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Undead Laborers

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"Undead are excellent replacements for living creatures in many ways. An undead guard never gets tired keeping watch. An undead horse never tires of marching. An undead porter won't complain about their back hurting from hauling your treasure. Sure, desecrating the bodies of the dead is "icky" or "evil" depending on who you ask, but you can't pay peasants to work 24/7 in highly dangerous conditions far from home, so sometimes you need to compromise ethics in favor of effectiveness."
Tyler Kamstra's analysis of the Animate Dead spell in Dungeons & Dragons

When someone uses The Undead, such as zombies and reanimated corpses, as a cheap labor force for simple but time-consuming tasks, such as mining. The "employer" of this undead workforce may be a living individual (most likely a Necromancer of some sort) or a likewise undead creature—but of a much more powerful and intelligent variety, like a Lich. From a business perspective, using undead workers is a very cost-efficient strategy: zombies and skeletons don't need to sleep or eat, never get sick, and are unlikely to spontaneously form undead trade unions due to lacking free will. As such, it is one of the least morally objectionable ways to use Human Resources, although it always depends on where exactly the dead are coming from.

The Voodoo Zombie traditionally overlaps with this trope. Compare Night of the Living Mooks, where disposable undead are instead used for battle. The Necrocracy is the opposite, where the ruling class are undead because it confers them advantages over the living, while the lower classes are mortals subjugated by fear or the promise of immortality (though simple-minded undead thralls may also exist in such societies, and becoming one would be a Fate Worse than Death; in fact, this is how the Haitians viewed the concept of zombies — becoming one was far more horrific than being attacked by one).

For a realistic and/or science fiction take on the subject, compare Job-Stealing Robot.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Gecko Moria of One Piece viewed the Thriller Bark pirates this way. Since zombies Feel No Pain, they'd make for great workers and combatants since they can't be put down... well, at least so long as nobody has any salt on them. He also hopes to avoid getting too personally attached to them this way, since his previous crew was slaughtered by Kaido.

    Comic Books 
  • Mr. Dark in Fables has a magical variation on this. If he can steal a live or dead person's teeth and eat them he can control them. And as the Anthropomorphic Personification of "Fear of the Dark" and human evil he's powerful enough to do that quite easily to any mere mortal. The person's body dies (if not already a corpse) and slowly withers, but keeps doing Mr. Dark's will until he finishes digesting all their teeth. At that point, their long dead body finishes decaying and crumbles up. Hence his name for these servants, "Witherlings". He uses these witherlings to build himself a home in Manhattan, Castle Dark, with enough magical anti-detection spells to make it Invisible to Normals.
  • One Hellboy gag comic shows that the skeletons, skulls and random bones that are an integral part of every Hellboy comic are actually animated and closer to the Classically-Trained Extra trope (one of them mentions getting to play Yorick's skull).
  • In Seven Soldiers of Victory (2005), the underground Limbo Town do not bury their dead but instead turn them into laborers in their fields.

    Fan Works 
  • Dungeon Keeper Ami: From Catastrophic Failure, Part 1, Crowned Death uses skeletons to build his high temple, as noted by Ami:
    She assumed that Crowned Death found it more economical to use his undead forces for construction than to make the dungeon heart spend gold. In particular if the latter could be used to fuel his arrival in this world instead.
  • The Palaververse: Zebrican alchemy makes and its country uses, undead labour:
    The widespread use of undead labour has shifted the lower class into those slightly more mentally-demanding and involved labouring tasks

    Film — Animated 
  • In Hotel Transylvania, Dracula's servants are all the mindless undead.
  • In Wonder Woman (2009), at least some of the souls that enter Hades' domain wind up as his slaves, made lifeless, emaciated shadows of their former selves free for him to abuse however he likes. This is demonstrated when he openly hits his cup-bearer Thrax just to get under his father Ares' skin. Ares ends up joining him after his defeat in Washington.

