Zombies and resurrection
The 18th and 19th century resurrectionists can't have helped. Medical schools needed cadavers to dissect, and even laws that consigned the bodies of those executed to dissection could not supply the need. Medical schools began paying people to bring them corpses, and not inquiring too closely into where those corpses came from. The gravediggers were, with dark humor, called resurrectionists in Britain.
This sort of thing affects the culture on a level of which we are seldom conscious. One of the assumptions that built itself into our minds was that we had done something to the dead that might not please them. That assumption was behind ghost stories that had been with us for probably thousands of years, but the resurrection of the dead was a notion that gave them the possibility of corporeal form.
Now, Voodoo gave us the word "zombie," but it gave us a very different sort of zombie from those that now exist in popular culture. The Voodoo zombie was revived by a bokor, or magic practitioner, and because the zombie lacked a will of its own, it would do the will of the bokor.
In 1937 Zora Neal Hurston tried to track down how zombies were made -- she was pretty sure it was some psychoactive drug -- but was unsuccessful. A Harvard ethnobiologist named Wade Davis wrote two books on the subject, The Serpent and the Rainbow in 1985 and Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie in 1988. His findings remain controversial, but in any case, they dealt with the Voodoo zombie, not with the flesh-eating monster of popular culture.
Flesh-eating zombies did not arrive on the scene until the 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead. The film didn't use the word "zombie" to describe the soulless, aggressive, and comestible-challenged risen dead who featured in the title. The notion that the risen dead would eat brains didn't come along until Return of the Living Dead in 1985.
Zombies now live in the uncanny valley, where things not quite human horrify us. The uncanny valley is a concept from robotics, that tells us as things become more human, they become more likeable, but only up to a point. Beyond that point, graphing the likeability of the created object goes into a valley before resemblance to humans increases and likeability increases again.
The Brave Little Toaster is likeable because it is more human that a real toaster. Damon Knight wrote a 1988 short story called Masks in which a man has his consciousness implanted in a prosthetic body. The first body isn't very realistic, the second is more so, but less successful, and the man complains to the technicians, “The first model looked like a tailor's dummy; so you spent eight months and came up with this one, and it looks like a corpse.”
But the corpses of Voodoo did not want to kill people; they had no will of their own. It is the culture of the resurrectionists that invented that sort of monster. The modern zombie does not answer to a bokor, or serve anyone at all. More likely, it is a creation of science or a disease visited upon mankind from some virus that science is helpless to defeat.
Scientists by their very nature trifle with forces they don't fully comprehend. It's their job. Trifling with forces you do understand is the job of engineers, technicians and doctors. Those professions take what science has learned an use it to control our world.
Our culture's anxiety about science is the fear of the unknown, the fear it may awaken some force that we cannot overcome. It is the fear that we will lose the control that science promises. The zombie of modern popular culture is Frankenstein's monster writ large, a vengeance against the hubris of science.
And, of course, for the bored and self-satisfied, there's that business of wondering how you would cope with disaster. Reassuring fantasies of survival like Robert Heinlein's Farnham's Freehold have entertained us for many years, and survivalists and preppers have shifted from fallout shelters in case of nuclear war to dreaming of that economic apocalypse that will sweep away all the detritus of civilization and let people of true worth survive while the parasites fall.
The zombie apocalypse makes this fantasy comfortingly remote. It allows people to dream of the day when science can't save us, the politicians are spineless, the military is all bluster, but we can survive because we have the good character and the survival skills to do it.Or not.