By Christopher Waters @cwaters488
The term 'zombie' derives from the Haitian French word zonbi. A zombie as we know it, and understand it today, is defined as an undead being created through the reanimation of a living corpse. Simply put though if you dig deep into the history of Haitian folklore and culture the term zombie can simply mean spirit or ghost.
As mentioned, the actual idea of a zombie stems from Haitian folklore, but also can be traced to West African Tribes. Zombies are usually thought of as fictional creations though some would argue that this is far from the case. According to Haitian beliefs, it is believed that a bokor or a voodoo sorcerer, also commonly know as a witch doctor, would use black magic to render their victims dead, then revive the individual, making them their personal slave. This outcome and the effect of the black magic would create a zombie… a slave without will and without a name.
In 1915, Haitian President Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam was assassinated. In response U.S. President Woodrow Wilson sent U.S. Marines to occupy Haiti. Not to stem too far from our zombie topic here but just in case you are curious about why the U.S. was even concerned about Haiti, here is why: The U.S. was looking at a Haiti as a possible location to build a new Naval Base and in addition to this, President Wilson was afraid that an unstable foreign ruler would gain control of Haiti, and that was just too close to home for President Wilson. Marines were sent to seize control and maintain order until a stable political power could be identified, which didn’t come until 1934.
It was during this occupation that stories and folklore about black magic and zombies began to spread to the soldiers, and from the soldiers back home to the U.S. to their families. Some American reporters and writers also traveled to Haiti to explore the rich Haitian Culture and the distress that was happening throughout the country due to the assassination of their president.
The “big bang” question, though, is when and how did the zombie wedge its way into American pop culture, creating an unstoppable domino effect of zombie movies, books, comics, TV shoes and memorabilia. Based on my findings the very first instance of zombies entering into American pop culture was through H.P. Lovecraft’s short piece zombie fiction called The Outsider, written in 1921 and published in 1926. Below is a short entry from The Outsider:
"God knows it was not of this world - or no longer of this world - yet to my horror I saw in its eaten-away and bone-revealing outlines a leering, abhorrent travesty on the human shape; and in its moldy, disintegrating apparel an unspeakable quality that chilled me even more"
Followed shortly after, specifically in 1932 came the first zombie movie in America called White Zombie directed by Victor Halperin. From this moment many other zombie films that were very similar followed such as I Walked With a Zombie and Revolt of the Zombies. If you are a zombie fan be sure to check out some of these original films.
Now lets get down to business! I am sure you can speculate about where I am headed next. The catalyst that made zombie movies and culture bigger than ever across the world, I am talking of coarse about George A. Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead.
This movie was released October 1, 1968 on a $114,000 budget and… are you ready for this? Made $18 million worldwide… ya, I am pretty sure you can call this a success! This movie had so much impact on films as we know them today that it was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry as a film with cultural and historical significance.
Over the coarse of the following years Night of the Living Dead was followed by an onslaught of new zombie movies, sequels and remakes, slow moving corpses rising from the graves feasting upon the living flesh. Then in 2002, after decades of zombie movies, shows, and comics somebody else changed the zombie game.
Enter in the English film director Danny Boyle and his 2002 movie 28 Days Later. Credited with reinventing the zombie horror genre, it’s in Danny Boyle's film that we see for the first times a fast and significantly different, but just as deadly type of zombie. We are so used to seeing the zombie that battles through the top layers of their grave’s soil with a distinct headstone lingering in the background and a corpse that moves no faster than a couple taking a casual stroll in Central Park.
Danny Boyle creates a zombie that moves fast, and can be alerted with the quietest of sounds. In addition we move away from the traditional zombie that rises from its grave, in 28 Days Later we explore the world of animal experiments, man made bio hazards and medical viruses that we cannot contain, a now common fear with our advances in medicine and technology. Following 28 Days Later came another era of fast moving zombie horror, and science fiction movies that would terrify us in our dreams.
My big question though, and the reason I decided to write this article, is have we strayed too far from the original concept of the zombie, the zombie that stems back to centuries of culture and folklore? There is a battle that wages in the zombie community that argues that Danny Boyle’s interpretation does not deserve the zombie title it most frequently gets. I mean no ill intentions toward Danny Boyle either; it is we the fans of horror and film that most commonly rush to labels. I know where I stand, what do you think? Comment below and let me hear your thoughts on the evolution of the zombie in American pop culture.