From TV series like “The Walking Dead”, to books and video games like “World War Z” and “Call of Duty: Black Ops”, zombies are frequently displayed in our daily lives; however, zombies weren’t always the chemically created, flesh eating living-dead we know today.
The original zombie started in Haitian folklore, after African slaves had brought over a similar idea to them. The slaves believed that the Vodou deity Baron Samedi would take them to their homeland after death, unless they offended him in some manner. Then they would be forced to be a slave forever on Earth as a zombie.
Unlike the modern take, zombies shown in traditional Haitian folklore were arisen by necromancy.
A witch-like figure, called a, “bokor,” would raise a dead body back to life. Only the physical state would be reanimated. The soul of the zombie would remain inactive, making the bokor the zombie’s master.
At this time, zombies weren’t defined as brain-hungry monsters. Their characteristics were more like that of mindless slaves.
In 1937, American folklorist, anthropologist and author, Zora Neale Hurston, found a case where a woman in a zombie-like state walked into a village.
A family claimed that she was a relative who had died 30 years prior. A doctor revealed this to be untrue when a fracture that should have been in her leg wasn’t.
Hurston heard and pursued rumors that others had been found in such a state, were under the effects of a psychoactive drug; however, she was unable to locate anyone willing to give her much information on the subject.
Over time, Americans attempted to explain this phenomenon. In 1983, Harvard ethnobotanist, Wade Davis, proposed a chemical explanation for the zombie-like cases.
His theory stated that two powders be introduced to the blood stream. The first of these was a commonly fatal neurotoxin, found in the flesh of pufferfish known as tetrodotoxin. The second was a mix of dissociative drugs, such as datura.
Davis’ claim was never proven and often criticized because of the short-term effects of the chemicals. Bokors were often reported to have been able to keep people in the zombie state for years. Also, the fatality of the TTX has caused uncertainty in Davis’ hypothesis.
Though zombies were still being studied as a reality, fiction took a fascination with them during the early 20th century.
The first zombie horror movie was the 1932 film, White Zombie, by Victor and Edward Halperin.
In the film, based on William Seabrook’s book, “The Magic Island”, the voodoo master, Murder Legendre, is the antagonist. He controls a horde of zombies that, in the past, were foes of his.
Legendre controls a young woman in the movie, infuriating her fiancé, who then goes out to save her.
At this time, writers and film producers held onto the idea of a cure for zombification, though this concept was different from the original idea of feeding the zombie salt. Legendre dies at the end of the movie, breaking his trance over the young woman and curing her of zombification.
For some time, zombies remained similar to this idea. It wasn’t until 1968 when the film Night of the Living Dead came out that zombies themselves became truly horrific.
The movie, written to be a horror/comedy film, features reanimated corpses who wander around, at times running, consuming the flesh of humans. The “undead,” now spread in a disease-like manner, is caused by a reanimated corpse biting a human.
While this is closer to the zombie in modern culture, there are still differences. Zombies from Night of the Living Dead seem to be more intelligent. For instance, there is one point where a girl turned zombie uses a trowel to stab another woman to death, as opposed to just eating her alive.
Night of the Living Dead zombies also simply have a desire for human flesh. In 1985, this desire became more directed with the production of Return of the Living Dead.
Inspired by Night of the Living Dead, Return of the Living Dead also has reanimated corpses. Different from its muse though, these undead desire a more specific part of human flesh; the brain.
This is where the idea of zombies being brain-eating monsters originated. The story continued with three sequels, all following the idea of brain-hungry zombies.
A movie written and directed by Peter Jackson called Braindead (Dead Alive in the U.S.) followed a similar pattern. These zombies, though, also seem to have some sort of intelligence, considering the main character’s mother expresses love for her son, albeit in a rather grotesque manner, after being turned into a zombie.
The movie, originally rejected for its gory character, has slowly gained fame amongst avid zombie fans.
Possibly one of the most widely accepted zombie movies was the 2004 zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead, written by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg. The movie took a comedic spin on the zombie idea, while displaying the stereotypical zombie; slow, mindless, brain-eating monsters.
Over time, zombies grew out of their brain-loving sides. The popular book turned movie, World War Z, showed zombies that weren’t hungry monsters. Instead, they were more focused on spreading their disease.
There also came a time where zombies no longer needed to die in order to transform. In 28 Days Later, Zombieland and Left 4 Dead, the “zombies” all came from a pathogen that altered the mind.
For many years, the idea of a cure for zombification was abandoned; however, the 2013 movie, Warm Bodies, adopted this idea and created a new spin for it.
In this movie, humanity is a cure for zombification. R, a zombie, slowly starts to become human again after killing and eating the brain of a young girl’s boyfriend. R falls in love with Julie, slowly bringing him back to life.
The other zombies around R also start to return to life, after seeing a strange act of R saving Julie’s life.
It took time, but evolution has brought about the zombie known today, and it isn’t done yet. New zombie movies and ideas are constantly being released, challenging the zombie stereotype. It may only be a matter of time before zombie will have a different meaning entirely.
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