Zombies yesterday and today: the origins of horror

Zombies yesterday and today: the origins of horror
Let's face it: how scary are zombies? Disfigured, tattered or partially decomposed bodies that return from the dead to walk again among the living and feed on them. If the idea that a corpse can move again does not frighten in itself, it will certainly do so, at least by being torn to pieces by what may have been our cousin a little earlier. In reality, there are many reasons to fear these creatures and this is probably why modern and contemporary pop culture is literally invaded by hordes of zombies.

They are damn scary, let's face it, so directors, cartoonists, too videogame developers get married and always give us one more reason to fear a possible zombie apocalypse, inserting new, possible "plausible" explanations for which zombies could really emerge among us. Their origin, however, does not date back to these years and in reality it has nothing to do with walking around with outstretched arms in search of human flesh. We will tell you here, to finally arrive at the figure of the zombie as we know it today.

Voodoo sorcerers and unwilling slaves

Although zombie infestations seem to take place quite often in US metropolises or English cities, these creatures of horror actually come from Haiti. More precisely, from a Haitian belief of which we have the first testimonies around 1937 when we start talking about zonbie (this is the term in the Creole language of the country). In fact, it seems that voodoo sorcerers, called bokor, live there, capable of resurrecting the dead: they induce their victims into a state of apparent death, then subjecting them to their will depriving them of full cognitive abilities. Ultimately, these individuals would be the zombies.

The bokors then start the process of "zombification" by administering to their victims a particular potion: a cocktail of stinging plants, parts of toads and spiders, as well as pieces of crushed human corpses and a puffer fish that is can be found in Haitian waters, containing a powerful neurotoxin. A delight capable of causing paralysis of the diaphragm and drastically reducing breathing and vital parameters, leading the poor wretch on duty to what is only an apparent death. Once buried, the individual is subsequently exhumed by the bokor which, taking advantage of the damage to the brain caused by lack of oxygen, makes him a slave unable to operate his will. And maybe he sets him up to hoe the land on his plantation.

In Haiti this is taken very seriously. The population is really convinced that among them there are voodoo sorcerers capable of such atrocities, so much so that the Haitian Penal Code, in article 249, states:

Use against an individual is to be considered attempted murder of substances that, without causing a real death, induce a prolonged lethargic coma. If after the administration of these substances the person is buried, the action will be considered murder regardless of the result that follows.

You also want because for a certain period the dictatorial regime of the Duvaliers that ruled the country made this superstition its own to keep the people in check, through the awe caused by religion and in particular by voodoo beliefs. But this is exactly what it is: beliefs and superstitions, since it was scientifically proven, later, that the potions of the bokor are not able to create zombies. Those who have returned "from the dead" to tell their experience under the yoke of sorcerers seem, rather, to have been the victim of conditioning, of the suggestion infused through the strange rituals performed: a zombification ultimately more of mental subjection than really of the body and conscience.

Zombies invade cinema

When it comes to zombies, the first figure that comes to mind is the one that has emerged thanks to Romero's cinema from 1968 onwards. Historically, however, the first film dedicated to creatures brought back to life and without will is The Island of the Zombies (White Zombie), from 1932, with Bela Lugosi. In the film directed by Victor Halperin, the tattered dead walking is absent, since we are here closer to the idea of ​​an individual subjected to a sorcerer suspended between life and death, borrowed from the Haitian culture, than to a revived corpse thirsty for blood.

Zombie Island contributed to a certain extent to provide some of the typical characteristics of zombies that would later become distinctive traits in these horror monsters: the slow pace and awkward movements, the ability to resist firearms, his gaze frightfully fixed. However, we will have to wait several more years to witness a paradigm shift in the world of cinema. The same change that imposed the specificities of the zombie as we know it today and, as previously mentioned, it is to George A. Romero that this little revolution is due.

It is with him in fact that the big screen comes invaded by a new kind of zombie. The apparent death of the Haitian zonbie becomes a real death; the creature we see has returned from death and lives again, albeit without a rational will; the intake of a potion containing corpse dust turns into an uncontrolled hunger for human flesh (that of the living). The new dividing line is drawn by The Night of the Living Dead (1968), setting the stage for horror films (and more) that in a few years would have used zombies as nightmare monsters.

Il walking dead by Romero is now hunting for living flesh and has no other goal than to bite people, leaving however an unwelcome gift: the bite of a zombie only zombies in turn, infects the living making them become dead living. The director thus initiates a cinematographic tradition that will continue for many years and will be reinterpreted in different ways. Suffice it to say that The Night of the Living Dead was followed by four other "zombie" themed films, including The Dawn of the Living Dead from 1978 (Zombies, the title given in Italy), a basic material on which a remake was made in 2004 by Zack Snyder and the parody film Dawn of the Dead Dementi in the same year, starring the comic duo Simon Pegg - Nick Frost.

