How Zombies Evolved in Motion Picture History
Murder Legendre turns Madeline into a zombie
Universal Studios’ successful White Zombie (1932) explores evil zombie enslavement.
Voodoo practitioners chant verses and beat drums over a dead body. The “Murder” Legendre’s (Bella Lugosi) carriage is driven by mindless servants. The powerful Haitian businessman secretly creates zombie slaves to 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 missionary Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn). Parker hears from Bruner that converting humans into zombies is against Haitian law (a code upheld today). Witch Doctor powers are exaggerated in Hollywood movie making.
Zombie movies during the 1930s and 1940s were inspired from Haitian folklore. A master antagonist manipulated heinous deeds of unfortunate victims. Walking corpses under the influence of drugs caused people to fear enslavement. Voodoo provided insight for film makers producing zombie supernatural phenomena and gained popular recognition in the cinema. The role of zombies changed through the years.
King of the Zombies includes black comedian, Mantan Moreland
Hypnotism, voodoo, and drug injection, turn people into zombies. Dr. Sangre injects victims with a drug from his hypodermic needle and uses an Irish magic mask obtained in his travels. It's used for transmigration: souls of the dead enter the living.
Comedian Mantan Moreland spoofs the legendary claim zombies are forbidden to eat salt. Dr. Sangre hypnotizes him into believing he is a zombie. A black maid adds plenty of salt to his soup and convinces him otherwise. Dr. Sangre racially profiles Jeff as a servant because he is black.
World War II American pilots fly a wavering plane in a heavy storm and run out of fuel after detecting a weak radio signal. They survive a crash landing in a remote island cemetery between Cuba and Porto Rico. Pilot James McCarthy (Dick Purcell) is accompanied by Bill Summers (John Archer) and his black servant, Jeff Jackson (Mantan Moreland). Bill is assigned 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 a cure. Jeff excitedly tells his friends that he saw zombies walk around the kitchen. Sangre tells them their servant imagined it. Mac and Bill agree but believe Jeff when Sangre’s wife floats into their guest room and drops an earring. Jeff thinks she’s a ghost. The earring is physical evidence and Jeff’s friends think the mansion hides mysterious secrets. They discover voodoo ceremonies take place in the cellar and learn the cook is a voodoo priestess. Dr. Sangre is a Nazi spy and 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 get access to 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
Voodoo men hid in American backyards
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 turning more women into zombies and imprisoning them in cages. Dramatic events don’t unfold in Haiti but Marlowe’s secret lair is exotic. Nicholas wears a witch doctor’s hat and robe. Voodoo rituals are performed with lit candles and skulls. Women are abducted by Marlowe’s helpers. A detour sign is placed in a country side road to fool unsuspecting women. The Voodoo Man has complete control over zombies while he is alive, a favorite theme in zombie movies.
Bella Lugosi Documentary (3 parts)
Different zombie characters
What is your favorite zombie style character
Haiti allured film makers to voodoo
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 is 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 is haunted by voodoo curses. A voodoo priestess (Kristen Wilson) has Haitian blood from her mother and practices zombie resurrection.
Val Lewton's classic: I Walked With a Zombie
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.
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
Revolt of the Zombies played with Cambodian idols and secret messages
Zombie movies inspired by Haitian mythology changed geographical location
Revolt of the Zombies (1936) is set 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 that sentenced him to life imprisonment for secretly possessing men as mindless zombies. The priest attempts to burn a parchment inside his cell that contains vital information concerning the place where the secret of zombie creation is hidden. Colonel Mazovia (Roy D’Arcy) kills the priest and salvages it.
After World War I, Allied countries formed a representative organization with colonial interests that undertook a Cambodia expedition for the purpose of destroying the parchment Mazovia confiscated. Soldiers mocked fantastical stories about Cambodian super soldiers that defied Artillery fire.
Armand Louque (Dean Jagger) studies ancient text and loses Claire Duval’s (Dorothy Stone) affections, the general’s daughter. She loves Englishman Clifford Grayson (Robert Noland) who is accidentally injured. 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 is unaware of Armand’s presence and leads him through a swamp that leads to a bronze doorway and interior paneled room. In the center of it an idol holds a gong that Armand unintentionally strikes. A wall panel opens. Armand sees an ancient metal tablet and translates an inscription, the secret of zombies. Haitian zombie white powder is a powerful influence. Armand blows dust into a worker’s face and possesses his will.
Soldiers at Pnorn Pengh are under Armand’s control.
