I have to say I find the current zombie fad a total turn off for me. The whole Hollywood-comic book concept of zombies is just ridiculously dumb. The whole idea of the shambling, walking, brain eating dead is just stupid and one note to me.
Especially because the truth about zombies is actually far far more interesting.
First of all, unlike vampires, werewolves, fairies and other legendary creatures zombies are REAL. That's right I said it, zombies are not fictional. However, the common popular representations of them are. I'm not sure where the misrepresentation of the whole zombie phenomenon started, (proably with George Romero's films) but the earliest zombie film "I Walked with A Zombie" created by Val Lewton in 1943, was actually way, way, more accurate and culturally astute than any of the cinematic represenations like "The Walking Dead" currently filling TV, movie and video game screens everywhere. I highly recommend the film, by the way.
This next portion is quoted from Ian Woolf, but I've read similar things in my research:
The word "zombie is derived from the Congo word, "nzambi", which means, "spirit of a dead person". The first references to zombies were discovered in Haiti, a tiny Caribbean island that won its independence from French slavers in 1804 and began creating its own unique culture and way of life - heavily influenced by the African Dahomeny religion of many gods, and the pretence of Catholicism that it hid under when waves of missionaries tried to crush their religion.
Haitians believe that relatives or friends who have sufficiently annoyed others, are in danger of being turned into zombies. A Bokor voudon sorcerer is believed to reanimate a freshly buried corpse of such a person. To make sure this doesn't happen, relatives attend the funeral and stab the body in the heart or remove the head, this second death ensures that the soul is truly gone and the body can never rise again.
Zombie slaves can be spotted by their curious lurching walk, swaying side to side, their eyes are glazed, and they have nasal voices. The nasal voice is attributed to the voodoo god Baron Samedi, Lord of the burial grounds. A zombie who tastes salt or meat becomes conscious again and is released from the bokor's control to return to his grave.
In 1912 Stephen Bonsal wrote an account of a man he saw buried being found, in his grave clothes several days later, moaning inarticulate words and recognizing none of those who could identify him, such his wife and the doctor who had pronounced him dead. In 1959 Francis Huxley reported on a zombie discovered wandering a Haitian village street and recognized by a woman as her nephew who had been buried four years earlier. Clairvius Narcisse, In spring, 1962 Narcisse "died" at the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Deschapelles, Haiti. His death was verified by the hospital staff. 18 years later Narcisse turned up alive and well, and claimed to be an escaped zombie. As recently as 1993, Andre Ville Jean-Paul gathered crowds to tell of how he was buried alive and resurrected as one of the living dead. This was a serious matter for the authorities because zombification was outlawed oficially in 1989 with a life sentence, and also because of the political aspects - Voudon was behind the successful revolt against the French slavers. He says he was in a coffin for two weeks, and then put to work in the rice fields with 18 other zombies.
Anthropologist Wade Davies went to Haiti and uncovered that zombies are the result of interplay between social rules imposed by a secret voodoun government of Bizango sorcerer societies and the use of powerful drugs. The drugs that can make a man seem to be dead, and then revive him, are naturally worth a great deal to the science of anaesthesia and to drug companies.
The powder is able to be absorbed straight through the skin, so the Bokor needs to only sprinkle it on the floor or blow it in the face.
Davies bought the zombie-making powder from a Bokor and obtained the full ingredient list and magical process. To make zombie powder you need:
Human flesh and bone, a toad made more poisonous by scaring it with a stinging worm, a poisonous centipede, a particular species of spider, several psychoactive herbs such as damiana and datura, and a puffer fish.
All of the ingreients are psychoactive and toxic, with the exception of the human meat, but the interesting one is the puffer fish which makes a poison called tetradotoxin, which is a sodium channel blocker that disrupts communication in brain cells.
The puffer fish is the source of the Japanese delicacy Fugu, where the deadly poison sacs are removed before eating. Trace remains of the drug give Japanese diners a euphoric buzz, more than that kills.
