Exhumed: A History of Zombies

In this new one-hour Halloween PBS special, Dr. Emily Zarka will deconstruct some of the most significant moments in zombie popular culture over the last two centuries to reveal what these creatures say about us.

AIRED: October 30, 2020 | 0:50:56


-When you hear "zombie,"

do you think of shambling, flesh-eating corpses?

Or maybe fast, violent, virus-infected humans?

Do their blank stares disturb you?

Do they eat brains?

Zombie characteristics evolved throughout the centuries,

but some elements remain consistent.

They are creatures that exist

somewhere between alive and dead,

and they terrify the living.

But why does the word "zombie"

conjure up so many different images?

There's good reason.

The answer lies in African spiritual practices,

the Transatlantic slave trade, and Haiti.

And like many monsters and myths,

the lure of the zombie changes over time

to reflect our history,our shifting political opinions,

and our deepest anxieties.

-[ Screams ]

-I'm Dr. Emily Zarka.

I've spent my career and most of my life

fascinated with monsters

and their place in human history.

I have a PhD in literature with an emphasis on the undead,

and I'm a monster expert.

I study a lot of monsters in my work,

but zombies are especially interesting to me.

And I know I'm not alone.

Why are we so fascinated by zombies?

And what does their complex history

teach us about ourselves?

[ Zombies growling ]

[ Man screams ]

-Fear drives us. It keeps us alive.

But it also gives us new ways to understand the world.

Monster history is really human history.

You can learn so much about our past, our fears,

our anxieties, and our culture

through the monsters we invent.

By diving into the historical origins

of the creatures we fear,

we end up learning about politics, race, gender,

folklore, science, and art.

Enter the zombie.

Although stories of the undead are found worldwide

going back thousands of years,

America embraces the zombie in particular.

Over a relatively short period of time,

the zombie has appeared in films,

novels, comic books,

and graphic novels, video games, board games,

TV shows, and children's cartoons.

Zombies are everywhere.

Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

have an official zombie preparedness guide.

Americana is steeped in zombie lore.


To dig more into the history of the zombie,

I'm in New Orleans,

the first place zombies appear on American soil,

and I'm hoping my time here gets me closer to that story.

This is Dr. Sarah Juliet Lauro,

an assistant professor at University of Tampa,

known for her scholarship on the myth of the zombie.

-There's two different parts of the zombies' journey

from Africa to the "New World."

And the word "zombie"

and the concept of a reanimated, soulless dead person

had completely different trajectories.

And then, at some point, they kind of -- they collide.

So the soul capture mythology is basically that a sorcerer

could imprison somebody's soul.

And in some traditions,

literally a soul is put in a bottle.

And that sorcerer then can make the soul do work for them

in a spiritual capacity.

Like, they can use it to do good for someone.

They can use it to do harm to someone.


-This mythology around capturing a soul

traces back to various regions in Africa,

each with significantly different

languages and cultures.

However, these divergent cultures

did share some common religious beliefs and ancestral myths,

including a strong belief in the spiritual soul

and the threat of someone stealing it.

So how does this belief coalesce when these African cultures

are physically brought together under slavery?

And is the zombie a part of that?

-Whatever it was in the genetic makeup of the zombie,

the one that infiltrates the U.S.

in the early part of the 20th century

is the Haitian zombie.


[ Chains clinking ]

-Beginning in the early 1500s,

the Spanish shipped Africans to Hispaniola,

where they were sold to French colonizers

inhabiting what we now call Haiti.

An estimated half a million souls were shipped there

from the mid-17th to the end of the 18th century,

one third of the entire Atlantic slave trade.

The enslaved Africans worked on plantations,

growing crops in abundance

to meet the demands of European consumption,

and by the late 1780s,

more than 90% of the island's population was enslaved.


To learn more about the history of Haiti,

I'm going to meet our curator, Nic Brierre Aziz.

-This collection was started in 1944

by my grandfather Jean Chenier Brierre.

He was born in Dame-Marie, Haiti.

He then came to North America.

He decided he wanted to find a way

to stay connected to Haiti.

And so, he started collecting artwork,

to now what is over 400 pieces of Haitian artwork.

-What can you tell us about, particularly,

how Haiti is represented in these paintings

and what the intention, maybe, of the collection is?

-One piece I think that really represents it well

is this one here.

So this is Anacaona.

Anacaona was the queen

of the indigenous people of the island of Haiti.

So those were known as the Taino people.

This was actually done by my uncle Jean Brierre.

And this one, you know, is indicative

of just really showing the beauty of an island,

the beauty that existed pre-colonization,

pre-Columbus coming to this island, "discovering it."

