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Thoroughly Modern Monster: On the Origin of Zombies (or, Hollywood Invented All of Our Monsters)


Today we will wrap up our “Thoroughly Modern Monster” mini-series (you can find the previous installments here, here, and here) with a monster that’s gained a significant (shuffling and moaning) following: the zombie. Zombies are big right now, and I won’t bore you by naming all the zombie movies, tv shows, comics, books, and video games that have come out recently. They (along with vampires) have been the hot monster a la mode for some time now.

But where did zombies come from? Folks, I’m not going to beat around the bush here. If you’ve read my other monster history posts you may have noticed a pattern: there are some legends that have almost nothing to do with our modern conception of the monster, then someone makes a movie or writes a book about them where the monster is similar to the original in name only, and the movie monster gives us the modern conception. It happened with werewolves in early Hollywood. It happened to vampires in popular 19th century literature (and was then cemented in the public consciousness forever by, yes, early Hollywood). So the question that might be on our mind is “Are modern zombies also based almost entirely off of 1920s Hollywood monster movies?” To which I can confidently answer, no.

They’re based almost entirely off of 1960s Hollywood. With a dash of 30s Hollywood sprinkled on top, for flavor.

“But Mark,” you might object (I can tell you’re the contrary type) “don’t zombies come from voodoo or something? I’m sure I heard that once from a made for TV documentary/book of fun monster facts/back of a cereal box.” To which I can only reply with a sincere “Kinda.” The word zombie does come from Haitian voodoo. And Haitian voodoo does have legends (mostly small and unimportant legends, compared to the rest of the religion) about certain dark voodoo magics that can bring dead bodies to life to serve their masters. But these zombies have nothing to do with modern zombies. Just for starters, voodoo zombies:

-Aren’t rotting corpses

-Don’t feed on human flesh

-Can’t turn other people into zombies

-Follow commands

-Can perform complicated tasks

-Arguably aren’t even dead! Not in the way modern zombies are anyway! If you cut one of their heads off it wouldn’t still be moving around, snapping at you!

Voodoo zombies are just creepy slaves. It’s like “Hey, you know how we are all taken from Africa and made into slaves to work the fields till we die? Can you imagine if someone dug up our dead bodies and made them keep working forever? That would suck!” That’s the basic idea behind Haitian voodoo zombies. They aren’t like modern zombies at all.

The modern zombie can be traced back to one film: George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, released in 1968. Now there are a few obvious differences between Romero’s zombies and the modern conception, namely that the zombies were created by radiation from Venus (it makes sense in context) instead of a virus, but almost everything else is the same. Romero’s zombies can only be killed by destroying the brain, they shuffle and moan and stagger about, they hunger for human flesh, and if they kill you then you become one too. It is here, from this movie, that all future modern zombie media takes its source. This is the Ur-Zombie, and it’s only 46 years old.

So why do we call them zombies if they don’t have anything to do with Haitian zombies? Well Romero never actually calls the monsters in his movie zombies. At no point in the film is that name used, and Romero wasn’t thinking about Haitian zombies when he was developing the plot (instead drawing influence from the book I am Legend). It was only after the movie came out that fans started calling the monsters from the movie “zombies,” and the name stuck.

Remember when I said that 1930s Hollywood was also involved somehow? That’s because in the 20s and 30s Hollywood made several horror movies about zombies. And I mean real zombies this time, good and proper Haitian zombies with none of this “brains” business. Movies like White Zombie featured innocent whites being menaced by frightening black people and their voodoo magic. These zombies behave as they should: working hard in a sugar plantation, staring blankly into space, and doing whatever their master commands. It was movies like these that put the word “zombie” in the national consciousness, and why fans of Night of the Living Dead even thought to use the term in regards to Romero’s shuffling horrors.

So, as we can see, modern zombies are terribly, terribly young. But in some ways they are also terribly old. Romero said in interviews later that the idea for his monsters came when he asked himself the question: “what if the dead stopped staying dead?” This idea isn’t new; it harkens back to an ancient fear that seems essential to the make-up of humanity as a whole: the fear of dead bodies. People have been telling stories about revenants for as long as we’ve existed. Dead bodies are frightening, unnatural things.

The only thing that would make them scarier…is if they got up.