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How Zombies Evolved in Motion Picture History

Updated on August 18, 2020

Murder Legendre turns Madeline into a zombie

Bela Lugosi, Madge Bellamy, Robert Frazer
Bela Lugosi, Madge Bellamy, Robert Frazer | Source

Introduction: zombie movies

Zombie movies during the 1930's and 1940's were inspired from Haitian folklore. A master antagonist manipulated unfortunate victims to commit heinous deeds. Drugs influenced wandering zombies and caused people to fear enslavement. Voodoo provided insight for film makers; they produced zombie supernatural phenomena and gained cinematic popular recognition. Character treatment of zombies changed through developmental modernity.

Universal Studios’ successful White Zombie (1932) explores evil zombie enslavement.

Voodoo practitioners chant verses and beat drums over a dead body. Mindless servants drove the Murder Legendre’s (Bella Lugosi) carriage. A powerful Haitian businessman secretly creates zombie slaves; they perform hard labor for his sugar plantation. Zombies never complain about working long hours. Legendre lusts for lovely Madeline Short (Madge Bellamy) and steals her scarf. She marries her fiancé in Charles Beaumont's (Robert Frazer) wealthy plantation home. Beaumont (Robert Frazer) covets and betrays her to Legendre. A drug potion causes her temporary death and Legendre resurrects her body from a coffin. Heartbroken husband, Neil Parker (John Harron), envisions apparitions of Madeline and consults Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn), a missionary. Bruner tells Parker that converting humans into zombies defies Haitian law (a code upheld today). Hollywood movie making exaggerate Witch Doctor powers.

King of the Zombies includes black comedian, Mantan Moreland

King of the Zombies (1941)

Hypnotism, voodoo, and drug injection, turn people into zombies. Dr. Sangre injects victims with a drug from his hypodermic needle. He uses an Irish magic mask obtained from his travels and used it for transmigration: souls of the dead enter the living.

Comedian Mantan Moreland spoofs a legendary claim; zombies are forbidden to eat salt. Dr. Sangre hypnotizes him into believing he turned into a zombie. A black maid adds excessive salt to his soup and convinces him otherwise. Dr. Sangre racially profiles Jeff, a black servant.

World War II American pilots flew a wavering plane during a heavy storm and ran out of fuel. They had detected a weak radio signal, and survived a crash landing in a remote island cemetery between Cuba and Porto Rico. Pilot James McCarthy (Dick Purcell) travels with Bill Summers (John Archer) and his black servant, Jeff Jackson (Mantan Moreland). Bill carries out an assignment to locate the missing Admiral Arthur Wainwright. The survivors seek help from an Austrian, Dr. Mikhail Sangre (Henry Victor), owner of a strange mansion. He welcomes them until the next boat arrives. Dr. Sangre’s wife walks around like a zombie; he claims her serious medical condition needs an effective antidote. Jeff excitedly tells his friends that he identified zombies walk around the kitchen. Sangre claims their servant imagined it. Mac and Bill agree. They change their mind eye-witnessing Sangre’s wife floating into their guest room and dropping an earring. Jeff thinks she’s a ghost. The earring provides physical evidence. Jeff’s friends think the mansion hides mysterious secrets. They discover voodoo ceremonies take place in the cellar and learn the cook acts like a voodoo priestess. Dr. Sangre, a Nazi spy, attempts to transfer the admiral’s knowledge into the mind of his niece. She suspects Sangre hypnotized his wife and read about hypnotism in a book. Sangre targets people for secret information about war and attempts to gain access of it by transferring their personalities into zombies.

People suspect zombies were created into mindless servants because of hypnotism. They reject another theory; toxic induced drugs administered by Bokers during voodoo rituals resurrected victims after burial.

Film comedian: Montan Moreland

Samantha (Marguerite Whitten) the maid convinces Jeff (Montan Moreland) he isn't a zombie by feeding him salt
Samantha (Marguerite Whitten) the maid convinces Jeff (Montan Moreland) he isn't a zombie by feeding him salt | Source

Voodoo men hid in American backyards

The Voodoo Man (1944)

Bella Lugosi plays Doctor Richard Marlowe and performs a voodoo ritual with Nicholas (George Zucco). They chant summoning spells to a voodoo god called Ramboona but fail to transfer the life force of a kidnapped women into Marlowe’s beautiful wife. She has been under a trance-like-state for twenty years and briefly regains consciousness during times spells weaken. Marlowe relentlessly experiments; he turns several women into zombies and imprisons them in cages. Dramatic events don’t unfold in Haiti but Marlowe’s secret lair looks exotic. Nicholas wears a witch doctor’s hat and robe. Voodoo rituals are performed with lit candles and skulls. Marlowe’s helpers abduct women. A detour sign placed in a country side road fools jeopardized women. The Voodoo Man takes complete control over zombies while alive, a favorite theme in zombie movies.

