The Ultimate Guide
By Glenn Kay
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2012 Glenn Kay
All rights reserved.
What is a zombie film? How do you know if you're watching one? It's not as simple a question as it might at first seem, because what constitutes a zombie has changed over the years and continues to evolve. Recent films such as 28 Days Later(2002) and Dawn of the Dead (2004) have broadened the definition beyond the walking dead to include still-living characters infected with an incurable disease that extinguishes their personalities and turns them into bloodthirsty killers. Even the classic conception of the zombie, as a corpse that rises from the grave to feed on the flesh of the living — or at the very least slaughter them — became the standard only after the release of the classic 1968 horror film Night of the Living Dead.
The zombie's beginnings can be traced back much further still, to the beautiful but troubled country of Haiti. A Caribbean paradise filled with fruit and fertile soil for farming, Haiti was introduced to the European world by the Spanish, who declared the land theirs (much to the chagrin of locals) and named it Santo Domingo. Sometime later the French took control. They were noted for shipping slaves directly from Africa to work on their plantations. Conditions and the treatment of slaves were sickeningly poor, with landowners opting to maximize profits by working them to death, literally. However, these slaves brought with them their own religious customs, which they continued to develop and expand on in their new home country. Of particular note was their practice of vodou.
Belief in vodou helped support the enslaved people in their struggle, the vodou gods protecting them from their so-called owners. As common spiritual beliefs grew among slaves, a society arose. Dances, animal sacrifices, and the beating of drums became a part of the culture. Within the community, leaders and experts gained influence, further honing the use of ritual chants, poisons, and potion making.
Through the use of these potions and rituals, a vodou priest, or bokor, was believed to be able to invoke supernatural powers. One such power was the ability to reanimate a dead human body. The resulting creature was known as a zombi, and it was characterized by slow mannerisms, low intelligence, and a lack of willpower or a soul. (In reality, zombis weren't really dead people at all, simply persons who had been drugged and who then arose from a comatose state.) Often, zombis were believed to be under the control of the person who had caused them to rise from the grave.
In 1791 slaves in the northern part of the country reportedly invoked vodou to seize control of an even greater prize — their own destinies. In a massive uprising led by Haitian general Toussaint L'Ouverture, they violently rebelled against the wealthy French plantation owners. A famous local legend has it that the unrest was preceded by a vodou ceremony at Bois Caïman that united the participants against the government's continued proslavery stance. Their forces clashed with colonial armies sent to quash the unrest; the slaves were victorious. The French administration announced that it would finally abolish slavery in Haiti.
In 1802, however, Napoleon Bonaparte sent more military forces into the colony, a clear attempt by the French to reestablish slavery. While his soldiers initially made inroads, Haitian nationalists fought back and met with victory once again. By 1804 the country had won its independence from France and become the Republic of Haiti, the first black republic in history. The success of the slave revolution inspired similar rebellions in such nations as the United States and Brazil. But Haiti's troubles were far from over.
Leaders came and went during the next hundred years, and over time the country sank deeper into depression, debt, and chaos. Many leaders were assassinated, and five presidents violently rose and fell between 1910 and 1915. The last, Gen. Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, had perhaps the most tragic impact. His political opponent, Rosalvo Bobo, criticized the leader's dealings with the U.S. government and began to influence others within Guillaume Sam's administration. The fearful president began executing potential threats to his power, even going so far as to have 167 political prisoners killed. When word spread, Haitian citizens revolted, turning into an unruly mob. Gen. Guillaume Sam was taken from his palace and publicly torn to pieces, which were scattered and put on triumphant display.
This gruesome scene may have led to the birth of the zombie movie, since the death of Guillaume Sam brought Haiti into the American consciousness. The U.S. government was concerned about Bobo's unfriendly stance toward the United States and frightened by the distant possibility that German forces could easily invade the unstable nation (World War I had begun a year earlier), so in 1915 the U.S. occupation of Haiti began.
The occupiers found a situation far more complicated than initially anticipated, and their presence did little to calm it. While U.S. forces were responsible for overseeing construction of roads and telephone cables, medical care, and educational programs, their treatment of the locals bred deep bitterness. Naturally, the citizens resented being occupied. The Americans, in turn, exhibited racist attitudes toward black and mixed-race Haitians, and many of the well-educated locals were treated with disdain. Most horrific of all, U.S. forces declared it a public duty for each and every Haitian to be subject to unpaid labor on a chain gang, enforced by armed guards who were permitted to shoot anyone who refused to participate. For Haitians this was little better than the slavery their revolutionary forces had fought to terminate more than one hundred years previous.