-The beauty of the island and spirit of the indigenous people

were crushed under the oppression of colonization.

By the 17th century,

colonized Haiti included a mix of African people

forced together under the horrors of slavery.

They developed a new religion

to unite their often disparateviews, beliefs, and experiences.

Out of this pain, isolation, and contrast, Vodou was born.

-You know, Vodou, the practice is very rooted in energy.

You know, Vodou is just a manifestation of Vodun,

which comes from West Africa.

And I think, as enslaved people, wherever they traveled,

they had to hold on to their roots and their energy

to really persist through all the oppression.

-We know that religioncan provide comfort in darkness,

and Vodou is no exception.

This is Mambo Sallie Ann Glassman,

a Vodou priestess based in New Orleans

and an expert in the history of Haitian Vodou practices.

-Vodou really had toprovide something real to people

in order to survive.

You know, the first ancestors of Vodou were enslaved,

and their life expectancy was maybe 10 years

on these sugar plantations.

And everything was horrific in the here and now

in this physical world.

But they had this belief that there was an invisible world

of great power and meaning and resource,

and it was more alive and more beautiful.

And so, they were able to reach into that world.

-So in that spiritual world of Vodou,

practitioners found a place of empowerment and agency

over their stolen lives.

-This is my understanding, that there is the ko kadever,

the body itself, the physical body,

and that dies at death and goes back into the Earth.

Then there is the ti bon ange, the little good angel

and the gros bon ange, the big good angel.

[ Bird cawing ]

-While the majorityof Vodou priests and priestesses

use their ability to commune with and influence

the spirits in a positive way,

a spiritual leader

who uses their talents for malicious intent

is often called a bokor.

Malevolent Vodou practitioners

trap that part of the soul that houses free will,

the ti bon ange, in a bottle.

It was believed that whoever possesses that bottle

controls the gros bon ange

and, therefore, controls the body's movements.

In Vodou, a person with a stolen soul or body is a zombie.

-There's an understanding in Haiti there's two kinds of zombies,

just like there's more than one kind of spirit.

So, there are zombies who are physical beings,

physical people who have their souls taken from them.

But the opposite is true, too.

They'll refer to a zombie as a disembodied spirit.

-In Vodou, creating a zombieis a largely spiritual practice.

But outsiders often claim chemicals can be used

to produce a zombie.

Wade Davis, a Harvard anthropologist

studying zombie accounts in Haiti,

claimed in his infamous book The Serpent and the Rainbow

that zombies could be created using local poisons.

Davis' claim was that administering a poison

caused people to enter a coma-like state

in which they were still alive but appeared dead.

The victim was passed off as a corpse,

buried and then exhumed from the grave as a zombie.

The actual scientific studiesthat Wade Davis was carrying out

in the 1980s, when he went to Haiti

and was like, "I'm gonna find the science of zombie making."

There are some people who are gonna say,

"This is a scientific process.

Like, there are herbs, and there are venoms,

and we know the recipe, and we're not gonna tell you about it."

But then there's other people who will say

there's also a spiritual element that just cannot be replicated.

If you get all of those different combinations

and the right amount of ounces

and, you know, you do the right recipe,

you're still not gonna have it

if you don't have the permission of the gods.


-So, what would a zombie do?

I asked anthropologist Dr. Grete Viddal,

who studies Haitian religions

and conducted fieldwork in both Cuba and Haiti.

What were some actions that the zombie could do

to the living?

-In the American horror movie,

zombies attack,

and there's a zombie apocalypse,

because zombies are coming after us to turn us into zombies.

No, in Haiti, it's a different --

it's a different idea.

-So, in Haiti, the zombie had a different meaning

in the shadows of slavery.

The enslaved body is a stolen body,

and zombification took root as an allegory for colonialism,

imperialism, and oppression.

Is it not a threat worse than death

that a soul could also be enslaved?

-The person you would fear

would be the person who creates zombies

or keeps a group of zombies as virtual slaves.

The zombie itself is just a shuffling person

forced to work, who doesn't have a voice,

who doesn't remember maybe who they are or how to get away

or how to advocate for themselves or communicate.

The fear is becoming a zombie,

essentially becoming enslaved.

-In life, the enslaved body was subject to violence,

and the idea that a similar fate could occur after death

at the hands of one's own people was terrifying.

Vodou practice enabled enslaved Africans to keep their identity

and create closer bonds across communities and backgrounds.

But their French enslavers began to see this unification

as a threat.

As a result, in 1685,

Code Noir, also known as Black Law,

forbade any religion other than Catholicism

and banned meetings among enslaved people

with different owners.