    Film — Live-Action 


By Author:

  • In Clark Ashton Smith's works:
    • The short story "Necromancy in Naat" has a trio of wizards oversee an island estate with the reanimated bodies of shipwreck victims. Unusually for the trope, when the necromancers die, the partially self-aware undead are happy to keep running the place for themselves, and the hero and his lover get to be Together in Death with "a shadowy love and a dim contentment."
    • In The Double Shadow, Avyctes uses mummies and liches as his domestic staff.
    • Two necromancers reanimate an entire city to serve them in Empire of the Necromancers. The undead don't like it.

By Title:

  • In the Craft Sequence, zombies are mentioned as being used for lower class labor, like street sweeping. While necromancy is commonplace, Technically-Living Zombie can be involved: Basically, people pay for things using a bit of their "soulstuff", and so if you run into debts, you risk losing all of your soul and then being put to work as a zombie until you’ve earned enough back to regain your sapience. There are plenty of unsavory zombie-labor firms, however, with predatory accounting techniques to keep people as zombies almost indefinitely.
  • In Crypt of the Sorcerer, Necromancer Supreme Razaak creates zombies as mining slaves in his underground tunnels. All of them with a number 6 branded in the inside of their arms.
  • Although it involves Voodoo Zombie rather than the undead, the Michael Swanwick Darger and Surplus story "Tawny Petticoats'' has the pair of con artist protagonists visit post-Singularity New Orleans, which has a large workforce of zombie slaves — people who are working off a debt (or in some cases were probably just shanghaied) and are kept in a drugged half-life until they Work Off the Debt, although it's implied that in most cases, the owners never free and the debt is a pretext.
  • A Dearth of Choice: The protagonist didn't intend to stack up a bunch of necromancy bonuses for his dungeon, but he does quite like how his skeletons are tireless and don't care about occupational safety.
  • The Sartan necromancers of Abarrach in The Death Gate Cycle reanimate all their dead, and set most of them to work at whatever tasks they performed in life (with living necromancers to supervise, as the dead can reproduce learned skills but not adapt well to changing circumstances, and as such will often end up mindlessly repeating whatever they were last doing to no effect without someone to babysit them). They also maintain an army of the dead.
  • Everworld: Hel is using skeletons to dig into Niddhog's lair and steal his treasure. They really are automatons, so when the heroes run into them, the skeletons basically dig at them instead of fighting.
  • The backstory of I Kissed A Zombie And I Liked It explains that vampires had to break The Masquerade in order to get Wal-Mart to stop using zombies as unpaid warehouse labour. Zombies in this setting are as intelligent and aware as ordinary humans if well-maintained, so this is literally slavery.
  • The eponymous secret division of British Intelligence in The Laundry Files often uses a contract clause to relegate employees that suffer fatal on-the-job accidents (of which there is no dearth) to "Residual Human Resources" status and reanimates them as zombies for the purpose of both manual and white-collar labor. Apparently some zombies make better paper-shufflers or security guards than actual living people.
