“Here in the beautiful island of Haiti,” “among the tobacco and cane sugar field workers,” “Black magic, voodooism, or the worship of the Serpent, honeycombed the entire country.” When the US occupied Haiti for two decades in the early 20th century It only intensified Americans’ fascination with a part of its religious culture known as voodou, spiritual beliefs and practices originating in West Africa where European colonial powers enslaved thousands and thousands of people and brought them to the island in the previous centuries That fascination, like the occupation, had a racist strain: a combination of fear, anxiety, and hostility toward the so called black magic of a primitive culture It was during this period that this guy, William Seabrook, journalist occultist and generally eccentric minor celebrity visited Haiti to report on the occupation but found himself drawn instead to voodoo resulting in a 1929 book entitled the Magic Island. Though it was and is accused of being sensational and insensitive, the book captured the public’s interest, and one chapter in particular has had a lasting impact on popular culture. In “Dead Men Working in the Cane Field”, Seabrook effectively Introduces the world to zombies. “The zombie, they say, is the soulless human corpse, still dead,” “but taken from the grave and endowed by sorcery with a mechanical semblance of life” The zombies of Haitian folklore are controlled by a sorcerer called a “bokor” who uses them for his own ends often for menial work, resembling slave labor. and by the way, they don’t eat or crave human flesh at this point. Once in the popular imagination, It took only three years for this conception of the zombie to find its way to Hollywood to a film industry eager for another monster after the successes of Dracula and Frankenstein Drawing from the Magic Island and a Broadway play, 1932’s White Zombie became the first zombie movie ever. Set in Haiti, the story stars Bela Lugosi as a voodoo sorcerer who helps a plantation owner turn the object of his desire into a zombie so that she’ll be with him The terror here is in a white couple being controlled in the same way as the Haitians. The bigoted subtext is all too obvious. The White Zombie wasn’t as successful as Dracula or Frankenstein. It did spawn a number of zombie films along these lines in the following years and decades. Each follows from the conception that Seabrook outlined in his book: Slave-like henchmen controlled by a master. In 1966, Hammer films’ “Plague of the Zombies” created undead that look like the ones we know today, But Haitian voodoo was still the touchstone But in 1968, everything changed thanks to this man, George Romero and his skeleton crew of collaborators who made the zombie film that reinvented the genre: Night of the Living Dead. It’s impossible to overstate Romero’s impact. Every zombie film, or comic, or TV show – Whatever made in the last 50 years is a direct descendant of this film. Romero changed the rules. First and foremost, he dispensed with the master-slave dynamic; his undead aren’t under the control of anyone or anything For some unknown reason – maybe scientific,
maybe not – they are reanimated as pure instinct, scouring the earth on whatever limbs they have left seeking one thing: the living. “Medical authorities in Cumberland have concluded that in all cases,” “the killers are eating the flesh of the people they murdered.” Romero’s zombies devour living human beings. They hobble forward awkwardly, but relentlessly They’re dumb, able to use objects as blunt-force instruments, but nothing else. They can only be killed by being shot in the head or burned and if one bites or scratches you, you’ll die not long after, then transform into one and pursue whoever is nearby, family or not. If these creatures don’t resemble the zombies of Haitian Vodou, That’s because Romero didn’t think of his undead as zombies. In Night, they’re called ghouls and they’re derived more from Richard Matheson’s novel “I am Legend” than William Seabrook. How these flesh eaters came to be known as zombies is a bit foggy, But by the time Romero made the sequel, Dawn of the Dead, he adopted the name, too. Whether there are enough similarities to consider the pre-Romero and post Romero history of zombies continuous, is up for debate What is clear is that when pretty much anyone thinks of zombies nowadays They’re thinking of Romero zombies. One reason for this is that these are just creative primal monsters But another reason I think why Romero zombies have been so lasting is because his original trilogy, particularly the first two installments are really outstanding movies. Night of the Dead and its neo-realist black and white style is a smart tightly crafted story made on a shoestring budget with a third act That is an absolutely brutal and punishing even now, fifty years later. In Dawn of the Dead, his best film I think, Romero keys in to the symbolic potential of his monsters in a way that he was only hinting at in Night The film, which takes place almost entirely in a mall, uses zombies to critique consumerism as the zombies lumber through this familiar place we see our own behavior as a grotesque reflection. A zombie’s thoughtlessness, Romero understood, is the perfect mirror for our own. These days, the zombie is everywhere. You’ve seen the shows, played the games, watch the trailers. It’s more than firmly established as a horror trope, which means that it’ll likely stay with us for a very long time. Its history is complicated, a tangle of appropriation and invention, prejudice and creative genius and awesomeness. In other words, it’s a modern myth. “I’m thinking zombies” “What?” “Y-you know zombies” “ghouls” “the undead” Hey everybody, thank you so much for watching. This episode was brought to you by Squarespace If you don’t know you can use Squarespace to make beautiful websites for anything you might need a personal site, a wedding website, a site for your business or portfolio, a blog and in just a few clicks you can have that website up and running Their design team has crafted templates that work on computer browsers and on mobile so they switch perfectly between the two. You can integrate your own photos and videos And you can even link your social accounts so that you can auto post to Twitter and Facebook all from within Squarespace. Head over to Squarespace.com for a free trial, and when you’re ready to launch, go to squarespace.com/nerdwriter for 10% off your first purchase. Thanks again, guys. I’ll see you next time.