On the Notoriety of Zombies

Zombies are generally portrayed in our times as the street thugs of the horror genre–as the dregs of damnation, as brutish packs of monsters motivated only by a desire to consume living flesh for reasons or purposes rarely examined. No such examination is usually thought necessary in what passes for modern horror art–zombies are simply wild beasts to be eliminated for the maintenance and advancement of human civilization. Who cares why they want to eat our brains? Just blast 'em and lets get on with fighting the real villains–ghosts, vampires, alien fungi, evil organizations, etc.

While compiling some design notes for a potential “Survival Horror” IF game, amidst my drawing of maps and conception of ingenious puzzles I began to ponder my chosen antagonists, zombies. Since one may rather easily justify zombies these days as deranged mutants suffering from a virulent disease rather than bothering to think up some truly unnatural genesis for the creatures, they’re the perfect baleful fall-guys for our decadent science-obsessed age. The conventional wisdom would seem to be: why tinker with zombies? They already perform their duties competently, and everything there is to say about them has already been said well enough. However, the more I pondered the situation the less satisfied I became.

What’s so scary about zombies, as portrayed in recent mainstream horror fiction (art, literature, film, games)? Not much. Just what exactly is the bug up their rotting behinds? Where do they come from, why are they here, and why are they rudely wreaking such terrible havoc? No one really cares. The zombie is a mindless monstrosity, doing what any mindless monstrosities would do under the circumstances. Zombies are sent in from central casting because… hey, it’s a fast-paced horror story and we need some zombies wandering around. Sketch zombie, get paid, go home. Such usage of zombies as a standard thematic/plot/character device unfortunately reduces them to little more than preternatural predators while setting aside an examination of their unnatural state, which is the far better source of justifying their intended horror and inducing lasting unease in one’s audience. The “animalistic” zombie, sadly used by many artists as means to pass off relatively easy-to-create “exploring the unknown” fiction in lieu of hard-to-create “horror” fiction (that actually lives up to the name), has in my opinion contributed to the general poverty of the modern horror genre.

There are few true frontiers left in our modern world, and no ferocious swarms of natural menaces (other than our own kind, of course) remain to physically predate humans on a scale ambitious enough for us to express much concern. Zombies are thus generally portrayed naively as substitute monsters who want to eat us. In this sense, as antagonists they are hardly different from bears, dinosaurs, sharks, or other carnivorous beasts. While zombies helpfully fill a role in modern art as vaguely plausible supposedly visceral threats from the frontier/unknown, their portrayals aren’t terrifying or even very disturbing these days. Certainly they may be grotesque creatures, and certainly we may fear them because they want to kill us (and they roam in packs which outnumber us in the remote locations where we typically encounter them). However the objective of protagonists in modern zombie horror works (generally, not just in the Survival Horror subgenre) is simply to destroy these creatures after obtaining a sufficiently well-stocked cache of arms, ammunition, and arcane knowledge. As the janitorial staff later sweep away ashes from fading bonfires of vanquished undead, no further thought is given to these fallen foes. They’re gone, and now it’s Miller Time. While we may casually call these creatures “the undead,” there is never much satisfying exploration of the key aspects of zombie nature.

As I thought about my game project I began thinking about how one might rehabilitate zombies (particularly after listening to this interesting but only tangentially-related discussion) to make them truly terrifying–rather than just the horrible and vicious creatures they are generally thought to be. By “terrifying” I mean that sense of inconsolable dread explored by H.P. Lovecraft in his non-fiction essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” Although Lovecraft was able to helpfully articulate and examine this concept, in my opinion his own entertaining writings never attained a mastery of consistently engendering such terror (but that is a discussion for another day).

A promising avenue for enhancing the terror credentials of zombies may be an exploration of their fundamental nature in contrast to our own human condition. The fundamental nature of human beings is that we are mortal creatures aware of our own mortality. These two factors, consciously or not, shape most of the activities with which we fill our daily lives; our reactions to them shape our sense of life and plans for the future (and even the desire to plan a future at all).

Death is the final frontier, the great unknown–and much more importantly, a great unknowable. Although we may conjecture all we like, the only way to know anything substantially meaningful about this enigma is to explore it first-hand. Once we have taken the first step on that journey, however, we cannot turn back nor can we share any insight or experience (nor, if you prefer, can our post-mortem nonfound nonexistence report an absence of any experience to be gained) with those who remain in the realm of the living.

Zombies are human beings who have made a journey into the land of Death and have (by some unnatural means) resumed occupancy of our land of the Living. While we may posit that zombies are simply mindless mounds of reanimated flesh, that their souls are lost in the realm beyond, and that the shambling creatures shuffling toward us are essentially unrelated to the deceased “persons” whose visages the zombies have procured, this course ultimately leads to their unsatisfactory (for our purposes of expressing them as cogently terrifying) reduction to beasts discussed above. Unfortunately, this has been the course chosen by mainstream horror fiction over the course of the last century.

What if, however, the zombie–appearing to us as the re-animated flesh of our fallen comrade (let’s call him Bub)–fully is that fallen comrade, who has resumed habitation of his own formerly-inert corpse? What if it’s not “a zombie” who wants to eat our brains–what if good old Bub wants to eat our brains? Why would he want that? What happened to him on the Other Side, to produce such a monstrous change in formerly honorable and congenial Bub? How has it come to be that Bub now, in light of his experiences after death, thinks so little of us that he refuses to even acknowledge us as something other than prey to feed his insatiable bloodlust?

I think this particular conception may be the angle needed to give credibility to zombies as truly-worthy material for the induction of hysteria. Whether the thought is novel or not, I cannot say; I can only say that I haven’t seen this view of zombies promulgated before, and I generally consider myself fairly well-versed with the modern (i.e. 20th century) horror genre.

If we observe the typical behavior of zombies, we see that they appear to be less than us–mere human bodies carrying out a degenerated animal existence. They seem to lack any moral sentiment or ability to conceive of the universe as existing differently than it does as they perceive it at any particular moment. Zombies seem driven by primal instincts; they feel hunger, so they wish to eat us simply because we are there. Beyond that, they don’t seem to care much about making a better life for themselves, creating art, or pondering the nature of things. They don’t seem to have a conception of the passage of time; for the zombie all that seems to matter are the few seconds on either side of right now. While human beings may also live this way, we can do more if we care to; thus we see ourselves as superior to zombies, in that they appear to lack capacities we possess. Zombies also seem to lack any sense of fear; they plod forward toward our machine-gun nest, apparently either unaware or unconcerned that we shall at any moment let loose a volley of 7.62 mm gunfire that will immobilize them as we blow off their limbs or debilitate them as we score a lucky hit on their foreheads. The living fear when they perceive they may lose something of value. Do zombies seem to lack fear because they value little, because they value things we can’t perceive in preference things familiar to us, because they don’t perceive any plausible risk of loss, or because they simply are truly mindless?

