I think that the only stranger place for me to start genre month on Horrific Knits would be if I were to start with an examination of Jaws- and trust me, we’ll get there.
I say that because I’m not known for my love of the zombie/undead genre. As a whole, my enjoyment of the subgenre is extremely limited. In my discussion of the Walking Dead last fall, I mentioned that from at least the sociological perspective I ‘get’ zombies, but I don’t get the fascination with the zombie craze. When torture p.rn was still such a thing (don’t worry it’s a Wiki link), I didn’t really like that either but at least I found the mechanisms driving that particular subgenre interesting from the theoretical perspective. Zombies, not so much.
For a short recap (well, actually I guess a short expansion on) the list that I provided in my Walking Dead review, zombies are the perfect vehicle through which to examine the loss of control. This is not a particuarly original concept in the genre of horror-I can think of at least 3 more subgenres that run off of the idea of loss of control. Here, though, the fear is that one will loose so much control over the self as to no longer be oneself.
It’s the fear that commercialism will overtake society and turn us into just another vehicle to move power through society. It’s the fear of that society turning us into the mindless mass. It’s the fear that we are already the mindless mass. To a much smaller extent, though one that I would actually like to see the genre explore of, it’s the fear that our own bodies will turn against us and destroy us- the virus agent of zombie creation isn’t that much different from things such as Alzheimer’s.
Zombies have a historical basis in the folklore of various world cultures; however it should be noted that the modern viewer of films such as Dawn of the Dead would probably not entirely recognize the image. This may not always be the case though, since the Epic of Gilgamesh and Norse mythology both have passages that refer to the dead eating the living and making more dead that will do the same.
Throughout the late 19th century literature began to examine the theme but it was Lovecraft who really began to work with the symbol, creating a world in which scientists work to bring back those who have already died. While the film industry would be working with the Haitian zombie symbol by the 1940s, Things To Come released in 1936 would be one of the first films to work with imagery that would be familiar to the modern zombie fan.
It would probably not be an overreach to say however that George A Romero created the zombie genre as it is known now. The release of Night of the Living Dead was the first to use the zombie that people are so enthralled with now- and the first to use the image as a way of examining social forces (which frankly is enough for me to put Romero near the top of my favorite director’s list even though I don’t actually like most of his work). On one hand, society wasn’t really prepared for what happened with that film but on the other I’m not sure that the series would have worked nearly so well if Night hadn’t been released in 1968.
It is interesting to note that while Night of the Living Dead is the first example of the modern zombie archetype, the film that is generally considered to have birthed the genre is White Zombie, starring Bela Lugosi. It is my opinion however that this particular piece belongs to a completely different subgenre- or perhaps a sub-subgenre- that of the Haitian/Voodoo zombie. I use the voodoo spelling here deliberately, because while critics have relied on the Vodoun connection for these films there’s only a surface parallel to that particular belief set.
Regardless of its rather weak connections to belief, I think that this part of the subgenre does deserve an examination if for no other reason that the sociohistorical environment in which they were created. It’s my suspicion that none of these films would be produced today, which makes them a interesting snapshot of a sociopolitical system that (hopefully) has long since passed on.