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Rigor Mortis Vol. 4, © April 2011
|Rigor Mortis #4
More Zombi Than Zombie:
Race, Revisionism, and Voodoo Zombies
THE SUM OF (DEAD BODY) PARTS
The main focus of this article is to revisit and analyze some key (and not so key) films featuring the original Zeds: VOODOO ZOMBIES. It's an area in horror scholarship that is sorely neglected and continues to fade from memory as zombies continue to morph in an effort to meet newer audiences' expectations. This sub-genre also requires some love as it is becoming all too common to hear certain chatterbox zombie "fans" dismiss this "old" stuff as irrelevant. This is thanks in large part to their refusal to watch films in black and white (these are frequently the same viewers who seem to feel personally cheated by them pesky black bars that don't let them use every inch of their widescreen HDTVs). Nothin' worse than ignorant "fans".
This piece will spend more time on pre-'70s Voodoo zombies (VZ) than any other era. This is largely because these were the formative years of the zombie genre in general. They're important because these are the films (as well as other media) that George Romero would've had access to, which in turn would've had some influence on his film NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (NOTLD). If I need to explain that reference you might as well give up reading this now.
"Maybe unconsciously a lot of that was there, but that wasn't what was in my head when I was shooting the sequences per se. I was trying to flash back on EC. I came up on EC Comic books. I was trying to do that. So really, that's what that's about." ROMERO on the political allegory of NOTLD (FANTASTIC FILMS #9, 1979)
EC Comics were the most famous of the pre-code horror comics (TALES FROM THE CRYPT was their best known). EC and their ilk were part of the broader spectrum of comics, stories, and movies that fed off each other and helped define the pre-Romero walking dead. All of these frequently used Voodoo zombies, or some variation of them, within their stories; whereas now, we largely have apocalypse and viral variations to fuel our dead. We wouldn't be here fighting like schoolgirls over Sprinters vs. Shamblers if not for our Voodoo ancestors. This is not at all to suggest we expect the genre to stay stagnant. No, we're going to just give these bad boys and gals their due as we welcome all types of Z's (except the talking animal ones, we still hate those).
It's also necessary to touch on the racism that finds its way into the mix. If Romero himself states there were no outright intentions to infuse NOTLD with '60s race commentary, as many continue to suggest, one wonders if, at the very least, he and his team saw for themselves how steeped in race matters zombies already were without added subtext? Really, all that was left to do was to make a damned horror film and leave it at that, as Karl Hardman (NOTLD producer/actor) stated. Whatever the case, take a deep breath and get your hipwaders on, cuz at times the manure may get deep.
SEE NO EVIL... SPEAK NO EVIL
Zombies have long been touted for their social commentary, so it is surprising that we never see Voodoo zombies discussed at a deeper level. We essentially hijacked another culture's lore here, retrofitted it to serve our purposes, and basically tossed what we didn't need once we got our cheap scares. "Deep" discussions about zombies are always about the same things, like that damned consumerism, evil governments, or pissing off Mother Nature. Really, is that it? Let's first take a look at the dirtier aspect of our original appropriation sin.
To be fair (and with a pinch of sarcasm), looking at and facing some of the overt racism inherent in some of the original zombie films can be an uncomfortable thing. However, ignoring this is little lily-livered. I mean Hell, if folks wanna claim social commentary as the Zed genre's biggest asset, then you can't just pick and choose, or pretend it didn't exist at all. To not address these issues, as they clearly show themselves, is to bury one's head in the sand. Of course, this may have something to do with why many want to send VZs to the back of the bus…again.
REALISTIC OR REVISIONIST?
Voodoo Zombies are racially charged, but should be seen in the context of Hollywood's broader racial issues of the times. Treating them as monsters distracted viewers from giving closer scrutiny, except for the more diligent, academic, and obsessed. When there are bug-eyed monsters lurching across the screen, any subtext can make off unnoticed like a thief in the night because, well, they're monsters and not Black people framed outright as hooligans and savages. Like children distracted in a candy store, we don't clearly see the Black man enslaved once again, in this instance as a zombie, for the entertainment of predominantly White audiences.
It's made more invisible because the umbrella concept, Voodoo, is and was largely a religion practiced by Africans and Caribbean islanders and brought to America (like a stowaway on the slave ships), with the zombies merely a by-product. Eyes focus on the "evil" theatrics and all of the bells and whistles that films depict Voodoo rites as having, so anything else slips under the radar. Furthermore, in these films it isn't the White man who's seen as responsible for the calamity but, conveniently, the Black man's own "evil" religion is to blame, regardless of whether the White man sought it out or stumbled into it by chance. The "evil unknown" is that pervading that viewers can sit satisfied that there's nothing deeper to explore, if it even occurs to them at all. These race-charged zombies are simply never questioned.