Zombies on Film: The Early Days of the Undead

Is there another horror genre which, over the years, has evolved and mutated as dramatically as the zombie movie? Compare 1932’s pre-code White Zombie, directed by Victor Halperin and starring Bela Lugosi, to the recent apocalyptic blockbuster World War Z, and it is both fascinating and bizarre that the two movies are of the same breed. Despite both featuring a white, American hero endeavouring to save a person/people from zombification, the films are at opposite ends of the undead spectrum. White Zombie is, outwardly, private, being about the acute struggles of a husband to free his wife from the clutches of a Voodoo sorcerer, whereas World War Z is more far-reaching in its ambitions (the clue is in the title). Where one is domestic, and deals in deeply rooted racial and sexual tensions, the other is apocalyptic, dealing in mass paranoia and catastrophe.

Zombie Comparison
Above: Bela Lugosi and Robert Frazer observe a zombified Madge Bellamy in White Zombie (1932); the zombie horde in World War Z (2013)

Perhaps the reason that two films plucked from a single genre can be so wildly different, narratively and stylistically, is that the zombie film has always had a B-movie status, which in turn has allowed for a continual shift in focus and tone throughout the decades. With no distinct Western literary history, the zombie is a drifter, wandering endlessly through film without a concrete heritage. Even when traced back to Haiti and the crude stories that were carried over from the island to America by writers such as William Seabrook, it becomes clear that the living dead are cinematic monsters born out of anxieties towards the unknowable and unexplainable “foreign”, and therefore doomed to occupy the space between fact and fiction. Nameless, faceless, and directionless, the undead on screen are far from the regal monsters of Universal Studios (no respected actor ever plays a zombie; they play the character killing them or controlling them). And yet, it is this anonymity which grants these rotting revenants such power. Lumbering without personality, they become blank canvases on which to project a varying number of preoccupations. Relatable, either singularly or en masse, to themes of gender and female autonomy, the dissolving of the family unit, spirituality and religion, relentless war and violence, and new technology and scientific advancement, the zombie is a meaty, bloody vessel for social and political anxieties.

From the Voodoo of films such as White Zombie (1932) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943), to the game changing “Dead” series from George A. Romero, to the video game based Resident Evil films, the living dead have been twisted every which way to suit the current cultural climate. In the 30s and 40s, following the publication of Seabrook’s book The Magic Island (1929), race and gender were at the forefront of the zombie movie. Western audiences were fed an endless run of cheaply made, “exotic” stories set on various islands in the Caribbean, which often centered on suspicious-looking, European men manipulating Haitian “black magic” for selfish means. In White Zombie, for example, Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi) is called upon by plantation owner Charles Beaumont to cast a Voodoo spell over the woman of his dreams, Madeline, in order that he may steal her from her husband. And in 1941’s King of the Zombies, Austrian scientist Dr. Sangre is discovered using Voodoo to gain information from an American admiral. As with Madeline’s character, white women often found themselves the victims of zombification, transformed in to mute figures of beauty, and black characters were used either for laughs (see: Willie Best in The Ghost Breakers [1940], and Mantan Moreland in The King of the Zombies), or to deliver wooden one-liner “warnings” to unassuming, white Americans. There existed a glaringly obvious paranoia surrounding anything considered “foreign”, which resulted in stories occupied solely with the containing and subduing of any unfamiliar or “sinister” presence. Western writers took their time to explain away Voodoo with scientific jargon, and the American always saved the day by destroying the European threat. The zombie in the years of the Great Depression leading up to the Second World War often stood as the consequence of foreign manipulation, and was a fitting monster, cold and detached, for those who had lost their jobs and livelihoods in the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

Zombie Comparison 2
Above: Mantan Moreland as Jeff in King of the Zombies (1941); Belu Lugosi (on the right) as Murder Legendre in White Zombie (1932)

Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943) made a refreshing change from the string of stagnant stories which had come before it. Mocking the desperate search for knowledge and control in the face of the unknown that had come to characterize the early zombie movie, this RKO picture from producer Val Lewton eschewed the safety of science and reason, and replaced it with confusion. The story follows Betsy Connell, a nurse who arrives on an island in the West Indies in order to care for Jessica, the ailing wife of plantation owner Paul Holland. Upon her arrival, she senses that something is amiss, and begins to suspect that Jessica is the victim of some sort of Voodoo curse. This is never proven, however, and the film spends its time flitting between various narrative threads which never tie up, all the while undermining a prioritizing of scientific explanation. No answers are provided here; the film ends with Jessica dead, and the perpetrator of a suspected crime never revealed. The audience is left baffled, wondering, along with Betsy, whether Jessica was ever a “zombie” to begin with. Not only does this film center on the conflict between reason and fancy that results from attempting to rationalize the unknown, it also proves that such a conflict is a pointless one. I Walked with a Zombie should have signaled the end of ignorant tales of appropriated Voodoo, but unfortunately, it wasn’t until 1968, with Romero’s ground-breaking Night of the Living Dead, that the monster was to be given an entirely new lease of life.

