Is there any precedence for zombies or other undead seeing in the dark in other media?
Yes, in fact I would venture to say the vast majority of depictions of all kinds of undead have them operating just fine in the dark.
Why would undead require light to see? They either have:
- No eyes (skeletons)
- Rotted burst eyes (zombies)
- Spirit eyes (all the incorporeal junk)
Furthermore, loads of other undead depictions in media have them not inhibited in the dark at all - usually that's where they have an edge on the living!
Did undead have darkvision in previous editions?
Yes, in earlier editions undead could see in the dark.
In 3e+ it was specifically darkvision. In earlier editions it was hotly debated if and how - "Life sense," "mystical sight" from being magically animated, whatever. The rules were all hole-y and house ruled back then. But most people let undead see in the dark (the unintelligent ones would be mighty useless otherwise, not like they can light torches, and the incorporeal ones are moving through walls so how do they see light or no, and vampires and such are the definition of creatures of the night...).
There wasn't darkvision per se in editions prior to 3e. 1e AD&D didn't mention this at all. 2e labeled undead as "Activity Cycle: Night" and did not explicitly mention infravision for them. Modern RAW theory would conclude that undead can't see in the dark. That was not how we played back in the day, the concept of D&D as a complete legal system didn't reach fruition until 3e. None of the monster manuals had all the senses detailed like they do now, so there was a lot of interpolation. I think giving them all darkvision in 3e is just a codification of how the game was effectively played.
In OD&D and earlier all monsters can see in the dark, but no players can do so. (The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures) So undead could see in the dark, but so could all the critters.
Why do undead have darkvision in 4E?
Because they did in previous editions, and it seems to make sense since undead are known for operating in the dark. Therefore, undead have darkvision in 4e.
Why did the designers let undead see in the dark originally?
Now keep in mind that D&D does some approximation. "Darkvision" and other senses are often just used as code for "can operate in the dark as well as the day" not that they can technically see. So for example, the Walking Dead wiki discusses zombies as found in that universe. "They can also use sight to distinguish living from the dead, although they seem to have poor eyesight as their irises fade and decay, but they make up for it in very heightened senses of hearing and smell. Darkness seems to have little effect on zombies' senses at close ranges, and in areas devoid of light they can still find their way around as they would in the day." So a game designer just says "darkvision." Would it perhaps be more precise to give them something like blindsight? Maybe. But D&D is more worried about the condition effects - if you don't have penalties due to not being able to see, then you have sight, effectively. The name of the ability is to some degree just fluff.
For all monsters that have darkvision, from drow to demons to undead, it was an essentially arbitrary decision. "This critter, is it in the dark a lot? It should be able to see in the dark. Voila, darkvision." It's not black magic.