Zombie stories have been around for a while: the D&D zombie descends from the Hiatian version, a dead person raised by necromancy.
The current, highly successful “apocalypse via fast-spreading zombie disease” meme is pretty new, and it’s eating the Haitian/D&D version for breakfast. D&D might have backed the wrong undead horse here. George Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead might have been the first zombie-apocalypse movie that explicitly used the word “zombie.” (Night of the Living Dead, 1968, called them “ghouls.” And D&D ghouls might owe a lot to Night of the Living Dead.)
The essential elements of the “zombie apocalypse” story are, as far as I can tell:
1) Nearly everyone is turned into a zombie.
2) Survivors scavenge supermarkets or camp out in the woods and blow zombie heads off with shotguns.
3) No one is purposely animating corpses. Zombie-itis is contagious.
Minus the word “zombie”, this story is a little older than Night of the Living Dead. Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, 1954, is often mentioned as the first zombie apocalypse-type story, although its bad guys are called “vampires.”
I think that Walter M. Miller might actually be the first writer who wrote a really modern-style zombie apocalypse story. In Dark Benediction (1951), the monsters are called “dermies,” and they’re not quite as simplistic as your World War Z/The Walking Dead brain chewers. Still, apart from the word “zombie,” it’s got all the apocalypse phobia/survivalism fantasy/xenophobia it needs to be an official part of the genre.
Here’s a chunk of the first page. Watch it hit all the highlights:
Always fearful of being set upon during the night, Paul slept uneasily despite his weariness from the long trek southward. When dawn broke, he rolled out of his blankets and found himself still stiff with fatigue. He kicked dirt over the remains of the campfire and breakfasted on a tough forequarter of cold boiled rabbit which he washed down with a swallow of earthy-tasting ditchwater. Then he buckled the cartridge belt about his waist, leaped the ditch, and climbed the embankment to the trafficless four-lane highway whose pavement was scattered with blown leaves and unsightly debris dropped by a long-departed throng of refugees whose only wish had been to escape from one another. Paul, with characteristic independence, had decided to go where the crowds had been the thickest—to the cities—on the theory that they would now be deserted, and therefore noncontagious.
The fog lay heavy over the silent land, and for a moment he paused groping for cognizance of direction. Then he saw the stalled car on the opposite shoulder of the road—a late model convertible, but rusted, flat-tired, with last year’s license plates, and most certainly out of fuel. It obviously had been deserted by its owner during the exodus, and he trusted in its northward heading as he would have trusted the reading of a compass. He turned right and moved south on the empty highway. Somewhere just ahead in the gray vapor lay the outskirts of Houston. He had seen the high skyline before the setting of yesterday’s sun, and knew that his journey would soon be drawing to a close.
Occasionally he passed a deserted cottage or a burned-out roadside tavern, but he did not pause to scrounge for food. The exodus would have stripped such buildings clean. Pickings should be better in the heart of the metropolitan area, he thought – where the hysteria had swept humanity away quickly.
Suddenly Paul froze on the highway, listening to the fog. Footsteps in the distance—footsteps and a voice singing an absent-minded ditty to itself. No other sounds penetrated the sepulchral silence which once had growled with the life of a great city. Anxiety caught him with clammy hands. An old man’s voice it was, crackling and tuneless. Paul groped for his holster and brought out the revolver he had taken from a deserted police station.
“Stop where you are, dermie!” he bellowed at the fog. “I’m armed.”
You know what would be a fun D&D campaign? Not the classic “zombie outbreak in a fantasy world:” fantasy worlds are pretty well equipped to handle zombies. Imagine instead a “D&D heroes appear in a modern-day zombie apocalypse” game. (Old-school games are full of these types of stories: in Gygax and Arneson’s games, D&D characters sometimes appear in space or in Boot Hill, and German tank units appear in the midst of fantasy battles.) The apocalypse story is based on the conceit that most modern people can’t hack a true emergency. Imagine six battle-hardened D&D characters – including a cleric with Turn Undead – finding themselves in a bleak zombie fiction like, say, The Walking Dead. They’d own. It would be interesting to see if they could turn the tide.