While zombies seem to prefer taking sustenance from human flesh and some commentators may thus posit that either they are insane or vengeful beings who resent us and our spirited status or that the we possess something the zombies lack or desire which may be hopefully gained by eating us, the stipulation of such zombie preference may be due to limited chances for observation (i.e. limited imagination on the part of authors). Zombies may indeed fill their days feasting on cows and sloths when we’re not around to notice; when we are around, we’re usually too busy paying attention to the zombie horde chasing us to notice the other horde of zombies chasing a varmint. Or it may be that zombies focus on human prey simply because we’re numerous and we’re easy to catch–we can’t fly away like a bird, nor can we outrun them like a horse or powerful cat, nor can we dive deep like a fish to escape the zombie’s grasp.

My theory (that is, proposed means for making zombies genuinely terrifying) is that while based on their observed behavior zombies may indeed seem like the ravenous beasts they are usually portrayed to be, perhaps something else is going on with them related to their new perspective of having died, of having experiences which we have not, and then of returning to us and our realm. Rather than lacking our wisdom, is it possible these undead are more wise than we the not-yet-dead? I firmly believe that a genius is simply a persuasive madman. While we may consider zombies to be insane (if indeed we bother at all to consider them as more than mere beasts), perhaps they possess all our faculties but have freely decided upon returning to our own realm to change their behavior to the lifestyle we observe them pursuing.

This gives rise to several important questions.

Firstly, what experiences could these zombies have had on the Other Side that would universally motivate them to exist, upon their return to this world, as little more than highly aggressive packs of wolves? Did the experience simply drive the zombies insane–or did it (much more interestingly and disturbingly) lead them to be indifferent to those things we value under the rubric of “humanity”? Is there any meaningful distinction between insanity and utter indifference to generally accepted beliefs?

More importantly our second question should be: if the behavior we observe in zombies is (from the zombie perspective) a desirable way to exist–based upon knowledge which the zombies (having died) possess and we lack–what does this mean for us the living, for the things and sentiments we value, and for the way we live our lives? What if, from the perspective of the zombie (who has a fuller range experience than we) we are the fools for affirming the values they reject and for engaging in the behaviors they formerly valued, but no longer sustain? Is the cosmic joke actually on us as we struggle to survive the zombie hordes and hold on to the perspective with which we are comfortable–the perspective of the not-yet-dead? If our entire way of life and everything we believe are lies yet we are unable (short of leaping into the unknown realm of death) to directly experience truth, isn’t that more horrifying than being eaten for lunch by something?

Ultimately, why do we flee the zombies rather than join them? If we knew what the zombie knows, would we still believe our fight to cling to our present form is a cause worthy of our striving? Consider a situation in which one of our re-imagined zombies sees us holding a shotgun. He knows perfectly well he won’t be able to sink his teeth into us before we disable him with our weapon. Yet he approaches anyway. What could possibly be his motivation for such vapid (from our vantage point) behavior? Should we change our own behavior based on that we observe in the zombie, or should we resist what the zombie may represent?

Other, less immediate, questions may be in order as well as we ponder the nature of the zombie. In stories where the emphasis strays from a tight focus on true horror, our own fictional brethren often become zombies themselves when bitten by a zombie and we (if we identify with the protagonist) may ponder the traditional choice of killing ourselves rather than face the fate of becoming zombies. This seems like an unfortunate way to develop the zombie mythos, however, as it implies in some way that zombification may be similar to a plague which is at least partially comprehensible to us (in that we may identify a process or cause to which “victims” are “subject”). Comprehensibility fosters delusions of rationality, and rationality stifles our sense of the horrific. If we stipulate the living become zombies only after they are actually slain (rather than just “infected”) by zombies, we advance the cause of zombie terror very little; yet if we stipulate that all who die (by any means) after the initial rising of the undead will (choose to?) become zombies we seem to set ourselves on a fast-train to nihilism (which may be our destination in any case–but any such story is likely to be much more effective if we take the scenic route). This approach was taken in the generally novel film Shatterdead, with the result that the living seem a bit pathetic in their doomed effort to remain not-yet-dead (although not nearly as pathetic as the undead who strive to maintain the civilization of the living). The question, then, is this: is a terrible yet inevitable fate as truly horrifying as the terrible yet hardly inevitable result of a failure (whether of action, of knowledge, or of character) on the part of the protagonist? While I further believe little is to be gained by conflating zombies with vampires (who clearly transmit their own condition to victims via direct attack), this detail of zombie genesis seems difficult to adequately formulate in a way that will satisfy all qualms about suspending disbelief in regard to the story-world under construction.

Whether zombies place any value on individuality is unknown. While they are often seen as anonymous members of massive undead hordes, it seems likely that zombie crowds initially form in response to the appearance of prey, and that these congregations would quickly disperse if prey were locally plentiful. Members of zombie hordes seem to have little meaningful interaction with each other, and never seem to coordinate their hunts by setting ambushes while kin flush prey from cover, etc. Whether this behavior stems from indifference or an inability/reluctance to socialize seems difficult to determine, as does an answer to the question of whether lone zombies experience loneliness, relief, or indifference when separated from their kin. Will a zombie society ever develop, and if so what forms would such a society present to the eldritch anthropologist?

A question perhaps unexpectedly more helpful to the cause of enhancing the terrifying credentials of zombies is that of what happens to humans who die leaving no physical remains (as a result of explosions, fires, visiting slippery walkways placed over vats of acid, etc) to possibly be subjected to zombification. Are these individuals the “lucky ones” who have escaped a terrible fate, or are they instead the truly damned–forever locked out of our world, never to return?

This latter question has some interplay with the larger mystery of why zombies have arisen in the first place. While we have stated that after finding themselves in their former bodies they likely conduct their affairs in a way sensible to themselves, we have not touched at all on the question of how they came to be reanimated in the first place. Did they choose to return? Did they fail or “die” in the next realm, thus returning to ours? Were they sent, directed, or otherwise expelled from what lies beyond? Were they recalled from beyond by one of us? I see this last as the least interesting possibility–sadly it is also the explanation usually chosen by authors of zombie fiction. Does this phenomenon have any relationship to their predilection for living flesh (while we might suppose zombies enjoy dead flesh as well, if such were the case they would likely do very little but sit about and lazily gnaw on themselves).

