In 1968 George Romero changed everything about zombie movies – except, of course, that he didn't. Though it's often cited as the key film in the now ubiquitous zombie genre, Romero's Night of the Living Dead never used the term 'zombie.' Instead, it referred to it's reanimated undead characters as 'ghouls.' Initially, the filmmaker himself avoided any zombie references, and cited Richard Matheson's novel 'I Am Legend' as the main inspiration for his horror opus. That novel (thrice filmed, most recently starring Will Smith) related a tale of plague-created vampires facing off against a single human survivor. So, if Night of the Living Dead isn't really about 'zombies' and Romero didn't change everything, then why do we think he did? To answer that question we need to do a little bit of gravedigging ourselves.
The roots of the zombie tradition in American drama can be traced to Henry Francis Downing's 'Voodoo' from 1914. Though it didn't directly feature the living dead creatures known as zombies, the play was set in the Caribbean and featured voodoo magic as part of the plot, both of which are essential elements in the zombie tradition. Downing was an African-American member of the diplomatic corps in Liberia, but he wrote a variety of plays and novels based on his own globetrotting knowledge. An intriguing 'what if' of film history involves the fact that famed African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux was familiar with (and made one film based on) Downing's work. Always on the prowl for potentially filmable stories written by African-American authors, Micheaux could easily have placed himself at the leading edge of a new genre if he had made a film version of Downing's play, but the exotic tale doesn't seem to have caught his eye.
Even if he had entered the field, Micheaux would not have been alone. A small, but not insignificant, number of films of the Teens and Twenties utilized plots which included voodoo themes, but none of them have survived. Instead, the distinction of being the first zombie movie is usually awarded to Victor Halperin's 1932 opus, White Zombie. Starring Bela Lugosi, this film defined the basic parameters of 'zombieness' which would be in place prior to Romero's appearance on the scene. Set in an exotic, tropical clime (Rule #1) whose voodoo-conscious population is mostly black (Rule #2), the plot involved the evil sorcerer Legendre who is skilled in the ways of voodoo (Rule #3). He uses a drug to 'kill' his enemies and then enslave their undead bodies (Rule #4). This practice ends badly for pretty much everyone excepting the zombified love interest and her husband, to whom she is restored after Lugosi and his zombies plunge over a cliff to their real (and final) deaths. Conspicuously missing is any eating of brains, actual revived dead corpses, or an unknown cause for the undead shenanigans.
White Zombie was a financial success for its independent producers, but it did not spawn countless imitators. Instead zombies and voodoo made occasional appearances in film over the next ten years. The Halperin's tried an unsuccessful follow-up in 1936 called Revolt of the Zombies. Silent film veteran director Marshall Neilan filmed a voodoo themed story called Chloe in 1934. Nina Mae MacKinney ('The Black Garbo') was featured in a voodoo tale called The Devil's Daughter in 1939. All of these films followed the established template, highlighting exotic locales, prominently featuring black cast members and utilizing threatening voodoo curses. Still, no brain eating…
During the Second World War, three films brought zombies further into the mainstream. Two comedies, Ghost Breakers and Zombies on Broadway included zombified characters, though they dispensed with most of the other trappings that had previously defined the zombie/voodoo film. The former (a successful Bob Hope vehicle) featured famed African-American actor Noble Johnson as a threatening presence on Paulette Goddard's inherited Caribbean estate, but did not dwell on the possible voodoo origins of the character (Johnson was a major player in early African-American filmmaking, but is now best remembered as the native chieftain on Skull Island in the original version of King Kong). Zombies on Broadway depicted a pair of publicity men heading to the Caribbean to find a real zombie as part of an advertising campaign for a new nightclub. Employing poor Bela Lugosi as yet another zombie-making villain, this film has one of the bumbling, decidedly-not-undead comic duo injected with zombie serum as part of Lugosi's experiments. Fortunately, this provides the authentic zombie they need but (unfortunately) the serum wears off by the time they return home. In both of these cases a mostly white cast contends with conspicuously black zombies, but any threat posed by the catatonic slaves is mitigated by the comedic aspects of the films.
A more important zombie film was made by director Jacques Tourneur and producer Val Lewton, the duo who also created Cat People and The Leopard Man. I Walked with a Zombie is probably the most accomplished and stylish of the pre-Romero zombie films but, once again, the focus is not on gore, but on the heavily supernatural leanings of Caribbean natives. Those superstitions are effectively used to intimidate the white plantation owners, but any resulting death is purely the result of unsettled psyches rather than any zombie threat.
Other zombie films appeared in the decades that followed (Valley of the Zombies in 1946, Zombies of Mora Tau in 1957, etc.) but they continued to at least pay lip service to the basic tenets of the zombie/voodoo film established by White Zombie – and then George Romero came along.
Romero had good reasons for calling his undead creatures 'ghouls' instead of 'zombies.' After all, they didn't fit into any of the categories which would previously have defined the word. They were fully reanimated dead corpses, and there's that whole business about feasting on the flesh of the living. By eventually embracing the term, however, what Romero did was completely redefine the notion of the zombie. The Caribbean cultural context, the connections to a particular African diasporic experience, and the notion of zombies as slaves in the thrall of a sorcery-performing master – all of that was swept away by Night of the Living Dead. The zombie is now a safely universal experience devoid of cultural specificity. Everyone dies so anyone can join the army of the undead. No knowledge of voodoo magic is required since zombieness is perpetuated by contact with other zombies – not by religious rituals. Zombies have now become cultural avatars of an entirely different kind. They're used to criticize consumerism, middle-class angst, and modernity (among other things). Romero's achievement, in other words, isn't simply a question of making zombies popular, it's the fact that by opening the door to detaching them from their cultural roots he gave them an entirely new cultural purpose. He didn't change everything so much as he completely supplanted what came before. He took something local and made it universal. And that is definitely worth thinking about.
by Jeff Hinkelman, Video Collection Manager