It’s hard to argue that there could be an iconic horror figure that is currently more popular than the zombie. From film to television to comics, the living dead have done to popular culture what they do to human flesh: they have devoured en masse and made converts of us all. The ultimate irony, of course, is that the creatures that populate these movies and shows that we love so much aren’t actually zombies at all.
The beginning of what we call the modern zombie began with George Romero’s seminal 1968 horror film “Night of the Living Dead”; however, anyone who remembers the film well will know that they were never called zombies in that movie. They were called ghouls in the script, referred to as many things by the characters themselves, and the film was originally named “Night of the Flesh Eaters”.
The reason they became known as zombies (from “Dawn of the Dead” forward) was because of the superficial similarities they bore to the actual historical legend of the Zombie, known from West African and Haitian folklore. The slow movement and seeming lack of cognitive thought in Romero’s flesh-eating monsters got them dubbed zombies, when in fact the truth of zombies, and the voodoo that supposedly creates them, is far more fascinating in its origins as a horror trope.
Since Bela Lugosi starred in the 1932 “White Zombie”, the first feature film to discuss zombies, there has been a clear message about what there is to fear about voodoo zombies: the master. Voodoo zombies, legend has it, are controlled by a master who uses witchcraft and drugs to either bring a person back from the dead and command them, or to gain control over the will of a living person. Often, as in the case of “I Walked With a Zombie”, or the character of Lugosi’s Legendre in “White Zombie”, it is the affluent white settlers who have come to the new and mysterious land and learned the ancient voodoo arts for themselves. Now that they have control over the native population, they can exert their will over the others of their own race that dare to confront them.
It can’t be overstated that much of the fear and panic these films induced came from an unfortunate and xenophobic place within the largely white American filmgoing audience: the “barbaric” and “devilish” practices of non-Christian and non-anglo people from across the world. The films tapped into a fear that nice, regular white people (who had violently taken over countries that belonged to native populations, like Haiti and Africa) could suddenly have revenge visited upon them by the arcane practices of people they were simply trying to civilize.
The sub-genre of the voodoo zombie film went out of style in mainstream horror film for the simple reason that it represents an antiquated practice (colonialism) and an unenlightened perspective (the mysterious evil magic of foreigners).
It makes perfect sense that in 1968, a hippie and progressive like George Romero would not only do away with the ridiculous portrayal of zombies as an evil created by minorities, but would in the same film create one of the great lead roles for a black character in the history of horror film. The audience, a hip and forward-thinking group of young people ready to cast off what came before, ate it up, and there was no looking back. There may someday be a resurgence of the voodoo zombie sub-genre, some way that it can connect thematically to something that the world is dealing with in our time; but for now, here are four recommendations for further exploration into the sub-genre.