Some may say that with these re-imaginings I am unhelpfully confusing the idea of zombies with the idea of vampires. Let zombies be mindless beasts, either soulless reanimated tissue or else individuals driven mad by a forced return to their decaying corpses; we already have the perfectly fine concept of vampires to allow for reasonable undead who rationally pursue their own goals. Nonetheless I am attempting to say the traditional vampire is a far less alien creature than the zombie. It seems to me that vampires are beings who simply skip the (what we see as) inconvenience of death. They go from mortal to quasi-immortal without ever having meaningfully experienced death itself as a permanent proposition; from our wistful perspective vampirization would seem to increase the vampire’s range of freedoms rather than attenuate them. Vampires traditionally pursue agendas very similar to our own–seeking wealth, power, comfort, and also evidencing a considerable concern for self-preservation. Sure they want to suck our blood, be we can understand vampires; their behavior remains coherent, and they behave as we grant we ourselves might if placed into their situation. The horror of the zombie is that we cannot comprehend his behavior at all; we therefore dismiss it as mindlessness or insanity because we cannot discern any circumstances which would cause us to choose to exist as the zombie does. In our odd modern way we would likely lock the apprehended vampire in jail for crimes of violence, whereas the apprehended zombie we would likely place in a sanitarium for further study.

A more influential argument is that while this re-imagining of the zombie may provide fertile ground for an outpouring of universal horror in an intimate setting (namely a story with few characters who can each be explored at great depth), the complex zombie character is unsuited to an ambitious theme of big-budget Survival Horror in which large numbers of these enigmas will be present as obstacles to be overcome by the protagonist. I do see this as a potential pitfall of my approach, although the solution (create some other, more original menace from scratch) is much easier said than done.

While this may seem an unpromising forum for such musings, the fact is that there are a fair number of zombie or more generally horror-themed IF games; this observation would seem to indicate a fair level of interest in the subject amongst the writers of the IF community. What then are your thoughts:

–what I have written above?

–on zombies generally? (For example, does my re-imagining of the zombie mythos suffer from serious flaws I haven’t considered, or are my views too harshly stained with Romero-esque notions about the creatures)?

–on the overall craft of horror writing (for example, does what I have written above seem trite rather than terrifying?)–whether within the context of an IF project or for broader purposes?

Great topic. Thanks for writing this and starting up the discussion.

Nearly every zombie movie hero has a friend or sidekick character that succumbs to the zombie plague and reanimates. The hero then speeds through the stages of grief and winds up killing that zombie like all the rest. It serves the function you propose - it personalizes the horror for the protagonist - but it is not a particularly unique twist.

I see what you are aiming at, though: devising a reason apart from mindlessness for zombies to attack humans. The difficulty lies in making that unfamiliar motivation clear in an otherwise familiar scenario. Say the zombies are attacking humans to spare them from exposure to terrible cosmic forces, killing them because death is the best outcome for them. How does the protagonist distinguish deadly but altruistic attacks from mindless ones? In the heat of the moment, the difference evaporates. Killing is killing.

It might be better to modify the zombies’ behavior. Instead of relentless attacks, perhaps they spend their time excavating graves or erecting bizarre structures. They might still attack humans that get too close, or wipe out population centers near their construction site, but they also do something unexpected and inexplicable. What are they looking for? What are they building?

There’s a scene in I Am Legend where the zombies move a mannequin that the hero has set up. Definitely the creepiest moment in the movie. Why did they do that? I can’t remember the last time a zombie movie made me ask a question like that.

One thing that almost defines the nature of the zombie is that it is Other. Mary Shelly got this, I think. In Frankenstein’s Monster, the story effectively builds on that central premise: that it is not the creature - the zombie, or the vampire, or whatever - that is the monster.

The monster is everyone else. And it’s terrifying, if done right.

Thanks for the interesting comments.

@ bcressey

This is always one of the central problems of writing horror literature of the sort that interests me (the sort that fulfills the aspirations of effective horror according to the criteria discussed by Lovecraft in his essay I mentioned earlier). To effectively provoke unease in the audience, the chosen horrific device must be shocking in a way that upsets at least some of the firmly settled beliefs of the audience. Likely this means the device (whether it be a character, a setting, a theme, or other element) will function by intruding some plausible hint of irrationality into the consciousness of the audience. For example, we normally have no doubt that what we observe on television is a fantasy and the “world” we see “there” is fundamentally removed from us–until we witness, in The Ring, a vengeful spirit emerge from a television image. Nonetheless if the device is utterly irrational, the author likely will not be able to describe its nature, form, or function at all in words. This problem arises solely as a result of the chosen (verbal/written) medium; a visual artist or a musical artist may be able to overcome this limitation (as in The Ring), but the writer cannot. Thus pushing the envelope of this limitation to deliver a maximum effect is in my opinion the most difficult task of the horror writer.

In terms of what I wrote earlier, the particular problem (on which you were able to focus right away) with my re-imagining of zombies is how to convey the creatures’ terrible motivation to the reader or player. The audience must be able to form at least enough of an idea of this motivation to be disturbed; yet if all is exposed it’s just as unlikely the audience will be disturbed because the “logic” or “rules” of the zombie will become apparent, and thus dismissed as not disturbing (since they are fully comprehensible).

Coming down from the heights of abstraction, a common horror device then is to take the familiar and make it behave in very unfamiliar and unsettling ways. For example one may employ a group of children (aw, how cute) who are murderous and wicked (ruhroh) as seen in the films Village of the Damned or The Sailor who Fell from Grace with the Sea (I consider the latter a fine horror film, regardless of what others may think). This was indeed one of the devices I had in mind for zombies by changing them from mindless re-animated tissue to intact individuals returning from an experience terrible enough to fundamentally alter their senses of self. In such a case the protagonist may be able to communicate to the reader/player some subtle outlines of the central horrific theme by observing subtle changes (from familiar to unfamiliar) in persons well-known to the protagonist (familiar people who now seem fundamentally unfamiliar).

I was very intrigued by your suggestion about some unusual zombie behavior. The image of zombies digging up graves is very novel–they may be trying to free their brethren, they may be trying to prevent the buried from resurrecting, or they may have something else entirely in mind. Very interesting.

I hazily recall the scene you described from I Am Legend, and that phenomenon is a good example of another aspect of the general approach I’d like to take. We may observe the zombies engaging in unexpected or puzzling behavior; but the audience should not be quite certain whether this behavior is sinister, commendable, generally purposeful, or even comprehensible.

