In Part I of The Cinematic History of the Zombie, I explored the ancient roots of the lore and how that informed the Victor Halperin movie White Zombie, largely considered the first feature-length Zombie film. In this part, I will continue to investigate the movies that inform our modern understanding of the sub-genre and why it continues to resonate as a metaphor in the conscience of the current generation.
Victor Halperin’s follow-up to White Zombie — Revolt of the Zombie (1936) — is less remarkable in every way to its predecessor. Cinephiles can call it a disappointment in almost every way, but one. Both in White Zombie and Revolt of the Zombie, the zombies are a sympathetic monster.
The zombies are created beings. Otherwise people, created as a force of nature with NO free will. In those movies, the real monster is not the zombie. The real monster is the person that points the zombies toward another and says “Go! Kill!” As a consequence, during most of the late 1930s and 1940s, zombies were mostly used in silly movies as puppets and parody.
In King of the Zombies (1941), the zombie metaphor is extended to incorporate Nazism. Although the movie is a comedy, it is clear that the King is supposed to be Hitler.
The comedic elements, I believe, serve to clown Nazism, and undervalue what was going on in Germany. It was too early in the war to recognize the imminent threat that hovered over Europe and the world at large.
I Walked with a Zombie (1943) produced by Val Lewton seemed to take back the zombie from the comedy genre and returned it to its roots in horror. The movie is filmed in the Caribbean.
It is based on an article by Inez Wallace for American Weekly Magazine, where she writes about her experiences while working on a plantation in Haiti with the zombies more like the ones in White Zombie.
This low-budget movie was filmed with a serious tone that Val Lewton was clear about conveying to his writers, director, and actors. He wanted it to have the narrative structure of Jane Eyre, but still to remain spooky and terrifying. Despite the title, the film received mixed reviews with an overall positive rating, and is still thought of as a model of the genre, although it would remain a cinematic oddity to a modern horror audience.
Because it was a relatively successful horror movie on a B-level, the film has studios that “homaged,” emulated, or flat-out copied it. Voodoo Island (1957) and the Zombies of Mora Tau (1957) are two movies that took the voodoo aspect of the zombie mythos and exploited it to varying degrees of success.
In the 1950s the biggest fear of a post-war America was the nuclear fear. Hence, most of the horror movies of the 1950s revolve around the giant monsters craze. The zombie mythos, of course, had its run in with the nuclear threat. Creature with the Atom Brain (1955), Invisible Invaders (1959), Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952), Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957), and The Man from Planet X (1951) are all zombie films with distinctive science fiction elements.
In the 1960s, along with the free love movement and the explosion of the Drive-In theater, youth became an important element to movie making. Young people were the preeminent audience, so it stood to reason that the people in the movies should be young as well.
Theater-going young people wanted to have make-out movies and horror fit the bill. Horror movies became gorier, bloodier, and more scary. The highlight of the decade was Night of the Living Dead.
Night of the Living Dead (1968) is an independent American zombie horror film written, directed, and edited by George Romero. It starred Duane Jones and Judith O’Dea.
It begins with a brother and a sister, Johnny (Russell Streiner) and Barbra (Judith O’Dea), visiting their father’s grave at a cemetery. After paying their respects, Johnny is killed defending his sister from a ghoul. She runs away and finds shelter in a farmhouse that appears deserted until she finds the homeowner dead and apparently half-eaten.
Barbra is in profound shock, but she looks out the window to see that the man that killed her brother has made it to the farmhouse and he is not alone. Just as things appear almost too shocking, a black man arrives. Ben (Duane Jones) immediately starts boarding up windows, and knocks some of the ghouls back by hitting them in the head, and using a torch to fend them off. It’s a strategy that he has seen work before.
I will leave the storyline here. I believe everyone should watch this movie. Not only do I feel that everyone should watch this movie for the story, but for the subtext, too.
Duane Jones is the first black man to ever play a role not exclusively written for a black man. Romero says he just chose the best actor that read for the role. He was not looking for a black man, but there is some overt social commentary not so subtly hidden in the movie. There are things Romero is saying about the erosion of the nuclear family. He also has something to say about young love and the other couple trapped in the basement of the farmhouse.
This movie is free on Amazon Prime right now. Check it out. Next week I will move us forward through the 1970s to another cinematic touchpoint to the zombie narrative. Amazing how this director of commercials and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood could suddenly become the Godfather to the Zombie movie.
See you later. Take it easy. Peace!