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A history of zombies in America

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The early success of AMC series Walking Dead confirms it: Though zombies have been hot for a while, they are now officially the new vampires. Why do Americans love zombies, and what does it say about us?



Though some of the greatest zombie stories in recent memory have come out of the UK, namely 28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead, the modern zombie seems to have risen in America. Since the early days of pulp fiction, Americans have been scribbling about zombies; and this country also spawned some of the world's most recognizable zombie imagery in movies like Night of the Living Dead, the book World War Z, and now the TV series (based on an American comic book) The Walking Dead.

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Image via Zombies and Toys

It was even in the United States that the first zombie walks started, public events where dozens or even hundreds of people dress and zombies and shamble slowly through city centers. These zombie walks quickly spread to Canada and beyond, but the fact remains: People in America really like to pretend that they're dead, rotting husks of human beings who eat each other. Now why would we want to do a thing like that?

Zombies and slavery

In America, the legends of zombies grew out of the cultures created by African slavery and colonialism in the Caribbean. Folklore experts have traced the idea of the zombi back to Vodoun practices in Haiti, where tales have long been told of people brought back from the dead as shambling shadows of themselves. Sometimes these zombis are under the control of a master, and sometimes they simply wander mindlessly.


So when did the flesh-eating, Americanized "zombie" emerge into pop culture, out of African-Caribbean myths circulated during slavery? Probably in the early 1920s, when sensationalistic accounts of "Voodoo" from white tourists in Haiti began to percolate into pulp fiction by authors like H.P. Lovecraft. And then came the turning point: In 1932, Bela Lugosi starred in White Zombie, about an evil white colonialist in Haiti whose sugar mills are run entirely by zombies. Here's an amazing sequence from the film, where we meet the protagonist, a plantation owner in Haiti, who is in love with another man's fiancee. He seeks out Lugosi at the sugar mill to get some zombie serum so he can zombie up his beloved and marry her:

This was the first cinematic zombie moment in America. Not only are these shambling zombies pretty instantly recognizable, they are also entirely connected with imagery of slave labor and African-Caribbean culture. Zombies are black slaves. In fact, the movie was called White Zombie to highlight the unusual connection between white people and zombie culture in the film.


In the incredible 1940s film I Walked With A Zombie, which shares a lot of plot points with White Zombie (including the "let's turn this white chick into a zombie so she'll marry me" subplot), we see more blatant connections made between zombies and slaves. Here, a nurse has arrived on the island of St. Sebastian to care for the zombified wife of a plantation owner. She goes out for a drink with the man's brother, and overhears a calypso singer (played by an actual calypso superstar of the era, Sir Lancelot, from Trinidad) singing about the cursed family she's working for.

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There are a number of other zombie-related films like these released in the mid-twentieth century - from Revolt of the Zombies to King of the Zombies - where the zombies are firmly rooted in the slave cultures where they began. Starting in the 1960s with George Romero's revolutionary Night of the Living Dead, all that changed. In that movie, a black protagonist has to deal with hordes of white zombies. Though stories about the undead continued to change over the next half-century, their roots remained planted firmly in stories about slavery and race relations.

时间:2011-03-08 编辑:beck
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After the rise of the Romero zombie, our undead alter-egos became much more focused on consumption. I mean that literally, in the "eat brains" sense, but also metaphorically too. Dawn of the Dead, arguably the greatest zombie film of the 1970s, takes place in a shopping mall for a reason. As one of the characters remarks, the confused dead come back to places they knew in life. But they are also hungry to consume. First, they want to eat your flesh. Second, they want to buy sports equipment.


The unquenchable appetites of the zombie is now a fixture of pretty much every zombie story you'll see. These appetites come with another relatively recent twist in the zombie story, which is the idea that zombie-ism spreads like a disease. Undead slaves in White Zombie were made with a potion, while today's zombies are self-replicating. They can turn you into one of them with one juicy chomp.

From the disease model of zombies comes the inevitable zombie horde, and from that the apocalypse model of zombies which you see in World War Z, The Walking Dead and Zombieland. Indeed, zombies have become so commonly associated with extinction-level plagues that a Harvard Medical School doctor has just published a book called The Zombie Autopsies, which is intended to be a fun way of introducing novices to the basics of real-life epidemiology and forensic science.

Illustration for article titled A history of zombies in America

One of the most common images we associate with zombies today is the urban horde of hungry, diseased monsters roaming a post-apocalyptic landscape. It's a fantastical vision of the human future: In a world without health care, with inadequate food, we turn into mindless animals willing to kill anyone to survive. That's why apocalypse movies and zombie movies are so stylistically similar these days. I Am Legend and The Road looked and felt like zombie flicks. The undead have moved from the realm of gothic horror to science fiction.


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Like the earliest of zombie movies, The Walking Dead is at many points explicitly about race relations in America. The group of surviving humans is seething with racial tension, which occasionally breaks out into deadly violence. Other zombie stories, like World War Z, are direct references to the history of class warfare in America. Max Brooks explicitly based his novel on the work of Studs Terkel, whose oral histories of the Great Depression and World War II exposed commonalities between people from all walks of life - but revealed also their shared experiences of racial and class conflicts.


Of course no fantasy icon as popular as the zombie can ever be boiled down neatly into an allegory about any single issue. Race and class conflicts are one part of zombie tales, as are fears about famine, disease and war. A few years ago, “Through the second half of the 20th century we had this big dispersion of trade and economic activity around the world. All this specialisation meant exports rose faster than GDP,” Mr Williams says., trying to discern a pattern. What we found was quite remarkable: Periods of social unrest and war were almost always followed by big spikes in zombie movie production.

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D'Aloisio himself strives to maintain a bubble of normalcy. He dates the same girl he did before the whirlwind hit. And though he's stopped attending school-he's too busy to sit in class while overseeing Summly's development-he still gets his work from his teachers and meets with them regularly. He cherishes the fact that his circle of friends knows little of his life as a budding industrialist. When I met him, he was about to head to Greece for a weeklong vacation with a pack of high school pals.
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