Stories where dead bodies are brought back to life are not new. The resurrection story of Jesus Christ in the New Testament of the Bible is probably the most famous. There’s an Ancient Egyptian resurrection story too (the story of Prometheus), and there are other ancient resurrection stories and myths from around the world. These life-transcending stories are about overcoming mortality. In more recent times stories of the dead coming back to life are less like miracles and magic from the gods, but something to be afraid of.
Zombies as we know them have their origins in ancient West African mythology. These stories were brought over to Brazil and the West Indies with Voodoo. In them, corpses are reanimated through magic. This idea was been adopted by later storytellers to include bodies being reanimated through genetic mutation, laboratory experiments, and disease.
Frankenstein’s monster is a zombie of sorts. He’s the byproduct of modern science, a creature who’s been reanimated from multiple corpses. As with so much early science fiction and horror originating in the 19th Century, Frankenstein represents fears about science and technology running out of control.
Vampires literally live off the blood of the living. Their victims die and then come back to life as vampires who remain loyal to their master and live by sucking the blood of their victims to remain alive. The vampire story has underlying themes about transcending mortality (at a cost) and battles of good against evil. There’s a spiritual and religious element to vampire stories. Dracula is sometimes represented as the devil on earth, sometimes he’s depicted as an afflicted being forced to prey on the living, and sometimes more playfully as a kind of dandyish, lustful character enjoying carnal pleasures.
The living dead in zombie films like Night of The Living Dead (1968) reflect ideas about catastrophic social change, the ills of consumerism, social disconnection, and eco-disaster. George A Romero was heavily influenced by Richard Matheson’s, I Am Legend. But, instead of chronicling the end of a catastrophe Romero wanted to film how it started.
Zombies tend to be monstrous, frightening, ‘the other’ — drained of humanity. Zombie stories are about the fear of contagion and the fear of loosing our own humanity through a simple bite. Zombies are abominations, breaking natural laws and social norms, but they are often portrayed in a way that acknowledges they were once human.