A zombie from Lucio Fulci’s splatter gore masterpiece, Zombie.
The zombie – ever present horror villain, hero(?), and cannon fodder. We love us some zombies! They’re everywhere these days: movies, books, video games, and even music. Being a zombie fan I’m happy to see it. The cool thing about zombies is that they’re pretty hard to mess up. Werewolves have been neutered (literally–the ones in the Twilight movies don’t have genitals), vampires have lost their bite, and Frankenstein’s monster hasn’t had a decent showing in theaters for years…
…but zombies? Zombies are chugging along just fine.
And boy have they chugged a long way.
Zombies have taken many forms throughout the centuries. Every culture in history had some concept of undead monsters that consumed the flesh of the living (or in some cases, the dead.) The Arabs had the Ghoul, a demon that haunted cemeteries and that devoured the flesh of the living and dead alike. Norse mythology had the Draugr, a sort of zombie/ghost hybrid who could increase their weight to monstrous amounts and swim through solid rock. They would crush victims or devour them whole. In Chinese folklore, the zombie is the Jiang Shi, a hopping zombie/vampire hybrid that sucks chi from those unfortunate enough to cross its path.
Clairvius Narcisse: a real life zombie!
The word ‘zombie’ comes from the Haitian voodoo tradition. Unlike the undead of folklore and legend however, these zombies are all too real. If someone commits a taboo in the community (many times something like an unfair land deal involving a family member,) the wronged will go to a bokor or a voodoo shaman, and put what amounts to a spiritual hit out on the perpetrator. The bokor will mix up the zombie dust, a witch’s brew of ground bone, secret herbs, and all sorts of other nasty things. The active ingredient of the whole mix is believed to be the poison from a puffer fish. It is a neurotoxin that causes paralysis. When the dust is administered (blown in the victim’s face), the toxin does its magic, inducing a death like state that even to Western medical professionals looks like real honest to God death. Thing is that the person is fully aware of what’s happening to them the whole time; they just they can’t move or respond.
But nobody around is aware of that fact, except the bokor of course. So the unfortunate zombie-to-be winds up being buried alive. That my friends is what I call a bad day!
Later the bokor returns to the burial site and digs the victim up. The victim is fed hallucinogens to make him/her pliable, and set to work on the bokor’s plantation (for a more in depth account of Haitian zombie lore, check out the Serpent and the Rainbow)
There you have it: the Idiot’s Guide to Making a Zombie. The Haitian tradition was the starting point for all the madness. It’d be awhile before they would become cannon fodder for gore hounds everywhere though. In the mean time, they were used in movies to portray the inferiority of any civilization but Whitey’s. In one delightfully goofy (and horrifically racist) instance, zombies were the center of a Nazi plot to produce an unstoppable army!
Like this, but with more moaning and marrow-munching.
Those old zombie movies would be strange to us today. Racism and camp aside, they featured the Haitian Voodoo zombie. The zombie we all know and love is a specific variety. Call it a Plague, if you will. Like locusts, they swarm in ridiculous numbers. Sure one or two are simple enough to handle. But what about ten? One hundred? One thousand? How about a million? That’s a tall order for even the most trigger happy among us.
The Plague of Zombies. Now that’s a beast! As unstoppable as Frankenstein’s monster, as blood thirsty as a castle full of vampires, and as savage as a whole pack of werewolves. Infinite. Vast beyond imagining.
And worse…they’re us.
But more on that later. For now, let’s suffice to say the first instance of the modern Plague zombie appears in Richard Matheson’s I am Legend. Yes, the Will Smith movie.
Vincent Price taking care of business.
Actually the book has been adapted to film several times. The most accurate adaptation was the film The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price. The film is about a flu-like germ that sweeps the Earth, killing the bulk of the population. Those that it doesn’t kill, it turns into vampires who are forced to feed by night. Our hero Dr. Robert Morgan, struggles to survive and find a cure, while staking a ton of vamps in the process.
The modern zombie started as a vampire, but other than that the elements of a modern zombie flick were all there: a mysterious agent raises the dead from their graves to attack the living, who are forced to take on a siege mentality against impossible numbers.
May cause loss of coordination and cravings for the flesh of the innocent. If these symptoms last longer than 4 hours, you maybe a zombie. Kindly shoot yourself in the head.
It took George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead to birth zombies as they’re known and loved today. During the movie, survivors have to hole up in an abandoned farm house in the middle of rural Pennsylvania to escape a horde of hungry undead. Romero gives no clear reason why corpses are up and walking about when by all rights they should have been fertilizer. Radiation from a Venus probe was the throwaway answer given, but no one had any real clue. Keep in mind that it was the Sixties; radiation was responsible for just about everything in those days. Night gave the zombie its modern characteristics. It was the first film to show zombies as cannibals. They sucked blood before; now they feasted on flesh. They were actually called “ghouls” in the film rather than zombies, a throwback to the corpse eating fiend from Islamic lore.
So there was a horde of ghouls wandering around trying to turn us living folk into a running, screaming buffet. What chance did we have? Romero provided the answer: “Kill the brain, kill the ghoul.” His zombies are the first to require a head shot to take them down.
They were also uncoordinated, mindless except for rudimentary abilities, and pretty damned slow. If a person kept their wits about them (and ignored all those pesky primitive impulses that screamed “OH MY GOD RUN!!”) they could easily out walk a zombie horde in those days.
