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The original zombie romance?

There’s almost always a part in zombie stories where someone is bit or infected and one of their loved ones has to face a choice: to watch them turn and become dangerous to the rest of the survivors, or shoot them while still human. This is never an easy task. Maybe this happened off screen, and you see the survivor shaken and not quite sane, shocked by what this war with the undead has made them do, and they question themselves and if live is worth living after what they have done.

There are some short stories I’ve read lately which deal with the bond of lovers or family after death. You might question if they are zombies because they might not be precisely called zombies; maybe just undead, reanimated corpses. This is not romance WITH zombies but love for the human-that-is-now-zombie (although one story by Williamson isn’t on this specific theme of love in the time it’s set).

I do think that we can’t be so direct about what a zombie is or isn’t, because authors are bloody inventive creatures and they will force these creatures we once knew to evolve. There’s been quite a few changes in the short 100ish years of the Americanised fictional zombie, and that’s a damned quick evolution from zombiing individuals to mobs (Vampires used to be hidden singular vamps or in small groups, and now are a whole known race in literature with great numbers).

Anywhoos, here’s the stories (I haven’t finished the whole compendium yet, so might add more later):

Was it a dream? by Guy de Maupassant (1910)

The Cairnwell Horror by Chet Williamson (1990)

Later by Michael Marshall Smith (1993)

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Being historical

 

One of the things I constantly have to remind myself of is the historical context. I’m reading White Zombie: Anatomy of a Horror Film by Gary D Rhodes. For me, White Zombie with Bela Lugosi is hugely racist, but in the book and comparing the role of African-Americans at the time, it was actually quite good with racial issues. I cringe for the heroine, Madeline, and all the men slobbering over her and wanting to dominate her, but this was an extremely different time for gender too.

Romero’s movies can be the same, although in a lot of cases, Romero did it deliberately. What a sook Barbra is! At least Fran learns a few things about survival, and Sarah is quite capable and intelligent, even in the face(s) of death. Later and later, with Re-Animator and the sequels, men seek to dominate women again, to say little of the nude women of the Italian zombie movies.

It’s most likely been the same throughout history, asking ‘What were they thinking?!’ of earlier generations. But that’s precisely what we have to ask. What were they thinking? What was the historical context? What was the panic of the time? What were the key events that influenced people? There’s always debate over the conscious and unconscious inclusions or exclusions – what is the extent of the influence of events on authors, such as WW1 and Tolkien (Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth is one I’m interested in ūüôā )?

I just bought a new book (always!), an anthology of zombie stories throughout the 20th century and including some of the most famous authors in the genre, Edgar Allen Poe, Lovecraft, Stephen King, Richard Matheson, and then some not so famous. The first is from W B Seabrook, the one considered to be the author that brings zombies into the US – and then the world’s – consciousness. Researching the context is not quite enough, but being aware of your own expectations, bias’ and assumptions when it comes to critiquing the historical.

Racism and Sexism

Despite all the various undead from myths around the world of physical beings rising from the grave, it’s generally accepted that it is from the Haitian Voodoo that we developed our media monster of the zombie. Zombie fiction is often defined as post-colonial – “a term for a collection of … strategies used to examine the culture of former colonies of the European empires and their relation to the rest of the world … [and] share many assumptions: they question the salutary effects of the empire … and raise such issues as racism and exploitation” (Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory: Approaches, Scholars, Terms By Irene Rima Makaryk).

In particularly the older zombie movies based around Voodoo, the natives are seen as superstitious to the extreme (which the white characters of the film dismiss as primitive) and are entirely unable to help themselves from the threat without outside (white) help. Just having watched Zombi 2 (Aka Zombie, and a billion other names) by Fulci, this Italian movie from the 70s replays that same role. Abhorrent as it is to us now, some of the actors in these early films were in black-face makeup. White Zombie is one of them, a story about a zombie master using black zombies as slaves in his mill, the threat of which is to frighten and control the population, but it all changes when he concocts a zombie potion for a white woman for a man who is not her to-be-husband to take over her. When the man no longer desires her without the sparkle and life in her eyes, the zombie master takes her for himself.

Romero is regarded highly for breaking away from this. His zombies do not relate to voodoo and ‘black’ magic, but are of unknown origin. The hero in the Night of the Living Dead is African American. Chosen because he was the best actor the producers knew and not for the colour of his skin (huzzah!), this was a big change for cinema and a shock to 1968. Romero’s follow up film, Dawn of the Dead had a deliberate scene of racial intolerance, where a community of apartment dwellers (mostly African American, Hispanic and Puerto Rican) are protecting their beloved ones who are now zombies. They are attacked by a SWAT team, mostly white, who firing off shots and racist insults with little regard (Check out American Zombie Gothic by Kyle Bishop for more).

Racism is in gaming too, with a lot of anger directed towards the makers of Resident Evil 5 in which a white hero kills all the infected whom are all black, being in an African village. There is of course, corners of defense for this (although reading the comments on some sites about it make me personally angry for people suggesting that there are no race issues anymore since Barack Obama came to office. *headdesk*)

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There’s the old stereotype of horror films that if a person with dark skin is in the movie, he will be one of the first to die. And if there is a girl, she will have weak ankles, trip over and be taken over by the monster.

Already having mentioned White Zombie about the control of a white woman, women in particularly early movies are pretty weak. They sometimes don’t even fight back (although a fight between a woman and a zombie in Zombi 2 has a particularly gory scene which I almost had to turn away from). In the 70s and 80s, there’s also a lot of female nakedness in zombie movies (so many breasts everywhere!). There’s rape scenes, too,¬† in a few of the zombie movies. which are really very disturbing (and would be a tirgger for many who have been sexually harrassed or raped themselves).

