Mention a zombie movie and images of flesh-eaters comes to mind, dead creatures who prey on humans. However, this image has drifted far from the original definition of a zombie which was about dead persons brought back to life through witchcraft. As a result, a zombie was only meant to be an empty shell whose actions were controlled by the person who resurrected them. The initial films which depicted zombies stayed true to this definition such as Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932) and Revolt of the Zombies (1936). In White Zombie, Bela Lugosi’s character uses magic to revive the dead who then work as per his bidding. The film is appropriately set in Haiti where the origins of the word "zombie" came from. Even Jacques Tourneu’s classic film I Walked with a Zombie (1943) was grounded in the true zombie definition of witchcraft, magic and trance. All this changed in 1968 with George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, which is the first film that depicted zombies as flesh-eaters although the film never used the word zombie. As per an interview, Romero only applied the word zombies in subsequent films after fans used it. Still, Night of the Living Dead has served as a template for contemporary zombie works, which includes movies and graphic novels such as The Walking Dead (now a TV show as well). Basically, Romero’s film is the starting point for the contemporary zombie representation and everything before his film is forgotten so to speak, including witchcraft, trance and the Haitian definition.
Night of the Living Dead quickly begins with a zombie attack on a brother (Johnny) & sister (Barbara). Barbara escapes to a house where she finds other humans who are hiding from the flesh-eaters. No explanation is given as to why these creatures are eating human flesh and the only information Barbara and other house residents get is via radio and tv. The radio & tv broadcasts repeat around the clock, giving updates such as which safe houses people can get to. Meanwhile, humans have figured out that shooting the creatures in the head eliminates them, so that results in groups who gather weapons and go zombie hunting. The film does not feature much gore but one prominent scene near the end has been endlessly featured in subsequent zombie movies. Near the finale of Night of the Living Dead, an infected young girl is shown to be eating her father. As a visitor enters the room, the young girl leaves her father and slowly walks towards the visitor as the camera focusses on the young girl who has blood and flesh visible near her mouth. Unlike modern zombie movies, Romero’s film is not only about gore and violence but instead is a well crafted film that uses smart camera angles and music to heighten suspense and tension. Romero also incorporated a social commentary not only in Night of the Living Dead but also in Dawn of the Dead. The main hero in Night of the Living Dead is an African American (Ben played by Duane Jones) which is important because the film was released in 1968, at a time when Civil Rights issues was forefront in America. Ben treats everyone around him equally but he is accidentally killed by a mob who mistake him to be a zombie. The film ends with photos of Ben’s body prepared to be hung like an animal, images which are a reminder of mob lynchings and killings. In fact, those photos could easily be taken from newspaper clippings of racist crimes prior to 1968 and they manage to shatter the flesh-eating scripted framework of the film. In Dawn of the Dead, much of the zombie fighting takes place inside a mall, which contains slow moving creatures moving through the halls and up the escalators. Such images bring to mind modern consumerist habits when malls are packed with people shopping. In fact, a packed North American mall during Christmas time would be in line with what Romero intended with Dawn of the Dead.
Even though Night of the Living Dead deviated from a traditional zombie definition by making the walking dead prey on human flesh, Romero’s film atleast ensured the zombies moved slowly as per the original depiction of possessed creatures. However, in contemporary horror films, zombies are fast moving creatures that have vampire like thirst for human flesh. In the same wired interview, Romero also talks about this increased pace:
Romero also thinks videogames re-invented the zombie, turning the undead from slow, shambling horrors to speedy creatures more appropriated for action-oriented games. “In videogames they have to move fast,” he says. “They need to come at you quicker and quicker until you can’t do it anymore.”
Now those zippy zombies have transferred to film.
“Zack Snyder, in the remake of Dawn [of the Dead], has them running, and he under-cranked it so it made them seem even faster, which never made any sense to me,” Romero says. “I think subsequent people caught on and said, ‘Wait a minute, if they’re dead they can’t do these superhuman things, so we won’t make them dead! We’ll make them have caught a virus or something. Or they’ve got the Rage bug, and all of the sudden they’re these superhuman things.’ I don’t like that — to me it fights tradition.”
Shock and gore
Even though Night of the Living Dead didn’t fixate on gore, post-1970 zombie movies only seem concerned with the feeding and killing actions of the zombies. Lucio Fulci’s Zombie falls in this category and is more interested in depicting shocking scenes. The scene of a piece of wood piercing an eye is certainly cringing but equally effective are shots of zombies descending on New York, a dead creature chillingly rising from the ground and a zombie fighting a shark under the ocean. This last scene of the zombie being underwater is certainly an influence in last year’s Juan of the Dead. Overall, Fulci’s film is an example of a work interested in using zombies as a framework to depict as much blood as possible. It also provides an example of the low-budget zombie flicks that are commonplace today.
