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The zombie, a creature from Haitian folklore, is a revenant who reputedly has been raised from the dead by magical power and now exists as an animated body in a soulless state, usually able to perform menial if laborious chores for the one who raised him from the dead. Within Haitian voodoo, there is an elaborate mythology around zombies related to Ghede (a.k.a. Baron Samedi), the guardian of the dead, a deity usually portrayed in a black top hat and black tail coat who waits for souls at the eternal crossroads. Zombies made their way into popular discourse as they were slowly popularized by anthropological literature early in the twentieth century.
Zombies made the transformation into a character in popular culture gradually, as movies began to pay on popular notions of voodoo and the reputed malevolent powers of voodoo priests. The 1932 White Zombie, starring Bela Lugosi was the first “zombie” movie, as such. Its zombies were mindless and irrational and operated under the control of their magician/maker. Lugosi would go on to play a zombie-like character in his last movie, Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). Although Lugosi appeared in a Dracula-like costume, along with the vampish Vampira, they were, in the end, both zombies.
A watershed in the portrayal of zombies occurred in the 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead, produced and directed by George Romero. In the film, a number of reanimated bodies appeared in the eastern half of the United States, seemingly the results of an accident in space. A group in rural western Pennsylvania was trapped in a house where they must fight off the local revenants who are walking around as if in a trance. They both seem unable to communicate with each other or to possess of any information worth communicating. They operate as a herd or mob, and greedily consume the bodies of any living person they overtake. They can be killed by blunt force to the skull, decapitation, or being consumed by fire. The film led to several sequels and a host of zombie movies based around variations of Romero’s zombie characters. By the 1990s, several zombie movies were appearing annually.
As developed by Romero, the zombie contrasted with the vampire at several points. It consumed the flesh of the recently dead rather than seeking the blood of the living. It was mindless as well as soulless and zombies had not evolved, as had the vampire, especially since the 1970s, into an intelligent human-like creature who possessed the range of human emotions, or who was capable of moral decisions. The zombie maintained its former human appearance to a large degree but the body appeared uncared for, seemed to be partly decomposing, and was soon marked with open wounds. The face took on a horrific façade, topped by wide uncombed hair. The zombie community existed as a plague which spreads like a disease wiping everything out before it. Indeed the main story line carrying the zombie was the apocalyptic end of human society.
Monster mashes had brought vampires together with Frankenstein’s monster and werewolves; and by the 1960s, the common characteristics shared by vampires and zombies as revenants consumed by their thirst/hunger began to occur to a few. A movie, Astro-Zombies, later released as The Space Vampires, appeared in 1967. It suggested the possibility of a vampirelike zombie (or a zombie-like vampire of the kind previously suggested in Richard Matheson‘s classic I Am Legend in 1954). This possibility would be pursued in several movies over the next decades, none as popular as the more orthodox vampire movies which pictured vampires as intelligent thinking beings, even when totally evil. The epitome of such movies came in 2007, with Steve Niles‘s 30 Days of Night, which pictured a hoard of zombie-like vampires emerging in Barrow, Alaska during the month when the sun never rose. As with I Am Legend (an important inspiration for Niles), the vampires had largely reduced to their thirst, but still maintained some minimal ability to think and strategize as they take over the town.
A second possibility for introducing zombies into the vampire wheel exists, pitting the two creatures against each other. This idea was seemingly being pursued in the 2004 independent film, Vampires vs. Zombies, but in the end, there was no vampire-on-zombie violence in the movie. This second option for relating zombies and vampires on screen, either as individual combatant or as engaged in a larger war, remains virgin territory, even as both characters enjoy a high level of popularity in the early years of the twenty-first century.