So let's define the modern zombie.*
When George Romero unleashed his 1968 movie "Night of the Living Dead" upon an unsuspecting populace, he not only redefined the role of the undead in film but also pieced together an entirely new monster. These ghouls were terrifying, but not for traditional reasons. They weren't clever or manipulative, strong or individually overpowering, and they weren't even particularly bizarre or horrifying in appearance. No: they frightened audiences because they were essentially uninhibited, monstrous versions of ourselves. Romero's monster forced us to consider what lies within, and to face what we are each capable of -- even if we're still in full control of our mental capacities. And that too was new to the horror genre: the idea that the threat was no longer external, but internal: everyone was capable of becoming a monster. After all, just as terrifying as the horde outside the ramshackle farmhouse are the individuals within, whether by means of reanimation (i.e., the zombies and -- spoiler alert! -- Karen) or sheer attitude (Harry Cooper).
Virtually all zombies in pop culture today are based off this singular model, the so-called Romero zombie, but the movies that followed "Night of the Living Dead" further characterized the monster. In 1985, "Return of the Living Dead" introduced semi-vocal zombies who fed specifically on brains -- an idea further enforced by "Night of the Creeps" (1986), "Corpses are Forever" (2003), and a handful of other movies and games made since. "Braindead" (1992) and "28 Days Later" (2002) left us to speculate as zombie-ism as a virus, and the Resident Evil franchise haunted us with the Umbrella Corporation, who intentionally doomed the human race to live as walking mutations and undead nightmares.
Forty-two years after Romero's shuffling, blank-stared zombies made their film debut, today's zombies can run, multiply via any number of means, and, on occasion, think and communicate. Today's zombie doesn't necessarily have to be undead** or even human. The basics are still there, but we're still left with a wide variety of monster. This variety is maybe most evident not in movies, books, or video games, but in man-made scenarios, like zombie Walks and and LARPs (more to come on both of these). There, the zombies can shuffle, run, moan, speak, use simple tools, slap helplessly against closed doors... Participants can pick and choose from any number of zombie features and characteristics, with very few limitations. Even though there is such a wide variety, there is little doubt that these monsters are still zombies. Thus, they must have something in common, some binding feature that labels and appropriately categorizes them. But what is it?
I'll give you a hint: the answer is obvious.
In every movie, book, and video game I've ever seen, read, or played, the zombies consistently pursue and feast on living human flesh. While other movie monsters may feed on humans, their techniques are different. Dracula and his vampire kin seduce their victims and specifically go for blood. Likewise, a Hannibal Lecter-esque villain, also in pursuit of human flesh, is more likely to exhibit charming, off-putting behavior and continue his or her meal over polite dinner conversation. Not zombies. When they feast, they're animalistic about it. I've yet to see a zombie handle a knife and fork (at least, not in the way such utensils are intended) and I'd be very surprised if they knew how to use napkins. Their table manners are atrocious. Zombies rip into flesh using whatever they have available -- most commonly their teeth or bare hands -- and eat it, raw, with an apparently insatiable hunger. That is what defines the modern zombie: the undeniable need to feed.
That alone, however, does not explain our fascination with these monsters. After all, if zombies are just the same as wild animals but with human faces, what's the point? What makes them interesting, and what draws people to them? Why do zombies continue to show up on the big screen and between pages? Their hunger alone is nothing. No, there's something more there.
And that's where we join the fray.
*I feel a little as though I'm writing a thesis paper. I only wish my actual thesis paper was nearly as interesting. (Fact: it was not.)
**Controversy arises in movies where the monsters are not actually undead -- see "28 Days Later" -- but since the principle is the same and because zombies in the traditional sense were in fact living, breathing human beings, I'm going to let it go for now.