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:
- Minimal cognitive abilities: At most they are capable of basic tool use, like using a rock to break a window. They 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.
- Relentlessness: Zombies generally don't feel pain and will press on 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.
Individual zombies can be a danger, but they can usually be dispatched by a person who is knowledgeable and reasonably prepared. Zombies typically only pose a 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 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
- "Live" zombies
- 28 Days Later
- Feral ghouls in Fallout
- "Total destruction" zombies
- Most fantasy zombies, such as zombies from the Dungeons & Dragons game
- Wights from Game of Thrones (although weapons made of certain materials will break the magic that animates them and kill them immediately)
- Return of the Living Dead zombies
- 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 relieves the pain.
- 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.
- If any type of zombie were likely to cause an apocalypse, these are the ones.