Davia Sills in Aeon (Photo by Corbis):
The original concept of the zombie was drawn from 19th century stories about West Africa and 20th century accounts of Vodou culture in Haiti, where terrifying, drug-fuelled rites could make it seem like the living were dead, only to come back to life. In line with those tales, the earliest filmmakers showed us drugged, obedient automatons, without conscious thought or free will. In White Zombie (1932), the first feature-length zombie movie, the drugged zombie slaves do the bidding of the voodoo master ‘Murder’ Legendre (Bela Lugosi) – reflecting, perhaps, the powerlessness most Americans felt during the Great Depression, which laid people low for years.
It would take more than 30 years for the genre’s master, George A Romero, to serve up a zombie for modern times. In his seminal filmNight of the Living Dead (1968), the classic screen zombie is a walking corpse that, like the 1960s itself, breaks every taboo and is hungry for human flesh. This film also exposes underlying racial tensions in the midst of the US civil rights movement. The main character, Ben, an African American, survives a growing mob of pale, pasty zombies only to get killed by the white police force that should have protected him. That the cops fail to distinguish between Ben and a zombie illustrates the injustice of white authority, the dehumanising treatment of African Americans, and the fact that the zombie would always represent ‘the Other’ – the stranger, the outcast, the dark force in modern film.