Evolution of the Living Dead
by Kristin Grady
“The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.” – Matthew 27:51-52
Zombies pre-date Christianity by thousands of years, but the above quote is just one of the many instances in the Bible where the dead rise from their graves. We aren’t even the first hominid species to grieve over the corpses of our loved ones and long for life after death. Neanderthals carefully buried their dead with supplies for the afterlife. Imagining our consciousness living on in one form or another has reduced the fear of death since we were hunter-gatherers.
The act of burying a body implies an emotional attachment to the life lost and anxiety over what happens to the corpse. Rather than leave the human meat shell to scavengers, we put them in the earth so we don’t have to watch them rot. We bury them deeper and deeper in case they rise again. Resurrected corpses running amok have been a film trope for the entire history of cinema. When we examine the evolution of the zombie genre, a clear connection to our preservation instinct arises and mirrors our own evolution.
What is a Zombie?
Our collective consciousness defines the zombie archetype as an animated corpse (or hypnotized living person) fixated on killing/cannibalizing humans, seeking revenge, or finding resolution. Cinematic zombies have varying levels of retained brain functionality from mindless murder machines to fully articulate personalities. Most zombies can be killed by destroying the brain and are otherwise invincible, because they’re already dead.
An interesting variable is the cause for re-animation, if one is presented. Voodoo spells, mad scientists, secret government experiments, rabies or other communicable diseases… Zombie movie heroes almost always need to find the origin of the zombies to figure out how to stop them from consuming humanity. These themes have been cultivated into a plethora of sub-genres, infiltrating all corners of the global movie market.
Mummies: The Prototype
Ancient Egyptians were obsessed with the afterlife. Mummification practices were so extensive because they believed that person would need their body on the other side. High Priests couldn’t imagine the bloated corpse of Ramses presenting his decaying heart to be weighed against a feather or eaten by a crocodile. Mummies are carefully prepared zombies, corpses intended to rise from the dead. Since the definition of a zombie includes so many differing traits, most of them in mummy tropes, mummies being one of the original inspirations for zombies makes perfect sense.
The silent era produced several mummy movies, including German director Ernst Lubitsch’s 1918 film Die Augen der Mumie Ma (US title “Eyes of the Mummy”), which also utilized the “hypnotized zombie” trope. There’s a cool practical effect when the mummy opens her eyes too! The first talkie of this genre was the 1931 Walt Disney animated short Silly Symphony: Egyptian Melodies, an adorable black-and-white cartoon starring a bizarre six-legged spider who desecrates an Egyptian tomb full of dancing mummies, arguably one of the first attempts at horror-comedy.
Most mummy movies up until the modern era seem to be inspired by 1932’s The Mummy, starring Boris Karloff. The mummy genre has been recycled through the decades, but hasn’t really evolved because it’s tied to a Eurocentric view of ancient Egypt. The heroes are all robbing graves. An interesting change would be an Egyptian writer, director, and cast, but they may not want to produce a film about raiding the tombs of their ancestors.
Red scare, increased censorship, and the rise of post-industrial modernization affected the cinematic landscape during World War II and the early Cold War. Zombie movies of this era reflected many political and social issues. Hypnotic mind control represented the involuntary conformity of fascism. Aside from the inherent racism at the time, the zombie “hive mind” trope could have been an allegory for the forced assimilation of African slaves and Native Americans into white culture. Progressive themes can arise whether the producers intend it or not. The original zombie movies established mindlessness as a defining trait, showing our fear of losing our wills to evil powers.
The first film to use the word “zombie” was 1932’s White Zombie starring Bela Lugosi, which featured zero walking corpses. Instead, a devious plantation owner conscripts a man (Lugosi) who runs a mill (on hypnotized zombie slaves) to help lure a young woman away from her fiancé. The plantation owner ends up hating her zombified state. A common theme of zombie movies: someone creates a zombie and is shocked when the zombie is an evil/braindead version of the living person (See also- Pet Semitary and The Curse of Frankenstein). In a way, the first zombie movie is critical of supposed racial superiority. Although the genre is based on a xenophobic view of Haitian spiritual practices, “White Zombie” shows the evil done by despotic white rulers and could be considered an early development of political messages hidden in horror films.
