Saturday, February 4, 2012

Zombie Jamboree


Unraveling the Undead
Our obsession with zombies, from the Congo to Hollywood
Like humans, zombies came out of Africa.
There they led rich lives being worshipped as
Congolese snake gods (nzambi). The ability
of certain snakes to use poison to paralyze
their prey was ritualistically imitated by tribal priests,
who then proclaimed themselves able to resurrect the
dead as well. In such vodoun or Obeah cults, the term
nzambi migrated in meaning to “spirits of the dead.”
Transported to the Americas, vodoun took root in
Caribbean slave culture, mating with indigenous religions
to spawn zombies, zumbies, jumbies, and duppies
and spreading northward to the continent. By the
17th century vodoun was strong enough to trigger
the Salem witch hysteria of 1692. Tituba, a Carib Indian
slave bought by Samuel Parris in Barbados and
brought to Salem, filled her young mistresses’ heads
with vodoun notions like invocation of the devil,
possession, trances, animal familiars, and the sticking
of pins into “poppetts” (dolls) made to resemble
enemies. The girls’ psyches broke down, alternating
between hysterics and catatonia. Tituba was among
the first arrested and was the first to confess, in lurid
detail—yet she survived while 24 others did not.
In this case the ancient European belief in witches,
lingering just below the surface of 17th-century Protestantism,
reacted violently when brought into contact
with the live coal of African sympathetic magic.
Although Arthur Miller would have us believe (in
“The Crucible”) that the fault lay entirely with the uptight,
theocratic “parochial snobbery” of the Massachusetts
Bay colonists—frustrated folk keen to punish
and avenge—in Salem, at least, culture shock played
a major role.
Richard Hughes’s novel A High Wind in Jamaica
(1929), set in the 19th century, opens with a British
colonial family so spooked by vodoun influence that
the mother insists the children be shipped back to
England for their souls’ salvation. “Duppies cannot
be mistaken for living people,” she discovers that her
children have been instructed, “because their heads
are turned backwards on their shoulders, and they
carry a chain: moreover one must never call them
duppies to their faces, as it gives them power.”
The popular cult of the zombie began shambling
forth in the 1920s, when Jazz Age hipsters turned their
fevered attentions to the West Indies. These slumming
lords and ladies thrilled to scenes of forbidden Obeah
rituals and inspired Hollywood to get into the act. In
1932 the first “voodoo” film, shot in 11 days on a budget
of $50,000, was titled “White Zombie”—once the
zombification of white people occurs, of course, attention
must be paid! Bela Lugosi plays a ghoulish character
who commands an army of the living dead forced to
“work in the sugar mills and the fields at night.”
The Zombie cocktail debuted in 1934 at Don the
Beachcomber’s, an L.A. watering spot, after a customer
reported that he “felt like a zombie” after swilling Don’s
mix of dark, golden, and white rum, cherry brandy,
orange or papaya or pineapple juice, lemon juice, and
grenadine on the rocks. Esquire called the Zombie the
“mother of all freak drinks,” and so it remains, listed on
menus with the campy caution “Limit Two.”
In 1956 my parents vacationed in Jamaica and
brought back maracas and a delightful 78: “Back to
back, belly to belly/ I don’t care a damn, I done dead
a’ready/ Back to back, belly to belly/ It’s a jumbie jamboree
…” The artist listed was The Charmer, backed
by Johnny McCleverty and the Calypso Boys. “The
[Mighty] Charmer” was the stage name of Louis Farrakhan,
ne Louis Eugene Walcott, whose mother had emigrated
from St. Kitts to New York City. The song was
first performed in 1953 by Lord Intruder; its “jumbies”
danced in a Trinidad cemetery, but The Charmer’s 1954
version moved the action to Woodlawn Cemetery in
Brooklyn. The Kingston Trio and Harry Belafonte were
among those to cover the tune.