Nationalist sentiment erupted once again in guerrilla warfare and bloodshed. A major uprising in 1918 was extinguished by the U.S. Marines, who in the process killed over two thousand revolutionaries. Yet another tragic event occurred in 1929, when U.S. Marines opened fire on more than ten Haitian demonstrators, killing them. U.S. forces finally pulled out of the country in 1934. (Ironically, during their stay the U.S. military had trained locals in warfare. It wasn't long before future leaders would decide to extend their terms of office and enforce their positions with military might.)
During their stay in Haiti, many U.S. soldiers and their families had been disturbed not only by the violence but also by the locals' late-night vodou practices. When they returned to the United States, they brought back stories of rituals, potions, and the reanimation of dead subjects; the highly exaggerated tales were devoured by curious Americans, who eventually adjusted the spelling of vodou and zombi into the now common (and more phonetic) voodoo and zombie.
One story in particular fed the imaginations of the American public: the 1929 book The Magic Island by William Seabrook. Seabrook was an occultist (and alcoholic) who had found success traveling to various parts of the world and publishing exaggerated accounts of witchcraft and satanism. Written after a trip to Haiti, The Magic Island supposedly details Seabrook's real-life encounters with the walking dead. The section dealing with zombies is titled "Black Sorcery," and it largely deals with a story a local told to Seabrook. According to the storyteller, groups of pitiful zombies would toil the Haitian fields in broad daylight, cattlelike, working harder and faster than other, still-living groups. When they took a break, the zombies would eat bland, flavorless food. The local described them literally as dead people who had been taken from the grave to serve the person who brought them back. Readers would be further alarmed by Seabrook's own descriptions of the voodoo practitioners responsible for zombies as "blood-maddened" and "sex-maddened" and by his claim that he visited the supposed zombies and confirmed their authenticity. It is only in the last paragraph of the section that Seabrook all too briefly suggests that drugs causing a lethargic coma may have been responsible for the zombies' condition. He follows it up by citing an odd Haitian law stating that the burial of a live person qualifies as murder, regardless of whether the victim is later revived.
No one seemed all that interested in exploring the logic behind the undead phenomenon; shocked and titillated readers made The Magic Island a success. It wasn't long before the media began circulating more stories about supposedly very real dead humans wandering about.
At about the same time, another American author, H. P. Lovecraft, dabbled in fictional tales of the dead come to life. Lovecraft was never hugely popular during his lifetime, but he was well respected by other writers. He wrote many stories that would eventually influence filmmakers and screenwriters and, in the coming decades, inspire many more zombie films. The serial Herbert West: Reanimator (1922) is among the most notable, a Frankensteinlike tale (a parody of Mary Shelley's 1818 work, according to the author) that becomes more horrific and disturbing than its inspiration. After the character of West raises a corpse from the dead, the creature turns violent and in a fit of rage races around attempting to kill everyone he encounters. Later in the series, the mad Dr. West is actually disemboweled by the undead. Lovecraft would also pen short stories such as 1925's In the Vault, in which an undertaker's feet break through a coffin lid and his ankles are bitten by the coffin's rather disturbed resident, and 1928's Cool Air, about an undead doctor who keeps himself preserved and functioning thanks to a very refrigerated apartment — that is, until the AC goes on the fritz.
In the 1930s, as the film business in the United States was booming and audiences flocked to see movies with striking visuals set in new and exotic countries, the occult mysteries of Haiti became a popular subject. The Emperor Jones (1933) tells the story of a railway porter who finds himself in Haiti, learns witchcraft, makes himself ruler of the country, and goes power mad — until the citizens revolt and hunt him down. Ouanga (1936), a.k.a. Love Wanga, and its remake, The Devil's Daughter (1939), a.k.a. Pocomania, were filmed on location in Jamaica (the location substituted for many features set in Haiti). In The Devil's Daughter, a young American woman (Ida James) inherits a plantation in Haiti only to discover that her villainous, voodoo-practicing half sister (Nina Mae McKinney) would rather take the property for herself.
As a result of sensationalist reporting and Hollywood's need to exaggerate for entertainment's sake, the concept of voodoo had been radically altered. In Haitian tradition, vodou was a spiritual practice; the word itself may have simply meant "spirit." In many media representations, however, voodoo became an evil power akin to black magic. As the public's interest in Haiti dissipated, these dark, supernatural elements — zombies in particular — retained their allure, and zombie-themed films ended up taking center stage.
