Dead Folks Walking: A History of Zombies in Hollywood
Ask someone what they think of when they hear the word zombie, and they will probably describe a scene from Romero's Night of the Living Dead, where a rotten corpse walks with arms outstretched, looking for human victims to gnosh on. Most modern zombie movies are some variation on this theme. The ways in which the zombies are made are quite varied, but the living dead almost always have some common traits: they're rotten, they don't talk much, and they have an insatiable need to attack people, more often than not with a snack in mind.
Most zombie movies that are post-Night of the Living Dead (1968) borrow from it for their zombie mythos. Zombies did not spring straight from Romero's head, though. Where did these gory creatures come from? The world of cinema is infamous for taking liberties with original material. It should not be surprising, then, that the movie zombies of today show some changes from their predecessors.
The idea of zombies was introduced to mainstream western culture in 1929 when W. B. Seabrook wrote The Magic Island, detailing his observations of life in Haiti, including the practice of voodoo. Zombies are part of the voodoo religion, although only of a small subsect, referred to as the "cult of the dead." The practitioners of mainstream voodoo typically wanted nothing to do with these necromancers, according to Seabrook. Nevertheless, in the decades to come, in western culture the ideas of voodoo and zombies became inextricably intertwined.
The release of this book inspired a movie in the burgeoning film industry, White Zombie (1932). In it, a young couple stopping off in Haiti to get married fall victim to "Murder" Legendre, a voodoo practitioner played by Bela Lugosi. The zombies in this film are fairly close to Seabrook's portrayal: they are mindless slaves being used as cheap labor. They need to be taken from the grave almost immediately after being buried; if they have started to rot, they are no good. Seabrook's zombies won't attack you, either. When they aren't working away under the eye of their master, they're staring blankly into space.
In White Zombie, however, the makers of the movie were already modifying the legend to suit their own ends (to good effect, I might add). Legendre was able to control his zombies from afar. He had only to send a mental command, and they would obey. Many times these commands involved attacking someone, giving screen zombies their first taste of bloodshed. Another difference was that, while the zombies in Seabrook's tales can never come back to life, those in White Zombie can sometimes shake off the spell that binds them and be normal again.
Although not as popular as the more dashing Dracula or the more physically impressive Frankenstein, zombies took their place on the silver screen. A few more zombie films came out in the 1930s. The makers of White Zombie came out with an atrocious sequel, Revolt of the Zombies (1936), where those who became zombies didn't even appear to die, they were just hypnotized slaves.
The 1940s brought some new things to zombie films. Unlike other undead, zombies required a human agent to bring them back, an agent who, of course, was evil. Given that most of the western world agreed that the Nazis were pretty bad people, the production of several Nazi zombie movies was inevitable. Borrowing voodoo for their own heinous ends, the Nazis used zombies to build armies, gather intelligence, and plan invasions of the USA. John Carradine played a Nazi scientist building a zombie army in a Louisiana swamp in Revenge of the Zombies (1943).
The massive industrialization of the US during the 1940s was echoed by a growing disdain of mysticism and a growing faith in mechanical things. Although voodoo still played a large factor in many zombie films, some filmmakers thought they could relate to the audience better if the zombies were brought about by more scientific means, generally some medical sleight of hand.
Zombie films in the early 1940s also echoed a trend that was seen in the wider scope of American horror films. Instead of using fantastic creatures and villains in a story to probe at the darker places of their audiences' psyches, horror had swung more and more toward making the mere inclusion of fantastic creatures the point of the film. Characters both good and evil had become two-dimensional. Perhaps in an attempt to maintain flagging interest, horror began incorporating well-known comedians into its movies. The prolific Mantan Moreland, an African-American comic actor who unfortunately was often placed in stereotyped roles, was cast in King of the Zombies (1941), a comedy about three Americans crash landing on an island populated by zombies (controlled by a Nazi spy, of course).
The waning popularity of classic horror was furthered by new fears awakening in the world. After WW II, the specter of atomic warfare was a fear more real than black magic and the undead. This, combined with rumors of alien visitations (for instance, Roswell in 1947), caused a new genre to expand and fill the void: science fiction. Creatures from apocalyptic futures and threatening extra-terrestrials were rendered on screen as the new boogeymen. Oddly enough, though, this turned out to be just what horror needed. It was a small step from the reality-based fears of science fiction (possible reality, that is) to the more fantastic imaginings of horror with a new element: modern science gone awry.
When the next zombie movies appeared, the zombies were being raised by our own black magic, atomic energy. In Creature with the Atom Brain (1955), an ex-Nazi scientist is using atomic zombies to aid him in his schemes. In Invisible Invaders (1959), aliens inhabit the bodies of the recently deceased. Zombies now had also taken on a more menacing cast in and of themselves, not just being the slaves of evil masters, as film-makers decided to heighten their scare factor.
Zombie movies continued to flit between voodoo and science through the next decade or so, as various evildoers used their undead slaves toward terrible goals. In 1968, George Romero took zombie films to the next logical step. What if the zombies didn't have a master? What if they just got up and started attacking people on their own? And if science could make zombies on purpose, why couldn't something happen to make them accidentally? The result was the Earth passing through the tail of a comet, and a world full of hungry zombies.
After Night of the Living Dead, zombiedom exploded. Zombies were made in all manner of ways, from radiation to animal bites, and they appeared in all sorts of genres: comedies, mysteries, and action films. Zombies also continued to be used as the finger to point at the evils of the day. Instead of Nazis, big industry was at fault for spilling toxic waste that transformed people into rotten flesheaters, or the military was to blame for trying to create a soldier who couldn't be hurt. For those who are pro-organic food, in Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974), a sonic machine designed to help crops by eradicating insects ends up raising the dead as well. Sometimes there is no message at all, just some good old-fashioned zombie mayhem.
The modern zombie is a far cry from the humble undead worker of the cane fields in Haiti. I certainly know which I would rather meet on a dark night. But the modern zombie is here to stay, to the enjoyment of zombie lovers everywhere.
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