  • The Locked Tomb: Skeletal servitors are common, especially in the Ninth House, which prides itself on its bone constructs. Animated skeletons do all the work in the Ninth House, from planting to harvesting to cleaning. This is a good thing, considering there are a grand total of three people on the planet under the age of fifty. In Gideon the Ninth, Harrow is rather put out when she reaches the First House and discovers it's filled with skeletal servitors far more advanced and responsive than anything she could ever come up with. Turns out that rather than being mindless programmed constructs, they're actually human souls bound to their own bones. Harrow considers this cheating.
  • Mogworld: The start of the protagonist's undead life begins with him being resurrected as one of Lord Dreadgrave's undead minions. However, due to a mistake in the spell, his undead horde is resurrected with their free will and personalities still intact; leading to a negotiation period to get them to act as his undead Labour force.
  • Mountain of Mirrors: Two sets of prisoners act like mindless zombies, having no enthusiasm or reaction to being freed.
  • In the Old Kingdom books Lirael and Abhorsen, Hedge uses hundreds of murdered refugees to dig up the Sealed Evil in a Can, as they're both tractable and able to withstand the frequent lightning strikes at the excavation site. He tells his "employer" Nicholas Sayre , who doesn't believe in magic, that they're very unwell—as Nick himself is very unwell, the excuse passes.
  • Overlord (2012):
    • The Empire is looking into using basic undead to perform primitive automation of tasks like farming to free up more men for the annual war with the neighboring Kingdom (the Kingdom fields elite knights but can barely afford to lose any in battle, the Empire fields huge amounts of levies so any losses are trivial and is bleeding the Kingdom yearly). Then Ainz comes along...
    • After the Empire willingly becomes Ainz' vassal, life is suddenly much easier now that their borders are guarded by tireless and obedient undead, especially since Ainz' minions take zero interest in the Empire beyond telling them "don't disrespect Ainz, do what you're told, and send your taxes on time".
  • Kevin J. Anderson's Resurrection, Inc is a sci-fi take on this concept. Corpses are reanimated as "Servants" using cybernetics and biotech, and put blue-collar workers out of work.
  • Reign of the Seven Spellblades: Zombie labor used to be very common in mage civilization, but necromancers had to spend a lot of time consoling the spirits of the dead (mainly through Magic Music). Above a certain quantity, this tended to become logistically impractical, leading to Zombie Apocalypse scenarios called "maelstroms" that are compared to entire towns being consumed by the spell. This is what happened to the Parsu precursor civilization who originally built the labyrinth under Kimberly Magic Academy; recurring character Cyrus Rivermoore is one of their descendants and is working to recover their lost necromantic arts.
  • The Wandering Inn: Erin, the Innkeeper, was given a skeleton by one of her regular customers, Pisces, who is a passionate necromancer, in order to pay his tab. He hoped she would use it, as a means of protection, though much to his regret she decided to use the undead as a...barmaid.
  • Warbreaker: There are occasional mentions of Lifeless being used for manual labor, though it's relatively rare as Lifeless are both fairly expensive and too mindless to perform most complex tasks. The bulk of Hallendren's Lifeless form its armies.
  • In Witches Abroad, Mrs. Gogol refutes the misconception that voodoo priestesses like herself use Voodoo Zombies, which is as untrue a rumor as dancin' naked and sticking pins in people is for the Lancrastrian witches. But, she admits, sometimes... just one zombie. When the house needs repainting.

