The idea of the reanimated corpse shambles along the pages of history, and even before there were written records the undead were with us. The modern iteration of the zombie is not one of these creatures, but it is something new. A revenant fueled on modern fears of infection, and mass hysteria, while birthed from the ancient fear of reanimated corpses. The power of the modern zombie comes from the persistent fear of disease and infection. This infection is then paired with different social, economic, and cultural fears to create an ever evolving, but constantly horrifying creature that has become a staple of modern American and even global popular culture. The zombie is a stand in for all sorts of fears. Romero used the zombie to first lay bare the fear of encroaching infectious communism in Night of the Living Dead then he turned 180 degrees and took a shot at commercialism in Dawn of the Dead. Romero proved that the zombie can stand for almost any modern fear because essentially the mindless, raving zombie is man himself.
Four Distinct Origins
Our modern zombie who slowly ambles or even quickly chases our hero across the film or TV screen is really the amalgamation of four separate monsters from different portions of the world. The revenant, the ghoul, the vampire, and the Haitian creature of the same name, but different attributes raised up by voodoo. All these undead forms combine in the modern cinematic zombie. It wasn’t until late in the twentieth century that all these were finally condensed into one by George Romero that we get the fully formed creature.
The revenant who is sometimes confused with the modern zombie is probably the closest ancient creature to the modern zombie myth. Revenants were undead creatures from Western European mythology that rose from their graves at night after burial to harass and attack the living. Traditionally those killed by revenants did not themselves come back from the dead. Instead like vampires in Eastern Europe the revenants spread disease and death to the living they attacked. Chapter 24 of book five of the History of England by William of Newburgh attempts to lay out a chronological history of revenants and their attacks on innocent people.
It would not be easy to believe that the corpses of the dead should sally (I know not by what agency) from their graves, and should wander about to the terror or destruction of the living, and again return to the tomb, which of its own accord spontaneously opened to receive them, did not frequent examples, occurring in our own times, suffice to establish this fact, to the truth of which there is abundant testimony. It would be strange if such things should have happened formerly, since we can find no evidence of them in the works of ancient authors, whose vast labor it was to commit to writing every occurrence worthy of memory; for if they never neglected to register even events of moderate interest, how could they have suppressed a fact at once so amazing and horrible, supposing it to have happened in their day? Moreover, were I to write down all the instances of this kind which I have ascertained to have befallen in our times, the undertaking would be beyond measure laborious and troublesome; so I will fain add two more only (and these of recent occurrence) to those I have already narrated, and insert them in our history, as occasion offers, as a warning to posterity. (Newburgh)
Revenants were always thought to have been evil personas in life as well and their evil deeds haunted them beyond the grave. The revenant is also killed in a similar way to the more popular vampire. Beheading the corpse and burning it traditionally stop the revenants from returning from their graves. Revenants however do not have a taste for human flesh. They are most often depicted attacking with claws a teeth but not devouring their victims. The revenant is however a mindless killing machine, much like the modern zombie
Ghouls like revenants are undead creatures. They haunted graveyards at night and unlike the revenant they ate the bodies of the dead and sometimes the living. The mythology of the ghoul was originally Mesopotamian and later Arabic but the idea spread into Western culture at the end of the 18th century from the gothic horror novel Vathek.
“At the moment that their attendants were placing two wreaths of their favourite jasamines on their brows, the Caliph, who had just heard the tragical catastrophe, arrived. He looked not less pale and haggard than the goules that wander at night among graves.” (Beckford 99).
Ghouls display some very classic zombie features. These creatures seek out human flesh in Western stories it is usually the flesh of the dead but in Arabic stories it can be either, they are also undead creatures who have left their graves for the land of the living. The biggest difference and like the revenants is that their curse is not transferrable. They may kill the living but they do not infect the living, they are also not mindless often being depicted as cunning hunters.
