Geektoberfest Year 2: The Cinematic History of the Zombie (Part I)

Several months back, while the Beard talked to his daughters and granddaughter, they gave him a list of suggestions for the blog. I wasn’t present for the conversation, but the Beard said that his elder daughter suggested a “History of the Zombie” post.

Because the Beard is a horror fan that prefers vampires, he conceded that I should probably write the Zombie post. He’s right. Zombie narratives are generally apocalyptic in essence, and those two concepts together are where I really groove.

So if you like this series of posts, say thank you to Jeanette Anna Marie Figueroa. If you don’t like them, blame me; I should have made the subject matter more entertaining.

Zombies have penetrated the American zeitgeist as a metaphor to such an extent that they represent almost every societal ill from: colonialism in White Zombie (1932), the dysfunctional family in Night of the Living Dead (1968), the perils of consumerism in Dawn of the Dead (1978), immigration in World War Z (2013), and dependence on your country to provide for you in the Walking Dead TV show.

Zombies are not just a seminal metaphor in books, movies, and television, but in videogames and music, too. How did they become so prevalent and why do they resonate in our conscience so resoundingly? It started way back when we gave voice to our mythologies surrounding the mysteries of death.

One could argue, it was the Egyptians who buried their dead so securely that they built whole, extremely secure pyramids to entomb and encase vast households, even communities of the dead. Also, archaeologists have unearthed burial spaces where it is believed the Ancient Greeks placed their dead. The skeletons were pinned beneath massive stones, ostensibly to prevent the reanimation of corpses.

I would also submit that the Judeo-Christian scriptures include segments where the dead walk without the experience of living. In Ezekiel 37: 1-14, Ezekiel is brought to a valley of dry bones,” So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.”

There are other scriptural references to animated dead bereft of spirit, but I don’t want to belabor the point. This is not an exegesis of the Bible, but an attempt to point to a cultural need (as evidenced by various ancient civilizations) to make sense, and understand as well as possible, the mysteries of death.

The modern understanding of zombie mythology came into existence in the 17th century when the French began colonization of Haiti. When landowners learned that there was a benefit to having slaves that didn’t talk back, or didn’t need the same comforts as regular slaves, they hired Vodoun witch doctors called Bokors.

The Bokors could enslave people with toxic concoctions that removed the people’s ability to choose. This loss of agency created the zombie effect that is predominant in the lore — a glassy stare that gives the zombie a far-off, entranced look: entranced because in effect that’s exactly what occurred. The Bokors knowledge of herbs and spices gave them an advantage of control that the landowners tried to utilize with varying degrees of success.

It is this mythology that Victor Halperin’s film, White Zombie (1932), attempts to exploit. White Zombie is widely accepted as the first zombie movie, although modern theater-goers would have a difficult time reconciling the zombies in that movie with those found in Shaun of the Dead (2004) or Zombieland (2009).

I recently watched the movie on Amazon for free. The version I watched was in bad shape. Amazon has better versions that you can pay for. I’d have to take your word for it, if it is better. I would suspect that they are better, because they couldn’t get much worse than the original film stock.

I saw it in black and white. The film was over-exposed because the light spots were glaring. In certain spots the film skipped frames. The sound was almost unintelligible in places, which is worsened because I’m conditioned to read subtitles, and no subtitles. It has Bela Lugosi with his intense glare, but also with his thick Hungarian accent.

The cinematography leaves a lot to be desired, but this is 1932 film-making. This is only a few years from the era of silent film. You have to appreciate it for what it is, and it’s only 68 minutes long.

Madeleine and Neil reunite in Haiti with the intention of getting married, but Charles Beaumont, a wealthy landowner and Madeleine’s friend invites her to marry at his plantation. He is secretly in love with her, and intends to convince her to marry him not Neil. When they arrive, they are escorted to separate rooms.

While they sleep Beaumont goes to visit Murder Legendre, (Bela Lugosi) an evil voodoo master with a sugar cane mill exclusively operated by zombified slaves. Beaumont enlists Murder’s assistance which he gives by providing a concoction that Madeleine must ingest to be turned into a zombie.

After Neil and Madeleine marry, she “dies.” She is interred in a tomb, but later that night is exhumed by Murder, his zombie slaves, and Beaumont. Neil has been off by himself drinking himself into a stupor, when he sees visions of his beloved Madeleine. He hurries to the tomb only to find it vacant.

He hurries to talk to the local missionary that married him and Madeleine. Dr. Bruner tells Neil about Murder and how he turns his rivals into slaves. This might be what has happened to Madeleine, he suggests. They go off to Murder’s cliffside castle. (Wait! Castle? Does Haiti have castles?)

At the castle Beaumont is having second thoughts. He is feeling guilty about Madeleine’s transformation. However, Murder has foreseen this change of heart, and has already begun the process of transforming Beaumont into a zombie slave.

This is where the climax begins and I don’t want to spoil it for you. Suffice it to say that this is a good movie for its time. Lugosi is at his most evil. The story is interesting and horrific at times. There’s a scene at the mill where a zombie slave falls into the works and no one bats an eyelash because they are all zombies. It’s just a perfunctory business.

I’m going to end this first part right here. White Zombie is a middle of the road recommendation. You’ve already heard the negatives. It’s all about the quality, but I feel that those negatives have been rectified. I heard Blumhouse has taken a crack at restoring the film. That I most definitely want to see.

Again, this is Bela Lugosi in his second best role. He is maniacal and devious. The type of baddy we all love to hate.

Stay tuned until next time, where I’ll take us to Night of the Living Dead.

See you later! Take it easy! Peace!

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