It’s spooktober! Halloween month is as good an excuse as any other for watching horror films. I watch them all year round, but more so during the month of October. That’s why I rewatched one of my favorites, George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. In France, the title of the movie is just “Zombie.” Anyways, this made me curious about something I should already know:
Who Invented the Zombie?
First of all, what are we talking about when speaking about zombies? Merriam-Webster’s definition of the word goes as follows:
1. a will-less and speechless human (as in voodoo belief and in fictional stories) held to have died and been supernaturally reanimated.
2. the supernatural power that according to voodoo belief may enter into and reanimate a dead body.
There also is a thing about a drink, and about people looking like zombies, but this is not the subject of the day.
Some people, but also Google apparently, think George Romero invented the Zombie. It’s not totally false, but it’s not true, as the zombie is a creature from folklore. If we look past the fear of the old civilizations concerning the reanimation of the dead (you can read a little about that in my article about the origin of the vampire), the zombie is clearly rooted in Haitian culture.
In fact, it is believed that the word “Zombie” is of West African origin—The word “zombi” (without the “e”) first appeared in print in an American newspaper in a reprinted short story called “The Unknown Painter” in 1838—and was brought to Haiti by slaves from that region.
That said, the zombies evolved to become what we are talking about today with the creation of the Vodou religion. They became synonymous with all types of monsters, one, in particular, is the disembodied spirit taking possession of a dead body. In Western culture, the idea of the spirit was forgotten, but the revenant corpse stayed and became what we call a “zombie.”
In Haitian Folklore, it is believed that the zombie is created by a bokor, a dark sorcerer who employed evil magic, to labor in the fields. In American pop culture, it became the vehicle for social metaphors—and especially to criticize capitalism.
The First Zombie Movies
The zombie film is a genre in itself exploring stories about reanimated corpses or virally infected human beings who come after the living—they often are hungry for fresh human flesh (or brains!!!).
The first zombie film is believed to be Victor Halperin’s White Zombie. This 1932 American pre-Code independent horror movie was based on the novel “The Magic Island” by William Seabrook. The story starts with Madeleine Short reuniting with her fiancé Neil Parker after her arrival in Haiti. They meet Murder Legendre (played by Bela Lugosi), an evil voodoo master, whose sugar cane mill is entirely operated by zombies. Wealthy plantation owner Charles Beaumont asks Murder’s assistance to convince Madeleine to marry him. He suggests a potion to turn the woman into a zombie. She died and is promptly back to life as a zombie.
Other zombie movies followed like 1943 I Walked with a Zombie directed by Jacques Tourneur which also explored the Haitian Vodou angle.
The Modern Zombie
What we are calling a zombie now is mostly based on the “modern zombie” introduced by George A. Romero in his 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead—that’s why this type of creature can be referred to as “Romero’s zombie.”
The movie starts with siblings Barbra and Johnny in a cemetery. There, they are attacked by a strangely dead-looking man. Johnny dies but Barbra escapes and finds refuge in a shelter in a farmhouse where other people also took refuge. Soon, the house is surrounded by a growing number of ghouls. The radio announced that an army of cannibalistic reanimating corpses leaves on his trail more and more dead.
The sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1978), really cemented Romero’s zombie as a staple of the horror genre. And it became the vastly accepted definition of a zombie in popular culture.
To learn a lot more about zombies, you can read the essay Race, Oppression and the Zombie: Essays on Cross-Cultural Appropriations of the Caribbean Tradition.