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In the MM a zombie has the following property:

Undead Fortitude. If damage reduces the zombie to 0 hit points, it must make a Constitution saving throw with a DC of 5 + the damage taken, unless the damage is radiant or from a critical hit. On a success, the zombie drops to 1 hit point instead.

Is "damage taken"…

  1. the total damage since the start of the fight (which makes it impossible to pass, as the first DC is equal to 5+22+damage taken),
  2. total damage since first use of this property (which makes most sense to me, as a zombie becomes weaker the more damaged it is), or
  3. the current attack's damage (which makes a zombie a very difficult opponent for a 1st level party)?

Yesterday I ruled the third way, and four zombies wiped the floor with the party, as most attacks of my party did a mere 4–5 points of damage with no crits or radiant damage from anybody, which made it DC 9 and easy to pass. It took five turns before one almost-dead zombie failed the check.

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It’s the damage that reduced the zombie to 0 hit points.

You were applying the ability correctly. The phrase damage taken is referencing the beginning of the sentence If damage reduces ....

Note that four zombies (CR 1/4) is a deadly encounter for four 1st-level characters, so the outcome you describe is as expected. Of course, you can always fudge things in combat if you feel like the encounter you designed was much tighter than you intended.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Technically, CR 1 is RAW considered "A decent challenge". And it was part of DDEX1-1 Defiance in Phlan, "Dead at Highsun". EDIT: oops, forgot the enemy count multiplier... \$\endgroup\$ – Paweł Mach Feb 4 '18 at 12:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PawełMach yeah, regular 1/4 CR zombies give 50XP each, with 4 enemies that's 200XP, except adjusted it's 400XP - which counts as "deadly" for 4 or less players. Mind you, adjusted XP are not always omnipotent - I generally have to increase the difficulty for encounters. What's more relevant are the actual stats - like Undead fortitude, damage resistances or maximum HP reducing abilites (e.g. a Specter, which is CR1, can easily deal enough damage with one attack to reduce most level 1 charcters to 0 max hit points, which means instant death) \$\endgroup\$ – PixelMaster Feb 4 '18 at 21:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ Plus it sounds like your party lacked radiant damage capability (or were unaware of its helpfulness) and so the fight was even harder than the CR describes (for this party). Radiant damage is pretty hard to come by at level 1. Clerics get the Sacred Flame and Word of Radiance (XGtE) cantrips, but without a Cleric you could be doomed against undead. Even a Paladin is no help until level 2 when they can use their precious smites. \$\endgroup\$ – Nick Brown Feb 5 '18 at 16:35

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