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Zombie - Origin and Evolution

This presentation shows how fear and paranoia in a time frame shaped the zombie and how the zombie reflects those fears.
by

Wells Thompson

on 22 November 2011

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Transcript of Zombie - Origin and Evolution

The Origin of the Modern Zombie The Living Dead The Haitian Zombi The modern zombie is a hybrid of two distinct entities: the living dead, and the voodoo zombi slave. The living dead are sparsely seen in ancient literature and are often interchangable with ghosts, ghouls, vampires, mummies, and golems.

The living dead are where the cannibalistic, malicious, numberous, and dead characteristics of the zombie emerged. The Epic of Gilgamesh Frankenstein "Father, give me the Bull of Heaven / So he can kill Gilgamesh in his dwelling. / If you do not give me the Bull of Heaven, I will knock down the Gates of the Netherworld. / I will smash the doorposts and leave the doors flat down, / and will let the dead go up to eat the living! / And the dead will outnumber the living!" -Ishtar, The Epic of Gilgamesh. Though more closely resembling a Jewish Golem in many respects, Frankenstein is often considered the "original" zombie.

It represents many of the same fears about unmitigated science that zombies would come to represent. The Haitian zombi is a real phenomenon that was discovered by Americans during Haiti's occupation in the early 1900s.

This is where the mindless, familiar, and slow moving zombie was developed. This was also what the first zombie movies were based around. The Haitian Myth The myth that spread to America, confirmed by ethnobotanist Wade Davis in his book The Serpent and the Rainbow, was of people in Haiti being risen from the grave to work as a slave on a plantation.

According to an article from University of Michigan, "The word zombie means ‘spirit of the dead.’ Voodoo folklore contends that Bokors, Voodoo priests that were concerned with the study and application of black magic, possessed the ability to resurrect the deceased through the administration of coup padre—coup padre is a powder that is issued orally… According to legend, ‘a zombi(e) is someone who has annoyed his or her family and community to the degree that they can no longer stand to live with this person. They respond by hiring a Bokor..to turn them into a zombi(e). The Zombie in Cinema: 1920s-1950s The zombie is unique in its evolution because it, unlike the vampire, the werewolf, and other monstrosities, moved directly from folklore to film rather than traditional literature. The Haitian myths created a sense of mystery and wonderment in America about the zombi slaves, creating the perfect opportunity for their exploration in film, a relatively new medium of entertainment. White Zombie and I Walked with a Zombie These first zombie movies set the scene for the American public for the next thirty years.

The movies, made in 1932 and 1943 respectively, both centered around a central evil, the bokor, and used the zombie as a slave subjected to the bokor's will.

The threat in the movies was that the white protagonists would become slaves like the Haitian zombies.

The difference between the two films was that White Zombie treated voodoo unfairly, reducing it to evil, childlike 'mumbo-jumbo.' -Kyle William Bishop, American Zombie Gothic, page 64. Symbolism 1940s 1930s 1950s The zombie, during this time, mainly represented reverse colonization: the fear that the white man would be overcome by the Bokor, a thin veil representing the Haitian savage, and become a zombie slave.

This inherently racist metaphor mirrored the racist tendencies of the era. It took the monster past the generic fear of death, and moved it into that "of a Westerner becoming dominated, subjugated, symbolically raped, and effectively ‘colonized’ by pagan representatives.” -Kyle William Bishop, American Zombie Gothic, page 66. The zombie metaphor showed the devastation felt at the second world war. It effectively showed the hollowed out, devastated, and often emotionless veterans and marked the hoplessness of the generation with the same effect as the "Lost Generation" writers such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Like the 1930s, the zombie was a vehicle for racism during the 1950s, representing the paranoia and anger expressed in the white man about the Civil Rights movement. The Phenomenal American Icon: Zombies Romero's Revolution:
The Creation of the True Zombie Night of the Living Dead
1968 Night of the Living Dead cannot be overemphasized in its effect on the zombie and the horror genre in general. It is the seminal work of horror that shifted fear deeply in the realm of the psychological, a feat only before accomplished by Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho (1960). -Kyle William Bishop

With Romero's allegory of the zombie, he was able to show what was happening in America at the time: the breakdown of the American family, racism surrounding the civil rights movement, fear of a nuclear apocalypse, and the horrors of the Vietnam War.