Fran in Dawn of the Dead, while the men were casually talking about if she should abort her baby, with her not even included in the discussion, provides the only voice of reason that they should move on rather than stay in the mall. Despite her home-making and cooking their little apartment they create, she is the only one pro-active, wanting to learn both to defend herself and learn to fly the helicopter. Fran isn’t the best example, but she is far from the weak and almost comatose Barbra from Night of the Living Dead. In Day of the Dead, Sarah is strong and smart and capable, but looked down upon by the military men who threaten her with death and rape.

Alice from the Resident Evil movies is the ultimate weapon against zombies. She’s not willing to sit by and let it all happen. While not all women in zombie stories are as familiar with weapons and fighting, they still provide much more assistance to the group’s survival. There’s a number of women in the We’re Alive podcast (which I love to undeath!), both strong and not so strong. It would be hard mentally for any person to adapt to zombies and pure survival after such a rich existence as we have now – and that’s the point of most of the zombie stories.

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While society (despite what those silly comments on that gaming site said) still struggle with racial and gender issues, our fiction will reflect the same and especially in horror where our deepest desires and anxieties lay, and yet we can only deal with them by percieving the monster. The monster makes it seem that it’s not so close, not so near, but equality, as survival, is worth fighting for. And however strange it seems, this desire for equality is what is reflected in zombie romance brazenly!

As always, I’m still learning about these topics, but find it fascinating how we deal with these issues in horror and with zombies.

Literary history of the undead

It’s been mentioned in a few articles I’ve read lately, but zombies are special in that they weren’t established in literature before heading to the silver screen. They aren’t European or Gothic monsters. Although undead have been around forever in various myths and stories, academics (e.g Kyle William Bishop) agree that zombies really came into Western thought through Haiti. There are European and Gothic undead, or works which seem to be related to the modern zombie (e.g Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher or Masque of the Red Death – a personal fave), and you can see reflections of the vampire in modern zombie myth as well (particularly with the influence of I am Legend¬†by Richard Matheson on Romero. Some mistake I am Legend for a zombie story).

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The earliest texts that mention zombies are actually non-fiction, such as William Seabrook’s The Magic Island. Zora Neale Hurston wrote¬†Tell my horse about her experiences through Haiti and Jamaica and voodoo, including a zombie incident in Haiti. Black Baghdad¬†and Cannibal Cousins by John H Craige tell of Voodoo rituals and cannibalism.

As discussed in the first podcast of Zombies – The Living Dead in Literature (by the University of Alabama), zombies came around the time of the beginnings of cinema, and while there were plays and dramas of these zombies, the cinematic zombies could essentially rip off the earlier versions by claiming they are all based on non-fiction texts, bypassing copyright and ownership law. This is the case with the first movie¬†White Zombie.¬†The producer of the 1929 stage play ‘Zombie’ attempted to sue those in charge of¬†White Zombie¬†for similarities and failed.

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For fiction, there are quite a few short stories which did include the Haitian voodoo zonbi (there’s a lot of different spellings to indicate the original Haitian zonbi, nzambi, etc to it’s modern myth counterpart, the zombie) ¬†include¬†Salt is not for Slaves by G W Hutter (salt will cause the zombi to become concious of their state) , The House in the Magnolias by August Derleth (A woman from Haiti is run out of the country for enslaving zombis, only to go to America and continue her black magic there), Song of the Slaves by Manly Wade Wellman (with an American as the bad guy rather than a Haitian or African). A lot of essays mention H P Lovecraft’s Herbert West – Re-animator series in the 1920’s (Movie version: Jeffrey Combs, for the freaking win!), but this story is more about science than voodoo, and doesn’t use the term zombie. Lovecraft wrote in letters that it was intended as a parody of Frankenstein.

The novels (which are damned hard to find) came a little later, more around the time of the zombie movies, such as The Whistling Ancestors by Richard Goddard (a story of evil racist megalomaniacs), You Can’t Hang the Dead by Leslie Carroll (I can’t find a copy of this at all or enough information to share, except that it’s a zombie story) and A Grave Must Be Deep by Theodore Roscoe (a voodoo mystery!). Voodoo was particularly popular with crime writers at the time.

Which story first uses the word zombie is contested. Most essays agree that it’s William Seabrook’s travelogue (1929), but some other essays say that it’s from ‘The Country of the Comers-Back’ by Lacfcadio Hearn (1889),¬†and yet another essay says that the term actually was first published in French with¬†Le Zombi du Grand Perou, ou la comtesse de Cocagne¬†by Pierre-Corneille Bloessebois.

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It’s fascinating to read about ‘original’ voodoo zombies, compared to the modern. The old are a mix of racism and post-colonial literature, most having been published after the Haitian Revolution and the burst of literature of zombies and voodoo is through the years of the US occupation of Haiti. Zombies, either possessed corpses or the living who were poisoned with a¬†concoction¬†to mimic death and then enslaved, are products of sorcery and magic. I can only think of a few modern examples of this use of magic (beware Native American burial grounds!).

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Recommended Reading:

White Zombie by Kieran M Murphy in Contemporary French and Francophone Studies, VOl 15, no 1

The Zombie Media Monster and its Evolution as a Sign and Historical Allegory by Ryan Lizardi, Masters Thesis

The Story of Zombi in Haiti by Louis P Mars in Man, vol 45

The Modern Zombie: Living Death in the Technological Age by Sarah Juliet Lauro, PHD thesis

Zombies Before Romero by Tony Chestor, article for the UK World Horror Convention in 2010 (found here)