Zombies: the democratic monster

How brain-eating corpses took over American film and television

By Soncirey Mitchell
Reader Staff

Classic movie monsters usually have a long literary tradition in Gothic or horror novels, but that isn’t the case for the zombie, which made the jump almost immediately from folklore to the silver screen. The history of these living dead traces back to the transatlantic slave trade, where people from different African cultures, who spoke different languages, were bound together and forced to foster community however they could.

“Every culture that buries their dead has some concept of the undead, and understanding the histories of these monsters means understanding human history,” Dr. Emily Zarka told the Reader. “We can actually locate the zombie in West African belief.” 

Dr. Emily Zarka is a monster expert, a professor at ASU, host of PBS’s Monstrum and author of Exhumed: A History of Zombies. Courtesy photo.

Zarka is a monster expert, professor at Arizona State University and the host and writer of PBS’s Monstrum series and the book Exhumed: A History of Zombies.

The legend of the zombie solidified in Haiti during the 1600s, when West African slaves were forming a diasporic religion that helped them understand and survive the horrible conditions under French colonialism: Vodou. In this belief, a zombie was not a voracious cadaver, but rather the hollow shell left behind when a Bokor — essentially a sorcerer for hire — stole someone’s soul. The mindless body was then put to work, ensuring that the victim never escaped the bounds of slavery.

“The origins of the zombie ask, ‘What’s the most horrific thing that you can do to a human?’ and that’s to enslave them even in death. Zombies are about control,” said Zarka.

According to Exhumed, the idea of the zombie came to the U.S. after Haitian independence, when current and former slaves traveled to Louisiana. There, the original West African beliefs continued to mix with indigenous North American and European ideas, eventually forming the religion Voodoo.

It wasn’t until 1915, when the U.S. military occupied Haiti, that white culture appropriated the zombie and brought it from the realm of the spiritual into pop culture. Books like The Magic Island by William Seabrook and pulp fiction printings began exaggerating and demonizing Vodou, Voodoo and the zombie while “wrestling with the legacy of slavery and the anxieties white culture felt toward black bodies,” in Zarka’s words.

“I think there’s a lot of fear in the 20th century — and still today — of outsiders and people who have been othered by society,” she said.

These stories were overtly racist and often featured Black or Black-coded characters assaulting white women, perpetuating the rhetoric around anti-miscegenation laws and the stereotypes that lead to the murder of thousands of African-Americans. The zombie didn’t just represent racial tensions — authors and filmmakers used it to vilify many of the time’s changing power dynamics.

Following the success of Dracula, Bela Lugosi starred in what’s considered to be the first zombie movie, White Zombie, as the Haitian sorcerer Murder Legendre.

“The title White Zombie refers to the main character, Madeline, who becomes the zombie. Around that time women were obviously gaining the right to vote, so it shows how a largely patriarchal society reckons with the idea that they can’t control the bodies they once had,” said Zarka.

It’s clear from the film’s poster that one of the main themes is the sexual domination of women, as it says, “With this zombie grip, he made her perform his every desire.” At this point in history, popular conceptualizations of the zombie were highly racialized and still hearkened back to the original link to slavery, albeit from a racist, colonial perspective.

The modern, flesh-eating zombie didn’t appear until 1968 with George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Cannibalism has no basis in the original Vodou or Voodoo beliefs, but it’s easy to see why the idea became popular in the horror genre.

“Cannibalism is a horrific act in cultures all over the world. It’s the ultimate transgression of boundaries and it’s a fear you often see with monsters, even going back to medieval werewolf accusations. It’s about making zombies even scarier by stacking transgression upon transgression,” said Zarka.

She’s often asked whether or not zombies should be labeled “cannibals” if they eat humans, rather than other zombies. According to Zarka, yes. These monsters are still inherently human, which makes them all the more terrifying.

“Some people just don’t want to acknowledge that we can’t separate zombies and monsters from ourselves,” she said.

The hit TV show The Walking Dead — as well as the original graphic novels — takes this idea to new heights when it reveals that everyone, regardless of how they die, will eventually become a zombie. In his famous speech, protagonist Rick Grimes reveals that the “walking dead” are actually the survivors, not the monsters themselves. This feeling of inevitable defeat is what makes zombies so compelling to modern audiences and separates them from horror staples like vampires or werewolves: they’re the only monsters that can and will take over the world.

“Since everyone is one heartbeat away — so to speak — from becoming one of these monsters, the zombie is almost democracy rising. It’s the democratic monster,” said Zarka. Vampires may transform a select few humans, but overall they often represent an elite minority that many people even fantasize about joining. No one wants to be a zombie, but in media like The Walking Dead, eventually everyone will be.

Despite the insurmountable odds the protagonists face, Zarka believes that zombie media is inherently hopeful. When the survivors band together, though they often fight among themselves, they show audiences that humans will protect one another through the worst catastrophes. This message of unity is especially relevant given the current wars in Ukraine and Palestine, the last vestiges of the COVID-19 pandemic and the frequency of natural disasters.

“Basically, being the only survivor in a zombie pandemic is incredibly difficult,” said Zarka. “You need to parallel the zombies; they can come together to attack the living, so the living have to join together to survive the undead, which has a real positivity to it. Humans inherently want connection, and I don’t think an apocalypse would change that.”

Zarka predicts a greater resurgence of zombie media in the wake of the recent pandemic — a phenomenon that may have already begun with the release of the TV show The Last of Us, based on the video game franchise. Since the early 2000s, it’s been popular among filmmakers to use the living dead as a means of exploring global fears of contagion and medical experimentation, as in the movie 28 Days Later.

As mainstream horror becomes more diverse and artists of different races, ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations get the opportunity to bring their unique perspectives to a wider audience, Zarka hopes that zombie media will return to its Haitian origins. The film Get Out by Jordan Peele came close by dealing with issues surrounding race relations and the physical and spiritual enslavement of Black Americans in a plot reminiscent of the original soul-stealing beliefs.

“I’d like to see a story told by someone who actually belongs to the [Haitian, Voodoo or Vodou] community,” said Zarka. “The most important thing to remember about the zombie is that it is a direct result of the transatlantic slave trade, and when we remember that, we can have more complex readings of all its interpretations. The zombie is the people’s monster — it can be everything we need it to be.”

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