Zombie horde in Day of the Dead (1985) © Umbrella Entertainment
Zombie horde in Day of the Dead (1985) © Umbrella Entertainment
Day of the Dead (1985) © Umbrella Entertainment
Stories & Ideas

Mon 27 Feb 2023

Zombies: living history through the living dead

Film Pop culture Retrospective

From Haitian folklore to brain-eating monsters on film, the zombie has captured our imaginations – and reflected our fears – for longer than you may think.

For those with a cursory familiarity with zombie movies, you’re forgiven for at first not taking them particularly seriously. At their most cartoonish, these drooling, green-hued, brain-eating weirdos seem comical, almost goofy; a well-worn horror cliché who stagger about with a dead-eyed stare, terrorising the living with their infamous monotonal war-cry, "braaainsss". But looking at the historical roots of the zombie, we start to discover why they have endured as one of cinema’s most powerful figures for political allegory, providing the foundations for some of the most radical and celebrated genre films ever made. At the heart of ACMI's Focus on the Dead program, from the complex political heart of George A. Romero's so-called ‘Trilogy of the Dead’ – Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985) – to Mati Diop’s exquisite Atlantics (2019), a powerful romantic zombie film that taps into the Senegalese refugee experience, it often seems we can’t talk about zombies and not talk about politics.

When approaching zombies and politics through a historical lens, we must first go to Haiti. Zombies are an offshoot of the Haitian Vodou religious belief system and the exhaustive rendering of zombiism as monstrous even today in the western canon finds its roots in the colonial demonisation of that country’s liberated slaves. A short history lesson: Haiti gained its independence in 1804 at a time when the French colony economically relied heavily upon slave labour. By painting the people’s indigenous beliefs – Vodou – as fundamentally corrupt, the colonial powers found a way to turn attention away from the real story about oppressed people seeking liberation. In Haiti today, Vodou is often practised in tandem with (and not in opposition to) Christianity and was recognised as an official religion in the country in 2003. But in the west, thanks to the pop culture legacy of the zombie, Vodou remains synonymous with colonially-driven fantasies of a kind of dark ‘primitivism’, a stereotype with a deep, ugly racist history.

Illustration of a Vodou ceremony from Ridpath's Universal History

Illustration of a Vodou ceremony (John Clark Ridpath, source: Wikimedia Commons)

The zombie, then, has always been political, whether we’ve realised it or not. Key academic works on Vodou and zombiism like Zora Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse (1938) and Wade Davis’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985) sit alongside literary classics such as William Seabrooke’s pearl-clutching Caribbean travelogue The Magic Island (1929) and, of course, horror icon H.P. Lovecraft’s short story ‘Herbert West–Reanimator’ (1921). By the time Victor Halperin's White Zombie hit screens in 1932, the word ‘zombie’ already had enormous cultural potency which sent fear into the popular imagination, even though technically that film is more about mesmerism and brainwashing. But with Bela Lugosi as the evil Vodou master ‘Murder’ Legendre who runs his sugar cane mill on zombie slave labour, even at this stage we see evidence of zombie movies addressing broader political issues.

Long before Romero, zombies were a horror cinema staple. Despite its sensationalist title, Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943) reimagined Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre (1847) through the lens of anti-colonial discourse. That same year, Steve Sekely's Revenge of the Zombies wore its political heart even more explicitly on its sleeve in its tale of a crazed doctor (played by the legendary John Carradine) who attempts to raise an army of zombies to join the Nazi cause. More recently, Nazi zombies would almost become a subgenre of its own with films like Outpost (Steve Barker, 2008) from Scotland and Dead Snow (Tommy Wirkola, 2009) from Norway, but this is by no means a uniquely contemporary phenomenon.

