When the modern-day horror fan thinks of a zombie movie, they usually picture hazmat suits, burned-out cars, and a wave of gray flesh surging towards them. The putrefaction of both the human body and modern society are the dominant themes. Rum drinks in the parlor? Not so much.
But for a generation of early horror fans, zombie films were inherently tied to the good life, and the magical invasion thereof. Before George Romero invented the inexplicable flesh-eaters of Night Of The Living Dead, zombie films usually occurred on a plantation or in a mill, and often came with elaborate sets and explorer’s club-style adventures in the heart of the jungle.
The Western World first learned of the zombie in William Seabrook’s The Magic Island, a travelogue of Haiti which focused heavily on the rites and practices of voodoo (or Seabrook’s sensationalized ideas of them). While many voodoo practices are explained away as local superstition, the raising of a corpse as a zombie is described as frighteningly real; Seabrook even claims to have met a few zombies, and cannot say definitively that he is not talking to dead men when he does so. As such, the zombie became a monster of the other–a strange and horrific servant of gods we can’t understand who are worshipped by, gasp, black people.
But in Hollywood during the 1930s (hell, in Hollywood before 1975), you couldn’t make a movie full of black protagonists! Good Lord, what would people think? And so it was that zombie movies centered not around worshippers of voodoo, but around those hapless white people who end up encountering them while abroad in or around Haiti, or around those sick white folks who have returned from the Caribbean having learned the dark arts.
The first such film, and perhaps the first zombie film ever, is 1932’s White Zombie, which tells the tale of a couple who comes to Haiti to get married, only for the bride to fall into the clutches of a “voodoo man” named Murder Legendre (played by a menacing Bela Lugosi). The groom and his missionary friend do their best to save her, but not before they are forced to dispatch a horde of wide-eyed living dead.
The story takes place at a series of colonial locations–a plantation, a windmill, an old castle–and the casting of a Hungarian actor as a voodoo bokor is straight-up embarrassing. That said, White Zombie also takes the time to elaborate on the real-world explanation of zombiism, and treats voodoo with some level of knowledge and reverence (the advertising campaigns, not so much). Though it’s been said that the title refers to the female protagonist being a bride, one cannot help but wonder if it was also meant to stoke racist revulsion in American audiences, with the idea of a white woman being a part of so heinous a tribal rite utterly blasphemous in the eyes of the everyday viewer.
At the complete opposite end of the spectrum is Hammer’s 1966 film The Plague of the Zombies, a film where fun madcap horror is offset by a complete unwillingness to understand voodoo. The film is set in a Cornish village, where a local nobleman who spent much of his life in Haiti is killing villagers and turning them into zombies to revive an old tin mill (whatever) and keep suspicious locals quiet.
While the zombies in Plague are cool and successful at being horrific, the depiction of voodoo as a form of pitch black witchcraft feels cheap to the touch; the only actors of color in the film are the three tribal drummers who wear Loyal Order Of Water Buffalo hats and never seem to leave the villain’s basement (is there a bathroom down there?). This silliness is made increasingly obvious every time the story’s hero Sir James Forbes, played by André Morell, pronounces the word ‘Haiti’ as ‘Ha-EE-tay.’
The real terror in Plague, of course, is that a place as sweet and bucolic as Cornish England could be invaded by something so strange as voodoo and the living dead. Like Count Dracula, the zombie was brought in from far-off places most foul, and it’s only with the help of two white English doctors educated at proper European universities that the undead can be expunged from these holy shores.
Perhaps the most beautiful and well-made of these films is 1943’s I Walked With A Zombie. Produced by Val Lewton (who was most famous for producing the original 1942 Cat People), the film is set at the manor house of the Holland family on the island of Saint Sebastian, and tells the story of a nurse taking care of a sugar mill owner’s invalid wife amidst rumors from the island’s locals that she is a zombie. The film comes to a head as the locals send the zombie Carrefour after Mrs. Holland, who is indeed revealed to be suffering from a voodoo curse.
I Walked With A Zombie manages to be eerily beautiful while at the same time genuinely creepy. The references to slavery in the script are uncommonly poetic, making the whole island of Saint Sebastian a sad and haunted place. The cinematography highlights voodoo’s dramatic appearance in its natural habitat while never vilifying or degrading the local traditions. And while there is a definite divide between Holland Manor’s stuffy white inhabitants and the island natives, there also is a humanizing equality in their similar quests for answers to big questions.
What is perhaps most powerful about I Walked With A Zombie is that there are only two zombies in the movie, and yet they are both incredibly frightening. Mrs. Holland drifts around her home with a stony face and fluttering diaphanous gown that reminds one of white fire. Carrefour, meanwhile, is every viewer’s zombie nightmare, a towering human monolith with dead, bulging eyes who seems utterly inevitable as he stalks towards you. It’s a reminder that even in rural locations, surrounded by elegant set pieces, the zombie can be an upsetting creature.
Sadly, these three titles are some of the few great examples of the pastoral zombie movie succeeding. Revolt Of The Zombies and King Of The Zombies are both awful, the latter a poorly tied-together plot involving Nazis that is mostly and excuse for racist comedy by Mantan Moreland. And at this point, the genre is somewhat lost. No one wants zombie movies that don’t nod to Romero. They want fast-spreading viruses, flesh-eating dead, cultural anarchy–the whole nine yards.
That said, these classics listed above are fat with material for remakes. White Zombie is a great movie, but distinctly flawed in a way that could be aided by modern screenwriting techniques and special effects. If only movie studios would quit attempting to make goreless modern zombie horror movies (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies can eat my ass) and would focus on the lush pastoral zombies of old, who knows what they could accomplish?