In 2002, after zombies had taken what seemed like an indefinite hiatus from gracing cinema screens, a scrappy little movie called 28 Days Later… came from across the pond to revitalize the genre with a shot of adrenaline. The movie depictis the chaos in an abandoned London following the spread of a rage virus that turns humans into violent, sprinting maniacs hellbent on biting and infecting others. This movie brought zombies back from the dead once more, and the fast-moving undead infected movies far and wide, including Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake and the [REC]/Quarantine franchise.
And yet, debate still rages on as to whether or not these undead revenants can truly be considered “zombies,” a question sparked by 28 Days director Danny Boyle himself, who has previously stated emphatically to the contrary. Hearing from the director might seem like a pretty cut and dry end to the debate, but that’s the interesting thing about the term “zombie.” There’s actually a lot of flexibility there, and while he was certainly thinking of the George A. Romero series of Dead flicks, Boyle wasn’t necessarily looking at his film in the broader scope of the subgenre’s history.
Real quick, let’s try to break down what a zombie even is. As cemented by Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead (although the specific term wouldn’t come into use until quite a bit later), what is popularly known as a zombie is a slow-moving, undead revenant that eats human flesh and spreads its zombieism through bite, blood, and sometimes scratch. Usually, the only way to kill them is a bullet to the head or destroying/removing the brain. In the original concept, the dead were rising from graves to feast on the flesh of the living, but in contemporary zombie fiction like The Walking Dead, that has morphed into a more viral concept, with zombies spreading the disease only among living hosts, who die and then come back.
By that definition, Boyle’s monsters certainly don’t seem to fit. They’re certainly not dead, they’re just living beings that have lost their minds. And their violence isn’t born from a need to eat, it’s just pure adrenaline, rage, and an instinctual urge to spread the virus to as many hosts as possible. It’s basically an extreme form of rabies, and nobody would call a rabid raccoon a zombie, even if they might be just as scary.
However, the concept of the zombie existed long before the rise of Romero, and that’s where things get interesting. Films from the early years of cinema like 1932’s White Zombie or 1943’s I Walked with a Zombie reveal the true source of the term “zombie.” These zombies come from the Afro-Caribbean spiritual tradition of Vodou, more commonly known as “voodoo.” In this tradition, a zombie was a reanimated corpse with no soul or will of its own, in service to a powerful bokor sorcerer. They weren’t inherently violent creatures but rather unpaid, unthinking workers. Think Mickey bringing all those brooms to life in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”
This concept was most recently and thoroughly explored in Wes Craven’s 1988 The Serpent and the Rainbow, which adapted a nonfiction book from ethnobotanist Wade Davis, who explored voodoo zombies in Haiti from a pharmacological perspective. In his work, he posits the existence of a “zombie drug” composed of two powders. One puts the victim into a deathlike state, and the other scrubs the mind of free will, putting the person into a zombie-like trance where they are suggestible and follow orders.
Once you explore these theories, the zombie becomes a different beast entirely, but it still doesn’t quite match up with the crazed killers wreaking havoc in London. However, 28 Days Later… actually combines elements of both these traditions to create something familiar yet entirely new. The viral aspect belongs to the Romero zombie, but the Rage Virus in Boyle’s film removes all consciousness and morality from the human mind, stripping it to a completely blank instinctual state exactly like Davis’ zombie drug. It is in that state that they act most like Romero’s creations, biting and clawing and spreading their disease.
While it’s true that Boyle’s creatures fit neither definition of the word “zombie,” I’d argue that it doesn’t actually matter. The zombie transformed from one concept to the other back in 1968, and now it has transformed again, taking half a step backward down the evolutionary chain and combining both creatures into one. The term has always been a malleable one, and it can very easily stretch again once you know the history of its origin. Honestly, the truth about these monsters is that the answers are never black and white. Davis’ drugged victims both are and aren’t “zombies.” Romero’s flesh-eating ghouls both are and aren’t “zombies.” And the same goes for 28 Days Later… But by fitting exactly into the grey area that always has surrounded the term, doesn’t it prove that “zombie” is the perfect fit?
Everything is zombies and nothing is zombies, but more importantly, the creatures in 28 Days Later… can definitely be called zombies without violating some sort of fundamental rule about their nature. So there you have it. Like most things in life, the answer isn’t entirely satisfying, but at least there is one. Now you can breathe a sigh of relief and go back to arguing about whether or not it’s called “Frankenstein’s Monster” once more.
Brennan Klein is a writer and podcaster who talks horror movies every chance he gets. And when you’re talking to him about something else, he’s probably thinking about horror movies. On his blog, Popcorn Culture, he is running through reviews of every slasher film of the 1980’s, and on his podcast, Scream 101, he and a non-horror nerd co-host tackle horror franchises from tip to tail! He also produces the LGBTQ horror podcast Attack of the Queerwolf! on the Blumhouse Podcast Network.