Frederick Peters and Bela Lugosi in White Zombie (1932)

Frederick Peters and Bela Lugosi in White Zombie (1932)

Zombies never quite attained the same high profile as mummies and vampires did during horror’s Hollywood boom period in the 1930s, and the zombie films that were released during this era differed in keyways from what we think of as a typical zombie movie today. For starters, before Romero the thing that made zombies scary was their mindless susceptibility which was amplified through their critical mass. Crucially, zombies didn’t really become cannibals until Night of the Living Dead. What did pre-date Romero, however, was the image of the staggering, rotting living-dead corpse. This appeared a few years earlier in films like John Gilling’s Hammer Horror classic, The Plague of the Zombies (1966). Until then, zombies looked largely blank and shabby and, well, just sort of depressed. And in The Plague of the Zombies we once again discover a zombie film with a strong political core. Here, a man who runs a tin mine uses zombies as slave labour – this not only echoes the colonial roots of the zombie in Haiti and in White Zombie, but at the time it also drew strong parallels between the fictional story and the plight of Welsh coal miners in the mid-1960s. The film was released only months before the devastating Aberfan disaster that killed 116 children and 28 adults where slurry from a collapsed coal mine wiped out a school and nearby houses.

And then came Barbara. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead changed everything, heralding the arrival of the modern zombie film, and triggering a huge spate of zombie and cannibal films in its aftermath. One of the most famous and enduring low-budget independent films ever made, Night of the Living Dead also rightly earned Romero a place as one of the most important filmmakers of the American Civil Rights period. Following the plight of a Black man under siege in an isolated house by both the flesh-eating zombies outside the house and the racist white people hiding inside with him, the film stands as a popcorn movie favourite but also simultaneously remains almost impossible to separate from the broader political climate at the time. The oft-cited story of the film’s release is now horror legend: Romero has said he was driving the first finished version of the film from Pittsburgh to New York on the night that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. As a film tapping into the fraught race relations in the US at the time, the film’s timing couldn’t be more perfect, or more tragic.

Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Still from Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead is a significant film for so many reasons, but one of its key elements is perhaps easy to miss. This was the first time that zombies went from being creatures whose horror stemmed from them being controlled by others – again, a throw-back to its colonial origins – to being monsters in their own right, driven by their own desire to eat human flesh. In this sense, Romero gave zombies a degree of agency that they previously did not have, opening up a whole new way to employ the figure in a horror context. In the films that followed, Romero would take the political core of that original film and reimagine it anew, each film tapping into its zeitgeist and revealing just how regenerative a form the zombie film could be. In Dawn of the Dead , zombies are famously let loose in a shopping mall in Romero’s scathing attack on consumer culture, the grimly absurd rituals of capitalism on full display for that film’s small group of survivors to observe as if through new eyes. As Ken Foree's Peter Washington – another Black protagonist – famously observes, "They're after the place. They don't know why; they just remember. Remember that they want to be in here... They're us."

Dawn of the Dead zombies around a fountain

Still from Dawn of the Dead (1978)

By 1985, America was in the grip of Cold War fever and had just resoundingly re-elected the conservative Ronald Reagan in a landslide victory, setting the scene for Romero’s vision of a notably different United States to that he explored in his previous zombie films. In Day of the Dead, Romero cast his gaze towards the dehumanising monstrosity of the military itself, pitting it explicitly against science, progress, morality and basic common sense. A film fundamentally about the corruption of the human spirit, Day of the Dead is in many ways the bleakest but also surprisingly the most hopeful of the trilogy. As the scientists work desperately to find a way to either cure or retrain the zombies with the intention of somehow reversing the catastrophic infestation which has seemingly taken over the world, the zombie test specimen ‘Bub’ reveals that the essence of his humanity might in fact lay dormant within.

Bub saluting in Day of the Dead (1985)

Still from Day of the Dead (1985)

From Yeon Sang-ho's 2016 Korean blockbuster Train to Busan (also playing in ACMI’s Focus on the Dead season) to the Italian zombie films of Lucio Fulci to television hits like The Walking Dead and famous videogame franchises such as Resident Evil, the legacy of Romero’s ‘Trilogy of the Dead’ is global and has bled across screen culture well beyond the confines of cinema alone. But revisiting these three films upon which Romero’s extraordinary legacy still largely hinges, their power and force is still remarkable. Romero wasn’t just a filmmaker with a vision, he was a filmmaker with an unflinchingly political vision. That courage and determination alone have largely formed the foundations for what was – and remains – one of horror’s most captivating, compelling and challenging subgenres.

– Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Don't miss our focus season on zombies showing at ACMI

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