Evolution of the Zombie


Written by Barney Cox
23 Tuesday 23rd October 2012

In celebration of that most ghoulish of holidays, Halloween, we take a look at the history of the zombie, its rise to popularity, and subsequent evolution into new and more terrifying forms. Safety notice: do not wander off by yourself, try your best not to get bitten, and, if attacked, always go for the head.

A regiment of nazi zombies from Norwegian zom-com Dead Snow. The jury's still out on undead cold resistance.

Whilst evidence of zombie superstitions has recently been found in Medieval Ireland, the modern zombie traces its genealogy all the way back to pre-colonial African cultures (that’d be a Who Do You Think You Are? episode we wouldn’t miss for the world!). West African shamans were masterful chemists, and could transform victims into ‘nzambi’.

Firstly, powdered blowfish would be stealthily applied to the soles of the victim’s feet, where it would enter the body through sweat glands. Once inside, the poison attacked the nervous system, resulting in a state of total paralysis easily mistaken for death. A paste made from seedpods of the brugmanisa flower, which is found in the world's most tropical regions, was later rubbed onto the ‘deceased’. This counteracted the nerve poison, and bought the person back to life.

As 19th century naturalist Johann von Tschudi noted, however, the brugmansia flower also has some rather alarming side-effects. He describes one man 'staring vacantly at the ground' after ingesting a brugmansia substance, with eyes which were  'bright red', and who alternated between 'murmuring quietly and incomprehensibly and uttering loud, heart-rending shrieks, howling dully and moaning and groaning.' Sound familiar? The ‘living dead’ is born!

A Voodoo stall in Lomé, Togo

Many West Africans were captured as slaves due to barbaric colonial practices, and their beliefs and religions followed them to the humid island plantations of the Caribbean. In Haiti, the gradual fusion of African religion and folklore with Catholic Christianity saw the birth of voodoo. The zombie survived this transition, and came to connote mindless servitude, with the living dead believed to be controlled by evil witch-doctors. As Haiti was the only country to successfully revolt against its colonial oppressors and safeguard its people from a return to slavery, many social and cultural critics have credited the zombie’s historical popularity (and its connotations of mindless servitude) in Haitian culture as directly related to fears of the return to slavery.

In the early 1920’s, William Seabrook, an American journalist, sailed to the island. The result of his travels was the 1929 publication of The Magic Island. The book, whose primary occupation was the zombie phenomenon, sensationalised voodoo as a dark and evil occult practice, and captured the imagination of America.

Bela Lugosi as the diabolical voodoo master 'Murder Legendre' in White Zombie

And so began our undead cousin’s assault on Hollywood and the Western imagination. The 1932 film, White Zombie, which starred Bela Lugosi (the original Dracula) was one of the first zombie flicks, and presented a diabolical version of the voodoo ‘Other’. From the 50’s and early 60's, Hollywood supplanted evil voodoo shamans for more modern themes, and movies such as the awful Plan 9 from Outer Space, depicted aliens taking over the world by turning human-kind into zombies. Soooo plausible!

Until George Romero burst onto the scene, however, zombies were emotionless and robot-like slaves, under the control of either a voodoo or extraterrestrial master. Romero’s first flick The Night of the Living Dead ripped up the zombie rule book and wrote an entirely new one: enter the shuffling, brain-eating, rotting corpse we are all familiar with today.

The emergence of bio-weaponry, cloning, the outbreak of AIDS and the fear of subsequent epidemics (bird flu, swine flu, SARS), has seen virus-centred plotlines almost completely dominate the zombie film of today. And, despite obvious exceptions (we’re pointing no fingers, Zombie Strippers) the undead have continued to evolve into more and more terrifying forms. Modern cult-classic 28 Days Later and the incredibly tense Spanish REC do away with the traditional zombie-shuffle, and see the undead sprinting at their terrified victims in order to rip them open with nightmarish ferocity.

Happy to see you! The 'infected' of 28 Days Later

Horrifying? Yes, but, thankfully, totally imaginary. Or is it? This year, a naked man was caught eating the face off a homeless man on the side of a Miami street, in full view of passersby. When commanded to stop by a police officer, the man looked up and growled. Even after being shot by the policeman, the man continued his nightmarish meal. We tried Googling for a related picture, but the results were fairly NSFW. This incident has been only one in a series of incredibly unsettling stories, from a New Jersey man repeatedly stabbing himself and throwing bits of intestines at the police, to a Swedish man slicing his wife’s lips off and devouring them. Mere coincidence, or is the apocalypse imminent? Repent, child! The end is nigh!

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