But Vodou lived on in Haiti, becoming a hidden religion,

developing practices

that appeared to follow their owner's religion

in order to maintain their identity.

-And one of the reasons why Vodou has survived,

it has traditions thatare respected, that are honored.

The understanding is God and Heaven

are in the understanding of the church.

But our lives here on Earth,what we're actually experiencing

and the human condition,

we're interacting with the loa, with the spirits,

and with Vodou.

-As enslaved people,

the oppression that you were experiencing,

was just so deep.

There was such a deep amount of oppression

that you had to tap into a different source

to make it through.

And so, I think these types of practices, like Vodou,

like other African spirituality,

it really helped us tap into the source of our humanity,

because we were not being shown our humanity.

And so, we had to really find different channels --

channels of spirit, channels of beauty --

you know, to really find it.

I think, you know, taking it now,

you know, several hundred years later,

looking at a collection like this

and thinking about how the beauty of Haiti can be shown,

you know, we have been conditioned

to believe that Haiti is

"the poorest country in the Western hemisphere."

It's 60% poverty rate, you know, all these things.

But we don't talk about how Haiti had to

literally pay for their freedom.


-From 1791 to 1804,

enslaved Africans revoltedagainst their French oppressors.

The violent uprisings eventually led

to the Declarationof Haitian Independence in 1804,

and slavery was officially abolished there

in 1805.

But with the memory of their oppression still recent,

the threat of the zombie lingered.

Belief in zombies was so ingrained in the culture

that they were even written into law in Haiti.

An 1835 Penal Code, Article 246

makes any attempt to create a zombie,

successful or not, illegal.

The article reads, "The employment of substances

which, without causing actual death,

produce a lethargic coma more or less prolonged.

If, after administering of such substances,

the person has been buried,

the act shall be considered murder

no matter what result follows."

How does this belief travel to American soil,

and how does it translate when it gets there?


During the revolt in Haiti,

many slave owners absconded to New Orleans,

hoping to find a safe harbor for their lifestyle.

Vodou and the zombie traveled with the Haitians,

newly freed and still enslaved alike,

to America.


In New Orleans, Black people met every Sunday in Congo Square,

the one place they were allowed to gather together.


Congo Square was a spacewhere people of African descent,

both free and enslaved, could celebrate their cultures,

trade with one another, grow crops, and share food.

It is also the place they could gather to play music and dance.

-We danced out our frustrations, we danced at our dreams.

And so, Congo Square,

the fact that we were able to meet people of our own tribes,

speak our own languages,

eat the thingsthat we had brought over, right?

And the other thing is, we were one of the few places,

or maybe the only place, that allowed us to have a drum.

That drum is absolutely everything

and one of the reasons New Orleans was able

to maintain its culture.

-The gatherings in Congo Square fostered a mix

of religions and spiritual practices,

including members of the African Diaspora,

American-born slaves,

and the North American indigenous people.

The result? A new religion -- Louisiana voodoo.


So what does voodoo practice look like here in New Orleans?

-Greetings! Greetings! -Greetings!

-Come on in! -Thank you so much!

To find out, I visited the home

of self-proclaimed king and leader

of authentic New Orleans voodoo, Divine Prince Ty Emmecca.

-Voodoo is an ethnic, cultural, spiritual religious tradition.

So it is, indeed, a religion,

but it's also a practice, a lifestyle.

And I'm sure the average religious person --

Christian, Islamic, Judaic -- might say the same thing,

that their belief system

pervades every aspect of their life.

It is indeed what's indigenous to the West African.

-Even though there are distinct differences

among West African spiritual practices

Vodou and voodoo, the lines between them

are consistently blurred in popular culture.

But it's clear that the enslaved men and women from Haiti

introduced a new religion to the United States.

-So the voodoo came with them,

the gumbo mix of West African tradition,

with indigenous tradition,

and, of course, with those Eurocentric traditions

that we, in some cases, were forced to take on

but eventually adopted

as sort of a cover and a symbolic representation

of something unique to us.

-For a long time, pop culture led me to believe

that zombies were a major part of voodoo.

But that's not quite the case.

Practitioners of voodoo don't believe in zombies

the same way as followers of Vodou.

In voodoo, the zombie

isn't specifically a reanimated corpse.

Any living person who no longer has the ability

to make their own decisions

can be a zombie.

Unlike Haitian Vodou,

New Orleans voodoo has very little to do

with reanimated corpses.

So how did the reanimated corpse zombie

become synonymous with voodoo in popular culture?

At the start of the 20th century,

the zombie was still largely unknown to the American public,

but that all changed in 1915

when the United States military occupied Haiti.