The vampire unlike the other two early creatures is an infectious disease of a sort. In the vampire we come close to the very modern nature of the zombie. While vampires lack some distinct criteria such as mindlessness, he and his kin are more closely related to the modern zombie than even the Haitian undead which bears its name. Vampires have become creatures of infection and so are the modern zombies. In fact the infectious nature of zombism is what powers the fear of the zombie. Without the ability to infect a zombie would not really be much of a monster. This infectious nature of vampires was not a classical aspect of the monster and other than one or two stories of vampires creating other vampires the infectious nature of vampirism is really a result of an update to the story in the 19th century. Most vampire attributes “are in fact creations of the fictional vampire, as drawn by Western writers of the nineteenth century.” (Wasik, Murphy). As the 19th century wore on more and more was learned about infectious disease and rabies was raging in Europe. Even on the verge of a cure the disease was being linked to vampirism in fiction. Vampires were to come into possession of the most powerful horror that science could conjure…disease. The idea that a sane man or woman could be permanently transformed into a raging blood fueled monster is terrifying. Even more so would be the zombie who is not only a raging infectious monster, but mindless as well.
The final creature needed to create the modern zombie was an undead creature resurrected by magic and controlled by a mystical wizard or witch. The word Zombie or Zombi is relatively new. It is supposed to have been first used in the book History of Brazil by Robert Southey in 1819. The book is online and after an exhaustive search of volume 1-3 in both English and Spanish this elusive first mention of the word was not to be found. Not to be detoured the next mention of zombies comes to us from the Haitian tradition. In Haiti the zombie is the corpse of a person thought to be revived into a sort of half life by a practitioner of voodoo. This necromancer is called bokor. These undead creatures serve at the behest of the bokor, who has removed the living soul from the body and use it to control the zombie. Zombies are not considered to be mythology in Haiti article 246 of the Haitian criminal code mandates that,
“Est aussi qualifié attentat à la vie d’une personne, par empoisonnement, l’emploi qui sera fait contre elle de substances qui sans donner la mort, auront produit un état léthargique plus ou moins prolongé, de quelque manière que ces substances aient été employées et quelles qu’en aient été les suites.“ this roughly translates to “Any qualified attempt on the life of a person, by poisoning , the use made against it without substances that cause death , have produced a more or less prolonged lethargy , however these substances have been employed and whatever may have been the result” (Haiti criminal code)
While zombies are considered people in prolonged states of lethargy induced by chemical substances under the law the mythology of the traditional zombie has little to do with our modern idea. Other than being revived corpses these creatures have very little in common with the popular mythology of the modern zombie. To find the roots of our modern brain eater we must combine aspects of all the undead that have shambled into Western culture.
Since the modern zombie is a combination of several creature archetypes from Western literature how did these creations amalgamate into the modern mythology? George Romero most certainly did not create his zombie creations out of whole cloth. His zombies have a very distinct Hollywood linage. White Zombie released in 1932 is the first zombie film. It depicts the traditional Voodoo zombie controlled by an evil bokor in this case played by Bela Lugos. Lugusi plays Murder Legendre who is a white bokor controlling zombies that work on his plantation. In a way this movie is a social commentary on the evils of slavery which ties into later zombie films which often have social commentary at their core. White Zombie is important because it set the stage for the look and feel of zombies in movie. The shambling dead eyes and even a hatred for the living that the dead exhibit in the movie translates to later work that would make the zombie less controllable and more menacing.
The modern zombie would never have developed without the work done by Richard Matheson in the book I am Legend which was published in 1954 and the movie made from the book called The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Prince in 1964. The film was released just four years before Romero was to film Night of the Living Dead and it is without a doubt a direct precursor to both Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. Matheson’s book and later movie depict a world that has been wiped out by a virulent virus. The virus kills most people but others it transforms into what are essentially vampires. The vampires have all the classic weaknesses. They can only come out at night, they are allergic to garlic, they can’t stand to see their reflection in mirrors, and they must be staked in the heart and then burned. These are not however the classic vampires in another sense. They are weak and slow. They shamble about exactly how you would expect a modern zombie to do. They do have a limited intelligence and can speak at times, but this seems to be an exception that only certain undead possess. The movie and the book are also social commentary. You discover at the end that not all the vampires are evil and that many of the vampires that the main character hunts down and kills during the day are actually fully human but suffering from vampirism. The moral of the story is a thinly veiled attempt at addressing racism. With his work Matheson sets up almost all the factors you will see in the future concerning zombie films. His work explores contagion, social commentary, post apocalypse living conditions, undead hordes attacking people who have walled themselves off from the outside, and isolation. Isolation is almost certainly the cure to infection but it is also a prelude to fear. Who is to be trusted? Matheson packs all this into his work.
