creators, but they do not adapt to situations their creators did not foresee. If the creator of such undead dies, the zombies they created often die with them.
- Wights from Game of Thrones are a variant on fantasy zombies that ignore most wounds but are vulnerable to fire and weapons made of certain materials that break the magic that animates them.
- Return of the Living Dead zombies are exceptional in several ways.
- The condition is caused by a chemical weapon. The zombie condition only transfers if the chemical gets into new bodies.
- They retain much of their intelligence. They can speak and devise plans to trap more victims.
- They specifically crave human brains. The zombies experience constant pain, and eating brains provides temporary relief.
- They are nearly impossible to kill; they can be dismembered or immobilized, but short of incinerating them, they won't die. Even then, the ash/smoke/vapor from destroying them is a transmission vector for the condition.