Meanwhile zombies continued their advance as cultural
icon primarily onscreen. No count can be made
of these B- and C- and Z-rated movies—“Zombieland,”
“Kung Fu Zombie,” “Zombie High,” “Zombie Strippers,”
“Zombie Honeymoon,” “Zombie Campout,”
“Zombie Beach Party,” “I, Zombie,” “I Was a Teenage
Zombie,” “I Was a Zombie for the FBI,” “Zombie Holocaust,”
“Zombie Women of Satan,” “Space Zombie
Bingo,” “Redneck Zombies,” “Fast Zombies with Guns,”
“Motocross Zombies from Hell,” “Hot Wax Zombies
on Wheels”—just a splattering of those with the z-word
in the title, which excludes the George Romero, “Evil
Dead,” and “Resident Evil” film franchises, not to mention
AMC’s hit TV series based on Robert Kirkman’s
graphic novel The Walking Dead. There is even a genre
of Nazi-zombie films such as “Zombie Lake,” “Oasis of
the Zombies,” and “Dead Snow.”
From the ’30s and ’40s we have “King of the Zombies,”
“Revolt of the Zombies,” and “I Walked with a
Zombie,” all now considered classics by whoever deems
zombie movies to be classics. But “Valley of the Zombies”
in 1946 may have introduced an innovation: zombie
bloodlust. “Will science triumph against the evil
thirst of the undead?” shrilled the promo.
The original image of the zombie was a biddable,
entranced robotic worker, raised from the grave to labor
without complaint or compensation. Like its more
murderous brethren the Mummy, or the Somnambulist
from “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” this horror tapped
into two of humanity’s deep and historically justified
fears, of being enslaved and of premature burial. The
image of zombies as flesh-eating ghouls—the original
Arabian ghul partook only of the dead—had yet to be
established. But somewhere along the evolutionary line
there appeared a hybrid creature, both cannibal and
undead, bastard offspring of a duppy and a vampire,
with an inborn taste not just blood but human flesh.
(As another forebear, Frankenstein must receive honorable
mention for its versatile monster, at once Golem,
botched abortion, problem child, sin against the Creator,
science project run amok, and renegade zombie.)
If there is anything people fear more than death and
the dead, it is being eaten, especially eaten alive. Eat or
be eaten is the law of nature, and deep down we have
not forgotten. As many have observed, the horror of
“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956) was not of being
eaten but of the individual being replaced by a soulless,
mass, robotic sameness – the horror of egalitarianism
taken to extremes. The modern zombie apocalypse
goes beyond the terror of conformity to the terror
of consumption. It is a brilliant fusion of two skincrawling
horrors, corpses and being devoured, with
a third—being hunted by your own flesh and blood,
your neighbors and fellow countrymen in
invincible multitudes.
Director George Romero, the godfather of cinematic
zombies, wrote the current narrative with “Night of
the Living Dead,” shot for peanuts in the Pennsylvania
countryside and released in 1968. The elements of the
contemporary zombie are all present: (1) Radiation
bursts from outer space have reanimated the brains of
the unburied dead, (2) making them ravenous for living
human flesh, and (3) stoppable only by a round to
the brain. (4) Their bite infects and zombifies the bitten,
and (5) they are on the move, in revolt as it were—conquering
the world of the living one victim at a time.
Since ’68 the zombie apocalypse storyline has exploded
in all directions. There now exist schools of
zombiology: fast vs. slow zombies, extraterrestrial radiation
vs. earth-borne virus as the etiology of zombification,
all-flesh diet vs. brains only—there is even a lively
debate over whether zombies have souls. Social satire
using the zombie trope began with Romero’s “Dawn of
the Dead” in 1978 and extends from Britain’s “Shaun of
the Dead” to Cuba’s very first entry, “Juan of the Dead.”
The most fun is to be had when the topic is taken
(semi-)seriously. In 2011 the Centers for Disease Control
viewed the zombie apocalypse as a way to teach
pandemic emergency preparedness: “You may laugh
now, but when it happens you’ll be happy you read
this…” Survivalists are overjoyed to welcome fans to
their world of “41 Crucial Items You Cannot Survive
Without When the Fight for Food Begins.” Sites like and paint
a picture of “violent mobs” of “savage beasts” “battling
to the death over a loaf of bread.” Cognitive
neuroscientists have likewise seized the opportunity
to parlay interest in “brains” into interest in their profession—
they playfully posit a Consciousness Deficit
Hypoactivity Disorder to explain zomboid behavior.
