Tales of the living dead abound in cultures across the world. The Norse draugar are the bodies of slain Vikings, said to inhabit their graves and jealously guard the treasures buried with their former selves. In Chinese folklore, jiang shi are reanimated corpses that hop around with their arms outstretched, sucking the life-force qi out of the living. And according to Medieval British accounts, deceased ne’er-do-wells may return as revenants – risen bodies bloated with blood – to terrorize their families and neighbors.
Due to a widespread (and largely exploitative) fascination with non-Western culture, “voodoo” and “zombies” eventually reached American imagintion – as early as William Seabrook’s novel, The Magic Island (1929). A few years later, these ghouls made their film debut in White Zombie (1932).
These early entries to zombie fiction drew directly from Vodun legend, featuring small numbers of undead monsters created by dark magic. The modern zombie apocalypse genre truly kicked off with George A. Romero’s film, Night of the Living Dead (1968), largely inspired by Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel, I am Legend. Matheson’s book follows the lone survivor in a world destroyed by a vampire-creating pandemic; Night of the Living Dead functions on a similar scale, as corpses across the world rise to feed on humanity, due to vaguely mentioned “cosmic radiation.” In the film, zombiism transmits like a disease, infecting the living if bitten by the shambling flesh-eaters. This horror classic spawned a trilogy of sequels and a several copycat works.
By the release of video game classic Resident Evil (1996) and British cult film 28 Days Later (2002), zombiism forgoes “cosmic radiation” and is regularly credited to pandemic disease. Alongside 28 Days Later, House of the Dead (2003), and the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead (the first film’s 1978 sequel), give the shuffling fiends a horrifying makeover: zombies who sprint, break through walls, and projectile vomit infected blood. Hooray.
Though undead hordes make for a good scare, we can rest assured that they’re simply fiction… right? A tropical species of parasitoid fungus called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis thinks otherwise. The fungus’ spores infect a specific species of ant; once in the bug’s body, the parasite consumes the ant’s non-essential soft tissues and releases behavior altering chemicals, causing the insect to anchor itself into the leaf veins of a nearby plant where it slowly dies. The fungus consumes the ant’s body to produce spore-scattering fruiting bodies, infecting others and continuing the cycle. Though these zombie ants might seem a far cry from the cannibalistic creatures mentioned above, when it comes to zombies, any resemblance is too much.