Zombies and The Walking Dead: They Aren’t the Same Thing

Halloween has come and gone, and the standard clichés have been trotted out. Every sale was “Spooktacular,” TV stations played wall-to-wall horror movies, alcohol made itself indispensable, and the standard costumes made their appearances – superheroes, “sexy” takes on every imaginable occupation, visual puns, and two of the most popular entertainment commodities: vampires and “zombies.”

I put “zombies” in quotes because of our culture’s tendency to conflate two different concepts: zombies and the “walking dead.” My main argument is that the walking dead are not zombies. They are different things with different origins in different cultures, although in the popular culture they are interchangeable terms.

The zombie as a cultural artifact predates the walking dead by generations. In fact we can ascribe a date to the arrival of the walking dead on the cultural landscape. It is October 1, 1968, the release date of George A. Romero’s classic film “Night of the Living Dead.” In the well-known story line, a group of people are under siege by a group of the “living dead,” former humans who have been mysteriously transformed into monsters that devour the flesh of living people, transforming them into fellow mindless killers. Over the next forty years Romero and other filmmakers, novelists, and authors of illustrated books have expanded the genre of “living dead” fiction. This trajectory reached its apex with the debut in 2010 of the popular television series “The Walking Dead.”

Analysts attribute the fascination with the genre to a mass anxiety over a sense of loss of control over our world and a fear of impending chaos that will culminate in the “zombie apocalypse.” In fact, in 1968, order was breaking down in the perception of many people throughout the world. Riots, protest demonstrations, and political assassinations signaled a world in which chaos had broken through the bounds of rational social order. The US was mired in an increasingly incomprehensible war in Vietnam. The established order based on hierarchies of class, race, and gender was being threatened at every turn. Traditional sexual mores were disregarded with impunity, and accepted definitions of reality were challenged by the use of mind-altering and consciousness-expanding drugs.

To his credit, George A. Romero, did not write the term “zombie” into his screenplay. He resisted using the term to describe the “living dead.” The term was adopted by writers and critics who were aware of the term and found it useful to describe the mindless, flesh-eating marauders who – as the genre developed – could only be stopped by a blow (usually a gunshot) to the brain.  This motif carried numerous movies, both serious efforts at horror and satirical comedies.

What then, are zombies, and what is their origin? It is probably well known that zombies are part of the culture of Haiti. They are the “undead,” enslaved people who mindlessly work under the control of owners who acquired them through the use of spells and potions brought from Africa. The actual facts concerning zombies and the practices associated with them are in dispute. Are zombies real or folklore? Is there a scientific explanation for a process of “zombification?”  Or, are overzealous writers trying to apply scientific explanations to mythical phenomena?

Zora Neale Hurston explored the role of Voodoo in Haitian culture  in her ethnographic work Tell My Horse, in which she describes the ritual by which a person becomes a zombie. In brief, it requires the performance of a ritual and the use of “graveyard dust” (“goofer dust” in southern black parlance), dirt obtained from a grave, presumably containing decomposed remains. Seeking to punish an adversary, one calls upon a bokor (a practitioner of “dark” magic), who using a ritual, causes the victim to fall into a state that is indistinguishable from death. The victim is buried. At the proper time, the victim is taken from the grave and given to his master, whom he obeys, without question, without consciousness, memory or identity.

This image of the zombie also entered into our popular culture, particularly in the films “White Zombie” (1932), starring Bela Lugosi, and “I Walk With a Zombie” (1943), directed by Jacques Tourneur. The zombie also became a subject of comic books during this period.

How the idea of the zombie became attached to the flesh-hungry living dead is a subject of interest to me. Clearly they have two different cultural origins. The zombie is a product of the African consciousness that was transplanted to Haiti during the time of slavery. The zombie is a slave to the one who is the descendant of slaves. It is the property of the poor rural subsistence farmer who has no one to help work his land and whose neighbor has wronged him and made his life harder. The Haitian revolution against the French was supposed to free its African population from oppression. In fact, Haiti was again and again betrayed by oppressors – French, Dominican, American, and by its own elites, who took power and acquired wealth under successive dictatorships. Its people were plunged into an unending cycle of poverty. The zombie, then, serves as a symbol of power for the impoverished individual and, by extension, for an oppressed people.

In the adoption of the zombie motif in the US we see a uniquely Anglo-American twist. The victim of zombification is a white woman. Surrounded by transplanted Africans, the Europeans are under threat, not from an uprising of the neo-colonized, servant population, but by their subjugation through forces beyond normal human control, resulting in the loss of self-control and personal identity. The master becomes the slave. Like many narratives that embody fear of the black presence, the zombie motif reflects consistent themes: fear of the revenge of the enslaved (slave revolts, the inversion implied in “race riot”), fear of involuntary assimilation into the black culture (“going native,” becoming a “white Negro”) and, perhaps most importantly, fear of the white woman being taken (sexually and, by extension, politically) by the black man. (In the context of the times, the black seducer is always presented indirectly or symbolically. In both films the zombie-master is a white man. The clearest expression of this fear is the original “King Kong”).

In contemporary culture it is unnecessary to disguise the Afro-Caribbean nature of the zombie story. However, aside from a couple of episodes of Miami Vice, film and television writers have abandoned this exploration of the supernatural. The interest in the occult continues, but is generally expressed in stories, characters, and plots that are predictably congenial to the mainstream audience. (A notable exception is “True Blood,” set in Louisiana.)

As a result, we are left with a surplus of lumbering, drooling, decomposing, flesh-eating, scary-ridiculous victims of the zombie apocalypse, rampaging across our television screens (and raging through our streets armed with orange pumpkin-shaped plastic baskets). They are easily identified, and though they travel in relentless packs, easily outrun.

But if you notice a person walking through the crowds in apparent oblivion, psychically unconnected to the people around them, head hung down, vacant eyes seemingly fixed on some otherworldly object; if such a person brushes past you, unaware of your existence, beware. You may have just encountered a real zombie.

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