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Haitian voodoo allured American film makers

Producer Val Lewton researched Haitian voodoo and used a voodoo doll in the motion picture, I Walked With a Zombie (1943) West Indie natives perform voodoo rituals at night. A young man dances to jungle drum beats and pulls a voodoo doll towards him on a rope; the ritual beckons a woman afflicted by zombie magic. She lives in her husband’s plantation home and cared for by a Canadian nurse.

Lewton’s film inspired Tales of the Crypt: Ritual (2002). Jennifer Grey plays Doctor Alice Dodgson. She flies to Jamaica and cares for a mentally disturbed brother suffering from cephallitis. He feels haunted by voodoo curses. A voodoo priestess (Kristen Wilson) has Haitian blood from her mother and practices zombie resurrection.



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Val Lewton's classic: I Walked With a Zombie

Nurse Betsy (Frances Dee) holding a flashlight, accompanies Mrs. Rand (Edith Barrett), a zombie, to a voodoo ceremony and confronts Carrefour (Darby Jones), a zombie
Nurse Betsy (Frances Dee) holding a flashlight, accompanies Mrs. Rand (Edith Barrett), a zombie, to a voodoo ceremony and confronts Carrefour (Darby Jones), a zombie | Source

Zombie Movie Trivia

King of the Zombies
Film producers wanted Bella Lugosi to star as Dr. Sangre, unavailability made Peter Lorre second choice. Contract negotiations failed. Henry Victor cast at last minute.
Teenage Zombies
Writer director Jerry Warren concentrated on zombie hypnotic effect from nerve gas experiments.
The Plague of the Zombies
A squire performs voodoo unique from several zombie films, a blood sample lures a heroine to woods for zombification, little figures in coffins are used for voodoo rituals.
Night of the Living Dead
The male protagonist, Ben, is black. Haitian and West Indie zombies are often depicted as black men. Romero’s radiation device turns people of any race into zombies. The film shows that zombies are all white, an interesting reversal.
The Serpent and the Rainbow
Christophe is based on Clairvius Narcisse, an actual zombie survivor. Christophe's role was written admirably to gain sympathy from movie viewers

Revolt of the Zombies took place in Cambodia


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Revolt of the Zombies played with Cambodian idols and secret messages

Colonel Mazovia stands before a Cambodian idol and reads a parchment  containing secret information about creating zombies
Colonel Mazovia stands before a Cambodian idol and reads a parchment containing secret information about creating zombies | Source

Haitian mythology influenced zombie movies and geographical location

Revolt of the Zombies (1936), took place in the lost city of Angkora, Cambodia, with a religious temple and idol gods. An oriental priest served as chaplain of a French colonial regiment, and sentenced to life imprisonment for secretly possessing men as mindless zombies. The priest attempts to burn a parchment inside his cell; it contains vital information concerning a private place revealing the secret of zombie creation. Colonel Mazovia (Roy D’Arcy) kills the priest and salvages it.

After World War I, Allied countries formed a representative organization with colonial interests and undertook a Cambodia expedition for the purpose of destroying the parchment Mazovia confiscated. Soldiers mocked fantastical stories about Cambodian super soldiers invulnerable to Artillery fire.

Armand Louque (Dean Jagger) studies ancient text and loses Claire Duval’s (Dorothy Stone) affections, the general’s daughter. She loves an injured Englishman Clifford Grayson (Robert Noland). Other injured victims cause the expedition to continue their investigation at Pnorn Pengh. Armand solves an important clue and sneaks back to Angkora without General Duval’s (George Cleveland) permission. Armand witnesses a religious ceremony at an ancient temple. The high priest's servant doesn't notice Armand follows him through a swamp leading towards a bronze doorway and interior paneled room. Armand unintentionally strikes an idol holding a gong. A wall panel opens. Armand discovers an ancient metal tablet and translates an inscription, the secret of zombies. Haitian zombie white powder exerts a powerful influence. Armand blows dust into a worker’s face and possesses his will.

Soldiers at Pnorn Pengh submit under Armand’s control.

Zombies on Broadway (1945) plays on comedic horror. Comedic antics resemble a style like Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein. Bella Lugosi plays Doctor Renault, a mad scientist, working in San Sebastian Island. He works on medical drugs that turn humans into zombies. His failed experiments result in buried bodies. Voodoo ceremonies are performed on the island.