As American journalistsand Marines returned from Haiti,

they brought stories of the island with them,

including stories of the living dead --

their exaggerated interpretations

of Haitian zombies.

One infamous example

is William Seabrook's sensational 1929 travelog

The Magic Island.

Seabrook devoted a whole chapter to his encounter with zombies

working in the sugar cane fields.

-My first impression of the three supposed zombies,

who continued dumbly at work,

was that there was something about them

unnatural and strange.

They were plodding like brutes, like automatons.

Without stooping down, I could not fully see their faces,

which were bent expressionless over their work.

The eyes were the worst.

It was not my imagination.

They were, in truth, like the eyes of a dead man,

not blind, but staring unfocused, unseeing.

The whole face, for that matter, was bad enough.

It was vacant, as if there was nothing behind it.

It seemed not only expressionless

but incapable of expression.

-This is Dr. Robin Means Coleman,

professor and author ofHorror Noire.

-Seabrook is the one who really,

I think, brings this notion of voodoo,

the vulgar voodoo -- v-o-o-d-o-o --

back to the States.

He claims that he has gone to Haiti

and he has watched this sort of primal,

wicked, lustful movement and dance

and its sensuous and its uninhibited.

And so, you know, this is saying a little bit

about Seabrook, too. -Yes.

-And remember, this is also during a period of time

where, in the U.S., we were doing

these kind of anthropological shorts,

where we would film folks, mostly Black folks,

doing things -- eating watermelon,

washing clothes, being lynched, being hanged in prison yards.

And so, this wasn't entirely out of the scope

of what we already had a taste for.

So he's just expanding that.

And we clearly had an appetite for these kinds of stories.

-This is Dr. Kodi Roberts, an associate professor

who specializes in the historyof African-Americans in the U.S.

and the intersection of Black religions such as voodoo.

Dr. Roberts helped me understand white culture's acceptance

of exaggerated accounts of voodoo.

-I would argue that the zombie mythology

and that notion of

Black religion producing these moral evils

is tied to that notion of race and backwardness and savagery

that is used to justify keeping Black people

in the position you want them to be,

whether that be a kind of neocolonialism in Haiti

or segregation in New Orleans.

In the slave system, you have no power, right?

You're property, you're owned.

Your master has complete control of your destiny.

But voodoo gives you the chance

to exert a power over your enslaver

that there's no social parallel for.

And so, there's a notion that enslaved people

are practicing voodoo to overturn the social order.

And so, anybody seen to be practicing

this kind of African diaspora religion,

especially in a colonial period, is looked at as a threat,

especially vis-à-vis slave revolt,

much like there's an association

between voodoo and slave revolt during the Haitian revolution.

You have a fear that

what happened in Haiti will happen here

if we allow these slaves to keep doing this.

By the time you get to the 20th century,

they began prosecuting voodoo as fraud.

-In 1938,

American's views of voodoo

were further informed by Zora Neale Hurston,

one of the most renowned American authors

of the 20th century.

She studied Haitian Vodou

and its transition to the U.S. mainstream

from a uniquely insider perspective.

Hurston was a voodoo initiate in New Orleans and Haiti,

allowing her access to elements

of the spiritual and cultural practices.

She published her experiences in her book

Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica

and included this photo,

which is considered the first photo

of a supposed zombie.

Taken in a hospital yard,

Hurston described the woman in the picture

as "the broken remnant, relic, or refuse of her former self."

Around this time, American books and movies

began to conflate the Vodou and voodoo religions,

often incorrectly attributing the zombie to voodoo.

Oral stories and books continued to grow zombie folklore,

and the legend saw some massive changes

with its entrance into Hollywood.

America's perception of voodoo really took shape in 1932

with the release of the first feature-length zombie movie

"White Zombie."


-There's a depression.

People need inexpensive entertainment.

They want to go to the movies to get their minds off it.

And, apparently, some folks in Hollywood

had been reading these lurid, sensationalistic tell-alls

"my time among the savages,"

written by folks who had been

part of the occupying force in Haiti.

And they said, "Voilà!

This is great stuff. It's great fodder."

-"White Zombie" marks the first instance

of zombified white bodies in film.

It is important to note that the first zombie ever

to grace the silver screen was not Black

and is an early example of white appropriation

of black culture, religion, and experience.

-What have they done to you? -Here, Dr. Coleman discusses

the representation of voodoo in early film.

-All of these early films are about --

It's really about lust. It's about love.

It's about someone who is untouchable

and, "How can I get this person?"

Well, what does this mean in the 19-teens,

the '20s, the '30s, the '40s,

when the thing that is moving about,

in some ways uninhibited, is Black?

