The zombie was most prominent in Haiti, the first country to see a successful slave uprising that toppled a European colonial government. (Zombi merely ran a de facto state within a European colony.) But this only strengthened the connection between the mystical creature and slave uprisings—a situation that sent shudders down European spines, especially when the new dictator of northern Haiti, declaring himself a king, enslaved untold numbers of his countrymen to build himself a pleasure palace, Sans-Souci, caring not a whit how many hundreds died in the process.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the Zombi was willfully misconstrued in white circles as a wicked demon that caused Black people to revolt against their white superiors. Consider Grace Elizabeth King’s The Chevalier Grace de Triton (1891) in which a black person specifically claims that the Zombi, identified as a devil worshiped by blacks, causes her to be a wicked sinner, and that if only she were white she would not be consumed in sin:
That is the way! that is always the way! I tell Madame so. Zombi always gets ahead of God with me. Why did not God make me learn my catechism? If I had learned my catechism, I would have been in the room with my mistress; and I would not have heard the whistle, or I could not have come out if I had. But Zombi, he prevents my learning my catechism, he makes me put my mistress in a temper; she throws my catechism at my head, she orders me out of her room, and there I am in the kitchen, and the whistle comes; how could I know that the whistle was Master Alain’s? Zombi drives me around as if he were my master. Why does not Zombi go after my mistress? No! he is afraid of her; it’s only the poor negroes that he drives. God looks after Madame. He prevents her from sinning. Why does not God look after me? If I were white like Madame, God would look after me. How do I know what to do? God tells me to do things and Zombi tells me not; or Zombi tells me to do, and God tells me not. How can I tell what to do? Me, poor old Bambara? I can only tell afterward.
So what does this have to do with our modern zombies?
Modern zombie stories come from a confluence of several threads. The first starts with William Seabrook, an alcoholic and depressive occultist, traveler, and writer, who sought transgressive horrors, largely among non-white people (though also Aleister Crowley), and reported them for the titillation of his upper class white audience. He went to Africa and reported on black cannibals, claiming to have partaken of their food himself, which tastes, he said, “like good, fully developed veal.” He went to Arabia and reported on devil worship among the Bedouin, and he went to Haiti, which he wanted to see because of his lifelong desire to explore voodoo, which he perceived as a type of occultism. His resulting book, The Magic Island (1929), described the cultes des mortes, and reported that Haitian wizards reanimated the dead to work in the fields, and that these were zombies. Seabrook described the Haitians as “blood-maddened, sex-maddened, god-maddened,” dancing and chanting in horrible rites of ecstasy and blood.
Here is the most important paragraph, which alters the Victorian zombie of Hearn into an explanation for Haitian slavery, apparently confusing symbolic explanations (i.e., “I have symbolically died because I am a slave”) for actual magic:
It seemed that while the zombie came from the grave, it was neither a ghost, nor yet a person who had been raised like Lazarus from the dead. The zombie, they say, is a soulless human corpse, still dead, but taken from the grave and endowed by sorcery with a mechanical semblance of life—it is a dead body which is made to walk and act and move as if it were alive. People who have the power to do this go to a fresh grave, dig up the body before it has had time to rot, galvanize it into movement, and then make of it a servant or slave, occasionally for the commission of some crime, more often simply as a drudge around the habitation or the farm, setting it dull heavy tasks, and beating it like a dumb beast if it slackens.
This is the origin point for the concept of the undead soulless and typically black corpse as a figure of horror. The success of The Magic Island led directly to White Zombie (1932), the horror movie based on Seabrook’s book. While the plot is essentially a remake of Dracula, the locus of horror shifts from the idea of the risen dead to the horror that a white woman could be taken by a half-caste voodoo master to serve among the black zombie slaves. The title pretty much gives away the central racial horror. Zombie movies down to 1968 would follow this pattern, exploring white people’s fear of the wild, unrestrained, often sexually aggressive Afro-Caribbean Other, playing on American stereotypes of black people as sexually inexhaustible savages with a lust for white women, a trope so ingrained in American culture that I trust I don’t need to illustrate it with examples. In these films, zombies were ravaging hordes of black people under the control of forces of satanic evil.
I am not the only person to see this. Kyle W. Bishop did graduate research on the racist and imperialist underpinnings of zombie narratives.
The second thread starts with George Romero, who did not start out to make a zombie movie.
Romero originally tried to make a science fiction comedy in the vein of Plan 9 from Outer Space, with human corpses serving as the aliens’ food. It was not to be, and instead he became taken with Richard Matheson’s vampire novel I Am Legend and wanted to make a film version without actually buying the film rights. (Matheson’s novel would also serve as the basis for The Omega Man where Charlton Heston learns that vampires are people, too.) In Night of the Living Dead (1968), Romero therefore transformed Matheson’s vampires into “ghouls,” flesh-eating monsters drawn from the Arabian Nights, the Gothic novel Vathek, and early twentieth century occultism (whence came the brain-eating trope), but here betraying their vampire origins by remaining risen corpses, albeit decayed ones. (The SF angle remained only in the alien virus hinted as the source of zombie outbreak.) The Arabian ghouls were creatures that “wander about the country making their lairs in deserted buildings and springing out upon unwary travellers whose flesh they eat” (Arabian Nights, Night 31).
