The living dead are of course as old as life itself, but our cinematic zombie—the ashen-faced, stiff-limbed, black-eyed, flesh-eating humanoid we know and love today—is a result of that old chestnut, the colonial encounter. When the white man’s religion meets tropical heathendom, confusion invariably ensues. Combine that confusion with paranoia and power, and you have the strange predicament of the witch, who goes from being a placid animist—in roughly the same manner as a third of the world’s population—to the hook-nosed cackler of every toddler’s nightmare.
But never mind all that: Zombies, in their special and murderous way, show us what it means to be human. They are ciphers for just about everything we cannot talk about, from slaves and outcasts to pagans and poor people; a fine moral framework to excuse our bent for spectacular bloodlust; a trashy, gory, hallucination of the revenge we will not, in fact, ever be able to extract.
I came to zombie films through the master, the Cuban-Lithuanian-American auteur George Romero, which is fitting, because the genre is entirely of his making—call it Romero’s baby, if you will. Though zombies have been flickering on our screens since the 1930s, they are, for all practical purposes, children of the American 1960s, with traces of everything the decade entailed—civil rights, flower power, the Vietnam war, and a rising tide against consumerism. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) was an independent, low-budget project that scorched the box office and heralded the dawn of the zombie apocalypse. It’s a haunting and sophisticated film, shot in black and white, with a black hero who outlives his floundering white housemates almost all the way up to the end (if that isn’t allegorical enough, he is ultimately felled by a posse of pale male vigilantes in a case of mistaken identity).
Over the next 20 years, Romero made Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985), laying the basis of the genre. The films that form this founding trilogy are not only explicitly political—Dawn of the Dead, for instance, is largely set against the takeover of a suburban shopping mall—they are also expertly so, by adhering to the integrity of the genre. His zombies stay in character, like creatures of “pure motorised instinct” (as a sombre voice-over intones at the height of the mall occupation); they chomp on elbows, thighs and other aspects of the human anatomy with deadpan relish and a workman-like ethic. His women are front and centre, and his good guys tend to behave remarkably badly.
When I first saw Omar Ali Khan’s Zibahkhana (2007) in Pakistan, I felt a flash of recognition, for here were Romero’s finest feelings, distilled, bottled, and sprinkled on South Asian soil. Zombies in Zibahkhana serve as a kind of cosmic vengeance for the toxic contamination of a rural water system, and it’s a delicious vengeance, slowly consumed, with industrial quantities of spaghetti alla marinara substituting for rich people’s entrails. There is plenty of oppression in this tightly-edited, pitch-perfect, old-school horror film, but no one—not the mama’s boy who wore skirts as a child, neither the poor Christian teenager, nor the discreetly pious Muslim girl—ever stays true to type. Everyone is complicated, and everything, right down to the period funk music from Lollywood’s heyday, is exactly right. Zibahkhana expresses an uncompromising local idiom in a universally understood language, and is an object lesson in how to make a contemporary horror film in South Asia.
The ur-Zombie, however, is not a 1960s fantasy of social justice. Indeed, the word is only incidentally connected to Romero: It doesn’t even appear in his first film—he pointedly refers to his living dead as ghouls. “Zombie” comes to us from Haitian Creole, and is embedded in the long and twisted history of plantation slavery. On the plantations, the figure was evoked to achieve something like the opposite of social justice. Folklore became a tool by which French slave owners could control their property, and frighten them away from suicide by tricking them into believing their shackled lives were better than an eternity of living death. It’s almost as if Hollywood’s subsequent appropriation of the zombie is a rap on the knuckles of Haiti—for daring to break free from Europe in 1804, thereby becoming the first coloured colony anywhere in the world to do so.
The three most significant zombie films made before Romero are wholly concerned with the Caribbean. White Zombie (1932), with Béla Lugosi as the fabulously named voodoo-master Murder Legendre, is a soulful film with stirring music and long pauses, set entirely in the unchanged plantation economy of independent Haiti. Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie (1943) is a melodrama of wealth and infidelity set on a fictional Caribbean island, narrated in flashback, with a script that could have been written by Daphne du Maurier, for a film that might have been made by Alfred Hitchcock. I Walked... is about white folks gone native, and the result is a compellingly even-handed fantasy of island life. Then there is the Hammer Horror production, The Plague of the Zombies (1966), which is set in Cornwall and revolves around the dark habits of a country squire who spent his life in Haiti—and has returned to run an underground zombie factory in his homeland. Each of these films was panned upon its initial release, which at least partly explains why the twin horrors of colonialism and slavery, the original sins by which the zombie was born—once intrinsic to any conception of the creature—have been quietly forgotten.
But all is not lost. The latest incarnation of the zombie is a warm and funny character, full of human emotion and feeling—which is to say, a biting indictment of the zombie-like way we live today. These new zombies stand in sharp contrast to the monotony of 20th century Anglo-American life, and as a result, are perfectly placed against the preferred habitats of a rising India. Working Title’s Shaun of the Dead (2004), a popular classic, is a parody in the manner of a Romero sequel. It’s a side-splitting take on middle-class alienation in small-town Britain, and a model of tight, restrained hilarity. The massively endearing Fido (2006) is like the lost sequel to a Douglas Sirk film, set in mid-century American suburbia, against luscious, vividly coloured sets, and populated by perfectly choreographed people who wade about in undercurrents of love and longing. The Fido of Fido is a bad-zombie-turned-good who lands a menial job in the class-conscious town of Willard—a throwback to the location of Night of the Living Dead. Unfortunately, Fido kills the uppity old hag next door in a fit of normalcy and is packed off to prison; fortunately, he escapes, outwits his insufferable argyle-wearing rival, and gets the girl.
If the setting of the zombie caper sounds familiar, it is with good reason. Suburban one-upmanship? Status obsession? Perfect housewives? Golf? Take another look at the gated estates of Gurgaon and Whitefield and you’ll see the truth that’s been staring us in the face. Our zombie apocalypse has already begun.
Achal Prabhala is a writer and researcher in Bangalore.