Being a child of old horror movies that played on late night TV after the parents had gone to bed, I remember being hypnotized by Bela Lugosi as the Voodoo Master, Murder Legendre in the Universal Classic White Zombie, which is also consider the first full length zombie film. Legendre operated a sugar mill that was run entirely by zombies, but they were not zombies created by the release of a military chemical but by ancient voodoo practices. Instead of crazed, brain devouring creatures of the undead, they were actually subservient creatures that were trapped in a state between death and life. White Zombie is considered a classic and one of Lugosi's creepier performances and gave birth to a slew of zombie flicks to follow.
Then in 1968 George Romero reinvented the zombie in Night of the Living Dead. It was a sensation with political and social undertones as well as an atmospheric tension made even more chilling filmed in grainy black and white. Zombies were no longer the subservient followers of some maniacal voodoo master but now the result of chemical biological agents gone awry. These shuffling creatures craved human flesh to sustain themselves and with single minded purpose wrecked havoc on mankind. Of course mankind would put up a fight with an array of firearms, sharp instruments and whatever came in handy in an attempt to put down the undead horde with sometimes humorous results. Romero had brought back the zombie with a vengeance, it also gave way for a hoard of imitations and the zombie genre was given new attention.
But in was in the 1980's that Wes Craven went back to the roots and brought the hoodoo back into the zombie with the cult classic Serpent and the Rainbow. Craven based his film off the controversial novel of the same name written by ethnobotanist Wade Davis who claimed his book was nonfiction. Davis claimed that Haitian Hoodoo priest used a combination of tetrodotoxin, a powerful hallucinogen called Datura that would put an individual in a zombification state and render him under the control of the Hoodoo master. Of course Craven took license with the book and Davis wasn't very happy with the film and it added ridicule to his claims that Hoodoo priests could kept a subject in a zombie state for years. Yet, in spite of Davis' displeasure at seeing his work sensationalized, the movie brought the zombie back to its roots reminiscent of White Zombie.
Today the zombies in film are Romero's nightmarish, brain consuming, undead shuffle monsters that continues to horrify and even amuse us with their single minded obsession to eat those who unfortunately fall into their path. Films like the Resident Evil series, Romero's continued Living Dead series and even the horror comedies Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland now amble across the screen with dread determination. Even literature is entering the foray with Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice With Zombies.
It could be said that Romero did for the zombie can be compared to what Anne Rice did for the vampire.