Broadway nightclub owner, Ace Miller (Sheldon Leonard) promises to introduce an authentic zombie in his stage show. Two of his press agents, Jerry Miles (Wally Brown) and Mike Stager (Alan Carney) are sent to San Sebastian Island to bring him a zombie and are accompanied by a cafe performer, gorgeous Jean La Danse (Anne Jeffreys). Kalaga, a tall black zombie (Darby Jones) takes Jean hostage. Renault had commanded him to rise from a coffin. The mad doctor intended to turn Jean into a zombie, but switched focus to the two press agents. Brown and Carney work like Abbott and Costello.

Teenage Zombies (1961)

Four teenagers, Reg (Don Sullivan), Skip (Paul Pepper), Julie (Mitzie Albertson), and Pam (Brianne Murphy), ride a motorboat for a water skiing outing but investigate a mysterious island instead. They enter a strange house and meet Doctor Myra (Katherine Victor), a scientist involved with eastern foreign agents; they plan on turning Americans into slave zombies. Dr. Myra conducts nerve gas experiments that turn people into zombies. Drunks, convicts, and a gorilla are used like guinea pigs. The quartet are horrified by Dr. Myra’s zombie who imprisons them in locked cages and agents confiscate their boat. Reg and Skip pick the lock. They secretly investigate the island and build a raft. Two concerned neighborhood friends check out the island. Dr. Myra turns them away, but returning back home by boat they notice two suspicious men arrive in their friends’ boat. The two teens report the incident to the sheriff and accompany him back to the island. The sheriff cooperates with Dr. Myra but feels upset; he learns she experiments on teenagers. A foreign agent’s bullet kills him.

I Eat Your Skin (1964)

A writing agent encourages Tom Harris (William Joyce), a novelist, to visit a Caribbean Island and learn about voodoo. It’s rumored the walking dead and human sacrifice haunt an island. Playboy Harris eagerly accepts to explore it; his agent claims sexy virgin girls populate the island. Harris falls in love with beautiful Jeanine (Heather Hewitt), the daughter of Dr. Biladeau (Robert Stanton). Jeanine thinks her father conducts cancer research in his private laboratory. She doesn’t know anything about his mad scientist experiments; he uses snake venom that turns natives into zombies, they reveal ping-pong eye-balls. Dr. Biladeau’s evil employer, Charles Bentley, blackmails him to continue inhumane conversions. Bentley wants an army of zombies to take over the world.

Harris physically struggles with zombies but protects Jeanine from zombie abduction. Dr. Biladeau tells Harris many natives consume plants containing a powerful drug that makes them act crazy. Zombies use dynamite to blow up Harris’ parked airplane at the beach. A voodoo priest kidnaps Jeanine for human sacrifice. Native drum beat dancing, voodoo chanting, and walking zombies, capture the feel of original Haitian voodoo zombies.

1960 UK zombie Hammer Films visit Cornwall

Zombies had evil minds and ate human flesh to survive. Cannibalism energized the zombie film genre for many years. Earlier, Zombies had been manipulated by an evil master but resurrected from death by supernatural forces, often black magic rituals. A zombie was described as "an utter cretin, a vampire with a lobotomy." (Twitchell, 265).

The Plague of the Zombies (1965)

A contagious deadly plague haunts an 1850 Cornish countryside and bewilders Doctor Peter Thompson (Brook Williams) who seeks help from a close friend, Professor James Forbes (André Morell). Sir James and his young daughter, Sylvia (Diane Clare), travel to Cornwall. Sylvia feels anxious to see Dr. Thompson’s wife, but a mysterious force targets Alice with voodoo and turns her into a zombie. Sir James and Dr. Thompson find her in a graveyard and watch her rise from her coffin. She looks vampire-like at night with a full moon. Sir James beheads her with a sharp shovel. The two men investigate a trail leading to a macabre discovery; they opened buried corpses and found them empty. Zombies perform slave labor at an old tin mine located on Squire Clive Hamilton’s (John Carson) property. Sir James learns Hamilton practiced voodoo and black magic in Haiti. A Catholic priest allows the professor to research black magic in his library.

Late evening, Squire Hamilton pays respects to Sylvia. She mourns Alice’s death. Hamilton fakes an accident; his shattered wine glass cuts Sylvia’s finger. He sneaks her blood sample into his coat pocket. Hamilton prepares Sylvia’s voodoo doll and performs black magic to beckon her into the dark woods. His slave zombies lead her to a voodoo ceremony in which he dresses up as a voodoo priest and prepares to turn Sylvia into a zombie.

