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The Rise of the Zombies

George Romero's 1968 low-budget, film classic Night of the Living Dead was a turning point for zombies.

Vampires have been popular figures in horror since Bram Stoker wrote Dracula in 1897. The root of werewolf folklore can be traced all the way back to the ancient Greeks. Zombies, in their current form, however, have only shuffled their stiff-legged corpses onto the silver screen in the last few decades. Where did the zombie myth come from and why are they now so popular?

Zombie History

The term itself, zombie, actually goes back many centuries before Hollywood appropriated it for horror films. The root of the word comes from the language of Kikongo spoken by the Bakongo and Bandundu people living in the African Congo. Linguists think the expression comes from the related term nzambi which means "god." The religion in this region of the world was Vodun. When captured and forced into slavery in the New World, West Africans brought their religion with them. There it was mixed with other African traditions and Christianity. The result was the folk religion of Vodou (sometimes spelled Voodoo). Vodou eventually became a major faith on the island of Hispaniola and in the two countries that share that land, the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

In Vodou a zombie is a person who has died and then been raised from the dead by bokor (a Vodou priest). The zombie's soul is removed and he is rendered into an almost robotic state following the orders of his bokor without question or self-awareness. Often the bokor will put the zombie to work as a form of free labor.

As you might guess, this kind of nightmare scenario made for some great horror stories. The concept was introduced to western culture in 1929 by W.B. Seabrook in his travelogue to Haiti called The Magic Island. Seabrook, a former editor of the Augusta Chronicle in Georgia, was an odd figure fascinated with the occult, Satanism and folk religions. While traveling in West Africa he claimed to have tasted human flesh reporting that "the roast, from which I cut and ate a central slice, was tender, and in color, texture, smell as well as taste, strengthened my certainty that of all the meats we habitually know, veal is the one meat to which this meat is accurately comparable."

In 1936 anthropologist and writer Zora Neale Hurston visited Haiti and interviewed a woman she thought might be a zombie.

Shortly after Seabrook's book came out the ideas within it were turned into the first zombie movie: 1933's White Zombie, starring Bela Lugosi. In this film Lugosi is the evil Haitian Vodou master who enslaves a young, pretty girl, Madge Bellamy, as a zombie until she is rescued by her fiancée.

Critics bashed the movie for poor acting and an over-the-top storyline. However, Lugosi was well-known for his roll as Dracula in the 1930 Universal picture of the same name, and his fame no doubt assisted the White Zombie at the box office. It did well enough to warrant a 1936 sequel, Revolt of the Zombies. After that a number of other zombie films appeared including The Ghost Breakers (1940), King of the Zombies (1941), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and The Plague of the Zombies (1966).

Science and the Zombie

Eight years after Seabrook's visit to Haiti, author, folklorist and anthropologist, Zora Neale Hurston, visited the country and while researching Vodou folklore met a woman named Felicia Felix-Mentor. Records showed that Felix-Mentor had died almost 30 years earlier in 1907, yet she was found wandering the streets in 1936. After making her way to her father's house (which by that time was owned by her brother) she was identified by her relatives. Doctors examined her and reported that "her occasional outbursts of laughter were devoid of emotion, and very frequently she spoke of herself in either the first or the third person without any sense of discrimination. She had lost all sense of time and was quite indifferent to the world of things around her." Hurston interviewed Felix-Mentor at length and believed that she had been made into a zombie. Hurston didn't think that bokors could actually raise people from the dead, but suspected they drugged them with some unknown potion that gave the victims the appearance of having died. The priests then raided the cemetery, retrieved the person, and kept them in a zombie state using other powerful drugs. Hurston pointed out that in Haiti bodies are interned above ground and without embalming, making the chances of a successful "resurrection" a realistic possibility.

The poster from 1933's White Zombie.

Another scientist took a look at zombies in 1982 when Wade Davis, a Harvard ethnobotanist, visited Haiti. According to his investigations bokors used tetrodotoxin (a neurotoxin found in the flesh of the pufferfish) to simulate death in the victim. When the victims awakened the priest would put them into a psychotic state by giving them a drug like datura. Wade contended that the person's culturally-learned beliefs - that they had died and were now zombies - helped reinforce their obedient behavior.

He supported his claims by citing the case of Clairvius Narcisse, a Haitian man who was recorded to have died in 1962, but was found alive several years later. According to Narcisse, he had quarreled with his brother, who then hired a bokor to poison Narcisse with the pufferfish toxin (introducing it through scratches in his arm). A funeral was held for Narcisse, but his body was recovered later by the bokor, who used drugs to make Narcisse into a zombie so he could work on the priest's plantation. When the bokor died, the drugs eventually wore off and Narcisse returned to his family.

Davis had his skeptics, but that didn't stop him from writing two books on the subject: The Serpent and the Rainbow in 1985 and Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie in 1988. The Serpent and the Rainbow was made into a zombie movie in 1988. Directed by Wes Craven, it starred Bill Pullman as the scientist who tracks down the macabre truth.

Night of the Living Dead

It had been almost twenty years earlier, however, that the history of the zombie film had made an unexpected turn. Up to that point zombies were more victims than perpetrators. People feared being turned into zombies, not being eaten by them.

In the mid-1960's a young TV commercial director named George Romero, along with some business partners, decided to try their hand at making a low-budget horror film. Several scripts were written before Romero came up with the idea of reanimated human corpses that had a hunger for human flesh. Romero's inspiration came from Richard Matheson's 1954 book I Am Legend. In the book a plague ravages the world, turning those infected into vampires who attack the few remaining individuals who are immune.