Pointedly, these were not zombies in the traditional sense, nor did Romero call them zombies. Romero also made a black man the hero of his film, but this was fortuitous and not part of the plan. Duane Jones (“Ben”) refused to perform Romero’s original dialogue, which would have made him a stereotypically uneducated and impoverished black man. According to the actors, much of the story was improvised, including much of Jones’ role as hero. Romero, however, turned this improvisation into social commentary about race in America, with the zombies killed off by a racist sheriff’s posse, recalling the Civil Rights protests of the era. Romero later moved from racial commentary to economic commentary in his later zombie films, which tended to make the zombies symbols of capitalist tensions in society.
Romero’s ghouls became conflated with the black Haitian zombies—largely after the 1980s and Wade Davis’s famous research into zombies, for a distinction is still seen in the 1970s and early 1980s literature—because both were speaking to issues surrounding what reactionary audiences perceived as uprisings against the old social order. Crazed voodoo priestesses with their armies of black undead merged with the ghouls who rose up to attack the symbols of the American social order. The Haitian zombie is largely forgotten in favor of the ghoul. Outside of Romero’s work, zombies are typically hordes of violent savages, usually in an urban environment, who attack a small group of largely white, usually upper-class survivors in order to make them part of their poor, oppressed teeming masses. Here the Other becomes the urban poor, who are disproportionately racial minorities, threatening the wealthy suburban elite.
The third strand is directly related to The Walking Dead, and that is the American Western narrative of Native American attacks on white settlers.
These narratives, which were wildly popular in nineteenth century pulp fiction and twentieth century cinema, generally posited a West where noble white people are spread thin across a desolate landscape where teeming hordes of violent, savage Indians could at any time erupt from the landscape to kill white people. In film, such stories began as early as The Battle of Elderbrush Gulch (1914) by the famously racist director D. W. Griffith (who eventually felt bad about his cinematic racism). John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) depicted Native people as bloody savages who attack without mercy and rape white women for sport. Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) had earlier set the template for the depiction, and both films contributed to zombie movies the trope that the endless waves of savage attackers needed to be shot. The kill shots used to put down nearly-rabid Indians are indistinguishable from the kill shots needed to put down modern zombies, for which there is no traditional folkloric need to shoot.
Here’s a clip of one stereotypical Hollywood Indian attack. As you can see, in its cinematography, blocking, and action, it is identical to your standard Hollywood zombie attack. The savage other attacks the heroes, who circle the wagons and shoot them dead. They keep coming, however, and hand-to-hand combat ensues. Some heroes are wounded, but the attack is repelled—though the attackers are not vanquished.
The Walking Dead purposely marries Western tropes and post-Romero zombie mythology and thus draws on both (though without taking the zombie name—that’s reserved for pop culture, as though conceding the troublesome past of the name). The series opens just like a Western, with a sheriff riding into town with his gun and on his horse. No clearer Western movie stereotype could be found. Although the show undermines Rick’s authority as Western-style sheriff and his ability to impose order on the lawless, besieged land, it nonetheless does so in the context of the Western. The stories the show tells are Western stories, even though the show is set in the Deep South of Georgia. The wagon-train-style trek across a deserted landscape (season one and part of season two) is a Western staple, as is the siege of an embattled homestead (season two), the encounter with an outlaw who promises order (season three), or the defense of the fort (season four).
In using these Western tropes, how are we to read the zombies except as substitutes for the savage Native Americans of the older Western narratives? As in the capture narratives and the white-zombie stories, the ultimate fear is being taken by the savages and losing one’s identity, culture, and claim to civilization in the face of the ravages of the uncivilized Other. Compare this, though, to Syfy’s Defiance, which is also a Western in form but recognizes the racial symbolism of the narrative and incorporates Native American characters within the community to forestall this, though also at the expense of having a genuine siege narrative.
You may argue that the producers of The Walking Dead, zombie fiction writers, and modern zombie-killing video games are not racist and simply view the monsters as “cannon-fodder,” a faceless enemy of no particular identity. This is a bit like the claims that Nazis are now “generic villains” who can be deployed in any narrative without the weight of their fascist and anti-Semitic baggage impacting the audience’s appreciation of the story. The zombie narrative as we have it today was jury-rigged from racist and imperialist fears of black culture and religion and grafted onto the Western Indian-attack narrative. Even if one does not mean it to, that history carries over into the story, both in form and in function.
Unlike European folklore monsters—the werewolf, the vampire, etc.—which have a patina of age and deep pagan roots (the ancients wrote of both), the modern zombie story is a recent invention, of known origin, and intimately tied to America’s experience dealing with the racial Other both on the frontier and in occupied territories. Narratives that utilize the zombie can undermine it, react against it, or embrace it—but they cannot divorce themselves from the creature’s origins any more than one can remove Egypt and Egyptian resurrection beliefs from tales of vengeful Pharaohs’ mummies, even if Brendan Fraser has no idea what the Pyramid Texts actually say.
Therefore, when I say that zombie tales carry this racial, colonialist, and imperialist baggage, this is not race-baiting and it is not an idle opinion based on the fact that zombies’ rotten flesh is brown but derives from centuries of history that I have researched and evaluated before opining about.