Not long ago some friends and I were whiling away the long boring hours that constitute our weekends – not the thrilling, exciting hours that we spend in our dynamic office jobs, you must understand – by discussing zombies. As you do. And as is usually the case when two or more people talk about zombies, a disagreement arose about whether the creatures in Film X or Film Y counted as zombies.
I geeked out. My friends were quickly subjected to my strong yet rambling opinions; fortunately, they’re used to this. Besides, everyone likes zombies. They’re all scary, with their unpleasant dining habits and decomposition, and all funny, with their unpleasant dining habits and decomposition. Zombies: nature’s multi-purpose narrative device.
I like zombies quite a bit. I’m also a bit more flexible than some about what I consider a zombie. This article is an effort to explain why, hopefully in a more cohesive fashion than I managed before. Hey, it was the, uh, weekend. I was probably drunk.
As any fule kno, the original use of the word zombi referred to people raised from the grave to serve as mute, mindless workers and labourers (okay, as with most etymology this isn’t supported by a total consensus, but it’s probable). It’s a famous part of Caribbean folklore, particularly in Haiti. Traditionally zombies would only do exactly what they were told to do, their main distinguishing characteristics being servility and an aversion to salt (which seems odd, since it’s such an excellent preservative – you’d have thought zombie cosmeticists would be all over that one).
According to folklore, Vodou magic was used to make zombies. Some relatively recent studies have indicated that the myth may have arisen from a habit – among reclusive shamanic types, of course – of drugging people so that they appeared to be dead, slowing all bodily functions to an absolute minimum for long enough to see them buried. Post-burial these individuals would be unearthed, taken somewhere unfamiliar and far away from their homes, and revived in a drugged state which they’d be kept in, in perpetuity. Disassociative and paralytic drugs would play a big part in this, ensuring that the conscious victims were kept compliant and slow. Others have argued that the culture in which victims were raised – in which belief in Vodou and shamanic powers was widespread and often firmly held – played a significant part in the process, wherein a shaman would “explain” the victims fate to them. No doubt an individual who believed in zombies and the power of Vodou shamans, when under the influence of drugs that kept them sedate and detached from their sense of self, would be inclined to accept what they were being told. Further, as any psychologist will tell you, once a pattern of behaviour and belief is established, it becomes increasingly difficult to break, leaving drugged “zombies” accepting their role until they or their master died and the supply of drugs ended. The tale of Clairvius Narcisse supposedly confirms this although, as is often the case with investigations by fringe science into folkloric magic, what little we know is severely undermined by bad practice. Still, this article (an investigation into the “zombie powder” used in this process) makes for compelling reading.
Whether any of this is true or not the key question I want to ask here is what resemblance, if any, do the majority of zombie stories – films, books, comics, TV, games etc. – bear to that original folk story? The answer is just about none. Whether you go with the story woven by Vodou folklore or the attempts to explain the idea in scientific terms, you don’t see many stories about the raised dead or the drugged living serving a reclusive sorcerer by tending to fields of sugarcane and doing oddjobs about the house (“Zombie slave, alphabetise my CDs. Vodou commands it!”).
However, most contemporary Western entertainment that features zombies does bear a strong resemblance to Romero’s attempt to reinvigorate the concept of zombies in Night of the Living Dead, reinventing them as a story (and, unintentionally, as a cultural meme) that bore a closer metaphorical and symbolic relevance to the USA of the 1960s and ‘70s. We see this again with the changes made for his Day of the Dead, and before that Dawn of the Dead (this is the most famous and obvious example, as it may have been the first commercial film that critiqued the then-new superstructure that would come to dominate the commercial landscape for decades to come: the mall). In these films we can also see the ways in which Romero responded to other cultural works involving zombies.
(As a brief aside I have to make the not inconsiderable point that zombies are just really awesome, right? This is not something one would say about a quiet, obedient worker that bears more in common with Jewish golem myths than contemporary fictional zombies. But let’s get back to that cultural argument about why zombies resonate with us so much.)
So zombies, as we understand them, are a fictional reinvention of an appropriated Caribbean myth, a reinvention made for both artistic and commercial purposes. From the popular reintroduction of zombies in Night of the Living Dead they have been reinvented and changed in countless ways, including films like I, Zombie (a tragi-comic biographical film about one man becoming “infected” and his slow conversion into the living dead) and other works in which new spins are put onto the basic zombie idea. Becoming capable of some level of coherent thought is a popular one, seen in Day of the Dead and Brighton’s independent Mixy / Our World comics, as is the granting of mystical powers, such as teleportation or levitation in City of the Living Dead. There’s a similar amount of variety in zombie origin stories: a virus, a meteorite, magic of some kind. In fact there are so many different explanations that the popular Shaun of the Dead satirised the whole notion by refusing to commit to a single complete theory throughout the entire film.
Up against all of the prior invention that has characterised the short history of Western zombie stories comes 28 Days Later and the remake of Dawn of the Dead, both of which so many people seem unwilling to describe as “zombie movies”, or which are the subject of bizarre criticism about zombies that run. So the victims of the ‘Rage’ virus didn’t die before “turning”. So what? Really – so what? It just isn’t significant. My responses to complaints about running zombies are equally glib. We’ve had plenty of films in which zombies moved at varying speeds from shuffling and shambling to an average walking pace, and sometimes even a fairly rapid amble – but apparently jogging or sprinting just isn’t convincing. Rotten muscles just don’t work like that, yeah?
In every other way these films, and others which have similarly been singled out for spurious rejection from the loose zombie canon, are clearly drawing upon the Western zombie tradition, and clearly they’re utilising the same open attitude to reinvention that has been a consistent feature of the tradition from its inception.
With all this in mind it is missing the point to moan a bit because some zombies run, or because – shock! – they’re not dead yet. Such gripes might have a single, wobbling, fractured leg to stand on were it not for that folkloric origin, or the fact that plenty of other zombie “characteristics” have been violated or ignored in the past, or even the common zombie need to feed (a habit dead things aren’t generally noted for, no matter how much we might try to nurse deceased pets back to life).
Still, this isn’t me calling out people who think otherwise. Maybe you have some counterpoints to what I’ve said above. It’d be interesting to hear your arguments, certainly. But please, wouldn’t it be more interesting to devote our time to discussing whether or not a film is good rather than whether or not it deserves to fit into an arbitrary category? Isn’t it more interesting to use these critical brains – so attractive and succulent to our undead friends and foes – to consider whether or not a film succeeds at what it tries to do, rather than trying to draw a box that excludes it? And if a film walks, talks and looks like a zombie film in just about every way, doesn’t that mean that examining it like it’s a zombie film will be the best way to discuss such questions?