    Live-Action TV 

    Tabletop Games 
  • Blue Rose: In the dark land of Kern, being dead is no excuse not to fill your labour quota for the Lich King. Living Kerns work the mines and fields alongside the zombies they will one day join.
  • In Deadlands, Baron Simone LaCroix, being a Voodoo master, uses zombies as workers building his railroad.
  • Dungeons & Dragons:
    • In the Jakandor setting, the Charonti use necromantic magic to raise the dead and have them perform manual labor.
    • In the Forgotten Realms booklet "The Settled Lands" from the supplement Elminster's Ecologies. An evil mage once used skeleton undead as farmworkers to tend his gardens.
    • Subverted in the Eberron setting with Karrnath's elite zombie forces. While they don't quite have free will, the fact that they have intelligence combined with being animated by energy from a plane of death and evil means that they default to killing things before too long. Per Word of God, part of the reason that Karrnath agreed to entomb their undead forces after the Last War was because they were worried about what would happen if they didn't. If you tried to use elite undead soldiers as farmhands, they'll eventually wander off and start killing innocent people. Mindless undead are another story, and the Blood of Vol sometimes uses simple zombies or skeletons as laborers, but they're usually too expensive (and the practice considered too abhorrent everywhere else) to be really common.
    • In the Planescape setting, the Dustmen use zombies and skeletons as menial labor. They'll pay living people a small, one-time sum for the right to use their corpse this way after the person has died.
    • In the Scarred Lands setting, the city of Hollowfaust is ruled over by necromancers who use skeletal undead to handle drudge labor, military defence and even a form of law enforcement, with nightly patrols by skeletons ordered to arrest anyone out after curfew or a public disturbance. Combined with the free healthcare provided by the highly trained Anatomist's Guild, one of the seven necromancer sub-schools, and Hollowfaust is noted to have one of the highest standards of living in the world, at the cost of a slightly authoritarian government.
  • In the Earthdawn supplement Barsaive in Chaos, the undead Horror construct Twiceborn leads an army of undead from Parlainth to the destroyed city of Vivane. Once there she has them form into work parties and begin repairing the city.
  • Common for necromancers in Exalted, especially for the Deathlords, some of whom has thousands of them. The Deathlord known as The Bodhisattva Anointed by Dark Waters has the citizens of the Skullstone Archipelago use them as part of the religion he created.
  • GURPS:
  • In Magic: The Gathering, the plane of Amonkhet is a place where everything becomes undead after death. This has been exploited to create a reliable workforce for the only place inhabited by the living on the plane. These Anointed are those who died without fulfilling the Trials made into obedient workers via enchanted cartouches. While the mortals spend their lives training to fulfill the Trials, the Anointed tirelessly handle everything needed to maintain the city. Most of the Gatewatch find the whole thing unnerving, though the necromancer Liliana is rather impressed. There's an amusing bit where they are startled when one of the Anointed immediately enters their room at an inn carrying a tray laden with bread and ale when Chandra mentions "breakfast". Come Hour of Devestation, they just keep doing the tasks that the cartouches are programmed with in the midst of the destruction.
  • In Pathfinder's Golarion setting, anyone who dies in the Necrocracy of Geb is reanimated as a zombie labourer unless they arrange to be made into an intelligent undead instead. Since the majority of Gebbites are undead, the country does a brisk trade in food from zombie-run plantations in exchange for various luxuries.
  • The Spoils features many undead menials. Referred to as "necromorphs," they mostly turn up in the Banker trade. They represent individuals who died in enough debt that resurrecting them as forced labor was profitable. Amusingly, Necromorphs are used not just for physical labor, but also for essential tasks that the living find interminably boring. This being The Spoils, this is alternatingly played for laughs (a long line of bureaucratic undead used to handle routine customer transactions is likened to an automated phone system, with the customer asking to, "Please speak to a living person.") and horror (A freshly wakened necromorph realizing that it took him 10 years to pay off the first 10% of what he owes.).
  • In Starfinder, the airless planet Eox is primarily inhabited by undead, and one of their primary methods for maintaining their population is offering reanimation contracts to the living of other worlds, offering either a lump sum for the right to reanimate them as mindless undead or reanimation as sapient undead in exchange for a period of Indentured Servitude.
  • Many powerful Necromancers, Vampires and other intelligent undead overlords in Warhammer use undead labourers for a variety of construction tasks.
    • Most prominent is the Great Necromancer Nagash, whose Black Pyramid was built by thousands of skeletons and zombies and thus towers over the more normal human-built pyramids of Khemri, where it sits (he eventually fled to the north, where he established the mine-fortress of Nagashizzar by hollowing out the mountain known as Cripple Peak, likewise excavated by zombies).
    • The Tomb Kings of Khemri even have mummified architects called Necrotects, who supervise skeletal work-gangs in the repair, rebuilding and expansion of their tomb-cities. So dedicated to their craft (and insulted by the deterioration of their monuments over time and especially marauding armies) are they that they give Hatred or Frenzy to their troops.

