Zombies, as a concept have roots in non-fiction; "depictions of Voodoo and zombies drew on first-hand accounts written by Europeans and Americans." The 1929 travelogue, The Magic Island by William Seabrook is a rather one-sided, racist account of his two year time in Haiti living with a Voodoo priestess where he apparently is let in on "the secret formulas for bringing forth the undead". His credibility was received because of his maintenance of the status quo: white supremacist declarations of Black religious practices as essentially evil.
Zombies didn't make a significant splash as a theme until 1932's White Zombie, a film preoccupied with the concept of raising the dead to do one's bidding. While Black women are "largely absent" here, The Love Wanga (1936) starring Fredi Washington as Klili Gordon as a biracial plantation owner who is fueled by jealousy when the white male object of her affection marries a white woman. With Voodoo, she conjures 13 zombies to terrify and ultimately kill the "pure, white" bride.
In other zombie-themed films of the 1930's to the 1950's, Black women continued their mainstay as malicious "natives", maids, and general house servants to the white characters who were centralized in these stories. It really isn't until the 1960's and 70's that we see an imagined resurgence of zombies in film.
We celebrate Duane Jones (Night Of The Living Dead) and Ken Foree (Dawn Of The Dead) with good reason. They're two Black characters in the sea of horror scholarship that are talked about the most next to Tony Todd in regards to the Black presence in zombie cinema. But I wanted to take a moment to provide a snapshot of Black women in this arena. As time has passed, representations have varied much more than their Black male counterparts.
Zombie Game Changers
The Brides of Baron Semedi/Diana 'Sugar' Hill (Marki Bey) Sugar Hill
Michonne (Danai Gurira) The Walking Dead
Solitaire (Carla Greene) Shadow: Dead Riot
Solitaire's role is critical to the motives of the antagonist, Shadow (played by Tony Todd) as she's a rather hardened character by every test she's put through, even her battle with massive hordes of the undead.
Selena (Naomie Harris) 28 Days Later
Warren (Kellita Smith) Z Nation
Vanilla (Brittany Gael Vaughn) Zombies Vs. Strippers
Vanilla is front and center and ready to battle when patrons of The Tough Titty are ogling about with no pulse. It's a comedy that should be taken lightly.