Can we have a Black man, zombie or not,

enter into the white boudoir?

We cannot.

So that is the heightened horror that Blackness brings,

this vulgarization of voodoo brings to the horror film.

So "White Zombie" is really the introduction

of the undead zombie,

because, remember, before that,

voodoo was just about evil rituals and spirits.

There was no undead.

"White Zombie" introduces that.

So there's some things that are interesting

about the way then horror,

even if the Black characters aren't as present,

the way horror still uses Blackness

to inform the horrific.

-You've got to feed the zombies.

-The zombies created in these early films

still closely resemble the Haitian zombie.

These films continued to reinforce the connection

between the Haitian zombie and both Vodou and voodoo

to Americans...

-Get them! -...and the idea of worker exploitation

that cannot be separated from the legacy of slavery.

[ Screaming ]

So it seems the blank stares of these first zombies

were like blank slates

upon which white Americans projected their own anxieties

and fears around race and prejudice.

While these films mostly held to the idea

that corpses could only be reanimated

by an evil voodoo master,

now the creator tended to be a foreigner,

another reflection of American anxieties

following increased immigration to the United States

in the mid-19th century.

-You have the secret of the zombie.

Let me have it.

-This fear of the foreign was further represented

in "Revolt of the Zombies."

The film's zombies are Cambodian

and under the control of a Cambodian zombie master.

The film doesn't take place in the U.S.

and doesn't involve voodoo,

so casting the zombies as Cambodian

seems like a pointed choice.

-We are free again. We can think.

-In the '40s, America's racist history

of white women falsely accusing Black men of violence

influences zombie movie story lines.

"I Walked with a Zombie," "Voodoo Man,"

"King of the Zombies," and "Revenge of the Zombies"

all featured scenes of a white woman

made to appear threatened by a Black man

or some kind of voodoo rite,

which, in these early films,

is stereotypically tied to Blackness.


Tell me, who are you?

-Post-World War II, zombie narratives reflect

the rapidly changing apprehensions of the time,

incorporating a wide range of American anxieties,

things like alien infiltration,the vestiges of the Nazi regime,

proliferation of nuclear weapons,

brainwashing, human experimentation,

and the threatening nature of cutting-edge science.

That is until the 1960s.

In 1964, we get "The Horror of Party Beach,"

which you probably haven't heard of

because, well, it's not exactly a good movie.

-They are the living dead. They're zombies.

-A character in the film calls the reanimation "the voodoo,"

and the film demonstrates a return

to racist depictions of the religion as evil.

-It's a voodoo doll, isn't it?

-Do you think voodoo is represented

positively or negatively in popular culture?

-Most of the time, it's represented negatively.

In all due fairness, you know,

it might be comedy, cartoon, a horror movie,

but most of the time, it's represented negatively.

-On to the real game-changer of the 1960s --

"Night of the Living Dead."

Filmmaker George A. Romero

invents a different kind ofzombie that sets a new standard.

His zombies rise from the dead to crave human flesh,

making them an immediate threat to everyone,

and literally anybody can become one.

They are slow moving and, in some cases, use tools.

They can only be destroyed by a shot to the head

or a heavy blow to the skull.

We still see these characteristics

in zombies today.

The low-budget black-and-white film

is one of the most culturally- and critically-acclaimed

contributions to the zombie campaign.

Hello! How are you doing? -I'm doing great.

-To get more insight into the Romero zombie,

I had a conversation with Tananarive Due,

a screenwriter, author,

and executive producer of "Horror Noire."

So why do you think we have that shift

from the not necessarily peaceful zombie

in the earlier films,

but the now certainly more violent, flesh-eating,

gory-looking zombie in more modern cinema?

-I think a lot of the credit

for the change in how zombies manifest

has to go to George A. Romero and "Night of the Living Dead,"

because this film conceivedand shot in the tumultuous 1960s

against the backdrop of the civil rights era,

which, much like our contemporary era,

had really disturbing images coming across people's screens.

So, I don't think it's a surprise

that the 1960s, in particular,

produced the more violent zombies

that would actually invade your home.

It's almost as if the violence on your television screen

has been brought to life and is trying to kill you.

-Where is it?

-The film features Ben, played by Duane Jones,

the Black hero who fights off white zombies

at a time when racial tensions were erupting.

"Night of the Living Dead" is thought to have made

a pointed political statement about racism.

Question is, did Romero know

he had something that would become so special?

-It's 1968. He's driving to New York.

He's got these film cans in the car,

in the trunk of the car.

And he hears it.

-Dr. Martin Luther King,

the apostle of nonviolence in the civil rights movement,

has been shot to death in Memphis, Tennessee.