The zanily earnest Zombie Research Society (“What
you don’t know can eat you”) dedicates itself to minute
examination of everything from “Zombie Decay
Theory” to “Zombie Hunting Behavior.” And so on.
But do zombies have a basis in fact? Reports of
Haitians buried in a cataleptic states and later revived
for enslavement—for example, the 1980 case
of Clairvius Narcisse—have been credible enough
to prompt several scientific investigations. One of
the best known is that of Wade Davis, a Harvard
ethnobotanist who wrote The Serpent and the Rainbow
in 1985. His quest for zombinol, the “zombie
poison” he hoped might have applications for anesthesia
and prolonged space travel, was actually
successful in isolating several toxins with the property
to yield the results Friar Laurence described in
Romeo and Juliet:
When presently through all thy veins shall run
A cold and drowsy humour; for no pulse
Shall keep his native progress, but surcease;
No warmth, no breath, shall testify thou liv’st;
The roses in thy lips and cheeks shall fade
To paly ashes, thy eyes’ windows fall
Like death when he shuts up the day of life;
Each part, depriv’d of supple government,
Shall, stiff and stark and cold, appear like death;
And in this borrowed likeness of shrunk death
Thou shalt continue two-and-forty hours,
And then awake as from a pleasant sleep.
Most rich and strange of all zombie references,
though, is this from the website
[The] trance-producing potion might seem to be
a creation of the imagination, if it were not for
the fact that many observers of Haiti from early
colonial times down to the early 20th Century
had vouched for the evidences of its use. Such a
poison was necessary to the cannibalistic Voodoo
devotees of slavery days, because slaves, as
valuable chattels, were carefully enumerated. The
chosen victim, usually a child, was dosed with
the poison that brought on a condition simulating
death. The master, satisfied that he had lost
one of his human animals by natural causes,
ordered the burial. Afterwards, the victim was
resuscitated for the sacrifice, since the Voodoo
rites require a living, conscious offering. …
The formula of the poison was obtained at four
widely separated localities in Haiti. The consistent
ingredients included one or more species of
puffer fish (Diodon hystrix, Diodon holacanthus
or Sphoeroides testudineus) which contain tetrodotoxins,
potent neurotoxins fully capable of
pharmacologically inducing the zombi state.
Why requires a report like
this… maybe we don’t want to know. At any rate, let’s
conclude with a look at what the zombie meme symbolizes
The central horror of the zombie-apocalypse narrative
is that zombies resemble and are your own recently
departed near and dear. That ambivalence has
been present all along, but more and more today the
moral status of the zombie is being probed. If carnivorous
animals can’t be accused of murder when they
kill to eat, why should zombies be, cursed as they
are with the need to cannibalize? Can zombies be
tamed, trained, rehabilitated, even cured? Can they
be taught to eat chicken, or vegetables? The cannibal
history of mankind is revisited here to a disquieting
Some have explained the zombie-apocalypse phenomenon
as fear of alien invasion or global plague or
even plain old urban anomie. But Max Brooks, author
of World War Z, notes that humans have always had
good reason to fear the horde: huge, human, and hideously
hungry. Right now this horde is our fellow man
in the form of millions faced with starvation in the developing
world. In the age of mass transportation and
communications, they are no longer content to sit and
wait for death. “They” are coming. The real-world images
are haunting: gaunt figures wearing ragged clothing,
disheveled, scrambling over fences and clawing
through tunnels, lurking in the darkness waiting for
a break…
There is never just one meaning to a symbol as
rich as the zombie. People have feared many things
in many different guises over the centuries, but some
fears are eternal and universal. Fear of the dead’s resentment—
survivor guilt—is one enduring terror.
Zombies as Morlocks, have-nots overflowing into
the realms of plenty, tap into our sense that we may
not be able to hold onto our post-industrial advantages
much longer. Is there a remedy for the zombie
apocalypse other than a bullet to the brain? There
had better be. But the narrative so far has failed to
imagine one.

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