October brings the ghoul out of me every year. My mind delves in the macabre (as usual), but during this month nobody stares. Flesh eaters and the living dead hardly warrant a second look.
In part 1 of this series, I examined the folklore behind the Voodoo zombie. Movies through the sixties all featured shambling, glassy eyed figures who were as menacing as a line at the DMV. Then, on on October 2, 1968, one movie changed everything.
Night of the Living Dead so shocked America, that Variety’s review included this scathing critique: “On no level is the unrelieved grossness of ‘Night of the Living Dead’ disguised by a feeble attempt at art of significance.” Ironically, George Romero had originally wanted to make an art-house movie, but quickly realized that an exploitation movie would be the best chance of making a profit.
What was it that had audiences of the late 60s so terrified? Up until then, monsters were typically people in rubber suits, and zombies had been relegated to strangling or bludgeoning their victims. Romero made his zombies crave human flesh. Critic Robert Ebert commented on the horror in the pages of Reader’s Digest: “This was ghouls eating people.” (The idea of consuming human flesh was borrowed from the mythology of the ghoul, who rips its victims apart and devours them whole.)
Romero’s zombies were completely divorced from the corps cadavers of the Caribbean. His creatures rose from the dead through a pseudo-scientific agent— A Venus probe that returns to Earth is hinted as the cause for the living dead. Rather than appearing docile and compliant, they were wildly aggressive, doing everything possible to tear people apart and eat their flesh. Finally, the zombie’s fate in Romero’s film was permanent. There was no zombie master to kill, and salt would not wake these creatures from their trance. These were truly the living dead. The additions Romero made to the zombie mythology have so dominated the genre that few movies made afterward strayed from his formula. (One notable exception is Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow, made in 1987 from the book by Wade Davis.)
Romero never refers to his walking dead by the word zombie. Instead each of his films calls them the living dead. Despite this technicality, modern moviegoers made the connection. When Romero’s second film, Dawn of the Dead, was released in 1978, it was distributed internationally as Zombie (or Zombi).
An intriguing fact presents itself when titles of zombie films are viewed as a whole. Nearly every film title translated into English will use the word zombie, even if this was not in the original title. Take for example the 1980 Spanish and French production El lago de los muertos vivientes (literally, The Lake of the Living Dead). When this film was released in the United States, it took the title Zombie Lake. Interestingly, the word zombie hardly ever appears in titles for French, Spanish, or Italian films. (The notable exception to this is Lucio Fulci’s series of films titled Zombi 2, 3, 4 and 5. This may be due to Fulci releasing Zombi 2 as an unofficial sequel to Dawn of the Dead, which was titled Zombi.) These languages prefer to call the walking dead les morts vivants (French for the living dead) or simply los muertos (Spanish for the dead). Perhaps these counties were influenced by the George Romero films, or even that the word zombie has a stronger connection with the Americas, having its origin in the Caribbean.
So once again, let’s revisit that lowly creature on our front stoop. We expect our zombies to be rotten and hungry for flesh, not blank-faced and obedient. When the mythology leapt from one medium to another, folklore to film, it transformed. Certain elements were lost. Others were reinvented. Perhaps we’re not finished yet. As zombies enter new realms, the meanings of this word may further mutate to a point where we might not even recognize it.
By Tim Kane
I brought this article back from the dead in recognition of the digital release of Stories in the Ether. This has my story, Moth and Rust, which is my take on the zombie story that involves a weary husband who does his wife’s chores for years, only to drop dead. Yet, she still insists he work his butt off. No rest for the dead. Don’t worry, the young nephew has some ideas how to solve this undead problem.