-You have to think that he knows,

that he knows what he has in the trunk of his car,

that he has a film that is already,

whether, you know, he overtly understands it

or claims it,

is a brilliant piece of art

but also human and political history.

This is an important, powerful text,

if for no other reason it emerges

right in the sort of context of King's assassination

and says, "You will see and appreciate

the power, the resonance of Blackness."

That's what makes "Night of the Living Dead" so special.

-Released against the backdrop of the civil rights era,

Romero's movie was instantly heralded

as a potent political statement about race.

Now, Romero consistently refuted that he meant to make

any connection between casting a strong Black male lead

and the civil rights movement.

He insisted that he cast Duane Jones,

the only Black actor in the film,

because he had the best audition.

-Even if you weren't thinking about racial strife

and the power difference between whites and Blacks

when you cast Duane Jones,

I have to think that when he was looking at the daily footage,

he had to be struck by the image of this dark-skinned Black man

taking charge throughout this movie --

punching Mr. Cooper,

who definitely representsthe white patriarchy of the day.

-L-Listen, I got a kid down there.

She -- She can't -- I couldn't bring her up here.

She can't possibly take all the racket,

those -- those things smashing through the windows.

-Despite Romero's insistence, it is hard not to read the film

as a statement about racial discrimination.

-Now, you get the hell down in the cellar.

You can be the boss down there. I'm boss up here.

-I don't think there were any Black zombies

in "Night of the Living Dead."

So he is killing white person

after white person after white person.

I don't understand how youcould be looking at that footage

and not realize, "Wow, this isreally going to hit people hard.

This is gonna hit people where it hurts."

-The final scene of the movie depicts Ben, the lone survivor

and also the lone Black man in the entire film,

being shot by a member of an all-white rescue squad.

The town sheriff gives the order

when he mistakes Ben for one of the reanimated dead.

-And the rescuers, who basically look like a lynch mob,

do not look like saviors to me, as a Black person.

And sure enough, Duane Jones is shot

without even a word, without even thought.

And in that terrible scene where he's burned on this pyre,

his whole story erased, his history erased,

his heroism erased,

just had to really, really stun a lot of audiences.

-Does the Romero zombie hold up as a metaphor?

I asked best-selling horror author Daniel Kraus,

who completed Romero's unfinished zombie novel

The Living Dead.

-The zombie is uniquely malleable

and agile and muscular as a metaphor.

It just lends itself to creativity

and to communicating a message

beyond the apparent surface message of the story.

And that's -- Sort of taking a step back,

that's what horror has always been good at

from the advent of the genre,

is delivering certain messages

often before other genres can get to them

or really wrap their brains around them.

Change always comes from the fringes,

and horror is the quintessential fringe genre.

-Romero's next zombie movie, "Dawn of the Dead,"

portrayed the same type of mindless zombie

but existing in a more apocalyptic world

and addressing social issues like consumerism,

made obvious by the setting -- a shopping mall.

-What are they doing? Why do they come here?

-This was an important place in their lives.

-"Dawn" spawned this entire genre

that was bigger and brighter,

and it had these elements of joy in it

that were missing from the earlier zombie works.

So I think it just was the perfect kind of film

at the perfect time in the '70s

that really just is the kind of thing

that makes fan boys and fan girls.

It made him the godfather of the zombies.

-The 1980s marked both

a dramatic increase in the production of horror movies

and pop culture

embracing the undead outside of the horror genre.

Take Michael Jackson's 1983 industry-changing music video


with its more amusing and entertaining look

at zombification,

calling back to a lot of horror tropes.

-There's bodies in there?

-The 1985 campy horror comedy "Return of the Living Dead,"

directed by Dan O'Bannon,

was ridiculous in its heavy-handedness

and political message evoking the dangers

of military cover-ups.

It also introduces brain-eating zombies for the first time.


-Also in the mid-'80s,

the zombie representation

nods back to early Hollywood

by, once again, vilifying voodoo and Haitian zombies.

Horror film legend Wes Craven directed a narrative film

based on Wade Davis' book.

Once again, Vodou was misrepresented

as the stuff of horror.

-It's a return

to the more kind of Seabrook-esque representations.

-Why do you think that return happens?

-It's the '80s. Right?

So there's an important sort of sociopolitical context

in the ways in which we also talk about Black people

in the 1980s.

This is the era of Reaganomics

and headlines obsessive about, you know, welfare mothers

and all of this stuff --

you know, "crisis in the Black family,"

"crisis in Black America."

"Serpent and the Rainbow" does a lot of harm

but is very popular.

-Unfortunately, "The serpent and the Rainbow" is an example

of how allyship can go south and how it has limitations.

