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The name "Zombie"

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How these creatures came to be called "zombies" is not fully clear. The film Night of the Living Dead made no spoken reference to its undead antagonists as "zombies", describing them instead as "ghouls", though this is inaccurate if compared to the original "ghoul" of Arabic folklore. Although George Romero used the term "ghoul" in his original scripts, in later interviews he used the term "zombie" without explanation. The word "zombie" is used exclusively by Romero in his 1978 script for his sequel Dawn of the Dead, including once in dialog. This "retroactively fits [the creatures] with an invisible Haitian/African prehistory, formally introducing the zombie as a new archetype". It has been argued however that the name is not truly applicable to these creatures because the zombie of Haitian Vodun is not a raging monster, but a passive victim.

One of the first books to expose Western culture to the concept of the Vodun zombie was The Magic Island by W.B. Seabrook in 1929. Island is the sensationalized account of a narrator in Haiti who encounters voodoo cults and their resurrected thralls. Time claimed that the book "introduced 'zombi' into U.S. speech".

In 1932, Victor Halperin directed White Zombie, a horror film starring Bela Lugosi. This film, capitalizing on the same voodoo zombie themes as Seabrook's book of three years prior, is often regarded as the first legitimate zombie film ever made. Here zombies are depicted as mindless, unthinking henchmen under the spell of an evil magician. Zombies, often still using this voodoo-inspired rationale, were initially uncommon in cinema, but their appearances continued sporadically through the 1930s to the 1960s, with notable films including I Walked With a Zombie (1943) and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959).

In his article, "The Evolution of the Zombie: the Monster That Keeps Coming Back", Shawn McIntosh notes that, "even after the traditional zombie largely disappeared from the screen, there was still a strong fascination with the word", and that "zombie" came to be applied to a wide variety of disfigured or deformed creatures throughout the 50s and 60s. However, even as they began to take on the shabbier, corpse-like characteristics of later "zombies", these creatures always followed the Voodoo convention of being controlled by a master.