Films such as Night of the Living Dead and Resident Evil have a lot to answer for. They’ve completely obscured the real story of the zombie, or “zombi”, as we afficionados prefer to spell it.
The Zombi is a feature of the Voodoo religion. (I think I’ll stop short of pretentiously spelling it “voudou”, or “voudon” or whatever.) Voodoo originated in West Africa and came to the Carribean as the religion of imported slaves. In Haiti, it is considered a perfectly normal religion and coexists with Christianity. Many people practice a bit of both.
The “black magic” aspects of Voodoo, so popular in fiction, are only a fringe part of the spectrum of beliefs in the religion. Mostly, it’s just ceremonies of respect for the gods, just like Christianity. None the less, sorcerors, or bokors, do exist, attempting to use the occult powers of the religion for their own ends.
One of the powers attributed to the bokors is the feared ability to transform a person into a living-dead slave, a zombi. The thing is, it’s possible that they can actually do it. In 1937, the black American anthropologist, Zora Neale Hurston, was the first to report suspicions that the bokors used powerful drugs to control their victims. In 1985, Wade Davis published The Serpent and the Rainbow, in which he recounted the story of Clairvius Narcisse, who was an ex-zombi.
The story of Narcisse was that he had died and been buried in 1962 and brought back to life as a zombi slave, one of a number who were forced to work the sorceror’s sugar plantation. When the bokor died in 1964, some of the zombis began to remember their former lives, and Narcisse was able to return to his family. But some of the victims were too far gone and never returned to normal.
What Davis found was that Narcisse had initially been poisoned with a powerful voodoo drug, containing pufferfish toxin and cane toad secretions. This resulted in paralysis and the appearance of death, but he was actually alive and fully conscious when he was buried. When the sorceror dug him up, he was given a second drug, extracts from the plant datura stramonium (or d. metel) known by several common names, including jimson weed, loco weed and zombi cucumber. A bit of a giveaway, that last one.
Datura is a hallucinogen and deliriant. It causes memory loss. Its active ingredients include scopolamine, famous from spy stories as the “truth drug”: it reduces the individual’s will to resist. What had happened to Narcisse and his fellow zombis was that the bokor kept them dosed up on the drug, obedient and unaware. They had no desire to eat the living though. Your brains are safe.