Don’t know much about history?
Here you’ll discover how the zombie mythos arose, got shambling, and then started running right at the living. Don’t know much biology? Everything you need to know about the most terrifying fictional and actual zombie viruses is within these pages. Don’t know much about science books? Probes from Venus, accidents in government labs, evolution run amok—it’s all here, and it’s all horrifying. “Professor Zombie” Sean Hoade taught the groundbreaking first for-credit college class on zombies anywhere: Zombies! The Living Dead in Literature, Film, and Culture. These 7 interviews were conducted by Matt Scalici of the site FilmNerds.com and became the basis for this book. Reading Zombie School Confidential will catapult you into the true walking dead expert among your friends, family, and those damn fool zombocalypse deniers!
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An Introduction to Zombies
Matt Scalici, FilmNerds.com: We are beginning a new series here today, and the topic is the ever-interesting subject of zombies in film. With us for this series is, I have to say, by far the most qualified guest we have ever had on FilmNerds.com. He is an instructor of English at the University of Alabama, where he has taught several fascinating “Special Topics In Literature classes—on superheroes, on the Apocalypse, and most relevant to us, one on the subject of zombies, a class which has received international attention. Sean Hoade is our guest expert for this series. Welcome to the podcast, Sean.
Sean Hoade, Writer and “Professor Zombie”: Thank you. The only thing I love more than zombies is movies about zombies.
FN: I always like to give myself a little refresher course before we do podcasts, so I’ve been in a particularly demented state of mind this week just with the research I’ve been doing, so it’s been interesting.
Well, during this series we are going to delve deep into this genre of film, this very interesting and complex and always-evolving genre, and, rather than go film-by-film as we’ve done in some of our other FilmNerd series, this time we’re going to take a look at different aspects of the entire genre, the different sorts of conventions and areas of interest within the zombie genre. First, we’re going to present a little introduction to the zombie genre. We’re going to look at how it came about as well as why we’re doing this series: Exploring why the zombie genre has become such a big deal in American—indeed, global—film.
So Sean, how far back does the zombie film go? Obviously, zombies have been an idea that has been a part of various cultures and civilizations for a long time, but as far as appearing in the medium of film, how far back does this go?
Hoade: Actually, let me clarify something first. Most people think that the zombie concept as we understand it started a lot earlier than it actually does because the idea of other famous movie monsters like vampires or werewolves goes back a thousand years or more, and even Shelley’s Frankenstein is almost 200 years ago, for instance.
Vampires and lychanthropes were known and feared at least back to the Middle Ages, possibly earlier, and mummies obviously go back to Ancient Egypt, but the zombie is actually almost entirely a cinematic creation, so it’s really appropriate to do this FilmNerds movie podcast because zombies as we define them now didn’t exist before movies, and in fact, the concept of zombies in the West didn’t exist at all until maybe four years prior to the first zombie movie. I would say the zombie idea in the West was launched with the 1928 book by William Seabrook called The Magic Island, which is about Haiti. To this day, Haiti is where people think of something existing that is extremely close to “real” zombies.
We always think of Haiti because of the Seabrook book and the scientific investigations made by Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis decades later. Many people know that in Haiti, they allegedly use the powerful venom of the puffer fish to put people into a state that seems zombie-like. Those zombies aren’t like the Romero zombies or the ones that eat your brain or whatever, but they are what we think of when we think of what could possibly be a real zombie.
With the publication of The Magic Island, Haiti mania and zombie mania took over in the United States. People were crazy about the idea, and there was a play in 1932 based on a chapter of the book called Zombie that was popular and people went to see it. At that time it was considered quite scary, and filmmakers ran with it and made a movie very similar to the stage play called White Zombie in that same year, 1932. What happened is they basically stole the entire plot and idea from the play Zombie, but in perfect Hollywood style, they said, “We don’t have to pay for this because the story is based on a nonfiction book, based on things that allegedly happened,” so they got away with stealing from the people who made the play, who of course stole Seabrook’s ideas in the first place. What could be more Hollywood than that? And it was an immediate smash success on film. It made $8 million, a huge amount for the time.
