Legacy of the Dead: History of the Zombie | CMU Libraries
in 1968, george romero changed everything about zombie movies, except, of course, that he didn’t. Although often cited as the key film in the now ubiquitous zombie genre, Rosemary’s Night of the Living Dead never used the term ‘zombie’. instead, he referred to his reanimated undead characters as ‘ghouls’. Initially, the filmmaker himself avoided any reference to zombies, citing Richard Matheson’s novel ‘I Am Legend’ as the main inspiration for his horror work. That novel (filmed three times, most recently starring Will Smith) tells a story of plague-created vampires facing off against a single human survivor. so if night of the living dead isn’t really about ‘zombies’ and rosemary didn’t change everything, why do we think he did? To answer that question we have to do a little digging ourselves.
The roots of the zombie tradition in American theater can be traced back to Henry Francis Downing’s 1914 ‘Voodoo.’ Although it did not directly feature the undead known as zombies, the play was set in the Caribbean and featured Voodoo. . magic as part of the plot, which are essential elements in zombie lore. Downing was an African-American member of the diplomatic corps in Liberia, but he wrote a variety of plays and novels based on his own globetrotting knowledge. An intriguing ‘what if’ of film history involves the fact that famed African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux was familiar with (and made a film based on) Downing’s work. Always on the lookout for potentially filmable stories written by African-American authors, Micheaux could easily have placed himself at the forefront of a new genre had he made a film version of Downing’s work, but the exotic story doesn’t seem to have caught his eye. p>
Even if he had entered the field, micheaux would not have been alone. a small but not insignificant number of films from the teens and twenties used plots that included voodoo themes, but none of these have survived. Instead, the distinction of being the first zombie film is usually bestowed on Victor Halperin’s 1932 work, White Zombie. starring bela lugosi, this film defined the basic parameters of ‘zombieness’ that would be in place before rosemary appeared on the scene. set in an exotic tropical climate (rule #1) whose voodoo-aware population is largely black (rule #2), the plot involves the evil sorcerer legendre who is an expert in voodoo (rule #3). he uses a drug to ‘kill’ his enemies and then enslave his undead bodies (rule #4). This practice ends badly for almost everyone except her zombified love interest and husband, whom she returns to after Lugosi and her zombies plunge off a cliff to her actual (and final) death. conspicuously missing are any brain ingestions, actual revived corpses, or an unknown cause for the undead’s antics.
White Zombie was a financial success for its independent producers, but it didn’t spawn countless imitators. instead, zombies and voodoo made occasional movie appearances for the next ten years. The Halperins attempted an unsuccessful follow-up in 1936 called the Zombie Revolt. Veteran silent film director Marshall Neilan filmed a voodoo story called Chloe in 1934. Nina Mae Mackinney (“Black Grace”) appeared in a voodoo tale called The Devil’s Daughter in 1939. All of these films followed the established template, highlighting the local exotica, highlighting black cast members, and using menacing voodoo curses. still, no eating brains…
During World War II, three movies brought zombies into the mainstream. Two comedies, Ghost Breakers and Zombies on Broadway included zombified characters, though they dispensed with most of the other trappings that had previously defined zombie/voodoo film. The first (a successful Bob Hope vehicle) featured famed African-American actor Noble Johnson as a menacing presence on the Caribbean estate inherited from Paulette Goddard, but didn’t dwell on the character’s possible voodoo origins (Johnson was a major actor in the early days). Africans). American cinema, but now he is best remembered as the native chief on skull island in the original version of king kong). Zombies on Broadway featured a pair of advertisers heading to the Caribbean to find a real zombie as part of an advertising campaign for a new nightclub. Employing poor Bela Lugosi as another zombie-creating villain, this film has one of the bumbling, decidedly undead comic duo injected with zombie serum as part of Lugosi’s experiments. luckily this provides the authentic zombie they need, but (unfortunately) the serum is gone when they return home. In both cases, a mostly white cast faces conspicuously black zombies, but any threat posed by the catatonic slaves is mitigated by the comedic aspects of the films.
A larger zombie movie was made by director Jacques Tourneur and producer Val Lewton, the duo who also created the Cat People and the Leopard Man. i walked with a zombie is probably the most accomplished and elegant of the pre-romero zombie movies but, once again, the focus is not on gore, but on the strongly supernatural leanings of the caribbean natives. those superstitions are used effectively to intimidate white plantation owners, but any resulting deaths are purely the result of disturbed psyches rather than a zombie threat.
Other zombie movies appeared in the following decades (valley of the zombies in 1946, mora tau zombies in 1957, etc.) but they continued at least lip service to the basic tenets of the established zombie/voodoo movie. by white zombie – and then george romero showed up.
Romero had good reason to call his undead creatures ‘ghouls’ instead of ‘zombies’. after all, they didn’t fit into any of the categories that would previously have defined the word. they were fully reanimated corpses, and there’s this whole feasting on the flesh of the living thing. However, by finally adopting the term, what Romero did was completely redefine the notion of the zombie. the Caribbean cultural context, the connections to a particular African diasporic experience, and the notion of zombies as slaves in the thrall of a master practicing witchcraft, all of that was swept away by Night of the Living Dead. the zombie is now a safe universal experience devoid of cultural specificity. everyone dies so that anyone can join the army of the undead. no knowledge of voodoo magic is required, as zombie is perpetuated by contact with other zombies, not religious rituals. zombies have now become cultural avatars of an entirely different kind. they are used to criticize consumerism, middle-class angst, and modernity (among other things). Romero’s achievement, in other words, is not simply a matter of popularizing zombies, it is the fact that by opening the door to separating them from their cultural roots, he gave them an entirely new cultural purpose. he didn’t change everything so much as he completely supplanted what was before. he took something local and made it universal. and it’s definitely worth thinking about.
by jeff hinkelman, video collection manager