Although in 1988 Wes Craven returns to stage the resurrection of the dead through voodoo rituals with his The Snake and the Rainbow, the way has now been traced and for the public who considers Romero as the master and father of the zombies, the real living dead is the one who goes around to create other zombies and to tear apart the few survivors of the increasingly widespread contagion. Because this is what the films that arise in recent years are essentially about: an invasion of walking corpses in a world struggling with a sudden apocalypse, which led to the premature resurrection of the dead that is talked about so much about the Day of Judgment of the Holy Scriptures. An overturning of the Christian dogma that prophesies the resurrection of the dead: at the end of the world, whoever is in Paradise will once again obtain their infallible and indestructible body. A reinterpretation exemplified by the most famous phrase of Zombies:

When there is no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.

Run, the "running zombies" arrive

The apocalypse has arrived in the world and the dead have awakened, terrifying anyone who has the courage to stand in front of a screen between the years 80s and 90s. The undisputed master of the zombie-themed horror genre is George A. Romero, but it's not just cinema that shows us these horrifying creatures. In 1996 Capcom released a video game that will remain in history and will produce many of those sequels to create a real franchise at the expense of our poor pockets: Resident Evil. The story is simple: a biotechnology company called Umbrella Corporation has created a virus that can infect and transform living beings into zombies of incredible strength (or other frightening creatures), looking as always for poor humans to eat. It is perhaps here that we see for the first time a new type of zombie, that is the one that runs and chases the unfortunates who are within range, making useless the hope of being able to plant a bullet in his skull in time thanks to the usual slow pace we were. been accustomed.

Romero once again gives the example, since already in his La Città Verrà Destro all'Alba (1973) we see a contagion due to a biological weapon that transforms individuals into crazy creatures of uncontrolled aggression. The topic, however, is resumed and expanded in 2002, with Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, in which a modified strain of the rabies virus becomes the cause of a frightening zombie epidemic that mows down the British population through the new zombies it has infected. Needless to say, here too we are in the presence of the "running zombies": the slow and awkward staring creatures have given way to angry, bloodthirsty, quick and snappy beasts. Is there anything that can be more terrifying than this? Juan Carlo Fresnadillo, not satisfied, relaunches with a sequel in 2007, entitled 28 Weeks Later. Thank you very much.

The zombie runners are back in 2013 with another very successful video game, The Last of Us, although in it the modes of contagion are different and the monsters themselves take on a new identity: they are the "infected" “, Mutated due to a fungal spore that moves them with the sole purpose of infecting other human beings so as to spread more and more. In the same year, Marc Forster's World War Z even delights us with a pandemic of global scale from which it seems impossible to escape, especially as the protagonists of this story (including Brad Pitt) have to contend with monsters not only very fast, but also rather strong.

Zombies in all sauces

As is evident, we are now far from the unwilling slaves of the Haitian tradition to find ourselves faced with hungry monsters from which it has become increasingly difficult to escape . The vision of these creatures has, however, undergone several facets and reinterpretations over the years, providing new ways of seeing the theme so dear to the horror genre. In 2003, for example, Robert Kirkman tackled the subject from another point of view, with his famous comic series The Walking Dead.

Spread all over the world thanks to its transposition into a TV series in 2010, The Walking Dead shows the survivors of the zombie apocalypse, who sometimes find themselves fighting more with each other than against the zombies they invade the world. A clash between individuals who try in every way to override each other, in a ruthless struggle for survival in which the presence of zombies is often more a background than a fundamental theme. As if to say that difficulties make us better people with each other. Another comic that sees zombies as protagonists is certainly '68, by Mark Kidwell and Nat Jones published in Italy by SaldaPress: within the framework of the war in Vietnam, the comic tells a zombie apocalypse under the sign of conflict and pacifism , caused by none other than an unsuspected preservative.

The comedy Welcome to Zombieland is from 2009. Here the zombie apocalypse is described in an ironic and somewhat cynical way, through the interpretation of Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg (and the presence of an unfortunate Bill Murray in the role of himself), in a journey that is more than a face survival seems to be driven by the search for Twinkie snacks. We then find Bill Murray in the most recent The Dead Do Not Die in 2019, another horror-comedy in which inexplicable phenomena have begun to follow each other in the world: crazed clocks, animals with strange behaviors and ... deaths that rise again to walk among us.

There are also intelligent zombies. An example is Olivia, protagonist of the TV series iZombie aired since 2015 on The CW, a young man who has been the victim of some zombies but is determined to continue her life normally, keeping the secret about her condition: therefore she works at a health center. forensic medicine where it can feed on the brains of the dead, although this makes it possible to transmit their memories from time to time. How to use this to your advantage? By becoming a "psychic" able to help the police solve various cases. Zombies in the mood for tenderness, then, with Warm Bodies of 2013. Here too we have as protagonist a sentient zombie, able to even fall in love with a human and protect her from the other living dead.

Finally, it seems like that there is a cure that can make zombification reversible. Incredible but true and we find confirmation of this in The Cured, a 2017 film starring Ellen Page, in an Ireland struggling with the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. The problem now is to heal the population, made up of those who have been infected and then "regenerated" by the treatment produced and the non-infected humans, who see in the former zombies individuals to be removed, marginalized and rejected. From executioners to victims, in short.

The first issue of the comic series The Walking Dead, by Robert Kirkman: you can find it by clicking on this link.

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