Zombie plague filmed in United Kingdom

Cornwall, UK

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George A. Romero revolutionizes zombie monsters

1968 Director George Romero reinvented the zombie image in Night of the Living Dead and influenced a new horror style.

Vietnam War frightened the American homeland; unfortunate U.S. soldiers suffered brutal death. News media reported gruesome details sickening family and friends. Bloody war violence terrified them more than newly released motion pictures. Zombies remind us of apocalyptic destruction. Many zombie films appeared during the cold war and the 80’s alarming AID's epidemic.

Night of the Living Dead protested against senseless mass murder because of weapons of mass destruction. Romero’s zombies look like a composite of zombie, werewolf and vampire. Zombies “exist in a nether world between life and death.” Zombies moved like anemic shells individually but congregated in large numbers and demonstrated strength. They lacked supernatural power but became reanimated at night; it's suggested they reacted to intense radiation caused from a satellite orbiting Venus. NASA was forced to destroy it.

Humanity disturbed zombies and made them defy American culture morality. Shirking humane moral responsibility, zombies didn't flinch about committing parricide and eating the flesh of their neighbors.

Night of the Living Dead opens with young adults; Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and Johnny (Russell Streiner) place a wreath over their father’s grave site. Johnny helps his sister escape a zombie but unfortunately hits his head against a large rock. Hysterical Barbra hides inside a farmhouse and discovers a black man named Ben (Duane Jones). He nails wooden planks all over windows and doors. He tries to calm her down. An elderly and younger couple hide in the cellar, Harry and Helen Cooper, and Tom and Judy. Ben takes Tom and Judy with him to refill a truck with gas. A terrible accident occurs. Gas spills over the truck and burns up into fire. Zombies feast on the young couple's remains. Ben returns to the farmhouse and shoots Harry with a rifle blast for jeopardizing the group’s safety. Zombies batter down the fortified house with clubs.

Romero reminds us of our mortality. Ben and his friends, enemies, and zombies, are all murdered at the end of the movie for the exception of the police squad.

News radio and television broadcasts are used throughout the movie; they inform house trapped refuges about deadly peril. Every recent corpse entered in the morgue reanimates back to life because of intense radiation. Dead bodies are cremated to prevent them from returning back to life as cannibals.

Zombie movies following Night of the Living Dead continued a familiar formula. They included large cemeteries and slow walking corpses craving human flesh. Strange outer space radiation turned humans into zombies.

Day of the Dead (1985) was considered a successful sequel for Romero. A military group led by Captain Rhodes and top medical scientists, Sara (Lori Cardille), John (Terry Alexander), and Bill (Jarlath Conroy) had been stationed in Florida, a government underground bunker. Military and scientists clash about their methods of treating world infested zombies. Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty) studies zombies’ biological cravings in his quest to control them. He surgically performs bizarre experiments with zombie specimens. Bub (Sherman Howard), a zombie, undertook experimental testing. Logan studies his reaction to a toothbrush, razor, paperback book, unloaded firearm and tape player performing music. Bub, unique, undertook tutoring to learn motor skills, mourns Logan’s death and chases Captain Rhodes (Joseph Pilato) with a pistol. Rhodes betrayed his men for his own survival. Steel (Gary Howard Klar), a military soldier, blows his brains out before zombies eat him alive. Logan upset Rhodes; he fed Bub flesh from a soldier killed by zombies.

John fails to convince Sara to abandon her zombie research. She had amputated Miguel, her boyfriend's (Anthony Dileo Jr.) right arm to save him from an infected zombie bite. Later on, he rides up a lateral elevator lift but gets eaten alive by zombies invading the bunker. They devour dead soldiers’ flesh in labs and storage rooms. Sara, John, and Bill (Jarlath Conroy), escape in their helicopter. Sara awakens on a beach island and marks an x on November 4th“the Day of the Dead according to Latin America folklore.”

Our human organs shall one day rotten into stinking tissue. Zombies inflict deadly diseases from their bite and threaten to speed up the process.

Night of the Living Dead opens in a Pennsylvania farmhouse

Pittsburgh Pennsylvania:
Pittsburgh, PA, USA

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Night of the Living Dead (poster)


George A. Romero Talks "Night of the Living Dead and Zombies

Wade Davis investigated Haitian zombies

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), became a motion picture based on a nonfiction book written by Wade Davis. Dennis Allan (Bill Pullman), a Harvard scientist, visited Haiti in 1978, and researched a drug which causes zombification in targeted Haitians. Their whole body feels paralyzed without losing consciousness. Coroners mistakenly think they have died. Pharmaceutical businessmen want Allan to find out the mysterious drug which turned Christophe (Conrad Roberts) into a zombie for the purpose of reinventing a new and effective anesthesia for hospital patients. Christophe’s death certificate dates back seven years.