Bela Lugosi as the Zombie Master in White Zombie.

I Am Legend had already been made into a film, The Last Man on Earth, in 1964. (Later it would be committed to celluloid again in 1971 as The Omega Man with Charlton Heston and then again in 2007 as I Am Legend with Will Smith). Since the idea of vampires had already been taken, Romero needed to come up with his own monsters for the movie. Instead of drinking blood, he decided to have them consume flesh. He never referred to these resurrected monsters as zombies, but used the term ghouls.

In fact, the roots of Romero's ghouls go back not to Vodou, but probably owe more to writer H.P. Lovecraft and his short story Herbert West - Reanimator. Lovecraft's tale has a mad scientist who, like Frankenstein before him, spends his time reanimating dead bodies. These critters, though, have a taste for human flesh and the good doctor gets disemboweled in the end by his cannibalistic creations.

In June of 1967 a handful of movie makers, led by the then 27-year-old Romero, descended onto the small town of Evans City, Pennsylvania, some 30 miles north of Pittsburgh, to film the picture. The grainy, black and white, low-budget production was originally called Night of the Flesh Eaters. However, a last minute conflict with another film with a similar title forced it to be released as Night of the Living Dead.

Romero's plot had a group of people trapped in a farmhouse while across the east coast of America, freshly dead corpses start rising from the grave, then attacking and consuming the living. The mood of the film is unflinchingly grim as one by one the members of the group are picked off and eaten or are turned into ghouls themselves (including an 11-year-old girl that snacks on her father). In the end there is only one survivor of the night's carnage and he is killed when he is mistakenly identified as a ghoul himself by authorities.

From Tasteless Junk to Historical Significance

A lobby card from Night of the Living Dead.

When it came out in 1968, the movie was heavily criticized because of its explicit content. Variety labeled Night of the Living Dead an "unrelieved orgy of sadism." Even those that liked the film, such as critic Roger Ebert, found the way it was often shown at Saturday afternoon matinées filled with children, irresponsible. "I don't think the younger kids really knew what hit them," Ebert said. "They were used to going to movies, sure, and they'd seen some horror movies before, sure, but this was something else."

Audiences ate it up, however, and eventually the film was recognized by the Library of Congress as a film deemed "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant." The New York Times, whose critic had originally referred to it as a "junk movie," later put the film on their list of the Best 1000 Movies Ever. It spawned dozens of look-alikes and Romero went on to do several sequels himself.

Its reputation grew as film analysts read deeper meanings into the movie's prevalent slaughter. The little girl eating her dad became a symbol of the breakdown of the patriarchal nuclear family. Others found the movie a "grotesque echo of the conflict then raging in Vietnam." Hints about America's racial tensions were also found in the motion picture because the sheriff that callously shoots the lone survivor is white and the victim black.

The original film, which cost only $114,000, earned $18 million internationally and might have made even more. Unfortunately the distribution company, in changing the title at the last minute, accidentally removed the copyright notification. Under the law at the time this put the film immediately into the public domain.

Zombies as a Symbol

The zombies are coming! The zombies are coming! From Night of the Living Dead

The number of zombie films that followed Night of the Living Dead are legion. Some are deadly serious, like Romero's squeal, Dawn of the Dead (1978), though many have a streak of humor, as in Zombieland (2009), or are outright comedies like Shaun of the Dead (2004). The zombie craze has infected filmmakers and audiences throughout the world as Japan's Stacy: Attack of the Schoolgirl Zombies (2001) and Cuba's Juan of the Dead (2012) testify.

Whatever the type of film they appear in it is clear that these new flesh-eating ghouls have joined vampires and werewolves in the modern myth of the paranormal. Why is this new type of zombie so popular, when its predecessor, the traditional zombie of Vodou only showed up in a handful of films between 1933 and 1969?

Some people have suggested that zombies represent the trials we face in modern life. Max Brooks, author of The Zombie Survival Guide, writes, "You can't shoot the financial meltdown in the head -- you can do that with a zombie... All the other problems are too big. As much as Al Gore tries, you can't picture global warming. You can't picture the meltdown of our financial institutions. But you can picture a slouching zombie coming down the street."

Like the invading aliens of the 50's once symbolized the communist menace and vampires stood in for the AIDs threat of the 80's and 90's, modern zombies are emblems of our contemporary anxieties. Unlike others, though, these dangers arise close to home due to our recent economic misfortunes. As Adam Baker writes in the Huffington Post. "Zombies are us. Our friends, neighbors and relatives. They are not a threat arrived from overseas or outer space. They are our own communities turned monstrous and hostile, folks we pass in the street recast as deadly predators. Nightmare imagery of desolate streets, cannibal hoards, barricaded homes under relentless assault, is our everyday word viewed through the lens of economic desperation."

Actress Kelli Maroney gets grabbed by a zombified cop in 1984's Night of the Comet.

As with past crises, these films will hopefully help us cope with these stressful times. In this age of social upheaval - high unemployment and underwater mortgages - we look to tales of survival to comfort us. If the kids in Night of the Comet (1984) can outlast a zombie apocalypse and the end of civilization, perhaps we can survive the real estate implosion and our vanishing IRAs.

Copyright 2012 Lee Krystek. All Rights Reserved.