FN: We’ve seen that with other subgenres of horror from that era as well. Obviously, the whole Dracula/vampire film was started with Nosferatu, which is just a cinematic ripoff of Dracula. [Note: The producers of the 1922 Nosferatu were sued by the Stoker estate for copyright infringement, and every copy of the film was collected and burned … except one that was found years later and is the basis for every recording of the film we have today.]
Hoade: Right, right, and of course, White Zombie wasn’t exactly a ripoff of Dracula, but then you had Bela Lugosi in it as the zombie master. It definitely traded on his image as the dark and mysterious stranger, coming right off of his success as Dracula. Sadly, when he was negotiating to make the movie—and the White Zombie producers really wanted him because of the popularity of Dracula, which came out in 1931—he tipped his hand that he really needed money, so again, in perfect Hollywood style, they screwed him, and they ended up paying him just $800 for this movie that made $8 million.
Obviously this is a history long before the Romero films, but White Zombie is the one movie everyone looks at as really starting this entire genre. However, what made the zombie what we think of today would be Night of the Living Dead, the first zombie film from George Romero.
FN: What are some of the conventions and the stereotypical zombie elements that we see in all zombie movies today? What were some of those that Romero created that weren’t really part of that genre before Night of the Living Dead?
Hoade: It’s really interesting. I’ll take you through a little bit of history: In White Zombie, the idea is that there is black magic of one kind or another, and that idea was taken from The Magic Island, a book which purported to document actual voudin practices that were going on in Haiti. The title of the film being White Zombie changes the horror concept from slave masters in Haiti with black zombies to, “Oh no, these are white zombies! The Negro necromancers are taking over our white women!”and things like that, the usual paranoia, the racist paranoia of the time, so we had that. Extremely exploitative and racist, and extraordinarily successful.
As these race-baiting zombie movies—the Asian undead were also popular monsters fighting the American military for years—fell in quality and then in number throughout the ’30s and ’40s, you got away from the idea of the zombie master and the Haitian zombie in general. In the 1950s, when everyone was worried about nuclear attack, with nuclear fallout changing our genetics and making us something other, they made The Zombies of Mora Tau, which was a war movie, and this obscure film introduced the idea of the contagious zombie. Romero didn’t actually come up with that one. In the Romero films, if you’re a zombie and you bite someone or otherwise infect them, they die and rise again as a zombie. Romero had that to work with because of Zombies of Mora Tau.
FN: How is the zombiism spread in that film? I’m assuming they are not yet the man-eating variety of zombie.
Hoade: It was a little unclear. If the zombie attacks you and kills you, if you’re killed by a zombie—it’s almost like being a werewolf, except a werewolf was actually alive, and you become a living werewolf yourself. [Note: The concept of a bite from a werewolf turning a victim into a werewolf comes from the 1941 Universal movie The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney, Jr. In that same film, the idea of silver killing werewolves was also introduced.]
It’s the same thing here in Mora Tau: If you’re attacked and killed by a zombie, then you become a zombie as well. They didn’t have the same ideas of virology as we have now. I mean, when you see zombie movies or really many different kinds of monster movies or horror movies now, you see that they take into account our knowledge and fears of viral infection, but they didn’t really have that in the ’50s yet. They didn’t really understand viral contagion the way that we understand it now, but they definitely understood idea of radioactive contamination.
The movie was a little unclear on how exactly the transfer happened, but it wasn’t black magic, and that was a really big change in the concept. Now it was something naturalistic and not based on race baiting. Then the genius of Romero was that he took the lemons of losing the scary zombie master and he made lemonade—he asked himself, “Okay, well, what’s scary? The living dead are scary.” So they’re going to make a movie about the living dead, but they’re making this for $119,000, I think, which was nothing for a 35mm movie. They had to shoot it in black and white, though. And they were making this movie with friends, staying in the farmhouse where they filmed it, smoking reefer, having a good time, and they put their heads together: “How can we really make this zombie movie something big”—they didn’t call them “zombies” in the movie, of course—but “this living dead movie, how can we make it something that’s really going to get attention? What’s the most offensive thing that we can get away with?”