The symptoms of tetradotoxin poisoning appear quickly: slight numbness of the lips and tongue, feelings of floating, headache, rapid pulse, nausea, trouble walking, trouble speaking, trouble breathing, paralysis, then coma or death. The coma gives the full appearance of death, good enough to fool many doctors.
Of course this raises the question of whether those people who "died" of puffer fish poisoning should really have been buried, but I'll leave that one to your imagination.
Tetradotoxin is 10 000 times deadlier than cyanide. Its made by bacteria which not only live in the puffer fish, but are also made use of the Australian blue ringed octopus, Australian Xantides crab, the Taricha salamander from California, and marine bacteria in the North Sea.
The victim in a coma may in fact still be conscious and awake because of the parts of the brain that are left untouched by the drug, so the victim will hear his own funeral and be aware of his own burial. Naturally, when he is dug up (if he is lucky) by the Bokor, he is awake and traumatised and willing to believe he has been reanimated. He is then drugged again with datura (known as "zombie cucumber") and kept a suggestible and biddable slave. Timothy Leary showed that psychoactive drugs effects are determined by the expectations both of the subject taking the drugs, the people around them, and the society they live in.
The foundations of voodoo were established in the seventeenth century by slaves captured primarily from the kingdom of Dahomey, which occupied parts of today's Togo, Benin, and Nigeria in West Africa, it combines features of African religion with the Roman Catholicism of the European settlers. Today over 60 million people practice voodoo worldwide. Religious similar to voodoo can be found in South America where they are called Umbanda, Quimbanda or Candomble. It is widely practiced in Benin, Haiti and within many black communities of the large cities in North America.
Unfortunately, in popular literature and films voodoo has been reduced to sorcery, black witchcraft, and in some cases cannibalistic practices, generating many foreigners' prejudices not only about voodoo but about Haitian culture in general.
The voodoo religion involves belief in a supreme god (bon dieu) and a host of spirits called loa which are often identified with Catholic saints.
These spirits are closely related to African gods and may represent natural phenomena — such as fire, water, or wind — or dead persons, including eminent ancestors.
They consist of two main groups: the rada, often mild and helping, and the petro, which may be dangerous and harmful.
There are two sorts of priests in the traditional voodoo folklore: the houngan or mambo who confine his activities to "white" magic i.e bring good fortune and healing and the bokor or caplata who performs evil spells and black magic, sometimes called "left-handed Vodun". Rarely, a houngan will engage in such sorcery; a few alternate between white and dark magic.
One belief unique to voodoo is the zombie. The creole word ''zombi' is apparently derived from Nzambi, a West African deity but it only came into general use in 1929, after the publication of William B. Seabrook's The Magic Island. In this book, Seabrook recounts his experiences on Haiti, including the walking dead. He describes the first 'zombie' he came across in this way:
"The eyes were the worst. It was not my imagination. They were in truth like the eyes of a dead man, not blind, but staring, unfocused, unseeing. The whole face, for that matter, was bad enough. It was vacant, as if there was nothing behind it. It seemed not only expressionless, but incapable of expression."
Haitian zombies were once normal people, but underwent zombification by a "bokor" or voodoo sorcerer, through spell or potion. The victim then dies and becomes a mindless automaton, incapable of remembering the past, unable to recognise loved ones and doomed to a life of miserable toil under the will of the zombie master.
There have been some rare occasions of juju zombies temporarily regaining part of their mental faculties. This rare occurrence has only been observed when a zombie encounters situations that have heavy emotional connections to their mortal lives.
There are many examples of zombies in modern day Haiti. Papa Doc Duvallier the dictator of Haiti from 1957 to 1971 had a private army of thugs called tonton macoutes. These people were said to be in trances and they followed every command that Duvallier gave them. Duvallier had also his own voodoo church with many followers and he promised to return after his death to rule again. He did not come back but a guard was placed at his tomb, to insure that he would not try to escape, or that nobody steal the body. There are also many stories of people that die, then many years later return to the shock and surprise of relatives.