Allan receives assistance from lovely Dr. Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson), a friend and lover.

Christophe, a fictional character, looks more admirable than a zombification victim introduced in Davis’s nonfiction book, Clairvius Narcisse, a Haitian male, buried and resurrected by a Boker. Christophe’s sister directs Allan’s attention to the cemetery, a place obsessing him. Narcisse, a true-life zombie, was punished for producing too many un-provided for offspring. Christophe, the fictional version, appeared like an admired school teacher respected in the community. He spoke his own opinion. The Tonton Macoute (Haitian police force) wanted to punish him.

Captain Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae) doesn’t care for Allen’s investigation and tortures him. Allen feels pressured to return home. Peytraud orders members of his army to behead Christoph’s sister and place her body parts in Allen’s bed. Peytraud warns Allen that he will be accused of murder if he doesn’t leave Haiti.

During a back home dinner party among business friends, Allan sees hallucinations of voodoo. A lovely woman named Debra tries to stab him. Allan realizes Peytraud can invade his dreams anywhere and he returns back to Haiti. The captain acts like a Boker. He makes Allan experience zombification and puts a tarantula in his crypt. Poisonous tetrodotoxin found in puffer fish and used in zombie white powders take part in the plot.

Allan’s incredible mission takes place during a bitter social revolution. Overthrown Haitian dictator, Baby Doc Duvalier, 1986, appears from archival news footage. Allan behaves open-minded about legendary superstition and witch doctors practicing supernatural voodoo in an anarchistic society.

Wes Craven adds incredible supernatural imagery. Christophe introduces a zombie bride who opens her decaying mouth and a snake attacks Dr. Allan.

The film crew completed filming their movie in the Dominican Republic because they were not guaranteed protection from the Haitian government.

During filming, Bill Pullman worked with a jaguar, a viper and a tarantula. The animals had been safely raised in captivity.

Christophe obsessed with the dead

Christophe (Conrad Roberts) was a zombie based on an actual nonfiction person written about by Wade Davis
Christophe (Conrad Roberts) was a zombie based on an actual nonfiction person written about by Wade Davis | Source

Clairvius Narcisse: zombie survivor


Contemporary zombie movies and conclusion

Zombie Night (2013), considered a frightening movie, view the walking dead behave more aggressive and tougher individually than zombie movies preceding it. Families struggle to survive in their homes and flee from one place to another. Zombies constantly break into their hiding places. Families face the terror of watching their loves ones get infected, acts of patricide. Major characters watch their party dwindle to only four survivors, Patrick (Anthony Michael Hall), Birdy (Daryl Hannah), Tracie (Rachel G. Fox), and Nathan (Gibson Bobby Sjobeck), acknowledge they can only rest until sundown when zombies shall certainly rise again.

Modern day zombie films become more gory and violent. Zombie hunters constantly behead the walking dead and watch innocent people get infected by their bite. Zombie Hunter (2013) includes a street gang unable to cope with zombies taking over the world; they drink hard booze and take drugs. At one crisis point, they battle a chainsaw killer zombie, shades of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Zombie apocalypse remains a popular theme. An extremely successful television show, AMC’s Walking Dead, achieves credit for great story telling, compelling characters and situations alluring viewers to zombies. Horror cinema history includes fascinating zombie movies.

An impressive modern day zombie film, a comedy. A Little Bit Zombie (2012) opens with a young couple camping out in the woods, celebrating their upcoming wedding. But the groom-to-be, Steve (Kristopher Turner), gets infected by a zombie virus from a mosquito and starts craving brains. His crazy behavior drives his fiancée Tina (Crystal Lowe) crazy. Fights erupt between the future newlyweds and the groom’s sister (she hates his girlfriend) and boyfriend. The groom orders exotic brain meat from a butcher to maintain his addiction. A zombie hunter tracks his trail and attempts to kill him.

Abraham Lincoln was considered a great U.S. President and abolitionist. In Haiti, black slaves were treated like zombies if not actually turned into monsters. Civil War influences today’s zombie movies. Birdy’s grandma (Shirley Jones) in Zombie Night has the last name Lincoln. Sheriff Rick Grimes in AMC’s Walking Dead, protagonist of the show, has an actor's last name, Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies (2012) shows Lincoln slaughtering Confederate Army Zombies. He looks more like a Yankee soldier than president.

The Lincoln influence became a matter of debate. Horror fans should notice zombie films referencing Lincoln don’t take place in Haiti or exotic islands inhabited by zombie slaves. More white zombies appear in modern films than black people. Why Lincoln? Heroic zombie slayers attempt to free cannibals from a depraved cursed existence.


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