    Video Games 
  • In Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura, the P. Shuyler and Sons jewelry company is built over an ancient dwarven burial ground and uses undead dwarves as manual labour.
  • Dead Rising 4: Obscuris started the zombie outbreak in the first place in the hopes of training zombies for cheap labor and stabilize the economy. Frank, not surprisingly, thinks they're idiots after learning this.
  • In Divinity: Original Sin, the Immaculates turn out to be using zombies to mine the highly toxic metal Tenebrium from the Luculla Mines, since the undead are immune to the Rot (spread by contact with Tenebrium) and only require minimal upkeep. However, the problem is that to raise that many zombies, they had to slaughter all the original miners of Luculla and then keep bringing in slaves from the outside. Furthermore, they don't do a very good job at preventing them from escaping, which accounts for the recent undead attacks all across the region.
  • Dominions has this as an element of the nation of Sceleria, and playing a key backstory part in the Scelerian successor nation of Lemuria. In the Middle Age, Sceleria's Thaumaturgs took up raising undead to supplement its living legions in the fight against the undead hordes of Ermor (which Sceleria splintered from in the disaster that transformed Ermor), with cheap menial labour being a secondary effect. When the combined desperate efforts of several nations managed to destroy Ermor, the Thaumaturgs (feeling that undead guardians were no longer needed) turned to other pursuits, leading to unrest as they were accused of abandoning the common people for their own gain with people having gotten used to cheap undead labour, so the Thaumaturgs decided to end the matter by creating a permanent Underworld portal so the dead could cross over of their own accord. This is the reason why the Late Age has the ghost realm of Lemuria instead of a human Scelerian empire.
  • In Graveyard Keeper, you can technically do all the jobs yourself, but that takes time. So why not reanimate the dead and use them as mindless labor?
  • Heroes of Might and Magic IV has its Death campaign follow Gauldoth Half-Dead, an Anti-Villain Necromancer who instead of the traditional Mordor tropes turns his realm into a prosperous, safe and generally peaceful nation for both its living and dead inhabitants by using mindless undead for labor.
  • In Koudelka, this is a major plot point: It's revealed that every attempt to use the Émigré Manuscript to bring back the dead to the living world will be doomed to fail because the Formors who created the tome could never "unravel the secrets of the soul". As such, they could not restore the dead as they were in life and simply brought them back as mindless corpses to be used in slave labour.
  • In Kult: Heretic Kingdoms, a lot of these were created when necromancy was legal, and even though no more are being made, they're still around. Corralling idle zombie workers from abandoned mines and suchlike for resale is a valid way to earn a living.
  • Planescape: Torment: The Dustmen faction employs undead workers.
    • The Mortuary is a starting and otherwise significant location for the protagonist, given his ability to come back to life after dying (something he's apparently done many times). The facility itself has only a handful of actual living people, mostly run by many mindless zombie workers and skeleton guards.
    • In the city, several Dustmen offer people "contracts", essentially buying out rights for the person's corpse (when it becomes available, they're willing to wait) with a one-time payment in gold. They won't offer a contract if they're aware of the protagonist's immortality, but before that, you're free to sell your body to them. Their tenets have reaching True Death as life's goal, and so making use of the body doesn't hurt anyone: it's just an empty vessel when they collect it.
    • A Side Quest is available, in which a citizen is upset by the prospect of his body becoming a puppet in Dustmen hands. He signed the contract while drunk and deeply regrets it.
    • A zombie serves as a direction marker near an inn in Sigil. It has been written on and vandalized, but still points out the proper direction to go when someone says the name of a location.
  • Stellaris: Corporate empires with the "Permanent Employment" civic can create zombie slave POPs.
  • Super Lesbian Animal RPG: The backstory to the town of Mumford, where legions of zombies and mummies suddenly found themselves awake with no memories of their lives prior to said moment. When Melody and crew dig into it, they discover that the town's population had been resurrected to work on mining cryptocurrency for eternity. They eluded their fate, but the supercomputer that managed operations is still functional, and hopes to get them back to work soon.
  • In Tropico 2: Pirate Cove, building a graveyard on your island lets you resurrect dead pirates as skeletons that will haul cargo for you. Hauling is normally done by unpaid captives, so while skeleton haulers don't save you money on wages (and in fact even cost money in the short-term since you have to pay for each resurrection), they're still much more efficient long-term since skeletons never have to take breaks to eat or sleep, and it also frees up your unskilled captives to be reassigned to other jobs on the island such as farming and mining.
  • The Scourge faction in Warcraft III is entirely comprised of different types of The Undead, so it is an example of both The Necrocracy and this trope, as their basic worker units are ghouls that are only good for harvesting lumber.
  • Inverted in the World of Warcraft expansion Wrath of the Lich King, in which you see the necromancers and various undead forcing living slaves to mine the ore saronite. It's played straight in other areas of Icecrown, such as a mining operation near the Shadow Vault.

