The concept of the zombie comes from the African-inspired cultural form known as Hoodoo, or Vodou (voodoo). The concept involves the twin ideas of the spiritual trance, in which a living human becomes mindless and stunned, and the re-animation of the dead body to do the bidding of someone with spiritual power (usually a sorceror known as the “bokor”). This is documented in books like Wade Davis’s “The Serpent and the Rainbow”.
In the middle decades of the 20th century, white popular culture began to appropriate the zombie. Particularly in films like “White Zombie” the zombie was a symbol of the danger of African culture, with the black “other” as a source of dark power, (even if that power was personified by the european Bela Lugosi). By unnaturally bridging the lands of the living and the dead (so central to white western scientific ideologies), the zombie symbolized the primitive nature of black culture, and its power.
The modern zombie, beginning with Romero’s classic “Night of the Living Dead”, abstracted the zombie from its racial origins, and transformed it into a commentary on mob mentality, rampant consumerism, and the perils of individualism in a civil society. Today’s modern zombie bears almost no trace of its African-diasporic origins. It was embraced by white America once its blackness was muted or made palatable.
Thus, the zombie is the Elvis of horror.