@ Eleas

That’s a good point. I’m proposing to build upon or perhaps even transcend that premise removing “the monster” entirely. The zombies simply are each of us–a future us, with a different perspective. While there may be some question as to whether the zombie’s behavior is a result of an individualized reaction to The Beyond or a universal reaction to which we’re all fated due to human nature, the zombie is our friend or neighbor who is now behaving monstrously after experiencing something (death) which we ourselves must experience as well someday (but have not yet). We may then surmise that the zombie’s behavior is a result of whatever he knows that we don’t. The question then is how we (through our avatar, the protagonist) should live in light of this revelation.

What I liked best about it was the fleeting sense that the zombies moved the mannequin for some sentimental reason: a simple appreciation for beauty, or a wish to see people outside in daylight again. Something that would underscore just how terrible it is to find yourself in that state, unable to rise above bestial urges but equally unable to forget them.

In the context of the movie, of course, the reason was far less subtle. The main point of the scene was to set up a direct confrontation by trapping the hero, and also to foreshadow the ending by demonstrating how cunning the zombies could be. But I can forgive that because it might have been more sublime and thrilling, if handled differently or not explained at all.

Back in the video game realm, Left 4 Dead does something interesting by adding “special” zombies alongside the rank-and-file mindless swarms. Granted, the specials share the goals and presumptive motivations of the swarms, but that doesn’t have to be the case. You could have mindless attack zombies clustered around worker zombies doing something inscrutable and sinister, and when Bob reanimates the question becomes which type is he and why?

Alan Wake also introduces a variation along these lines, where you have a handful of different zombie types that recur throughout the game. I’m a little hazy on the identity of these zombies, but since at least a few of them are named, it’s possible that they were meant to be the literally the same zombie every time they returned. Certainly that was my impression, and the narrative structure of the game lends some credence to the notion.

The nice thing about that is it allows you to evolve the zombie attacks over time: Bob’s attacks might become increasingly desperate and self-destructive, or he might opt to attack the player under certain circumstances but not others: not inside the soup kitchen, or not after the player unknowingly contracts the virus. The player’s goal might remain static - kill Bob every time - but if you change Bob’s parameters you can make his behavior more interesting. Why is he doing this now when he did that before?

I think it would be kind of awesome to have a game where the player manages to fend off a series of increasingly vicious zombie attacks, and winds up defending a group of survivors in the final showdown - only to discover that the zombies have lost interest in him, and ignore his attacks as they kill off the others. The infected hero is a bit of a cliche, but it could just be a recognition of the player’s mastery: they’ve learned that they can’t kill him, so they concentrate on easier prey, negating his existence just as effectively. The player survives, but does he want to?

This evokes more of a body snatchers or demonic possession scenario in my mind, and also suggests Lovecraft’s The Shadow Out of Time. Those might be slightly better jumping off points for your theme, unless you’re specifically aiming to reinvent zombies, which is of course commendable.

I’m definitely exploring a significant re-imagining of zombies, one which will hopefully make them far removed from the “zombie-beast” conceptions discussed earlier.

Your mention of Lovecraft’s Shadow Out of Time brings up another interesting idea, albeit a minor enhancement. Perhaps zombies are initially confused or disoriented when they first find themselves back in possession of their corpses, and their behavior may change over time as they “remember” more of where they’ve been–similar in a way to the protagonist in Shadow Out of Time. Perhaps recently reanimated zombies are somewhat passive (or even physically slow-moving as they reorient themselves to control their corpses), but grow increasingly aggressive and hostile (or even faster-moving/more dextrous) as they recall the terrible cosmic secrets they discovered during their time in the Other Realm. This general idea is highly amenable to the idea of variation in zombie behavior or purpose you mentioned as well. In general the idea of some sort of individualization for zombies is something I’d like to see, as it nicely supports the general idea I’m exploring of “It’s Bub, now a zombie,” or even “That zombie in the blue shirt is crafty, but that one with the baseball cap is dim-witted,” rather than “It’s another zombie, part of a horde of mindless beasts.”

A further interesting development of this idea would be if the zombies, having learned not to play with fire so to speak, are in fact leaving the protagonist alone (because he’s grown too dangerous for them, because their god in the realm beyond has ordered it, etc). However, one could allow/lead the reader/player to believe that the old Alien3 ploy is use (namely, when the aliens refused to attack Ripley because she was incubating their future queen). Although I want to move far away from the modernistic “disease/victim” model of zombies, the prospect of being somehow “infected” or otherwise on the road to inevitable zombification (or perhaps even just the prospect of being the last non-zombie/“Omega Man”) could lead a hopeless protagonist to opt for suicide–based on mistaken information. In terms of a game, this is easily presented as a variant ending (whereas if the player-character had only read the dusty old book in the crypt he could have known the true signs of impending zombification and kept his wits about him later rather than sinking into despair, etc). In general any device allowing increased freedom for a player to experience the story that interests that particular player makes for a much more compelling game.

[Added in edit]

On the other hand, perhaps my whole effort with zombies is misguided or unnecessary. Are there those of us for whom the horror of the zombie does in fact consist mostly of the idea of a person reduced their basest animal nature, and/or stripped of individuality to exist a mere component part of an anonymous horde? Those elements are certainly present in the modern conception of the zombie, although I think they are not often highlighted by recent (i.e. from the past two decades) popular zombie fiction. Does anyone disagree with my contention that, for example, the zombie of the Resident Evil games is essentially lacking in terror-inducing credibility?

Just recently I was watching the movie Resident Evil Extinction with the producer commentary turned on. At one point the producer was discussing how “effective horror” is of the (what I consider to be) “cheap thrill” variety that causes the audience to be startled or experience a (very) brief bout of emotional distress. While I generally enjoy that entire franchise of films, I see them as action films and fundamentally disagree with the notion that a work of horror is successful if it causes the audience to jump out of their seats a few times. I instead side with Lovecraft (as discussed earlier), and believe that an effective piece of horror should strive to inspire an honest sense of intellectual and spiritual dread in its audience. In the audio clip I linked to earlier, one line of the discussion consists of something like (paraphrasing heavily):

I’m essentially arguing, then, that while the traditional zombie may be an effective vehicle for inducing “horror,” the zombie is not very effective in inducing “terror.” However, if anyone is largely satisfied with zombies as they are usually portrayed in recent games/films/other fiction, feel free to explain your views or describe how their portrayals have terrorized you.

