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.
Another classic slow burn horror film from producer Val Lewton (who we discussed last week with “The Body Snatcher”), this film was based in part on Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre. With one of the more mesmerizing experiences of a voodoo ritual, beginning with a walk through a cornfield to meet the haunting zombie guard Carrefour, it stands as the high-water mark in the voodoo zombie sub-genre.
GET IT ON AMAZON
NOTE: This is the first 15 minutes of the movie
A strange film with an even more strange history, “Ritual” began as the third theatrical feature film in the “Tales From the Crypt” series, spawned from the popular HBO television series. It came after “Demon Knight” and the Dennis Miller-starring “Bordello of Blood”. After the dismal performance of the second film, all of the connections to the “Tales From the Crypt” series were removed from “Ritual” until its DVD release. It’s not a particularly great film, but it’s one of the few modern examples of a voodoo zombie film, and one whose fate was unfortunately tied up in the failure of its predecessor.
GET IT ON AMAZON
In the aftermath of the release of Melvin Van Peeble’s pimp-on-the-run film “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasss Song”, Hollywood found a market for blaxploitation films and many of them were churned out. Within that sub-genre was another one, the horror blaxpolitation, with titles like “Blacula” and “Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde”. One of the more original entries in the horror blaxpolitation sub-genre was “Sugar Hill” (from 1974, not to be confused with the Wesley Snipes film), about a racketeer’s widow who uses the power of voodoo and zombies to take revenge on gangsters who killed her husband.
GET IT ON AMAZON
A film worth seeing because of its intention rather than its execution, Wes Craven’s “The Serpent and the Rainbow” was to be that rare horror film: a serious and high-minded horror film based on a book by journalist Wade Davis. What resulted was a confusing mess of an attempt, with moments of bizarre humor, a disturbing scene of a nail driven through a man’s scrotum, and a questionable lead performance from Bill Pullman. Though it still packs a punch in some ways (the performances from Paul Winfield and Zakes Mokae are excellent, and there are undeniably some fascinating images), the film feels more a product of several cooks making different meals.
GET IT ON AMAZON