Many people think of the zombie as a cinematic invention, but the zombie story has a long tradition in literature as well. Most of the greatest films about zombies were either based upon or inspired by novels. All of these films depend heavily on the influence of just two books.
Shockingly, neither of these books presents zombies exactly as we are used to them. The first introduces the term and the spelling of the word with an (e) as opposed to just an (i). The second book introduces the apocalyptic nature of the zombie plague.
The Magic Island (1929) – William Seabrook
The Magic Island introduced the word “Zombie” into English and modern culture by describing the voodoo practices in Haiti that led to mind-controlled victims doing their master’s bidding. Culturally sensitive this book is not, but it is the first introduction of the term into English and the idea of the Zombie, which would find its way onto film screens for several decades before Romero re-invented the term.
Per Seabrook, however, the zombie was a reanimated corpse used for cheap labor. Essentially, the sugar plantations abused the black population even after death by reanimating them as drudge workers. These zombies were not predatory, were not cannibalistic, and were created intentionally through ritual and religious magic. The zombie is one of our few monsters that didn’t come from a European tradition, but rather an African one. This is probably why it has been used so effectively as a critique of society.
I am Legend (1954) – Richard Matheson
The book has been adapted for film three times as well as serving for the inspiration for Night of the Living Dead. If you’ve seen the film of the same name, try not to think of it during this discussion. Not that that film is necessarily irredeemably bad, but it’s not the book.
I am Legend is not a book explicitly about zombies – the monsters here are called “vampires” and more closely resemble them than any other creature – but it is about an undead apocalypse. Of the many tropes it introduces to the genre, two are the most important: the apocalypse and the germ theory explanation of transmission of becoming undead.
The novel also has perhaps one of the greatest twists in a story about monsters – the protagonist turns out to be the villain, and the world is essentially better off without humanity.