There was a 10 year zombie movie gap from 1946-1955, except for an Abbott and Costello spoof on Frankenstien and a Martin and Lewis rip off of that. Post World War II, young veterans may not have been too keen on getting PTSD flashbacks on a date. Creature with the Atom Brain (1955) revived the marketable genre of walking corpses for the atomic age. A Nazi scientist using radio controlled zombies appealed to the “duck and cover” generation. Not generally considered a zombie movie, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) presented several similar tropes (emotionless drones, mind control, imminent global takeover) and was received as criticism of the McCarthy era, even though that wasn’t the producers’ intent.
“Brains!” You probably remember this quote from Night of the Living Dead (1968), growled by a hungry zombie. Well, none of the zombies in that film spoke, nor were they called “zombies”. That word isn’t used even once in what’s considered the most famous zombie movie of all time. Director George Romero wanted to distance the film from the many existing sources from which his first feature film is derived. Claiming the Richard Matheson novel “I Am Legend” as his inspiration (not the first to adapt this novel), Romero changed vampires to zombies, or ghouls, as he called them, so he wouldn’t get sued.
Up until 1968, zombie movies presented the origin as either Voodoo or a mad scientist’s experiment. None lacked an explanation entirely until “Night of the Living Dead”. Shot on 8mm film, the shadowy cinematography adds to its terror-inducing mystery. A plethora of zombie tropes originated from this film, causing a ripple effect that still exists today. Bite transference, strangers boarding up a building against an ever-increasing horde of brain-dead cannibalistic walking corpses, and a bitten human eventually turns while their loved one is in denial. A black hero was revolutionary for 1968 cinema, especially since the part was written for a white guy.
“Duane Jones was the best actor we met to play Ben. If there was a film with a black actor in it, it usually had a racial theme, like ‘The Defiant Ones.’ Consciously I resisted writing new dialogue ‘cause he happens to be black. We just shot the script. Perhaps ‘Night of the Living Dead’ is the first film to have a black man playing the lead role regardless of, rather than because of, his race.” George Romero
“Night of the Living Dead” so defined the genre (while trying real hard to NOT be a zombie movie) every other zombie movie produced after that used the exact same tropes, until 2002. 28 Days Later… also refrained from the Z-word, instead referring to the braindead maniacs as “infected”. Infected with what? “Rage” says the chimp-torturing scientist at the beginning. Director Danny Boyle turned the entire genre around by crafting an excellent film from the original concept. He introduced new zombie features such as: blood/saliva transmission, 8-second turn-time, and motivation to straight-up murder rather than cannibalize victims. These new tropes have been included in almost every zombie movie since.
What set “28 Days Later…” apart wasn’t just the upgraded super-zombies, it was the emotional sub-plots of strangers coming together to survive. The infected are scary, but so is waking up in a wrecked hospital alone and naked. Losing your entire family to a pandemic is terrifying. Getting forcibly dolled up for a military gang rape is borderline traumatic to watch. That’s what makes it such a good movie. Rage can take us to dark places we never thought we’d go, even when we’re not infected.
Zombie movies will keep getting recycled until the end of time because we like to be reminded of what we’ve already seen. The film industry tends to churn out what’s already proven to sell in the past. We will always fear death, worry over the loss of loved ones, and get creeped the fuck out by corpses. The grieving process isn’t immediate. It takes time to realize the consciousness of a body is no longer connected to the shell. A dichotomous feeling of wanting them to wake and fearing their soulless corpse arise eternally churns within us. Art reflects our deepest unconscious feelings and the evolution of zombie movies reveals the instinctual anxiety over our own demise. Will we rise again? Nobody knows, but it’s fun to pretend.