Then they hit right on it—cannibalism. Cannibalism is the biggest cultural taboo next to incest, and nobody really wants to watch that kind of thing in a movie. Incest is something some people did, taboo or not; it was too real to be fun-scary. But nobody’s actually eating other people, right? The idea that these living dead will eat you and then what’s left of you will get up and start eating other people was the most disgusting, horrifying, attention-grabbing thing that Romero and his associates could think of. So they put it in there, and of course it worked perfectly. It worked beautifully. It scared the shit out of audiences. It’s like, We have these living dead. Not only are they risen from the grave, maybe because of some radiation from a crashed satellite but it doesn’t matter—they want to eat your flesh and make you do the same thing to others.
It doesn’t matter how this has all happened—you’re just trying to survive! There were a million “people trapped while monsters try to get at them” movies at the drive-ins and even in some bigger-budget productions like the Hammer horror films. But Romero & Co. added the flesh-eating part, and that completely disgusted everyone to the point where they couldn’t look away. It was so transgressive, some viewers watched simply out of horrified awe at the audacity of Night of the Living Dead.
This naturally inspired—because good ideas get exploited immediately—all of the Italian gross-out movies of the late ’60s and early ’70s with the living dead, really just excuses for extended scenes of the most disgusting violence and cannibalism, and Italian audiences loved it. Some of these Argento films and a few others have survived to become kind of offbeat classics in America. But it was Romero put the two ideas together of the contagion and the cannibalism to come up with something unique, and he just, with his subsequent movies, especially Dawn of the Dead in ’78, just took it to its Omega.
He introduced the idea of the cannibalistic zombie, and now when you think of zombies, what do you think? They’re going to eat you, right? They’re going to kill you, eat you, and then you’re going to get up and eat people, which you really don’t want to happen to you.
FN: Like you said, that is the defining trait of zombie movies today that really came out of Night, but one of the other things, just to touch on briefly, that Romero is credited with introducing into the genre is making it about a little more than just the surface terror, that he injected some interesting subtext into what were still essentially monster movies. In the later installments of this podcast series, we will touch on some of those various subtexts, but just to stay on this very surface level that we’re talking about right now, some of these conventions we talk about that Romero helped define and codify have been defied and played with a little bit as we’ve gone on in subsequent decades.
But some ideas are getting tweaked, “de-codified,” if you will. We have zombies that are fast and athletic, making them more dangerous than ever before. We saw that in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later… and its sequel and also in the remake of Dawn of the Dead, which really even irked a few more people because you have the whole Romero convention of the lumbering zombie being thrown out the window in a remake of a Romero movie.
What do you think about playing with that zombie formula. Are there any examples where it worked for you, or are you pretty much across the board against messing with the Romero zombie conventions?
Hoade: Well, the great thing about a convention is as soon as it becomes the convention, it becomes a sandbox for creative people. As soon as you have a convention, it is time to subvert that convention. I think that the “zoombies,” the fast zombies—
FN: Zoombies, nice.
Hoade: [Laughs.] Yes, I call them zoombies. I have to tell you, 2004’s Dawn of the Dead scared the living hell out of me, and 28 Days Later…, same thing. If you think of that same year’s zoom-rom-com Shaun of the Dead, you’ve still got the lumbering zombies, but they’re kind of amusing and played for a little bit of laughs in the beginning. Amusing, of course, until they rip your throat out.
But they’re kind of funny, since they’re off-balance and lumbering. There is nothing funny about a running zombie. It is just pure terror.
FN: That’s what makes, like we mentioned, 28 Days Later… and the 2004 Dawn of the Dead, I mean, they’re so different from when you watch something like Day of the Dead or the original Dawn of the Dead, where there are no moments of levity at all (except maybe a moment between characters like Peter and Roger). I mean, these are intense, just, you know, gritty thrillers all the way through. There is no break in those movies.
Hoade: Right! This is not your father’s zombie movie. This isn’t one where you can go, “Oh! I’m so scared! Look at the mummy coming after me and I can briskly walk away” or whatever. This is something where, if you are not completely on your toes, and maybe even if you are, you are doomed. They will run after you at superhuman speeds, and you know, I think as far as—I mean, it’s kind of funny to talk about realism in a zombie movie, talking about reanimated dead people coming after you, but let’s say that we accept that—in terms of “I’m going to scare your pants off,” it makes perfect sense and is wholly effective. Also, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later…, as I’m sure your listeners know, is not technically a zombie movie. They infected are not actually dead. They’ve got a virus and so become cannibalistic and extremely contagious—in fact, people wouldn’t even think of that as a zombie movie if they weren’t.