…okay…who gave the zombies Red Bull?!?
The modern zombie still has all the ghoulish goodness Romero’s old zombies had, but somewhere along the line somebody decided to give the old shamblers a shot of mingled caffeine and adrenaline. The first appearance of this new breed came in 28 Days Later. Sticklers will say they aren’t really zombies but rather infected, and hence the movie doesn’t count.
Romero’s zombies weren’t zombies; they were ghouls. And Matheson’s zombies weren’t zombies; they were vampires. A bokor would probably sit down to a zombie flick (post The Last Man on Earth) and spend half the movie scratching his head, trying to figure out when the zombies showed up.
Right there is the key zombies’ success: they evolve. Survival of the fittest monster. Werewolves and vampires have split off from their roots and radiated into other segments of pop culture. They’ve lost their teeth. They’ve become safe.
Not so with the zombie. The zombie is infinitely adaptable. Zombies can be whatever we as a culture want…no..need them to be. Walking metaphors for communism? Check! A representation of the mass consumerism that has overtaken our lives and our culture? Check! Living embodiment of our fears about germs and infection? Double check!
Zombies are the ultimate ‘Other.’ They are humans, but stripped of humanity. It’s no longer acceptable to blow the crap out of Russians, or Germans, or even terrorists. But zombies? Hell! Feed ‘em into the meat grinder! Blast ‘em, crush em, bash ‘em! Whatever it takes to destroy the ‘Other,’ the outsider.
Host to more drama than a junior prom on a soap opera.
Fear of the ‘Mindless Other.’ It’s all around us, every day. Just take a glance at your Facebook news feed, or your Twitter timeline. How many posts are there bemoaning how stupid, thoughtless, and immoral everyone else is? Listen to the cable news. It’s all sex scandals, murders, and political shenanigans. It’s all about people acting nothing but bad, bad, bad.
None of that applies to you and I of course. Why, we know better than all those ‘Others.’ We’re smarter, better looking, and are virtual paragons of virtue! Well, maybe not all that. But at least we’re better than ‘Them!’
THEM! isn’t about zombies at all. Still an awesome movie though :D
Them. It seems they shamble around. Mindless and adrift, they seem confused by the simplest of things. They’re driven by primal appetites, with no concept of morality higher than “getting what I want, when I want it.”
Us versus them. It’s the siege mentality. Those who think as I do and act as I do, versus those who don’t. The zombie film puts this dichotomy in stark contrast. The living versus the dead. On one side, the norm. On the other, the ultimate deviants. The two are locked in a mortal struggle from which only one side can emerge victorious.
In Night, the agents of the norm win. The sheriff’s posse sweeps in and destroys the bad guys. (Note: they also kill the movies only black character, leading to decades of assumptions that the movie was a heavy handed metaphor about race relations. It wasn’t; it was about fear of communism. Duane Jones just happened to be the best actor who tried out for the role. He didn’t get it only because he was black.)
Now that the new century has dawned, it seems that more and more the Outsiders are winning. In an age of terror attacks, drug wars, illegal immigration, a weakened economy, a world where Japan and China are rapidly emerging as the world’s next economic hubs, is it any wonder that Americans aren’t quite as optimistic as they were some forty years ago? Maybe, just maybe, it seems that the ‘Other’ is winning.
There is a deeper level to our rotting, moaning friends, beyond modern politics and culture. It reaches deep into the human psyche, deep into our collective soul.
The last thing a lot of our ancestor’s ever saw.
What animals did our ancestors compete with for survival? The first answer, the logical one, is big predators. Lions and tigers and bears (oh my!). You’ll notice many of the monsters in our mythologies have features similar to these sorts of predators. Many of the monsters that terrified our ancestors around the cook fire were amalgams of lions, snakes, eagles, and the like. This stems from an ancestral memory of our time in the jungle, when the night held perils the modern mind can scarcely comprehend.
The first answer is logically sound. It’s also wrong. Our ancestors faced a more sinister enemy; an enemy who could mimic and even exceed their own abilities. An enemy who used same resources they needed for survival.
That enemy? Humans.
Animals of a given species tend to compete not with members of other species but with members of the same species. Give it a deeper look, and it makes perfect sense. Look at it in business terms. If I make shoes, other shoe makers are my competition in the market place. Someone who makes pottery is no threat to me in my particular niche.
In our ancient past it was a similar sort of thing. Predators ate us of course; they were a legitimate threat as evidenced by the fact they still haunt our dream almost two million years later.
Dangerous though they were, they weren’t competing with us for the exact same food resources. They weren’t competing with us for mates. But other humans were. Other humans could plot, could steal, could humiliate. Other humans could kill, and kill in horrific ways worse than any animal. Is it any wonder we grew to be wary of one another over time?
And so we come back to the zombie, and the real reason they scare us. The real reason they’ve endured and still remained potent even as other monsters have become safe and toothless.
Zombies are us. Us, stripped of life. Us, stripped of morals. Us, stripped of that most powerful and unabashedly human capacity: love. They reflect the worse parts of humanity and none of the good. They reflect what life can do to a person, if they don’t take care to nurture what is best in humanity.
They are us.
The deadliest monsters of all.