While the word “zombie” first appears in English as far back as 1819, in poet Robert Southey’s History of Brazil (as the Angolan word for deity/spirit), it wasn't properly introduced to Western culture until William Seabrook’s sensationalised accounts of Haitian voodoo cults in The Magic Island (1929). It is the slave plantations of Haiti which are usually identified as the birthplace of the zombie concept, where enslaved Africans responded to their conditions by developing practices of voodoo, and a belief in a dead body that could be reanimated and controlled. Of course, the idea of the walking dead can be seen as distinct from Haitian traditions, and in Western culture predates Seabrook — see for example H. P. Lovecraft's 1922 horror story “Herbert West–Reanimator” — but it was The Magic Island's vivid descriptions of “a soulless human corpse, still dead, but taken from the grave and endowed by sorcery with a mechanical semblance of life” that seemed to really capture the twentieth-century imagination, in US cinema in particular. A spate of zombie-filled films followed: Victor Halperin's White Zombie (1932) (starring Bela Lugosi) and its sequel Revolt of the Zombies (1936), Jean Yarbrough's King of the Zombies (1941), and Jacques Tourneu's I Walked with a Zombie (1943), to name a few. These were all films that played, to various levels of crudeness, with the Haitian voodoo stereotype. But it perhaps wasn't until George A. Romero's 1968 Night of the Living Dead — made out-of-hours on a shoe-string budget by the then 28-year-old director — that the lumbering undead took the form so familiar today.
Though Variety magazine labeled it an “unrelieved orgy of sadism”, Romero's vision has proved enduringly popular, and hugely influential on a subsequent genre of cinema that constructs social satire through horror. Director Jordan Peele has celebrated its influence on his 2017 hit Get Out, a film which is treated to an excellent reading, or viewing, by Zadie Smith on the appropriation and theft of pain, of artistic subjects, and of living and near-living bodies.
In addition to its late-show popularity, Night of the Living Dead has prompted plentiful, more cerebral examination. New York's Museum of Modern Art is proud to have picked up on the film's high-art virtues as early as 1970, while zombies will cement their place in academia with the forthcoming George A. Romero Horror Studies Center at the University of Pittsburgh. Romero’s zombies emerge within various strands of academic thought. It’s not just the presence of protagonist Ben, a Black man among white fellow victims, whose death has lynch mob overtones, but the figure of the zombie itself, that gives Night of the Living Dead an important presence in Black Studies. Elizabeth Maddock Dillon traces a history of “zombie biopolitics” back to origins in the Caribbean plantation, while Kaiama L. Glover in a short presentation recognises the figure as embodying anxieties about those from the global south who might threaten “us”, “here”. In a related field of study, Céline Keller’s article does a good job of situating the zombie within a history of philosophy, cyborgism, and transhumanism.
Romero himself couldn’t be kept down; he followed Night of the Living Dead with Dawn, Day, Land, Diary, and Survival of the Dead. It’s a film and a concept that — like its monstrous subject — has a tendency towards survival. But why did such an enduring artwork emerge just when it did? The zombies in Night of the Living Dead are irradiated, and this was, after all, still the age of nuclear anxiety – the previous year, 1967, had seen the US record its highest total of stockpiled nuclear weapons. It was also the height of civil unrest in the US. MoMA’s take on the film is that:
Released at a time when disillusionment was running rampant in the country — spurred by the Vietnam War and the recent assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy — Americans identified with the film’s most shocking suggestion: death is random and without purpose. No one dies for the greater good or to further the survival of others. Instead, people die to feed faceless, ordinary America.
Some might see parallels with own age of pandemic and ecological crisis. As Jon Towlson’s 2018 introduction for the British Film Institute notes:
Night of the Living Dead takes us into the apocalypse almost in real time. . . . The effect is to create a very powerful sense of a definitive point of change: we see the precise moment that history collapses.
The collapse of history is a powerful and (most would say) depressing image, but perhaps one not entirely devoid of life — there seems to be something extricating itself from the wreckage, stretching out its arms towards us, drooling…
Oct 29, 2020