So what he ended up withwas kind of a white savior story

where all of the -- a lot of the Black characters

were either monstrous

or, you know, sort of sexual conquest

and the other ones were just simply faces and props.

So it looks like a Black story, but it's not a Black story.

It just is a story that has a lot of Black faces in it.

And the depiction of Vodou is so off

that, really, if you --

if this was your first sort of exposure to this faith,

you wouldn't understand why anyone would be a practitioner.

-"The Serpent and the Rainbow" got a lot wrong with Vodou

and exploited the religion to fit its narrative.

And the American culture again

unfairly debased the Vodou religion

during the AIDS epidemic,

which was falsely claimed to have originated in Haiti.

In reality, North Americans brought AIDS to Haiti.

A 1986 article appearing

in the Journal of the American Medical Association

questioned if necromantic zombie-ists

transmitted AIDS during voodooistic rituals.

The article's title?

"The Night of the Living Dead II."

These claims were unfounded and speak to an obvious racism

and misunderstanding of the real Vodou religion.

While the AIDS epidemic raged on,

the 1990s introduced even more new fears into our world --

terrorism, genetic engineering,chemical and biological weapons.

So how did those anxieties change the zombie model?

In 1996, the third-person perspective shooter,

zombie apocalypse survival game "Resident Evil" was released.

The unprecedented, critical, and financial success of the game

gave a name to a developing genre --

survival horror.

It also introduced a new trait --

Their zombies moved fast.

[ Man screaming ]

While the weaponization of lethal illness

became a new reality,

it was the rise of natural pandemics,

such as SARS and the H1N1 influenza pandemic,

that revealed how quickly and easily

a disease could spread throughout the world.

Increased global popularity of the zombie movie,

particularly in the first decade of the 21st century,

offered up a recognizable figure

upon which to impose this anxiety --

the pandemic zombie.

One of the first films to establish this pandemic zombie

was "Resident Evil,"

a spin-off of the video game series.

In this zombie narrative,

the deadly corporate-made tyrant virus,

designed under the guise of genetic research,

is released into the population.

The same year, "28 Days Later" showed the pandemic zombie

in all its bloody glory.

And the film introduced a next generation

of pandemic monsters --

the fast-moving, decay-free zombie.

The popularity of the film

led many to associate this pandemic zombie model

with the title "rage zombie,"

named after the virus in the movie.

Scientific intervention

and misjudgment giving rise to zombie plagues

became a common narrative in early 21st-century films.

While the pandemic zombie dominated the early 2000s,

the decade also produced some of the first

overtly comedic zombies in film.

-The least of our problems.

-"Shaun of the Dead" turned the zombie genre on its head,

using satire to emphasize

how mindless our daily lives have become.

The protagonist doesn't even realize an apocalypse started

because his life is so mundane and repetitive.

It's remarkable to me that zombies evolved

out of the fears of enslaved people

only to become a satirization of our mundane, modern lives.

But the zombie, as a metaphor,

still underlines existing tensions in society,

from class relations to race,

interpersonal relationships

to opinions on government institutions.

And "The Walking Dead" comic series does this brilliantly.

First released in 2003

before becoming a television series in 2010,

the zombie plague is the gory background

for the real threat -- the living human survivors.

-We are the walking dead.


-It seems that we have transitioned again

to emphasize the fear of humanity.

We fear less the science weaponized against us

in "Resident Evil" and "28 Days Later."

Instead, we turn toward scienceto give us hope for our survival

against an increasingly multiplying threat.

And I mean that quite literally.

A trend in more recent pandemic zombie narratives

is the sheer volume of zombies plaguing Earth.

I call this type of zombie the hive zombie

after the insect species

these animalistic swarming hordes mimic.

The utterly chaotic scenes in "World War Z"

make me anxious.

While the zombies in Max Brooks' original book were slow-moving,

reminiscent of Romero's zombies,

onscreen, they are very, very fast and strong,

and there are millions of them.

-Zombies are completely different.

They're everywhere, they're everyone.

And they're not going to kill you as much as absorb you,

and you're gonna become one of them.

It's a totally different kind of fear.

-The zombie is the one monster that makes me the most uneasy

and causes my hair to stand on end.

I think it's all too easy to imagine

that humans might be one illness,

strange parasite, or unlucky accident

away from this fate.

-I think the most frightening thing

about contemporary zombies,

the "chase you and eat you" variety of zombies,

is that they look like our loved ones

and they were our loved ones until just an instant earlier.

It's like they close their eyes and they wake up wanting to kill you.

And that idea of loved ones, friends and family,

wanting to hurt you, wanting to kill you is very terrifying.

