Zombies: History, Belief, and Modern Ideas
Modern ideas of zombies as flesh-eating living dead all stem from just one movie: George A. Romero's 1968 Night of the Living Dead. Strange though it may sound, these new zombies are not zombies... they are a new monster that has adopted an old monster's name.
In Hollywood, zombies were originally the supernatural slaves of evil magicians. These beings were generally innocent victims raised from the dead or enslaved while alive to become unquestioning servants that would perform any action they were ordered to... good or evil. This idea of zombies first appeared in the 1932 movie White Zombie that featured actor Bela Lugosi as the master of the undead, and continued as a popular sub-genre of monster movies until Romero's 1968 movie re-invented the idea of the monsters.
These older movie zombies -- like the one shown here from I Walked with a Zombie (1942) (larger picture here) -- are also not zombies, really. The ideas that formed the basis for White Zombie in 1932 stemmed from the first foreign reports made of a phenomena that is only known to exist in one place, the island nation of Haiti... and, unlike movie 'zombies', Haitian zombies are real.
In Haitian folklore, “zombie” is the name given to a dead body that has been reanimated by magic. These moving corpses are free of all will and simply do whatever their master tells them to do, be it farm work or committing a crime. Haitian zombies are neither good nor evil unto themselves, as they have no personalities... they are just supernatural puppets, tools to be used by their masters.