Stop an average stranger on the street and ask them what a zombie is. Chances are they’ll give you a strange look. And then say that a zombie is a flesh-eating monster.
They’d only be half right.
What few people know is that the lurching, ravenous undead of the screen have only been around for forty years. Before George Romero gave them teeth and the urge to use them in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, zombies were little more than brainless slaves.
The zombie was first given life in the Caribbean of the early 1800’s, where the sugar cane plantations were worked by thousands of African slaves. Here, the zombie became intrinsically tied to the Vodun (or “voodoo”) religion.
Voodoo has gotten a majorly bad rap thanks to Hollywood—and okay, yeah, there are ceremonies where the occasional chicken meets its maker in order to bring the congregation closer to said maker. But for a chicken, that’s a much more exciting way to check out; most just end up in a KFC bucket.
But back to the point: zombies! For the Caribbean people, zombies were basically the worst thing that could possibly happen to them. This wasn’t because they feared being attacked by zombies. No, they feared becoming them. Cross the wrong Vodun priest, give your master some lip, and chances were good that you’d find yourself waking up in a coffin without any memory of who you once were.
See, the earliest zombies were people who had been brought back to “life” through black magic and arcane potions made of ground fish and noxious herbs. Only the darkest priests knew the rituals, but the results were always the same. The resurrected would be mindless, utterly subservient creatures.
For a country populated by slaves and the descendants of slaves, zombies were the ultimate terror. At least a slave could look forward to an escape in death—a sort of long and peaceful respite from whips and chains. But if you were brought back as a zombie, you could be forced to work until you were literally falling apart. A shuddering thought, to say the least.
Officially, the zombie has been around since 1819. That’s when the term first appeared in The Oxford English Dictionary. And as any civilized person will tell you, something doesn’t exist until it’s been properly written down; never mind the generations of folk who passed the story down from mouth to mouth.
The first recorded sighting of a flesh-and-blood zombie didn’t come until 1929, when the American adventurer William Seabrook was taken to see a group of them toiling at a field in Haiti. Then again, perhaps Seabrook’s word should be taken with a grain of salt. This was the fellow who refused to write about cannibal tribes in the Amazon until he’d joined them for a leg of man (he reportedly said it tasted like pork, but needed more, yes, salt).
It wasn’t until 1932 that a zombie stalked the silver screen, in the Bela Lugosi-helmed White Zombie. And it was a rather disappointing debut, at least from our bloodthirsty vantage. These monsters, firmly rooted in the Caribbean mythology, simply stared silently at the screen; they never attacked a fainting damsel, or clawed at a square-jawed hero. The true villain of the piece was Lugosi as the Vodun sorcerer Murder Legendre. Granted, he’d had plenty of practice at that, and the name was a bit of a tip-off.
In the next three decades, zombies became the abused stepchildren of cinema. It took maybe five dollars to turn an actor into an undead monster. Just slap some clay and paint on their faces, and voila! As a result, they made appearances in fare that was sub par, shoddily made, and barely seen, the sort of films that are only worth watching with the boys of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
The two bright spots were easily Abel Gance’s poignant anti-war picture J’accuse, in which the dead of the first World War rise from their graves as a warning to a society fast approaching a second clash—properly chilling stuff, as the zombies were played by actual disfigured veterans—and Val Lewton’s hauntingly beautiful I Walked With a Zombie.
If you have yet to see either, I highly recommend both. J’accuse is difficult to find, especially subtitled, but there are several fine copies of I Walked… out there. As further enticement, that film’s basically Jane Eyre in the Caribbean, but with zombies! How can that combination disappoint?
But when it comes to the zombie as a truly frightening monster, it wasn’t until an upstart Pennsylvanian director named George Romero stepped onto the scene that cinema changed forever.
No one thought it would amount to much, not even the cast and crew involved. Romero simply wanted to make enough collateral to ensure a second, more “art-house” film. Zombies were cheap to do and everyone likes horror movies. And as for that daring choice (especially in the racially turbulent 60’s) to cast an African American man as the movie’s hero? Duane Jones just happened to be the best actor in the makeshift cast and got the part by default.
It’s almost laughable in retrospect, how such an influential and game-changing film like Night of the Living Dead could have been cobbled together so casually. Of course, once the crew decided they were doing a horror film there was nothing casual in how they presented their material. With images that mirrored the race riots in America and the Vietnam War abroad, Romero refused to pull any punches. He knew that in order to make his film stand out, he had to really amp up the body horror. Thus, the flesh-hungry zombie was born.
The reaction was visceral and immediate: American audiences lost their minds. That’s no exaggeration. People vomited in theaters as the undead tore hungrily into the barbecued remains of Tom and Judy. Children who had expected the typical silly monster movie wailed in abject terror. Roger Ebert strenuously warned parents to keep their families away from a movie that had the potential to “destroy minds”.
And just like that, the zombie had changed forever. Since 1968, almost every film to feature them has been heavy on the gore, brought in the buckets of blood, and featured ravenous ghouls tearing frantically into their screaming victims.
If you’re a horror fan like me, it really warms the cockles of your heart. And for the scientific, it’s an eloquent illustration of evolution. For a creature that began “life” as a blank canvas, easily malleable and tied to mysticism, the zombie now has quite the potent bite. With appearances in comics, television, and thousands of films, it’s truly a force to be reckoned with.
Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. You can find her at Livejournal.com under the handle “zombres”.
Catch up on all our awesome zombie content for Undead April!