Good morning, wanderer! I see you’ve accidentally stumbled across my website in your travels. It happens from time to time. The interstate is back there a ways. You can’t miss it.
But, hey, before you leave: Do you like zombies? If so, I might have something for you.
Check it out.
ZOMBIES IN CINEMA
Pre-1968, zombies as we know them (dead and cannibalistic) didn’t exist. In the earliest films (White Zombie, 1932, being the first) the walking dead were modeled on the zombie of Voodoo; indeed, most of them were about Voodoo, and featured exotic settings, zombie slaves, and vengeful witches. Both White Zombie and I Walked with a Zombie (1943) take place in the Caribbean and rely heavily on Voodoo superstition. Bowery at Midnight (1942) uses scientific means to resurrect its dead, but they are still Voodoo zombies for all practical purposes, and appear only in the end to exact revenge upon their killer.
Through the forties and fifties, this depiction of the zombie remained largely unchanged. In 1959, Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space had corpses rising from the grave and attacking the living at the behest of alien invaders (one victim was said to have been “mauled”), but, though they resembled zombies, they weren’t. They can, however, be considered forbearers, as they were the closest thing to the modern zombie until the release of Night of the Living Dead.
Into the sixties, zombie films used Voodoo or other forms of magic as a means of transformation, meaning that the zombies, though risen corpses, were less aggressive and independent than their later brethren. Plague of the Zombies, a Hammer production from 1964, is a prime example of “classic” zombie cinema: the dead are mindless puppets under the domination of an evil Englishman who had lived in Haiti and practiced Voodoo.
In 1968, the cultural image of the zombie changed forever. That year, Pittsburgh filmmaker George A. Romero released Night of the Living Dead, in which corpses return from the grave and feast upon the flesh of the living. Romero’s creations were actually inspired by vampires and ghouls (Romero being a fan of the 1954 vampire novel I am Legend), but uninformed fans and critics, noting their vacant eyes and stiff movements, called them zombies.
At the dawn of the seventies, perceptions of the zombie began to shift. Scores of filmmakers set out to imitate the success of Romero’s zombies, and voodoo largely disappeared from the radar.
Though Night was the Jones to best, it was not yet considered the touchstone. There was no set standard of what a modern zombie was (except that it was a reanimated corpse), thus cinema zombies were an eclectic lot. Some ate flesh, some didn’t; some were felled by a headshot, others weren’t. It was only Romero’s own Dawn of the Dead in 1978 and Lucio Fulci Zombie in 1980 that the general image of the modern zombie took shape: undead, shambling, stupid, and cannibalistic. But even into the eighties, some creatures that exhibited zombie like characteristics were all lumped into the same category, an act that unintentionally diversified the genre. (Today we are so knowledgeable on the topic that we can retroactively deem what is a true zombie and what isn’t, but these zombie cousins still appeal to us, and are often welcomed into the house of the undead).
By the nineties, the new zombie mythology was beginning to cement. Night was remade in1990, and the Resident Evil video games premiered in 1996, pitting players against Romeroesque zombies and other biologically engineered creatures. There were a few exceptions to the now generally revered rules: zombies were sometimes depicted eating brains rather than flesh (thanks to the huge success of Return of the Living Dead in 1985) and, once in a blue moon, as having normal human intelligence levels (My Boyfriend’s Back, 1993, has a teenager rising from the grave and picking up where he left off, only now he must consume human flesh to slow decay).
In the past decade or so (the 2000s) zombie films have gained new appreciation from fans and critics alike. The Library of Congress added Night of the Living Dead to the National Film Registry in 1999, an honor reserved only for films that are “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant,” and in 2010, The Walking Dead, a weekly hour-long television series, premiered on AMC (American Movie Classic), which boasts many award winning programs. In 2011, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) used zombies as a metaphor for disaster in a blog post meant to inform the public of what to do in an emergency situation.
And the films, of course, continue apace. While many “literary” novels and short stories have been produced on the subject (Stephen King, world renown author of horror fiction, has written several novels that utilize zombies and zombie-like creatures, as has Dean Koontz and many other big names), film is where the zombie was created and shaped. Thus in this case, movies are more important than books.