A discussion on Fark.com about George Romero always being asked to sign autographs with the words “Brains!” (which his zombies never had a particular hunger for) made me start to think about how zombies have evolved through the years, and how Night of the Living Dead is actually not as influential on the zombie zeitgeist as Return of the Living Dead, a much later film that Romero was not involved with.
When you ask the person on the street what a zombie is, they’ll probably say it’s a dead person walking around trying to eat brains. The concept of zombies wanting to eat brains came from Return of the Living Dead, not the much earlier Night or even Day of the Dead. In RotLD, a zombie explains that eating brains soothes the pain of being dead. Romero’s zombies, on the other hand, just eat. There’s no particular reason behind their hunger.
Another phenomenon that I believe can be attributed to RotLD is the idea of “science zombies.” Prior to Return, zombies were generally created through magic or voodoo. Romero’s zombies had no explanation; the dead simply rose from the grave to attack the living. In RotLD, we have a chemical, Tri-Oxin, that causes the zombies to come to life. This theme later evolved into the virus or infection type zombies seen in Resident Evil and 28 Days Later. This was really one of the first movies that put the concept of science causing the dead to rise into the consciousness of the movie going public, and it was an idea that basically caught on similarly to the “brains!” line.
Currently, there’s still a big debate among zombie aficionados about the merits of fast vs. slow zombies. The classic Romero zombie is slow and shambling. This is still what people think of. While capable of short bursts of speed, they aren’t runners. Newer movies have incorporated zombies who put track stars to shame. Zombieland, a recent popular movie, combined the two, with some fast zombies and some slow shamblers.
It seems odd to think about it, but if one looks back on zombies through the years, they’ll see that they have slowly evolved from magical superstition based monsters to creatures that represent a distrust of science and the ability of man to control his own intellect. What better than a mindless, shambling corpse to represent the antithesis of the modern scientist? What better way for that monster to show it’s role as nemesis to the educated person than to hunger for brains?