I want to take part in this conversation, but I haven’t had a chance to sit down and read much of what you’ve written. Latching onto this sentence: yes, I disagree. Especially with regard to the way they were handled in the Gamecube remake of the first game.

For me, Resident Evil has always been more about the scary atmosphere than any kind of horrifying or terrifying event. Zombies play into that nicely with a sense of risk and panic. You might know that you’ll only have to pass through this room once, so you don’t want to waste ammo removing the zombie(s) in it, but that then means you have to avoid them while completing your work there.

Something you might be interested in is the Half Life 1 mod They Hunger. It shows more of a continuum between mindless zombies, those with some vestige of self (but still an overwhelming desire to eat people) and those with a calculating intelligence.

There may not be any disagreement at all here, as I’m reading your comments as saying the zombies in Resident Evil don’t essentially contribute to the game as a work of horror art, a sentiment I share. The grotesque appearance of zombies may offer a gross-out factor, and they may induce tension as opponents; however the zombie qua zombie of those games isn’t uniquely scary in the sense that its function in the game world couldn’t be equally well fulfilled by the t-virus infected dogs or spiders also present. If you’re saying something other than that, feel free to elaborate.

My basic points so far have been:

A) The idea of the zombie as usually presented in modern times is little more than that of a wild carnivorous beast; as such it’s no more inherently terrifying than a bear or a lion.

B) The modern model of zombification that presents zombies as “victims” “subjected” to a “disease” is highly unsatisfying. This model is a natural application of our modern scientific-rationalistic world view to offer an explanation for the enigmatic observed behavior of the zombie. The assumption is that healthy individuals would never choose to behave as monstrous cannibal beasts; therefore anyone exhibiting such behavior is either insane or under the influence of some irresistable compulsion.

A + B =

C) Therefore zombies are pathetic. They are lesser beings than we; perhaps we must destroy them due to the immediate menace they present, but if we had time we’d prefer to study them and attempt to “cure” them. Zombies can broadly fit into our understanding of the universe and of ethics without any need to adjust our comfortable views of reality, and therefore they are not a true source of any terrifying revelations that may disturb us from our materialistic stupor.

Regarding the essential nature of horror fiction in Supernatural Horror in Literature,

I’m arguing that the zombie can and should be significantly re-imagined in a way that frees it from the constraints of scientific comfort in which it is usually expressed, as such a re-imagining is the best way to give the creatures power to induce terror in the modern audience. I’m also arguing that an effective way to approach this re-imagining may be to stipulate that the zombie is a human being freely choosing to behave in a certain manner, and to stipulate this choice is (from the zombie perspective) fairly uncontroversial based on new information obtained by the undead actor after death. As we are not privy to the zombie’s perspective (which is greater than our own, based on information not available to us since we haven’t yet died), we cannot write the zombie off as insane or mindless. Therefore we must respond directly to the challege to our understanding of reality that the zombie represents. Finally, I’m saying that our need to offer a serious response at all to the zombie is much more horrifying than the prospect of simply having our brains gobbled by a mindless beast, as the existence of the zombie implies a number of disturbing notions (the very least of which is that everything we believe is wrong).

Thus the questions I’m asking are:

–Is my enterprise needed at all, or are zombies already horrifying to everyone but me?
–Is the new model of the zombie I’m proposing likely to be an effective horror device?
–Is my model of horror fiction in general (the Lovecraft model) well-suited to a goal of inducing a terrifying reaction in the audience?
–What’s the best way to work out the details? Certainly I have a number of ideas already, but these ideas can only benefit from public discussion.
–What’s the best way to implement these details in a game (whether in general, or in a work of interactive fiction)?

One of the nicer things about the zombie metaphor is that it allows us to have fun while discussing the serious matters of life, death, metaphysics, morality, the art of crafting effective literature, and the art of game design. Anyone should feel free to offer comments here on any of those subjects, as long as such discussion is presented in a way that substantially concerns zombies.

Are you saying that nearly every zombie movie is actually just a retelling of Old Yeller?

Endosphere, I like your conception of a more terrifying zombie, and I hope it does produce something - I think it would be well-thought-out and I might really like it. But I have to say that I’m pretty happy with the modern scientific-animal-disease zombie. Pure horror is not my goal - I’d like to explore the frailty of flesh and the animal nature of thinking beings. Eating is such an important, and yet brutal, part of life, and sometimes I feel like people have lost sight of that.

For me, the key emotion that zombies produce is not fear, but revulsion. Cannibalism, dismemberment, decay - these are taboo topics even if they’re not as scary as the “unknowable.” And yet, they’re surprisingly common in Nature. For me, a great work of horror explores our alienation from the natural world. Perhaps what zombies know about civilization is like this: Environmental journalist Richard Manning believes that our creative works are an attempt to regain the fullness of life that we experienced when we were hunters. Novelist Daniel Quinn suggests that the Forbidden Fruit was the power over life and death - “wild” creatures kill only for food, with a clear conscience because they accept their own death in the jaws of others.

Perhaps the horror is not human-like creatures that smash our heads open to eat our brains fresh and raw. Perhaps the horror is unrecognizable packaged cubes of meat sitting in a sanitized supermarket refrigerator. Talk about the unknowable…

More like a rabid dog, which in my opinion is scarier. A couple reasons:

–A familiar creature, like a dog or a human, may enter the “uncanny valley” more easily than a bear or a lion. This is a place where zombies win over vampires - vampires are too clean and “sexy” to really inhabit the uncanny valley.

–Rabies is contagious. To me, there’s something scarier about a contagious threat, even if you’ll be just as dead from a bear. It’s also possible to cast the contagion in the form of a meme in order to make a social comment. I haven’t seen it done with zombies, but then most of my zombie knowledge is from discussion and not from actual zombie stories. Perhaps it’s done in World War Z?

Upon reflection, I’ve decided that most zombie stories ARE about rabies, and it IS Old Yeller. After all, there’s no cure for rabies.

Regarding Lovecraft:

I endured many years of low-grade horror due to a gluten intolerance. For me, being “glutened” is like being on drugs all the time. I never had any desire to take recreational drugs because I was already “under the influence.” Some descriptions of autism sound similar to me, and from stories (Erich Zann comes to mind) and biographical information about Lovecraft, I think he suffered from something similar.

Since then I have been trying to reconcile the horror of not knowing what “drugs” I’m on with the horror of disemboweling blameless creatures and consuming their flesh and organs. To me, the latter has been far preferable, but I regularly gross people out with the way I eat. I’d love to see a zombie story that takes THAT gross-out factor and turns it into something really interesting, something that causes people to reflect on the way they live and the little horrors they experience every day.

