In the original script for 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, the director George A. Romero refers to his flesh-eating antagonists as “ghouls.” Although the film is widely credited with launching zombies into the cultural zeitgeist, it wasn’t until its follow-up 10 years later, the consumerist nightmare Dawn of the Dead, that Romero would actually use the term. While making the first film, Romero understood zombies instead to be the undead Haitian slaves depicted in the 1932 Bela Lugosi horror film White Zombie.
By the time Dawn of the Dead was released in 1978 the cultural tide had shifted completely, and Romero had essentially reinvented the zombie for American audiences. The last 15 years have seen films and TV shows including Shaun of the Dead, 28 Days Later, World War Z, Zombieland, Life After Beth, iZombie, and even the upcoming Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
But the zombie myth is far older and more rooted in history than the blinkered arc of American pop culture suggests. It first appeared in Haiti in the 17th and 18th centuries, when the country was known as Saint-Domingue and ruled by France, which hauled in African slaves to work on sugar plantations. Slavery in Saint-Domingue under the French was extremely brutal: Half of the slaves brought in from Africa were worked to death within a few years, which only led to the capture and import of more. In the hundreds of years since, the zombie myth has been widely appropriated by American pop culture in a way that whitewashes its origins—and turns the undead into a platform for escapist fantasy.
The original brains-eating fiend was a slave not to the flesh of others but to his own. The zombie archetype, as it appeared in Haiti and mirrored the inhumanity that existed there from 1625 to around 1800, was a projection of the African slaves’ relentless misery and subjugation. Haitian slaves believed that dying would release them back to lan guinée, literally Guinea, or Africa in general, a kind of afterlife where they could be free. Though suicide was common among slaves, those who took their own lives wouldn’t be allowed to return to lan guinée. Instead, they’d be condemned to skulk the Hispaniola plantations for eternity, an undead slave at once denied their own bodies and yet trapped inside them—a soulless zombie.
After the Haitian Revolution in 1804 and the end of French colonialism, the zombie became a part of Haiti’s folklore. The myth evolved slightly and was folded into the Voodoo religion, with Haitians believing zombies were corpses reanimated by shamans and voodoo priests. Sorcerers, known as bokor, used their bewitched undead as free labor or to carry out nefarious tasks. This was the post-colonialism zombie, the emblem of a nation haunted by the legacy of slavery and ever wary of its reinstitution. As the UC Irvine professor Amy Wilentz has pointed out in her writing on zombies, on several occasions after the revolution Haiti teetered on the brink of reinstating slavery. The zombies of the Haitian Voodoo religion were a more fractured representation of the anxieties of slavery, mixed as they were with occult trappings of sorcerers and necromancy. Even then, the zombie’s roots in the horrors of slavery were already facing dilution.
It was in this form—Voodoo bokor and black magic—that the Haitian myth first crossed paths with American culture, in the aforementioned White Zombie. Although the film doesn’t begin to transform the undead in the way that Romero’s films and the subsequent zombie industrial complex would, it’s notable for its introduction of white people as interlopers in the zombie legend. It would take another few decades or so, but eventually the memory of Haiti’s colonialist history and the suffering it wrought—millions of Africans worked into the grave—would be excised from the zombie myth for good.
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In 2011, The Atlantic’s James Parker exhaustively listed all the ways zombies have infiltrated pop-culture consciousness, but he singled out AMC’s hit The Walking Dead for its “triumphant return to zombie orthodoxy” amid a sea of reimaginings. The show’s sixth-season premiere had around 20 million viewers, and its spinoff, Fear the Walking Dead, debuted in August to record ratings. The Walking Dead is more or less the zenith of the heretofore inexhaustible zombie craze, a cultural supernova that’s infiltrated everything from comics and video games to literary history and the CDC itself, which has dedicated part of its website to “zombie preparedness.” The zombie is no longer a commentary on consumerist culture, as it was in the comparatively halcyon days of Dawn of the Dead; it has consumed consumerist culture.
For a brief period, the living dead served as a handy Rorschach test for America’s social ills. At various times, they represented capitalism, the Vietnam War, nuclear fear, even the tension surrounding the civil-rights movement. Today zombies are almost always linked with the end of the world via the “zombie apocalypse,” a global pandemic that turns most of the human population into beasts ravenous for the flesh of their own kind. But there’s no longer any clear metaphor. While America may still suffer major social ills—economic inequality, policy brutality, systemic racism, mass murder—zombies have been absorbed as entertainment that’s completely independent from these dilemmas.
Which is a shame, because the zombie is such a potent symbol. For example, there’s a clear connection between the zombie of slave-driven Saint-Domingue and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent exploration of black disembodiment—the body under constant threat of capture, imprisonment, and murder. For Haitian slaves, the invention of the zombie was proof that the abuse they suffered was in a way more powerful than life itself—they had imagined a scenario in which they continued to be slaves even after death. In Between the World and Me, observing a young boy in front of a 7-Eleven, Coates writes, “This was a war for the possession of his body and that would be the war of his whole life.” The same declaration could be transported 1400 miles and 300 years and still hold true.
Instead American pop culture has used the zombie, fraught as it is with history, as a form of escapism, rather than a vehicle to explore its own past or current fears. Writing for GreenCine, Liz Cole is onto something when she says that, whatever their allegorical shadow, zombies are perhaps “indulging our post-apocalyptic fantasies” above all. Elmo Keep notes in The Awl how pop culture tends to romanticize depictions of the end of the world: In these situations, “Petty frustrations and mundane realities of real life all disappear, as do the complexities.” And so the zombie apocalypse isn’t an outlet for fears but for fantasies, functioning as an escape hatch into a world with higher dramatic stakes, fewer people, and the chance to reinvent oneself, for better or worse.
Zombies, in their American incarnation, strip earth back down to its essential parts: mankind, nature, survival. Think of The Walking Dead’s Georgia, a desolate but oddly idyllic expanse of camps, fields, abandoned motels, and forest clearings. In this way, post-apocalyptic zombie scenarios are as much utopian as they are dystopian. The landscape is cleared of industrial plants, oil derricks, real estate developments, traffic jams, construction sites, and urban blight.
With just a handful of survivors set against a stark landscape of browns and greens, every person’s decisions take on an outsize importance, often a life-or-death meaning. As the former Stanford doctoral student Angela Vidergar told Live Science in 2013, “The ethical decisions that the survivors have to make under duress and the actions that follow those choices are very unlike anything they would have done in their normal life.” The importance of the lives of characters on The Walking Dead is implicit, because theirs is the only story left to tell. And that, of course, is the key to their fantasist power: Who wouldn’t want to escape into characters leading lives of infallible significance, with their survival and the endurance of the human race perpetually at stake?
Hence a bitter irony between the Haitian zombie and its American counterpart. The monster once represented the real-life horrors of dehumanization; now it’s used as a way to fantasize about human beings whose every decision is exalted. While it’s difficult to begrudge the storytelling logic of wiping out the many to restore meaning and importance to the few, it’s still worth acknowledging the bleak asymmetry of the zombie then and the zombie now. The original emerged in a context where humans were denied control of their own bodies and sought death as an escape. And now in pop culture, the zombie has come to serve as the primary symbol of escapism itself—where the fictional enslavement of some provides a perverse kind of freedom for everyone else.