Zombies in war
Victor Halperin’s 1936 film Revolt of the Zombies is the first film that showed zombies used as soldiers. The opposing forces’ bullets have no effect on the zombies thereby making the undead the perfect weapons. This premise has certainly remained underutilized in horror culture although Red 5 Comics came up with the comic series ZMD: Zombies of Mass Destruction which uses this idea in a clever way:
With the financial, human and political costs of combat in the Middle East growing, the United States military has adopted an unusual, but highly effective, new weapon… zombies.
The opening pages of the comic shows zombies dropped like bombs in the desert after which the undead rise and go about fighting the war.
The virus, plague and survival
Most zombie works depict the flesh-eating aspect as a virus which spreads when an undead bites a human. Movies based on this idea often begin during the time of the virus when humans have to scramble for survival against the undead, thereby giving a feel of an apocalypse. However, very few works explore the origin of the virus or how it effects the human body. In this regard, the Season One finale of The Walking Dead is worth watching. In this episode, an animated computer recording shows the buzzing neurons in an alive human brain prior to infection. After infection, all the neurons go dead and the brain becomes dark. As per the episode, some infected subjects came alive as early as three minutes after death while the longest awakening took place after 8 hours. However, when the undead awaken, only a tiny portion of their brain is active. This tiny portion is not related to the self or memories of the original person. Instead, the only activated brain components are related to some basic bodily activities which can be inferred to mean feeding and rudimentary motor functions. This depiction nicely explains the primal hunting instinct of the zombies while their lack of speech or visible signs of intelligence.
Max Brooks’ novel World War Z looks back on the human vs zombies war and is therefore a post-apocalyptic work. The novel collects individual stories of survival from different parts of the world and outlines how humans found a way to defeat the undead. The book includes aspects of the infection while also featuring heroes who fought the zombies and the villains who tried to profit from the situation. In this regard, the book is a template for Contagion which also features heroes who try to save lives while others who seek to profit from death.
Comedy and some Politics
One of the variations of the zombie movie have been comedies such as Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, Fido, Cemetery Man and the recent Juan of the Dead. These films have not restricted themselves to just blood and violence but have incorporated some social commentary about zombies. Alejandro Brugués’ Cuban film Juan of the Dead also smartly manages to include a political layer on top of the gore and comedy. The film references the Cuban revolution while radio & news bulletins describe the zombie crisis as an American disease. Also, the political humor is not lost when hundreds of cubans flock to the sea in whatever floating device they can find to escape the zombies.
The graphic novel Zombie Tales is an excellent example of the diverse treatments involving the walking dead. There are some stories focused on the disease and the survival elements but there are also a few suprizes such as Mark Waid’s “If You’re So Smart” where a girl figures out that scoring the highest marks in her school quiz is not good for one’s life. Her theory is that since zombies are not very intelligent “because they’re missing certain brain chemicals”, the smartest students in the class are likely to be fed to the zombies by the government as an experiment. John Rogers’ story “Four Out of Five” puts forward a new cure for the disease. The main character describes how zombies rose up once every one hundred years throughout human history. However, in the past the plague never survived because humans used to have “poor oral hygiene” which ensured that the undead’s teeth fell off so they could not bite humans. The character then figures this automatic cure went away after humans starting putting “fluoride in the water” thereby resulting in generations of humans with good teeth. So his cure is to get rid of zombie’s teeth so that the disease cannot spread. The story smartly ends with the character introducing himself and why he is a threat to the zombies:
“My name is Eugene Benjamin Markowitz. And I am a mother$#@$ing dentist.”
The anthology ends on a chilling note with a story that does not feature any zombies at all. Jim Pascoe’s “A Game Called Zombie” is about how a father used to play a harmless tag game with his son where they pretended that zombies were after them. Unfortunately, the son cannot snap out of the game and starts believing he is seeing zombies in real life. The story has deeper implications about the power of influence and the trance like situation it can sometimes cause. In this regard, the story is the only one in the collection which can trace its origin back to the original zombie definition.
The following are the different works seen or read as part of this spotlight.
White Zombie (1932, Victor Halperin)
Revolt of the Zombies (1936, Victor Halperin)
Night of the Living Dead (1968, George A. Romero)
Dawn of the Dead (1978, George A. Romero)
Zombie (1979, Lucio Fulci)
Cemetery Man (1994, Michele Soavi)
TV show: The Walking Dead, Season 1
Books: World War Z by Max Brooks.
The Walking Dead, volumes 1 & 2, by Robert Kirkman.
Zombie Tales, Vol. 1, an anthology.