So there’s another perspective to place against your conclusion C: Maybe zombies are animalistic, but that doesn’t necessarily make them pathetic. Maybe zombies are actually choosing the lesser evil. Now you have a much greater evil to fill your story with, and if you manage THAT, please let me know because that’s the story I want to tell!

Yes! Yes! It is needed!

It depends a lot on the execution, but I think it has real potential.

I don’t know. I think in some ways Lovecraft missed the mark. For me, Philip K. Dick is scarier (I confess I haven’t read anything, but I’m basing this on the movies). What Dick does is to make the known into the unknown by shedding doubt upon your ability to perceive reality.

I’m going to have to beg off on your last two questions for now. I’m not ready to get into that level of detail, but I hope I will be at some point because I’d really like to see a project like this come about.

I think the concept of zombie-as-horror needn’t necessarily be exclusive. Your interpretation works for the purpose of horror, I don’t doubt, as can Endosphere’s. It’s all in the wrist.

But I will say that I feel zombies differ from ghosts, vampires, and the like, in that they’re a physical fear, something wholesome and commonplace twisted into malevolence. Zombies represent a need to eat, a primal and carnal hunger. The horror stems partly from the fear of being touched, eaten, consumed - revulsion, as you put it - and that feeling is a lot more visceral on some levels than would be terror of the unknown. But that doesn’t mean zombies couldn’t inspire that, as well.

My take on it is that such archetypal monsters work best if they attack something central to our way of life. To best destroy our equilibrium, monsters must hit us where it hurts, and attack those things we unquestioningly assume will be safe: our individuality and sense of self (body snatchers, the Borg, communism as depicted in the US), our bodies (Alien), our reliance upon senses and preconceptions of time and space (cthulhu mythos), causality (many movies create horror by inexplicable, but seemingly significant, events around the main characters). So in a sense, what I’m saying is that in order to create something truly original, you might do it by sacrificing an unquestioned belief. You must take something that the readers would take for granted, and then subvert it.

When it comes to Zombies, for instance, one remaining assumption (even in this thread) seems to be that of us versus the Other. The Other is the bad thing, and we compare ourselves against it. It’s something everyone does, and it’s still pretty much SOP everywhere.

What if the player is the zombie? What if the zombies do what they do not because they’re crazy, but because now, their outlook is such that this makes the most sense?

What if, in other words… they’re right? Zombies represent an all-devouring need, whatever that is. What if that need is made perfectly understandable?

I don’t want to derail the discussion more than I have, but I don’t think RE zombies are equivalent to other RE monsters. Spiders and dogs are almost always (depending on the context) dangerous enough that it’s worth expending valuable ammunition to kill them on sight. Zombies are slow and ungainly enough that the risk of evading instead of attacking always seems worth it. So while the stronger enemies often provide a brief shock and then are removed from play, the zombies are a constant low level threat in the background.

The zombies in Resident Evil are a part of the scary ambience of the whole game. This benefits from their human nature - the zombies in the police station can be wearing police uniforms, the zombies in the lab labcoats etc. So I think that the fact they’re zombies is important, and I think they’re used well. But they’re also supporting actors. Zombies are not the focus of a classic RE game, but are a key component of the backdrop.

This is an increasingly prevalent theme in Romero’s films - that things wouldn’t be so bad if we’d only get over ourselves and give the zombies what they want.

Interesting. I’ve watched fewer Romero movies than I should, it seems. My notion, in any case, is to make the zombies no more reasonable and erudite and civilized than feral humans would be. Identification, not reconciliation, would be the goal. Ideally, it would be some sort of personal horror game in which that final luxury we cling to - the ability to separate ourselves from the Monster and its actions - is taken away.

Or, in far more eloquent terms:

One difficulty with applying Lovecraft’s dictum to zombies is that the living dead already embody a suspension of the laws of Nature, albeit a fairly conventional one. Dead people don’t really come back to life as shambling corpses. Except they do, with astonishing regularity, in genre fiction. So you need a second hook to evoke actual horror, but asking readers to accept a further embellishment risks upsetting the verisimilitude of the construct, as you venture farther into the land where anything goes.

The advantage of a zombie rooted in plausible science is that you can get away with only one hook. We know that new viruses appear from time to time, and they can have effects ranging from death (Ebola) to derangement (tertiary syphilis). Accepting a new virus with the desired storytelling properties is not a major commitment for the reader.

Viruses aren’t the only possible scientific explanation for zombies. Extraterrestrial travel is one option; Event Horizon uses this mechanism. Cryogenic thawing could be another. You could eschew SF scenarios altogether and just use an artificial lung on a comatose worker rescued from a coal mine collapse. He recovers and seems almost normal, but who knows what he encountered during that week in the underground darkness?

You raise the not-quite-dead but do it in a way that seems likely to leave psychological damage, after possible exposure to supernatural influences. It may seem like we are multiplying the requisite premises but really the point is to dodge the question of what it means to bring the dead back to life. It is fraught with philosophical problems, not least of which is that the very notion of death implies irreversible finality. (A point Eric Eve makes in The Healer from Nazareth.)

I agree, but I think the scientific approach invites a more serious, considered response from the reader. Especially given that scientific advances have already blurred the line between life and death, and promise to make it ever fuzzier as we edge closer to the dream of immortality. Poisoning that dream strikes me as very much in the vein of Lovecraft, who gave the dream of space travel and alien contact the same treatment.

By contrast, there is never any need to exercise the rational part of the brain in contemplating the terrible origin of undead zombies. We know that the dead cannot come back to life, so questions of what might happen to us in the imaginary time between death and resurrection are necessarily abstract and impersonal. But anyone can be infected by a virus, or code in the OR during a minor surgery. Short of extreme precautions, we cannot be certain it will not happen to us, and uncertainty is the essence of terror.

Lots of good thinking here. I’d just like to add a little something that I’d already thought about.

One of the really creepy things about zombies, in my view, is not just that they’re dead - it’s how the guy who was hanged walks around with his head hanging bonelessly. How the guy who was shot still looks like a regular guy, apart from being grey-faced, not very talkative and having a small bullet entry on his chest and a gaping hole on his back. How the guy that was drowned to death is still dripping wet.

And sometimes, how they seem to want to take you to where they’ve been. The drowned zombie, all wet, who seems to say to you “Come on, it’s not that bad lying in the bottom of the ocean, you’ll like it.”

