by Michael Bloom
“And suddenly he thought, I’m the abnormal one now. Normalcy was a majority concept, the standard of many and not the standard of just one man … Full circle, he thought while the final lethargy crept into his limbs. Full circle.” (I am Legend, Richard Matheson 159)
Even for those who have never seen a zombie horror film, the mere mention of the subgenre conjures distinct images of mindless cadavers preying upon the flesh of the living, vulnerable only to serious head trauma. Such an interpretation, while not necessarily absolute, has emerged in the collective consciousness of the modern world in the wake of countless films subscribing to such an ideal. Yet this definition is distinctly inconsistent with the cultural origins of the zombie mythos, standing in stark contrast to the subservient reanimated drones rooted in Voodoo folklore. In actuality, the zombie as we understand it today is the direct result of auteur George Romero’s reimagining of the zombie identity. Beginning with his seminal Night of the Living Dead (1968) and continuing through to his most recent installment, Diary of the Dead (2007), Romero has purged the zombie genre of its culturally phobic roots and redefined it as a means of reflexive social commentary, subverting conventions within the genre both preceding and following his immense influence.
This essay will endeavour to explore the evolution of the zombie conception from its religious genesis through to its modern reinterpretation. First to be examined are the roots of zombie mythology in Afro-Caribbean Voodoo and their (mis)translation to American/European society, particularly through the influence of the horror classic White Zombie (Victor Halperin, 1932). Proceeding onward, I intend to establish the cinematic and sociological context of Night of the Living Dead’s release within the dissolution of the zombie subgenre and the expansion of American consciousness to the graphic and senseless violence present both in Vietnam and on the home front. Night’s prolific sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1978), will then be addressed as a furtherance of Romero’s revision and the refinement of his social discourse. The direct influence of both his ontological restructuring of the zombie creature and emphasis on social reflection will then be noted in the preservation and progression of the undead archetype in modern reimaginings such as Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) and Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004). Finally, Romero’s culmination of the Dead trilogy, Diary of the Dead, will be discussed as both a return to form and an alternative subversion of the 21st century zombie standard, defining the perennial quality of the auteur’s enduring vision and adaptability to transforming social currents.
Before addressing Romero’s work itself, it is necessary to understand that the zombie first originated in quite a different form than how it has been popularized in modern media, but that there still remain similarities in structure between the pre and post-Romero ghoul. Preceding the notion of the zombie as it was derived from voodoo demonology, the notion of the living dead is present in the very foundation of human psychology. Ghosts, vampires, and golems all find their roots in ancient folklore, and Bishop correlates this to Freud’s statement that “...to many people the acme of the uncanny is represented by anything to do with death, dead bodies, revenants, spirits and ghosts” (Bishop 200). Therefore the living dead, as with most fantastic archetypes of horror, is inevitably tied to the concept of the Uncanny, or the familiar rendered strange.
This idea is the direct result of the universal consciousness of human mortality and the fear involved in seeing those who were once alive (familiar) as an intersection of matter and spirit converted to death (unfamiliar), or pure matter devoid of what the ancient Greeks best described as Nous, roughly translated into “mind” or “soul,” but ultimately referring to that which animates objects. The uncanny nature of death stirs our fear of mortality, but when related to the living dead the uncanny matures into collective terror. Death, while frightening, is inevitable and can be accepted and thus made familiar. But the idea of an inanimate corpse revived into a form alien to its prior living state furthers the process of the unfamiliar into that which cannot be reconciled with natural laws. Hence, as seen in virtually any zombie film where a character must confront the reanimated corpse of a former friend or relative, the moment is often reserved for the climax or a significant plot point to magnify the relationship between the living and the undead. This is why Barbara finally succumbs to the ghoulish horde in Night when she sees her own zombified brother (1:25:45 – 1:26:05), or why “Helen Cooper does little more than allow herself to be butchered” (Bishop 203) when she finds her own daughter undead (1:24:30 – 1:25:25). Both women are unable to fight back because they are literally incapacitated by fear.
The function of the uncanny as the natural cause of fear toward the undead is universally human, but is not explicit to the zombie genre itself. In fact, the historical heritage of the proto-zombie stems from more social and ethnic anxieties revolving around the Afro-Caribbean community in the West Indies at the turn of the 20th century. Brought to the new world from Africa, stigmas of the primitiveness and primordial spirituality of the “dark” continent were transposed upon the same communities in the primarily African island of Haiti (Rhodes 70). With Haiti’s independence in 1804, the predominantly black nation ruled by Afro-Haitians became a source of anxiety for the American Southern Confederacy, who became increasingly fearful of their own slaves (Rhodes 70). Thus, the grounds for suspicion and fear of the Afro-Caribbean “Other” was set to erupt into misappropriation of Voodoo ritual through pejorative reports on Voodoo practice and William Seabrook’s (mis)anthropological book The Magic Island (1929), with its accusations of infanticide and cannibalism (Rhodes 72).
Due to the mélange of fact and fiction in reports on Voodoo practice, it is easy to see why there is no clear origin of the zombie concept. Rhodes states that the term had various spellings and various meanings throughout history, referring to the snake god “Zombi,” revenant spirits, and a pharmacological ingredient used in potions (75). Indeed, the etymology of the term is most likely found in the Kimbundu word nzúmbe, which coincides with the revenant definition (Bishop 197), but it was Seabrook’s defamatory book which first connected the term to the living dead in American culture (Rhodes 81). Whether Seabrook fabricated this connection or if it was prior terminology, adapting the word for a returned spirit to describe a returned corpse, is contentious, but the importance of his writing is that, like any good lie, it indeed contains an element of truth. Zombification was not invented by Seabrook, but he did exploit its mystical and occult premises. In reality, there are actual pharmacological practices within the Vodoun religion (for which voodoo is a Westernized misnomer) which are carried out by a very esoteric minority of bokors, or witch doctors. These practices are capable of simulating a temporarily death-like state (Bishop 198), interestingly similar to the potion given to Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Subjects of such a drug could be buried alive and return from the grave, undoubtedly triggering the uncanny fear of living death. Widespread publication of this misinterpreted phenomenon certainly laid the foundation for what would become the first zombie movie, Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932), which would capitalize on the American interest in and fear of Voodoo.
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