Ever since George A. Romero’s iconic 1968 feature ‘Night of the Living Dead’, there’s been no stopping the undead as they’ve munched their way into our cultural consciousness . Has there ever been a cinematic monster as beloved as the Zombie? The Wolfman, The Mummy and even Dracula, have nothing on a regular half-decomposed dude in a suit walking slowly and making incomprehensible sounds.
The first zombie film is widely considered to be ‘White Zombie’ – a 1932 feature directed by Victor Halperin. It’s a not-very-scary depiction of how a young woman is transformed into a gruesome zombie thanks to a voodoo priest and a substandard love potion. Since then we’ve had some 500 zombie films. These films have included many different types of zombie; we’ve seen traditional brain nibbling zombies, the 28 Days Later “running to catch a bus” zombie, the Walking Dead zombie that should realistically have decomposed months ago, and then there’s the ‘whatever the hell was going on with World War Z and why can’t Brad Pitt’s walk down a hospital corridor quietly’ zombie.
Humanity’s love for zombies shows no sign of abating, with Days Gone proving naysaying critics wrong and going on to be one of the biggest video game success stories of the year. Even World War Z, the video game based on the film that came out six years ago, did rather well for itself in the charts. It’s clear then that zombies are still incredibly popular within our culture, but where did the idea of a zombie originate from in the first place? What’s the history of the zombie in the real world?
The zombie is thought to have been born from the depths of Voodoo. Voodoo is a West African religion that includes belief in animism, magic and priests who can communicate with many different spirits. In Voodoo folklore there are Bokors, Voodoo Priests who deal in the power of black magic. They also have the ability to bring the dead back to life by the administration of an oral powder called ‘coup padre’. Picture the scene: you live in Africa and your neighbour is a right pain in the behind. He’s loud, uncouth, and keeps on making eyes at your wife. What to do? First of all, label him a ‘zombi’, someone who has so irritated their community that they can no longer put up with them, then call your friendly neighbourhood Bokor to sort the problem out. The Bokor will give your neighbour the coup padre, their heart rate will slow and their breathing lessen, so much so it would appear that they are dead. But they’re not dead, like a deeply disturbing version of Sleeping Beauty they’re only having a nap. When they awaken they will be reborn as a mindless zombie under the command of the Bokor.
So how did Vodoo and the zombie spread out of Africa and reach America and Europe? I’m glad you theoretically asked! In the 18th Century thousands of Africans were forcibly removed from their home county by European Imperialists and transported to the New World as slaves. Yet their Voodoo did not die with their freedom. In colonial Saint-Domingue, for example, French slaveholders forced their slaves to convert to Catholicism and abandon any African religion they may abide by. In rebellion of their masters, the slaves continued to practice Voodoo during the night.
In the August of 1791 a particularly wild Voodoo ceremony was held, one that saw the spirit Ezili Dantor possess a priestess and the possible sacrifice of a pig. The ceremony also provided the cover for the discussion of rebellion. In actual fact, the plans for open revolt had been in place for several weeks and they would soon be put into action. At the time, there were some 600,000 enslaved people residing within Saint-Dominique, compared to the estimated 30,000 slavers responsible for their supervision. With that kind of math, once the rebellion began, it was only ever going to go one way.
The conflict wiped out invading Spanish and British armies in the process, saw many flee for their lives and a third of the population wiped out. But finally, in 1804, after years of near-apocalyptic turmoil, the nation of Haiti was born and slavery was dead. The fear-fuelled tales of the slavers who survived spread terror throughout America and the West. As we all know, fear leads to hate. Haiti, and Voodoo by association, became something to be feared and reviled in equal measure. Its very existence threatened the power of empires who were sustained and only made possible through slavery. And so, throughout the 19th Century, Haiti became known as a place of superstition, mystical rites, cannibalism and death. And there Voodoo remained constrained, trapped in a veil of ignorance by the rest of the world.
That would all change in 1915 when, after a series of coups, assassinations and a spot of political turmoil, American Forces were provided with the excuse they needed to occupy Haiti (in order to reduce German influence in the area). As with most American occupations, things didn’t exactly go smoothly, though that’s not exactly important to this potted history. What is important is that when American forces finally left Haiti in 1934, they returned with stories of Voodoo and Zombies. Is it any coincidence that during the occupation of Haiti we saw the release of the first Zombie film?
Soon the soulless human under mind control of a Voodoo priest became a corpse tottering from a tomb. American Pulp magazines were filled with these terrifying tales over the next few decades. It’s then just a shamble, shuffle and brain munch until we reach George A. Romero’s reinvention of the zombie with his iconic trilogy; Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead.
So is that it? Is that the history of the zombie? Nope, that’s just the ‘conventional’ history of the zombie. Brace yourself, because things are about to get weird(er): the Ancient Greeks believed in zombies. That’s right, Ancient Greeks spent their time freaking out that the dead were coming back to life. Modern Archaeologists have found many ancient graves in which skeletons have been pinned down with rocks and fragments of amphora. Writing in Popular Archaeology, Dr Carrie Sulosky Weaver stated, “Greeks imagined scenarios in which reanimated corpses rose from their graves, prowled the streets and stalked unsuspecting victims, often to exact retribution denied to them in life.” Sure sounds like a zombie to me.
Then there’s the references found to zombies in the best selling book of all time: The Bible. It’s not for the popular joke that you’re almost certainly now thinking of. In the Book of Isiah you’ll find the passage “Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise. Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust: for thy dew is as the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out the dead.”
In fact, the Earth might have started casting out the dead already. In 1997 the medical journal the Lancet described three verifiable zombie accounts. One case involved a Haitian women buried in a tomb, only to come back to life three years later. Another detailed a Haitian man who died of respiratory problems, yet he was magically restored to life a whopping 18 years later. The professional journalist and alcoholic William Seabrook was convinced he met a zombie in 1927. Then there was the esteemed novelist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston who, after training as a Voodoo priest wrote in her travel book ‘Tell My Horse’, “I had the rare opportunity to see and touch an authentic case. I listened to the broken noises in its throat, and then, I did what no one else has ever done, I photographed it.” And here’s the photo:
So if you haven’t already played Days Gone they you really should, if only to get some practice in to deal with the approaching zombie apocalypse. Speaking of which, what’s your zombie escape plan? Be sure to let us know in the comments below!
This feature was originally published in TheSixthAxis