  • In the "First Generation Ninja American" arc of The Adventures of Dr. McNinja, a young Dr. McNinja is taken on his first hit by his grandfather and finds their target using a literal skeleton crew to excavate a cave deep below a pizza parlor.
  • In Dan and Mab's Furry Adventures, Lorenda mentions that the undead were once mindless slaves, especially to demon clans. When Dark Pegasus tried to animate them into his personal army for a Zombie Apocalypse, the undead gained sapience and personalities, and rebelled against their summoner. Lorenda further notes that many households simply destroyed their undead servants, since they couldn't be bothered to re-educate "ornamental furniture."
  • In The Order of the Stick, when Celia disguises herself as an evil fiendish necromancer to get past some hobgoblin guards, one of the guards gets suspicious that she hasn't raised a zombie to pull her cart for her; such a basic use of dark power to save yourself some manual labor is expected as a matter of course. His prudence gets him killed.
  • In Sluggy Freelance, the heroes force Zombie Head On a Stick to do mundane tasks for them like pick up an object five feel away. Interestingly, before becoming Zombie Head On a Stick, Jane was an intelligent (albeit evil and insane) zombie that worked in a fast food zombie-themed restaurant of her own free will. The heroes are able to change her personality and make her a prop they can use for stuff by starving her of flesh.
  • In Unsounded, zombies are called 'plods' and commonly used as cheap labor, though care must be taken with them since they have a zombie's usual Horror Hunger. Duane, one of the protagonists, is unusual in the fact that he is actually a revenant rather than a zombie, keeping his mind and magic skills. We later see that he reverts to the state of a plod at night, and the consequences of Sette not keeping control of him during that time.
  • The Weekly Roll:
    • Torvald the dwarf necromancer made deals with other dwarves, paying them in exchange for raising their bodies as undead (once they died of natural causes) and renting them out as tireless laborers. He was kicked out of his clan, not because of what he did, but because he didn't pay taxes on it.
    • Later, his undead actually do form a trade union.

  • 4chan: The Millennial King, a benevolent necrocrat imagined by /tg/, uses this as the foundation of the labour force. Mindless undead act as menial labour and reserve troops, leaving the living to enjoy skilled trades and the arts.
  • In SCP Foundation, SCP-1700 ("Debtshop") is an anomalous textile factory that reanimate people who died while wearing their scarves. The zombies created by SCP-1700 are forced to act as slave labor, creating more of the SCP-1700-A (magical yellow scarves) that animated them.

    Western Animation 
  • Scruffy the Janitor is killed in one episode of Futurama, but is seen again later with no explanation. In an even later episode, he's mentioned to be a zombie.
    Hermes: There'll be no promotions unless somebody dies. And, even then, only if we can bring 'em back as a zombie like Scruffy.
    Scruffy: Life and death are a seamless continuum.
  • In season 2 of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (2021), Skeletor sought the Sigil of Hssss so he could raise an undead army of Snake Men at his command. Season 3 reveals that he wanted the snakes not just for an army, but for a work force that can scour all of Eternia to find the tomb of King Grayskull so that the ghost of Skeletor can use Grayskull's remains in a ritual to bring himself back to life with greater power than ever before.
  • The Life and Times of Juniper Lee has a mummy named Skeeter Khomeingeit raising zombies so he can use them as a work force for his fast food chains in his debut episode.
  • Moville Mysteries: At the end of "The Novelty Kid", Norman is turned into a "Zombie Slave Boy" as a punishment for his greed.
  • One episode of Stroker and Hoop has the duo discover a line of Valentine's day teddy bears were being created by people turned into Voodoo Zombies for cheap labor. The problem, and the reason they were discovered, is that some of the workers kept turning some of the teddy bears into Voodoo Dolls.

Alternative Title(s): Undead Labourers