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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Get Your Monster On: Zombies

Today I want to talk about zombies. Zombies have been woven into our popular culture, inhabiting books, films, video games, etc. We know them best as re-animated, brain-eating corpses, but did you also know that they are human beings controlled by another through the use of magic? It's time to get your monster on and discover what you may or may not know about these creatures as well as where they come from.

Stories of zombies originated in western culture through the West African spiritual tradition of voodoo. A dead person may be revived by a bokor or sorcerer and they remain under the bokor's control because they have no will of their own. These re-animated beings are used as laborers, carrying out the sorcerer's commands.

The bokor captures the zombi astral, a part of the human soul. He or she uses this to enhance their power.The zombi astral is kept inside a bottle and the bokor may sell this to a client for luck, business success and healing. Eventually, God does take the soul back so the zombi is only temporary.

Feeding salt to a zombie will make it return to the grave.

Zombi is also another name for the Vodou snake Iwa Damballah Wedo.

In 1937 Zora Neale Hurston was researching Haitian folklore when she encountered the case of Felicia Felix-Mentor, a woman who had died in 1907. She mysteriously re-appeared in her village.

In 1985 Wade Davis, a Harvard ethnobotanist, wrote The Serpent and the Rainbow, one of two books presenting his case for a pharmacological reason behind zombies. In 1982 he traveled to Haiti and as a result of his research, claimed that a living person could be turned into a zombie using two powders delivered directly into the blood stream. The first is a neurotoxin, tetrodotoxin (TTX), found in the flesh of the pufferfish. The second powder consists of a dissociative drug like datura. These powders together supposedly produce a death-like state leaving the person under the total control of the bokor. Davis encountered a man named Clairvius Narcisse, who claims to have survived such a state. Though this theory was dismissed in the scientific community, it spawned a 1988 Wes Craven film titled The Serpent and the Rainbow.

These magic, drug-induced zombies populated books like 1929's The Magic Island by W.B. Seabrook. Time magazine credits this novel with introducing zombie into the American lexicon.

Bela Lugosi starred in 1932's White Zombie, a film directed by Victor Halperin which features Lugosi as an evil magician with an army of zombie henchmen.This is considered the first legitimate zombie flick.

Another interesting tidbit about zombies comes from South Africa. In some communities there, people believe that a dead person can be turned into a zombie by a small child. The spell is so powerful that it can only be broken by a very strong sangoma or shaman.

So how about our beloved brain-eaters?

Well, they make their first appearance in the 1950's in EC Comics' Tales from the Crypt in stories such as H.P. Lovecraft's "Herbert West-Reanimator". One of the most seminal works is Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I Am Legend about a futuristic Los Angeles overrun with undead. Although this is technically a vampire story, it heavily influenced the zombie genre by way of George A. Romero. The vampires in the story are the result of a worldwide contagion, a theme that dominates zombie films and literature.

Other zombie theories put forth around this time include alien technology (Plan 9 from Outer Space-1958) and mad science (Creature with the Atom Brain-1955). Invisible Invaders (1959) shows zombies being the result of alien possession.

It was not until a little film called Night of the Living Dead (1968) that we get our first look at the flesh-eating, brain-chomping zombies we know and love. This film broke all taboos and really frightened people. Though it offers little in the way of actual explanation for the rise of the zombies, it is one of the most influential works on the concept of zombies. This Romerian blend of zombie and vampire results in a monster that breaks down society and signals the end of life as we know it. And yet, they are not referred to as zombies, the news reports in the film call them ghouls. Romero doesn't call them zombies until his script for 1978's Dawn of the Dead.

Romero's zombies are slow-moving, shuffling creatures that overwhelm with numbers like a swarm. To destroy them, you have to shoot them in the head, then burn the corpses. Pretty simple when you're armed to the teeth and deal with them one on one.

In 1981, Hell of the Living Dead is the first film to portray a zombie apocalypse as the result of a mutagenic gas.

The concept of zombies craving brains comes from 1985's Return of the Living Dead, a horror comedy, where the zombies utter the word "brains" and proceed to chomp on people's skulls.

Zombies undergo a radical shift in the new millennium with films like Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (2002), Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead (2004)remake and Zombieland, we see the zombie break out of the shuffling, listless undead mode and into highly mobile killing machines. These newer, faster zombies are still killed in the traditional way, bullet to the brain. Only now you need to be more heavily armed and in much better physical shape if you're going to survive.

In 1989, with the publication of the anthology, Book of the Dead, zombies officially became their own subgenre of literature. These stories are all united by the premise first seen Romero's films about zombies being the result of a worldwide infestation. These stories are the various reactions to that outbreak. The stories are authored by the likes of Stephen King, Richard Laymon and Chan Varney. Three years later, Still Dead: Book of the Dead II came out. 2003's The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks details ways for the average, ordinary citizen to survive zombie uprisings including chapter entitled Weapons and Combat Techniques, On the Run and Living in an Undead World.

Video games have also given rise to some truly terrifying zombies. House of the Dead by Sega and the Resident Evil series from Capcom all feature a fight to survive against hordes of undead that are fast and strong with huge appetites.Both spawned film versions with Evil becoming a successful franchise while House is generally panned.

Zombies are the hottest monster going right now and don't appear to be stopping. I suggest we all stock up on rifles, ammo, gasoline and non-perishables. It's going to be a hell of a ride.


  1. Such interesting facts Mellisa. I'm a huge fan of Zombie movies, Love resident evil and evil dead. I was going to dress up as a zombie this halloween, however I changed my mind to go out as something far more horrifying.....CHER!

  2. Yikes!! Cher! You've got me hiding under my bed, Dempsey. :) Haven't decided if I'm dressing up, but I have a great get up if I do. Fake blood, a poofy 80's sweater from a yard sale and a big hair wig. I could be victim from an 80's slasher pic.

  3. LOL and don't forget to get yourself a Zombie Alert! (Seriously look it up - hysterical!

    The CRITTER Project and Naked Without a Pen

  4. Hi Lemur, thanks for stopping by. I definitely have to get a Zombie Alert. :)


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