In the meantime, the few 50s zombie films that were being made had begun to stray from Voodoo in order to focus on alien invasion narratives born out of Cold War fears. Films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) (not technically a zombie movie), and Invisible Invaders (1959), played up to fears of Communist invasion and brainwashing through their presentations of either mass infection or zombification spreading throughout society, resulting in loss of personal autonomy on a grand scale. These movies may have not been very good, but what they did do was change the way in which audiences viewed the cinematic zombie. Being zombified was no longer a temporary mental state that could be rectified with the removal of an evil Voodoo master; it was a much more gruesome affair which, by the decade’s end, was tinged with fears over the physical and social effects of nuclear war. In the space of a few years, the zombie as a movie monster had completely transformed, both physically and culturally. Not only had it become more hideous in appearance thanks to a new focus on the horrifying corporeality of the re-animated corpse, but it had also become tied to the idea of the apocalypse: of an uncontrollable, zombie horde. Zombies attacking in great numbers had been seen before in 1936’s Revolt of the Zombies, but it had not been a prevalent motif until now.

Zombie Comparison 3
Above: Betsy looks on at Jessica in I Walked with a Zombie (1943); the zombies in Invisible Invaders (1956)

The influence of these alien zombie flicks becomes even clearer when watching the news footage within one of the most important films in zombie movie history. Night of the Living Dead (1968), the horror movie which changed the way that we think about the zombie, at one point sees a news reporter on television quizzing scientists on “the explosion of the Venus probe”, which he believes could have caused “mutations” through radiation. Early script ideas for the film even saw a story heavily featuring aliens. Anxieties over the Cold War had heightened following the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and it was obvious that the zombie was fast becoming the perfect embodiment of a collective human fear in the face of a great and looming threat of violence.


Keep checking Screenmuse for the next installments of Zombies on Film.

Part 2: Zombies on Film: Romero’s Homegrown Ghouls


14 thoughts on “Zombies on Film: The Early Days of the Undead

  1. jjames36 says:

    Very interesting commentary. I had no idea there were so many zombie movies pre-Romero.

    • hunkamunka says:

      Thanks (: I’ve set myself quite a task but I hope to write a series of articles that cover the genre right up until the present day. Let’s see if I make it that far! Haha.

  2. nathanwhite6 says:

    Great article, Cat!

  3. Beer Movie says:

    This is one of the best film articles I have read in quite some time. I’m not even that huge a zombie film fan either. Looking forward to the next installment.

  4. Great post, I like the study you have done, of these films. I did a post a while back and had watched all of these old zombie films – I still own them. I own about 40 zombie films in all. They really show the change of the zombie archetype through the years. If you want to find my zombie movie post, look in my ‘Horror ‘best of’ lists’ categories and go back to 2012 (2nd page). 🙂 I did an overview in one post, that’s why I’m enjoying these posts of yours. They are more in-depth and I know all the movies you’re discussing.

    • hunkamunka says:

      Thank you (: wow that’s an impressive collection! I’m building mine up at the moment slowly but surely. I’m desperate for the Arrow Blu Ray of Dawn of the Dead (1978), but it’s out of print and is madly expensive everywhere.

      I checked out your post and I really enjoyed reading it. You definitely know your stuff! Funnily enough The Plague of the Zombies is also one of my favourite early zombie movies, and I’m hoping to mention it in my next post.

  5. Good read…it’s weird how race played a part in old zombie movies. How the two were linked is a mystery right?!

  6. Well! And here’s me thinking “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” was the first zombie movie.

    Great post!

  7. […] for instance, which proved to be a treat. But it did strike me after reading the splendid article Zombies On Film: The Early Days Of The Undead by Cat Bernard that I have neglected films on […]

  8. […] This article is part of a series on the history of the zombie movie. Read the first part here: Zombies on Film: The Early Days of the Undead […]

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