Modern Fears and the survival of the Zombie
Romero picks up where Matheson left off. The importance of these films are that all of Romero’s Zombie movies are social commentaries. In an interview he did with Rick Curnutte in the Film Journal Romero states, “We really were trying to make it as much a metaphor as it was a thrill ride. And I’ve always tried…I don’t know, I’ve never wanted to just do movies about guys in hockey masks with knives, you know? I don’t think that way. I sort of think of what underlies it first.” (Curnutte,Romero). This is at the heart of what makes zombie movies constantly relevant. There is a constant repositioning of the zombie as a social problem. Romero’s zombies are contagious but that contagion is of an unknown origin. In the interview with Curnutte he said, “There were three proposed causes, and we cut two of them out because the scenes were boring and the scenes around them were boring, and that one we left in because it was part of that newscast and it made it seem a little bigger. And that became for a while, people said, “Oh, that’s what happened.” You know, some Venus probe came back and brought some kind of bug. And so I was determined…I don’t want there to be a cause.”(Curnutte, Romero) If the cause were known it may be curable. Romero wanted to keep the audience paranoid and thinking. It worked.
The idea that zombism is an infection becomes real to a modern audience. This realism is important in the staying power of the zombie as a modern monster. Matheson’s vampires were too much a creature of legend. Vampirism is equated with magical thinking. The zombie gave the audience a monster with a scientific cause. A virus that can reanimate the brain and causes the dead body to walk among the living. While this is still a dead body walking around to the modern audience disease, infection, and even inoculation are just as magical. They are things that can’t be seen affecting people in ways that are not understood by the average person. Deep down we see infection as the harbinger of death…why not an undead harbinger.
Zombism as a metaphor for infection and even death was enough to scare the audience but the modern zombie represented much more. Directors like Romero came to link zombies with communism, commercialism, AIDS, terrorism, and even the fear of global warming. Anything that the modern mind feared could be linked to the zombie. At the end of the twentieth century and beginning of the twenty first vampires had been reformed. They sparkled and granted eternal life to good little boys and girls. Werewolves hardly existed on the horror scene replaced by serial killers in masks, who were frightening, but were certainly not world threatening. Frankenstein had stopped being scary the day after the first heart transplant, and forget about the mummy. The mummy was stuck in action comedy. Zombies became kings of horror because the zombie was everything and everywhere. Anyone could become a zombie at anytime.
This brings us back to the real underlying fears of zombism. Infection and Isolation are the currents within the mythology that cause fear to wash over the public. We have talked at length about infection, but what about isolation? In a zombie movie or TV show isolation is the result of the zombie apocalypse. You are left alone in a world of monsters who want to eat you and survivors who want to steal what you have and occasionally they also may want to eat you. You are alone. The reason this is horrifying to the viewer who is not really experiencing a zombie outbreak is the fact that the viewer realizes that they are living in this isolation even without hordes of zombies at their door. Isolation is even more personal than the fear of infection. We all experience isolation. Do we know our neighbors in the twenty first century? Do we trust them? That is a fear that everyone can relate too. It is not a fear that other traditional monsters inspire.
When looking for the roots of the modern zombie the quest can either take you to creatures that are not quite a perfect fit, or to creatures that when combined become the modern zombie. Modern zombies are creatures of modern mythic thinking. They are the embodiment of the fears of modern men written on the template of older monsters. The ancient undead pulling themselves out of the grave pale in comparison to the power modern men have given to our current creature. No monster had the power to destroy the entire world, which was solely the domain of gods in older mythic thinking. The zombie is able to accomplish that feat without a second thought, because infections do not think. Zombies are scary because the zombie embodies any fear we may have as an individual and they embody fears that all humans have such as disease and isolation. This is a very powerful combination. It leaves the zombie in the position of the king of the monsters, a creature so flexible it encompasses any fear.
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Curnette, Rick “There’s No Magic: A Conversation With George A. Romero” The Film Journal. http://www.thefilmjournal.com/issue10/romero.html . Web. 4 Dec 2014.
Haitian Penal Code http://www.oas.org/juridico/mla/fr/hti/fr_hti_penal.html . Web 4 Dec 2014.
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