Zombies trying to kill you the way they died, zombies that display the full effect of what killed them, zombies that aren’t all that different from regular joes except that they’re dead. Three separate things, really. Put them together… and I’m getting the creeps just picturing it.

Zombies had their gory fame. Time for their psychological fame.

Incidently, an example of the three instances I was talking about is clearly visible in a scene in Stephen King’s and Romero’s “Creepshow”. Those drowned zombies - masterpiece. They look and sound as though they’re still underwater. I mean, it’s just perfect. And in that particular case, they’re exacting revenge. How much scarier does it get when you’re threatened by someone you’ve wronged?

EDIT - Oh, and of course let’s not forget - just for the sake of completeness - the “real zombies”. I’m hazy about the details, but I’m sure everyone knows what I mean. There’s a certain substance (which was the basis for the film “Serpent and the Rainbow”, which I saw at a rather impressionable age) which can, supposedly (not sure how well documented it is), slow your body down as to approach a state of death… and when eventually the body retains control, there has been severe mind damage. Something like that, anyway. It might well be what caused the whole zombie mythos, the way that porfiria was probably responsible for introducing the vampire mythos (that and other blood diseases, as well as just some plain sick people). Can’t really have a discussion about zombies without mentioning that, at some point.

Thanks to all for the thoughtful comments.

@ capmikee

I think this is an interesting aspect of the traditional portrayal of zombies. I don’t find the phenomena you mentioned particularly disturbing, but I am keen on hearing from others who do. By way of analogy, I think I like enough individual Bollywood films to say I am generally a fan of Bollywood films. However, I mostly like the (relatively uncommon) dramas and tragedies; I could also often do without the song and dance numbers. In speaking with several folks from India, however, I have observed that comedies are universally preferred by them, and that the musical aspects of Bollywood films are one of the most essential and most beloved elements of these films amongst their intended audience. In the same way then that a tragic Bollywood film directed by me and not containing any singing or dancing would likely be rejected by audiences, I’d hate to make a zombie game that is rejected by zombie enthusiasts because it ignores the aspects of zombies that the intended audience finds most compelling.

Broadly speaking, I think humans are animals too. I see human behavior as a subset of general animal behavior, and don’t think any honest examination of general animal behavior could ever support the (admittedly common) idea that animals other than humans don’t kill for a variety of reasons unrelated to nutrition and self-defense. The difference in this case between ourselves and other animals is only that we often experience and attach ethical notions to our own behavior, while presumably other animals simply go about their business unaware of or unaffected by such concerns. Perhaps this is why I don’t experience the idea of the zombie as carnivorous beast as horrible; carnivorous beasts are a common natural phenomena, and while of course I may defend myself against them if they attack me, I don’t view their behavior as immoral. Without will there can be no moral agency, and without moral agency there can be no culpability.

I believe you’re saying that it is the carnivorous act itself that you find horrifying, while I’m saying such behavior is only potentially horrifying to me if it was willful and chosen in preference to alternatives which were well-comprehended by the carnivorous actor. I certainly don’t mean to imply that either of these views is “right” or “wrong,” and I think this discussion can generally benefit if we explore the differences between these views. As Eleas noted in discussing a similar notion, these ideas aren’t mutually exclusive and whether or not a work of horror is successful in terms of inducing terror in its audience is largely a matter of implementation.

I think Lovecraft’s fiction writings are very entertaining, but usually not particularly terrifying. Furthermore in cases where I do find his fiction disturbing, I think the effect is usually serendipitous. For example I always feel somewhat disturbed after reading Whisperer in Darkness, but not because I find the idea of winged lobster-men from Pluto or disembodied brains in metal canisters scary. There’s something very subtle in the cadence of Lovecraft’s prose in this story that produces his intended result in me, and although I haven’t been able to determine the details of this “technique” I’m fairly sure it was accidental on Lovecraft’s part. On the other hand, I do think Lovecraft’s ideas as a “philosopher of horror arts” are very meaningful and very cogent. The essay of his I have mentioned several times serves as a foundation for my own thinking about the creation of horror fiction.

@ Pacian

No need to worry about derailing anything; your comment is just as interesting as the more philosophical musings also occuring here. A well-designed game should anticipate a variety of skill levels amongst its players. I think you’re saying then that in addition to adding general ambiance and providing a means to personalize the horror of the setting for the player, the zombies of Resident Evil function as a sort of pressure valve in allowing the game to adapt to various styles of play and for accomodating players of varying skill levels. I think that’s a very interesting point, one which hadn’t ever occurred to me but seems obvious now that you’ve pointed it out.

I think one way in which non-mindless zombies may enhance gameplay is in removing the artificiality or contrivance of the “boss” battle. Just as not-yet-dead people vary in ambition and intelligence, so it seems likely that the undead would vary in these attributes as well. Therefore we need not necessarily have boss zombies who are larger, stronger, and faster than their comrades (requiring that we find a bigger gun to dispatch them); we can instead have smarter, more devious boss zombies (another idea you mentioned previously) whom we as players will have to outsmart rather than out-gun. The “boss device,” framed in these terms, can likely be presented in a more seamless and sensible way.

@ Eleas

Could you elaborate on this point? You’ve mentioned it several times now, which leads me to believe you’re trying to say something other than my own main point. I consider my central thesis so far to be:

or perhaps even:

I think you’re trying to say something other than this, but I’m not getting your idea and if that’s the case I would like to better understand your views

@ bcressey

You raise a number of very interesting points, made even more compelling because you’ve thus far been able to very precisely discern what I myself consider to be some of the major weaknesses of my proposals for zombies.

I see your main points in your latest post as:

a) My re-imagination risks simply complicating rather than adding complexity to the zombie; I may be building a house of cards, which will quickly be left in tatters as the strong breeze of audience sensibility blows past.

b) In your view of the zombie its (potentially) terrifying nature lies in the initial moment of its resurrection rather than its subsequent behavior, and the revivification of the zombie is in fact so unnatural and fantastic that this phenomenon can’t be taken seriously (or at least can’t be taken seriously by a constituent of our modern scientifically-minded society) unless we can sensibly accout for it. Perhaps then my efforts would be better spent in pondering the moment of the zombie’s resurrection than in attempting to construct the zombie as a moral agent (whose values are offensive or disturbing to us, because they are genuinely rooted in the zombie’s experience).