-Anyone can become a zombie, so we see ourselves,

our loved ones, our entire communities

reflected in the images of those walking corpses,

because death is the greatest unknown,

and it is, perhaps, an innate horror,

this idea that, after death, we might not be able to rest

in body or spirit.

The undead aren't scary because they are deceased

but because they are restless, ceaseless, and insatiable.

The zombies of today have, in some ways, brought us back

to the Romero zombies of the 1960s.

These new zombie narratives are more narrowly focused

on race and class.

-I just feel like this myth is speaking to us

on a different level, because, for me,

the zombie is proof that we're still haunted by slavery.

And I think nothing, you know, has made that as clear

as what's going on in the last six months in our country.

I mean, we are not past slavery.

And so, I think that the zombie,

when people get educated about it and know,

"Oh, wow, this is a myth that's deeply about slavery

and resistance to slavery,

and it probably has its ancestors in Africa

and it's only here because of slavery,"

I think that allows them to see one of the ways

that American culture is just completely shot through

with our experience of slavery

and not reconciling with it.

Jordan Peele's 2017 "Get Out"

made us sit up and listen more closely

to that unresolved reconciliation,

moving slavery and race overtly into the genre again.

"Get Out" isn't a prototypical zombie film,

but I see parallels

between the imprisonment of its Black characters

and the stolen souls of the Haitian zombie.

-The Armitages are so good to us.

They treat us like family.

-For me, the inherent impetus of the zombie

is a fear of being enslaved even after death

and of your soul not being your own. -Yeah.

-And I think that's what we see in "Get Out." -Yes.

-So going back to "White Zombie" and with voodoo movies,

you have the white master, or even just a master,

controlling Black souls in their own bodies. -Yeah. Right.

-So Haitian Vodou, there's the idea

that the ti bon ange, the part of the soul,

would be housed in a bottle.

So I read "Get Out" as the Black body has become the bottle,

where you have two souls trapped inside,

where the master is the one who controls it.

-I think this is brilliant.

I love this reading of "Get Out."

I don't think that this is a far-fetched theory at all,

because Peele sets this up

and gestures towards these histories.

There's an auction block, right?

They're literally bidding on Black bodies, Black souls.

-"Get Out" was a groundbreaking horror film, period,

a critical and box-office success

nominated for four Academy Awards.

Jordan Peele became the first Black winner

for Best Original Screenplay.

-That was really a wake-up call to Hollywood,

that this Black horror phenomenon

is actually real and has staying power.

And there is power in looking to

that third rail in American history

that we've always been so afraid to talk about,

which is this was a nation

that was built on the backs of slave labor

and stolen from Native Americans.

And that is a very violent history.

-Political context matters.

And so, what we see is a country

who is really struggling with where we are regarding race,

where we are regarding incarceration.

It really sets us up and signals that we're just about to have

this global Black Lives Matter movement,

and it helps everyone sort of understand how we get here.

So it's both prescientof the moment that we're in now,

but it also speaks to Ben.

So what Jordan Peele says is there was that reality

that we saw in "Night of the Living Dead,"

where Ben is essentially lynched.

But there will be no lynching today.

We've seen so much of that, and, for once,

we need a reprieve.

And sometimes -- sometimes the Black guy

gets to be the final girl.

And that -- that is what made "Get Out" so remarkable.

And it's a really smart horror film.

-Current fears of racism,

bioterrorism, overpopulation, pandemics,

anything that causes major shifts in the way we live

will inevitably continue

to influence the story of the zombie.

-I think now zombie storytelling is probably going to lean more

into what those subtexts are,

what zombies mean in terms of relationships,

what zombies mean in terms of community,

what zombies mean in terms of these fears,

these societal fears of change we're talking about.

I think those are the zombie projects in the future

that will thrive.

-Zombies are sort of the unkept promise

or the unpunished crime of the past mistakes that we ignore,

and they just grow and grow

in the way that the truth denied will kind of grow

and swell up like a pustule,

and eventually, it's going to get you.

Like, you can't ignore forever.

It may take all night,

in the sense of "Night of the Living Dead,"

or it may take all year,

in the sense of "Dawn of the Dead,"

or it might take decades.

But the truth is coming for you, the zombies are coming for you,

and you can't dodge them forever.

-The zombie grew from one of our deepest fears,

having your personal autonomy taken away,

a brutal reality experienced by millions of enslaved people.

Today, the undead body remains a blank slate

reflecting many fears, whatever they are.

The zombie endures

because it adapts and mirrors our changing fears.


Zombie history is our history.



-This program is available on Amazon Prime video.




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