There’s an amazing sort of irony about brains as they relate to zombie lore. That being that zombies just don’t seem to have any. Zombies represent an abhorrent force out to consume the very thing they seem to lack.
Zombies started out as mindless slaves exploited by religious practices to force them into a life or afterlife of labor. The zombies of Haiti were either brainwashed humans or reanimated corpses without the ability to really think for themselves. They were robotic automatons used by evil men. But they didn’t eat brains. In fact I have yet to see a Haitian zombie film where they actually consume living humans in any form. I’m not saying they aren’t out there, I just haven’t come across them which leads me to think that the trend in Haitian zombies is that they don’t typically even eat humans.
It’s really not until Night of the Living Dead comes out that we start to see zombies in the mainstream as consumers. This is when the standard types of zombies we see in movies today really solidified themselves in the social subconscious. Now, no longer simply slaves to humans, or mindless things, the slaves had risen up and were willing to not only fight their oppressors, the humans who enslaved them, but actually consume them.
Ok, yes, I’m applying an overarching connection between the Haitian zombie flicks of the 1930’s to the anti consumerist zombie flicks of the 60’s and 70’s that may not really exist. But remember, we’re looking at the way zombies have been viewed by the general public over the decades.
Here again the zombies seemed for the most part, mindless. Though they could use tools, like their Haitian predecessors, they still stumbled about in a roughshod sort of way and had very little direction to their action. They had only a single stream of thought, consume people.
And brains had nothing to do with it. These zombies were flesh eaters.
It wasn’t until Return of the Living Dead came out in the 80’s that zombies were given the power of speech and the hunger for brains. Even then they were still flesh eaters. They still tried to eat humans but the brains were a particular delicacy and the main target of their desire. Oddly enough, it was these zombies, the smartest of all, walking, talking, tool using and clever that most desired our brains.
So after decades of zombie lore involving essentially mindless zombies with no desire for brains, we finally got quite clever zombies who were mad for them. These two images have mixed up a bit since the 1980’s. We now have the predominantly foolish zombies with a few hints of smarts still eating flesh but occasionally going after our brains. They have gotten physically more threatening but not much smarter.
The only good explanations I’ve seen for why zombies want brains are the comedy Warm Bodies in which the zombies want to consume not the brains but the memories of the people they eat and Return of the Living Dead which gave us brains as a sort of pain killer for the dead. That at least seems psychologically more plausible than the memory consumption but somehow memory consumption is more satisfying.