I don’t want to misstate your views, so if you’re saying something else please elaborate. On the other hand, this alternate conception I’ve attributed to you is very interesting as it adds yet another fertile field to be explored in our examination of the nature of the zombie. In a sense you’re saying (as I understand you) that the traditional idea of the zombie could satisfy my Lovecraftian sensibilities based solely on the fact that the zombie is here, standing before us; but that further development of the idea of the zombie is likely to be more effective (i.e. more horrifyingly productive) if we use the framework of the modern psyche to refine the zombie’s threat into something more plausible and comprehensible.

I’ve avoided any mention of the particulars of the framework I’ve tentatively laid out for my game project because I didn’t want to constrain the discussion by suggesting any goal of fitting our musings into some limits or that we must move toward some practical goal with particular details of implementation. I’d rather talk about zombies in general than any particular project on which I’m working. In general though I’m envisioning a rather standard-fare potential zombie apocalypse scenario, which will hopefully be made more interesting by its details rather than its general structure. The setting is to be in a recreational woodland area on the outskirts of an otherwise mundane modern-day American small town, and the player’s general goal will be simply to survive the scenario by escaping the area before an inevitable military response by government officials to growing zombie hordes results in the obliteration of the greater geographical area. The “substance” of the gameplay, other than those activities that contribute directly to the main goal of survival by the player-character, will focus on unravelling the enigma of the zombies (what are they, why are they here, is their current rising a unique event, etc) as well as a more familiar goal of rescuing a loved-one residing in the area who may or may not be more involved in the zombie phenomenon than the protagonist initially suspects.

I mention this general structure now not because I want to focus our overall discussion, but on the contrary because I wish to encourage even more speculation like you’ve done here. However I suspect it may be easier for others who may be reticent to philosophize with us to consider the nature of zombies and join the discussion if they have a less ethereal prism through which to organize their observations. Overall however, this is already the most truly interesting discussion of zombies I’ve ever encountered, and hope everyone will continue to offer their thoughts on the creatures.

@ Peter Pears

I’m generally understanding your comments as a more sophisticated affirmation of the “zombies are grotesque = zombies are horrifying” model, with an emphasis on the personification of the zombie. You raise some interesting notions, particularly since as I’ve said I’m more interested in generally exploring the topic of the horrific nature of the zombie than in promoting or defending my own particular view.

We haven’t mentioned at all so far (until you brought it up) the traditional idea of the voodoo-created zombie. I see this variant of zombie as compelling both to those of more traditional mindset (a few steps removed from our shiny scientific society where the inexorable progress of object-oriented knowledge is seen as an aspiration of salvation) for whom the notion of magic still carries some weight, as well as to those for whom the horror of the zombie lies primarily in the estrangement of the individual from ego and uniqueness.

In regard to the former audience, in Supernatural Horror in Literature,

Is there anything to the notion (which seems contrary to all I have been espousing) that the modern “diseased” zombie is actually a better horror device than the traditional “undead” zombie? I think perhaps this may be what bcressey has essentially been saying, although I could be wrong on that count.

Not having read Lovecraft, I’m not in a position to comment on the theory, but I think it may be interesting to look at zombies from the point of view of the zombie himself. I mean, being a zombie has to be more horrifying than being attacked by them, right?

Apropos of which, I wrote a short story a couple of years ago on this precise theme. You can read it at musicwords.net/stories/gulf.htm. I was unable to sell it to the main SF/fantasy magazines. In fact, Sheila Williams at Asimov’s sent me a note saying, “Please – no more zombies!” I think the problem they had with the story was that it’s too downbeat and depressing.

Anyhow, this story is pretty much everything I know about zombie horror, which is not a whole lot, so there you go. If anyone wants to adapt it as IF, contact me.


Well, Lovecraft was very much about setting: creating a mental space in which the reader could ponder certain awful yet inevitable assumptions about the cosmos. In that he suffers by comparison with the more vivid settings afforded by film and games. His choice of an archaic style also undermines the terror to a large degree, as his stories are very much rooted in an era before faith in science was forever blighted by concentration camps and nuclear war.

Well, if you put it that way, I have to admit that I don’t tend to find zombie origin stories interesting or especially plausible. I would liken it to the conventional acceptance of unscientific notions such as time travel or FTL communication in otherwise grounded SF. A certain amount of hand-waving on the subject is tolerated, provided that the story is about the characters rather than the science. Arguably the tolerance is greater if you stick to the cliches: wormholes, ansibles and the like.

By that token, if your story is mostly about what happened to the zombies in the unknowable state between life and undeath, you probably do want to have a vividly imagined origin story at hand. Even if this is never fully revealed, you can design the zombie behavior to evoke certain aspects of the horrible truth underlying their existence. This would work best if the player’s goal is to investigate and understand the zombies.

Contrariwise, if your story is mostly about what the zombies actually do, you can probably rely on one of the standard origins, ideally but not necessarily one that explains their behavior to some degree. Infected zombies might have ordinary human vulnerabilities to extreme heat, cold, or violence. Undead zombies might be vanquished by sunlight or banished through arcane rituals. Here the player’s goal might simply be to oppose or thwart the zombies.

Yes, although I believe zombies or ghouls in the Lovecraft tradition were more likely to be degenerate humans. This accords well with his usual effort to puncture the comfort of institutions like scientific laws or family lineage by showing them to be hopelessly riddled with misplaced and dangerous assumptions.

You can start with the comprehensible and slowly make it incomprehensible. A doctor might travel to a rural town overrun by zombies, intent on curing the virus; only when he contracts it himself does he realize that the virus does not cause the condition, it is merely an opportunistic infection. It accounts for the pallid skin and the shambling gait but not the malign motives.

This all sounds pretty awesome to me. In its basic contours it resembles the plot of Anchorhead, substituting zombies for deranged cultist townsfolk, which is certainly a reasonable template to choose. The difficulty (as you recognize) is making the zombies as mysterious in their way as cultists would be. Vampires would be at least as problematic, for the same reasons.

The trouble is that players understand zombies, even if they don’t truly understand yours, so they won’t be inclined to investigate. To the extent that they do, they may treat it as engaging backstory rather than crucial plot advancement. The easiest way to emphasize the detective aspects of gameplay is probably to force the player to the task, by making direct confrontations with zombies messy and fatal. But for that to work well you have to have something juicy for them to investigate, such as intriguing origins or unusual behaviors.

My own Lovecraft-themed WIP includes zombies after a fashion, so I have these issues very much in mind. My solution at the moment is for the player to be nominally investigating something else, and to belatedly recognize the presence of the zombies, only after he is well and truly surrounded and perhaps on his way to a similar fate.