Zombies on Broadway (1945) feature more comedy than horror. Comedic antics are similar to 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). Jean is taken hostage by Kalaga, a tall black zombie (Darby Jones) that Renault commanded 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 that 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 sends them away disappointed, but returning back home by boat they see 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 is secretly in cahoots with Dr. Myra but upset 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 island is haunted by walking dead and human sacrifice. Playboy Harris eagerly accepts when his agent tells him the island is populated by sexy virgin girls. 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 he is a mad scientist experimenting with snake venom that turns natives into zombies with ping-pong ball eyes. 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 Hammer Films set zombies in Cornwall
Zombies had evil minds and ate human flesh to survive. Cannibalism energized the zombie film genre for many years. Earlier, Zombies were 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 is 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 investigated a trail that led 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 that 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.
The Plague of the Zombies filmed in United Kingdom
George A. Romero revolutionizes zombie monsters
1968 Director George Romero reinvented the zombie image in Night of the Living Dead and influenced the style of horror.
Vietnam War frightened American homeland because unfortunate U.S. soldiers suffered brutal death. News media reported gruesome details that sickened family and friends. Bloody war violence terrified them more than newly released motion pictures. Zombies are reminders of apocalyptic destruction. Many zombie films appeared during the cold war and the 80’s alarming AIDs epidemic.
Night of the Living Dead protested against senseless mass murder because of weapons of mass destruction. Romero’s zombies were 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 because of intense radiation caused from a satellite that orbited Venus. NASA was forced to destroy it.
Humanity disturbed zombies and made them defy American culture morality. Shirking responsibilities to the community, 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) who nails wooden planks all over windows and doors. He tries to calm her down. An older 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 it catches fire. Zombies feast on the young couple's remains. Ben returns to the farmhouse and kills 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 to inform house trapped refuges about the peril they face. Every recent corpse entered in the morgue is reanimated to life because of intense radiation. Dead bodies are cremated to prevent them from returning back to life as cannibals.
Zombie movies that followed Night of the Living Dead continued a familiar formula. They included large cemeteries and slow walking corpses that craved human flesh. Strange outer space radiation turned humans into zombies.
Day of the Dead (1985) was 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) are 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) is a zombie under experimental testing. Logan studies his reaction to a toothbrush, razor, paperback book, unloaded firearm and tape player that performs music. Bub is unique; he is tutored 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 when 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 is eaten alive by zombies that invade the bunker and devour dead soldiers’ flesh in labs and storage rooms. Sara, John, and Bill (Jarlath Conroy), escape in their helicopter. Sara awakens in 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 took place in a Pennsylvania farmhouse
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) is based on a nonfiction book written by Wade Davis. Dennis Allan (Bill Pullman) is a Harvard scientist and visits Haiti in 1978 to research a drug which causes zombification in targeted Haitians. Their whole body is paralyzed without losing consciousness. Coroners mistakenly think they have died. Pharmaceutical businessmen want Allan to find out the mysterious drug that turned Christophe (Conrad Roberts) into a zombie and reinvent a new and effective anesthesia for hospital patients. Christophe’s death certificate dates back seven years.
Allan is assisted by lovely Dr. Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson), his friend and lover.
Christophe is a fictional character 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. Christophe is obsessed with it. Narcisse, a true-life zombie, was punished for producing too many un-provided for offspring. Christophe, the fictional version, was 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 is forced 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 is also 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 is included in the plot.
Allan’s incredible mission takes place during a bitter social revolution that overthrows their Haitian dictator, Baby Doc Duvalier in 1986 and appears from archival news footage. Allan is open-minded about legendary superstition and witch doctors that practice 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 government in Haiti.
During filming, Bill Pullman worked with a jaguar, a viper and a tarantula. The animals were safe enough. They were raised in captivity.
Christophe obsessed with the dead
Zombie survivor Clairvius Narcisse
Contemporary zombie movies and conclusion
Zombie Night (2013) is a frightening movie. Zombies are 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 are committed. Major characters watch their party dwindle until 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 are 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 is a popular theme. An extremely successful television show, AMC’s Walking Dead, is credited with great story telling, compelling characters and situations that attract viewers to zombies. Fascinating zombie movies are part of horror cinema history.
An impressive modern day zombie film is a comedy. A Little Bit Zombie (2012) is about 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 stay in control. A zombie hunter is on his trail and wants to take his life.
Abraham Lincoln was considered a great U.S. President and abolitionist. In Haiti, black slavery was reality. Slaves were treated like zombies if they were 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 is the protagonist of the show and played by an actor with the 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 is a matter of debate. Horror fans should notice zombie films that make a reference to Lincoln don’t take place in Haiti or exotic islands inhabited by zombie slaves. More white zombies are included in modern films than black people. Why Lincoln? Heroic zombie slayers must be trying to free cannibals from a depraved cursed existence.