Film commentator Jamie Russell says about Night, “at the height of the [Vietnam] war, as race riots, peace demonstrations, and the angry outbursts of a youthful counterculture raged through America… [The movie] pulled no punches in its representation of a nation falling apart on every level.” Romero fundamentally changed the zombie genre with his movies Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. As stated by Shawn McIntosh, author of Zombie Culture: Autopsies of the Living Dead, “Romero liberated the zombie from the shackles of a master, and invested his zombies not with a function (a job or task such as zombies were standardly given by voodoo priests), but rather a drive (eating flesh).” -8 Dawn of the Dead
1978 Dawn of the Dead was able to further expand the effect of the zombie created in Night. By further pushing social taboos and increasing shock and gore, the movie was presented as the most horrifying of the series as well as the most successful social metaphor. It is often considered Romero masterpeice and the crown jewel of the zombie genre.

Dawn of the Dead, through its use of setting (a shopping mall), exposed the ultra-consumerist American tendencies created from the creation of credit in the 1920s and the emphasis on capitalism created through the fear of communism. The movie horrified its audience with the concept that, even after death, they were doomed to consume everything they could, in this case, the flesh of their loved ones. -Kyle William Bishop, 130. Unfortunately, with the excess of gore Romero used to get his point across, several immitations of his films caused a desensitization in the American public, causing severe consequences for the zombie genre. After a laundry list of films copying Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, including Zombi 2 (1979), Evil Dead (1981), and Return of the Living Dead (1985), the American public was no longer horrified by the zombie as it had been in 1968. The result of this was the inability to portray the zombie in social allegory. The effect was so severe on the genre that, at the turn of the century, Romero himself could not receive funding for his fourth envisioned zombie film. The only thing that kept the genre alive through the 80s and 90s was a hybrid genre of slapstick and zombies, affectionately coined 'splatstick' due to its manipulation of the zombie's grotesqueness for a comedic visual effect. The star of this period of the zombie's evolutuion was Peter Jackson's Braindead, which was described by critics as an "immature, scatographical pun." Though it was not a box office success, it became a cult classic in VHS and DVD form. -Shawn McIntosh, 46 The comedic zombie was set on the lowest cultural brow and, while it did provide a root for films such as Shawn of the Dead (2004) and Zombieland (2009), it nearly destroyed what was left of the genre. However, as is evident with the nature of the zombie, it was only a short amount of time before it was resurrected in the culture. The Post 9/11 Zombie:
Paranoia and Terrorism Three months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (2001) was released, genuinely horrifying audiences for the first time in twenty years. Featuring a new breed of zombie, the infected, Boyle was able to capture the paranoia in America following the attacks as well as the fast paced, out of control world that technology had come to cause. Infection Often considered the greatest paranoia in Western culture, health and the fear of infection was one of the main points discussed and exploited in 28 Days Later. -Andy Coghlan, New Scientist Magazine

Though this parable was first seen in Dawn of the Dead at the height of the AIDS epidemic, the synactic infection that takes place in 28 Days Later could just as easily be a reference to Bird Flu, Influenza B, SARS, H1N1, Anthrax, and several other epidemics that have swept through in recent years.

As Robin Becker, author of Brains: a Zombie Memoir, said in an interview concerning the subject, "[zombies represent] the plight of humans in the grips of a pandemic. Currently, [they] represent our fears about virus and disease and make us realize that, if a large disease were to spread, humanity could be wiped out." The Fast Zombie Boyle's film innovated the zombie by changing their physical make up, their origins, and their actions. His film features zombies that sprint toward their prey and rend, tear, bite, and pulverize anything that they approach. They are no longer dead, but rather infected with a neurological disease that makes living humans ultra-violent and ravenous. With this new type of zombie movie came a renaissance of zombie culture and films that swept through the Western world.

Films featuring this new monstrosity include Resident Evil (2002), Dawn of the Dead (2004), Quarantine (2008), and The Crazies (2010).

With this unmatched rise in popularity, the zombie entered a medium that had been unexplored since Frankenstein, literature. Zombies in Literature World War Z: an Oral History of the Zombie War The first narrative of the literary zombie genre (2006) is Max Brooks's second novel and a door opener for other aspiring novelists. The novel did not innovate the zombie; however, it used an innovative writing and narrative style that garnered massive critical acclaim. Brains: a Zombie Memoir Robin Becker's first novel (2010) broke ground by telling the apocalypse story from the point of view of a zombie. This humanization marks a parallelism between vampires and zombies that is unique to American culture. Why? "For all their limitations, the brain-rotted, animated corpses are so darned versatile—helping reflect whatever our greatest fears happen to be at the time." -Report from CNN
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