But the Haitian influence on the zombie subgenre has never truly faded. Given the tragic and brutal history of Haiti, can it be any surprise that there seems to be so much more going on in a typical zombie flick than in the usual horror movie? Naturally, many scholars have put a political spin on the zombie itself; James B. Twitchell has suggested that the zombie may represent the fantasies of the black slave rising up in revolt against his white occupiers. To be sure, Haitian history is inexorably linked to the idea of an abused, mistreated segment of the population being controlled, only to eventually rise up against its so-called master — and whether intentionally or not, that theme has been repeated time and time again in the fictional zombie films that followed. (Likewise, in many of the films the military and government have little success in quelling the rebellions.)
Of course, these aren't the only parallels one can glean from zombie pictures. But Haiti is truly where it all began, and the country's deep, fascinating history is perhaps the main source for the significant political and social commentary of many of the best zombie movies.
The 1930s: The Zombie Film's Beginnings
In the early 1930s a series of low-budget horror flicks made it to cinema screens. Their producer and distributor, Universal Pictures, was thought of as a B-level studio (in comparison with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, RKO, and Paramount), but it achieved tremendous success with its horror lineup, which included such classics as Dracula(1931), starring Bela Lugosi, and director James Whale's masterpiece Frankenstein(1931), featuring Boris Karloff. Horror pictures were all the rage, so why not take aspects of Haitian culture and religion that the public had heard so much about and apply them to the lucrative classic monster formula?
The first attempt, 1932's White Zombie, was a surprisingly authentic representation of the zombie's Haitian origins. It was also a box office hit, getting the zombie movie off to a rollicking start. But throughout the decade, none of the major studios — not even the horror specialists at Universal — took note of the subgenre's potential. The zombie, it seemed, was considered a second-rate monster when compared with more-established spooky characters; it would appear in only a few titles before the decade's end.
Few of these early titles shared White Zombie's authenticity. They simply borrowed the concept of a man returning from the dead as a plot twist or mixed zombie mythology with genres popular at the time, like science fiction. Hollywood was already elaborating on, exaggerating, expanding, and confusing the history of our undead friends and foes. But on a positive note, at least some of these films were entertaining.
White Zombie (1932)
The first zombie movie starred infamous Hungarian overactor Bela Lugosi in a sinister, scenery-chewing role equal to his turn in Dracula. Unlike that earlier film, White Zombie was not a part of the Universal horror cycle; it was filmed independently by the Halperin brothers, a sibling producer/director team attempting to cash in on the monster movie craze. Inspired by the Broadway play Zombie (of which little is known; it opened and closed in a mere twenty-one days), they decided to alter the story significantly and create their own horror film.
Lugosi met with the producers in early 1932. His negotiations to star in Frankenstein had fallen through shortly after the release of Dracula in February 1931. While Dracula was a huge hit, Frankenstein was an even bigger box office draw, and Lugosi reportedly did not want to repeat the mistake of turning down an important role. He agreed to star in White Zombie for a figure reported by various sources at somewhere between $500 and $800 — flat. (For the rest of his career, he would agree to take whatever parts he was offered, however ridiculous.)
The film's budget was $50,000, a healthy sum of money but not quite in the league of the budget for a large-scale Universal horror film (The Mummy was filmed that same year for $192,000). Yet all of the money — and more — is evident on-screen. The Halperins wisely stretched their funds by redressing large existing sets from films like Dracula. In addition, a lot of credit for the film's look may be due to Arthur Martinelli, a well-respected cinematographer who had already shot more than forty films before working on White Zombie.
Lugosi stars as Murder (!), the owner of a plantation (if you want to call it that — his cliffside estate appears to have more in common with Dracula's castle than a Haitian farm). Using drugs, Lugosi zombifies the locals — and whomever crosses him — transforming them into mindless muscle who slave on his plantation or assist him with sinister deeds. His services are soon requested by a wealthy local (Robert Frazer) who wants to steal the affections of the new fiancée (Madge Bellamy) of a visiting friend (John Harron). The idea that a creepy character named Murder might take advantage of the situation never occurs to Frazer, but it's just as well. As expected, Lugosi twists the plot to his own ends, leaving Frazer and other cast members aghast, their eyes popping out of their heads in disbelief and outrage. The zombie makeup is minimal, the servants appearing pale with darker circles around the eyes; their wild hairdos and wide-eyed expressions do most of the work to convince audiences of their condition. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Zombie Movies by Glenn Kay. Copyright © 2012 Glenn Kay. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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