“Necromancers are makers of vampires, and they deserve no pity if they die devoured by the dead.”
Eliphas Levi was a paranoid Christian occultist, who believed in real vampires and real magical necromancers.
Apart from the dramatic, large-scale zombie films where a virus or radiation causes an increasing flood of zombies, there is another more low-key type of zombie film. In these, zombies are created one by one by a human being. Sometimes by a necromancer, sometimes by accident, or sometimes by poison or other means. I will frequently refer to any zombie-creator as a necromancer even though strictly speaking such a title only applies to a person who uses magic (including curses, etc). There are real-life cases of one-by-one zombiefication as a result of tetrodoxin poisoning, and I discuss one example in relation to Voodoo.
In the Reanimater series, medical personnel create a luminous green potion that can re-animate corpses (or even body parts), but the resulting zombies exist in a state of extreme pain and wilfull violence towards the living.
In Braindead, a poisonous hybrid creature causes a virulent disease (spread through biting, etc) that overtakes a busy house in a small town. A main character unwittingly tends to the zombies, making him a partial necromancer, but the movie turns more epic when he loses control. A film famous for its gory final fight and the lawnmower scene.
In Revenge of the Zombies (1943, Steve Sekely) Dr Max Heinrich von Altermann creates and commands zombies to do his bidding. For the Nazis. A zombie hero arises, who vengefully leads the other zombies in revolt against their murderous master.
In some areas where Voodoo ("vodun") is a common religion, there are occasionally real-life cases of zombiefication. That is, a recently deceased victim returns from the grave, with his mental capacities severely reduced. Such cases aren't exciting enough to be contagious, but are interesting enough to have warranted investigation by scientists. The example of the zombiefication of Wilfred Doricent, an adolescent schoolboy from a small village in Haiti, the description of Tetrodoxin and the comments by an ex-voodoo priest, are all courtesy of an article that appeared in the Skeptical Inquirer by the scientists Costas J. Efthimiou and Sohang Gandhi.
“One day, Wilfred became terribly ill. He experienced dramatic convulsions, his body swelled tremendously, and his eyes had turned yellow. Eight days later, Wilfred appeared to have died. This was confirmed by not only the family and family friends present but also by the local medical doctor who could detect no vital signs. Wilfred's body appeared to show bloating due to rigor mortis and gave off the foul stench of death and rot. He was buried soon thereafter.”
Skeptical Inquirer (2007)2
Graves are shallow in Haiti, and, later, Wilfred shocked village residents by returning from his place of rest, and wandering back into the village.
“The person was indeed Wilfred, as his family verified by noting scars from old injuries and other such details. Wilfred, however, had lost his memory and was unable to speak or comprehend anything that was said to him. [...] It was believed that Wilfred's uncle, a highly feared voodoo sorcerer who had been engaged in a dispute over land with Wilfred's family, was the culprit. Wilfred's uncle was later charged with zombiefication, a crime in Haiti equivalent to murder.”
Skeptical Inquirer (2007)2
Tetrodoxin is one of the most deadly poisons on Earth: 10,000 times more lethal than cyanide, and is the secret drug that voodoo priests use to zombify victims.
“The first symptoms of intoxication is a slight numbness of the lips and tongue, appearing between twenty minutes to three hours after eating poisonous puffer fish. The next symptom is increasing parasthesia in the face and extremities, which may be followed by sensations of lightness or floating. Headache, epigastric pain, nausea, diarrhoea and/or vomiting may occur. The second stage of the intoxication is increasing paralysis. Many victims are unable to move; even sitting may be difficult. There is increasing respiratory distress. Speech is affected, and the victim usually exhibits dyspnea, cyanosis, and hypotension. Paralysis increases and convulsions, mental impairment, and cardiac arrhythmia may occur. The victim, although completely paralyzed, may be conscious and in some cases completely lucid until shortly before death.”
USA Food and Drug Administration (2006)3
If a victim can survive for 24 hours, they recover without complications. If they wake up before death, they sometimes report that they were fully conscious and aware of their surroundings4. "If just the right dose is given", write the authors of the Skeptical Inquirer article, "the toxin will mimic death in the victim, whose vitals will slow to an immeasurable state, and whose body will show signs of rigor mortis and even produce the odor of rot"2. The toxin can be ingested after being sneaked into food or drink.
Do Voodoo priests have the knowledge required to administer such precise quantities of the drug? Apparently, they do, according to one ex-practitioner.
“The secrets of zombiefication are closely guarded by voodoo sorcerers. However, Frére Dodo, a once highly feared voodoo sorcerer, who is now an evangelical preacher and firm denouncer of the voodoo faith, has revealed the process. It turns out that zombiefication is accomplished by slipping the victim a poison whose main ingredient is powder derived from the liver of a species of puffer fish native to Haitian waters.”
Skeptical Inquirer (2007)2
The authors conclude that "zombiefication is nothing more than a skillful act of poisoning" [spelling corrected], and that Wilfred suffered from Tetrodoxin poisoning and asphyxiation while in his grave. The severe mental, behavioural and memory problems are all associated with brain damage caused by lack of oxygen. This was confirmed by neurologist Dr. Roger Mallory who "conducted an MRI of zombiefied Wilfred's brain. He and his colleagues found lesions of the type normally associated with oxygen starvation"2.
Case closed? Apparently not. Further investigation of TTX has actually found that the symptoms of TTX poisoning are completely different to what would be expected from a zombie5. Critics of the TTX claims are getting exasperated at how common such claims have become:
“Wade Davis [claimed] that zombies are real and that they can be created by witch doctors using the poison tetrodotoxin (TTX), found, among other places, in the skin and internal organs of puffer fish native to Haiti. In accepting Davis's claims Kaplan ignores the overwhelming scientific literature that shows that 1) the 'zombie powder' that Davis claims had TTX in it didn't and 2) even if it did, TTX in any quantity cannot produce zombies. TTX is a nerve poison that does not get into the brain. In terms of motor control, it affects only the skeletal musculature. Its specific effect is [...] a flaccid paralysis [...] The idea that just the right dose of TTX could transform a person into a zombie and keep them that way while they were walking around [...] is absurd.”