So even though a purist would say it’s not actually a zombie movie, I think it’s operating on the same basic fears as a “true” undead zombie movie: like you mentioned, the contagion and the fact that these monsters are in the form of humans, which is a very important element of the zombie genre, and that you could easily become one of them and do horrible things that repel you as long as you’re uninfected.
Hoade: Yes, that’s actually also in 28 Days Later…—that’s how it becomes a zombie movie, and I do think it is a zombie movie. Another way is that, as they say in the original night of the Living Dead, your mother is not your mother anymore. If she gets infected with the Rage Virus, she is only someone who wants to infect you with the Rage Virus. It doesn’t matter if she’s technically alive or dead.
FN: This is exploited quite well in Shaun of the Dead, and I’m sure we’ll talk about that later in the series.
Hoade: Right. Shaun of the Dead is great at subverting a lot of those conventions, which is why it’s funny, but one of the many things I love about Shaun of the Dead is that it’s also scary.
FN: Absolutely. It works as a horror film. If you watch some of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s other work, Hot Fuzz and their brilliant British television series, Spaced, I mean, those guys are very funny, but it feels less like parody or even homage, and more like a sincerely great version riffing on whatever they’re working from.
Hoade: I think they’re complete geniuses, but Romero, he brought something else into the zombie world. He made these zombie movies not just about these creatures that want to kill you and eat you and turn you into zombies. Accidentally is Night and thereafter very intentionally, he made the zombie movie a platform where we can have a serious discussion about society—this is the subtext that we’re going to talk about later.
He said, “You know, we can talk about in Night of the Living Dead, we can talk about racism. If we’re talking about Dawn of the Dead, we can talk about American consumerism. If we’re talking about Day of the Dead, we can talk about the military industrial complex, right? If we’re talking about Land of the Dead, we can talk about the gated communities and separation of rich and poor in America in a way that’s never been done before,” and if we’re looking at Diary of the Dead, his latest and probably final entry in it [Note: By publication time, Romero had directed one more entry in the series, 2010’s Survival of the Dead], we’re talking about the YouTube generation. You know, I heard about a motocross racer who had just gotten killed at a public exhibition—his motorcycle crashed and he hit his head and was killed. As soon as I heard about that, I went on YouTube and was able to find footage of it. Multiply that times 3 billion and you would have Internet coverage of the zombie apocalypse.
Everybody’s filming everything all the time, and because of the Internet we have all these ways to instantly share that information, and that’s what Diary of the Dead gives us—yes, it’s a scary zombie movie and I think it’s extremely effective, but it’s also about the YouTube generation. Some people hate it because it goes back to the initial zombie infestation, but I think it was a fresher entry than was Land of the Dead.
So that’s something that Romero really started. Romero made legitimate the idea of “This isn’t just a monster movie—this is socially as well as culturally relevant.”
FN: Yes, absolutely, and that’s why the zombie subgenre is worth dedicating a whole podcast series to, and we’ll be looking at these various different ways that the zombie genre has been used to take a look at certain aspects of our society and of what it means to be human.
Hoade: This is just a foundational thing, so I think it should be in this first podcast: Zombies are actually the ultimate movie creature because they don’t think—they only do. They only do, and that’s something that can be captured on film better than any other medium like novels or graphic novels or, you know, radio shows or whatever. Really, a movie is the perfect place to have the zombie menace, and so it’s especially appropriate that you’re devoting a film podcast to this.
FN: Because it’s all action. There’s no need for inner monologue or further explanation. What you see is what’s happening with a zombie.
Hoade: Right. No zombie has ever asked, “What’s my motivation?” There’s no plotting or scheming, there’s no negotiating or surrendering, there’s nothing but searching and killing and eating and making more undead.
FN: In our second episode of this series, we’re going to be talking about the very idea that Sean just mentioned: how race relations are examined in some famous zombie films that on the surface just seem to be about the living dead.