Zombies Before Romero
an overview by Tony 'Brraaaiiinnnss!' Chester
This article is part of a series on horror to mark the first
UK-hosted World Horror Convention
being held in Brighton in 2010
(See also the sequel to this article: Zombies After Romero.)
It is generally thought that the term 'zombie' first entered the English language in 1929 with the publication of William B Seabrook's non-fiction book The Magic Island but, in fact, the term can be traced back at least four decades further to Lafcadio Hearn's essay 'The Country of the Comers-Back' published in Harper's Magazine in 1889. Zombies are also known as zuvembie and as corps cadavre, just as voodoo is sometimes referred to as vodun; and most people today associate the living dead with Haiti, while in fact there are strong zombie traditions in Martinique (called Le Pays de Revenants), St Croix and most of the Lesser Antilles. Furthermore, zombies should, of course, be traced all the way back to Africa. But the general ignorance surrounding zombies is perfectly understandable for two or three good reasons: firstly, that most people probably know of their zombies only after they had been 'Hollywood-ised'; secondly, that it is only in the past 30 years or so that the creation of real-life zombies has been scientifically understood; and thirdly, the sheer lack of any great zombie literary tradition. Unlike the vampire, ghost or werewolf, about which huge numbers of novels have been written, the humble zombie has (relatively speaking) only ever occupied the literary backwaters. Few and far between are the readers of such novels as The Whistling Ancestors (1936) by Richard Goddard, You Can't Hang the Dead (1944) by Leslie Carroll and A Grave Must Be Deep (1947) by Theodore Roscoe. Short fiction is only a little more numerous, but anthologies of same are in similarly short supply; I can only bring to mind Zombie: stories of the walking dead (1985) edited by the wonderful Peter Haining, and Book of the Dead (1989) and its 'sequel' Still Dead: Book of the Dead II (1992) edited by 'splatter-punk' authors John Skipp and Craig Spector. Bridging the gap, and probably the most sustained use of revenants, were the EC horror comics' stories in Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear (all c.1950-55), in which murdered spouses often returned to take their revenge on their adulterous partners and their lovers. It is not surprising, therefore, that most zombie-lovers get their fix from the films, and these generally fall into one of two categories which, for the sake of convenience, we may as well refer to as Before and After Romero (BR and AR from now on).
One general rule of thumb for distinguishing zombies BR from those AR (bearing in mind that there are always exceptions) is that those 'born' BR are generally the product of witchcraft and supernatural forces, while those from AR are the result of scientific means, be it radiation(s), chemical(s) or direct intervention, ie. the re-animation of dead tissue through some scientific method, usually involving electricity (an even more science-fictional take on zombies would be the excellent 1984 novel Green Eyes by the brilliant Lucius Shepard). But even this distinction is misleading, once you think about it… The creation of 'real' zombies, while embedded in the use of sorcerous ritual, is in fact dependent on the use of a drug, teterodotoxin, which in small amounts can be used as an hallucinogenic drug, in still relatively small amounts is outright lethal, but which, in amounts somewhere in between, produces a coma-like state (and some significant brain damage) which makes the poor victim highly suggestible, usually permanently, though again there are exceptions. So supernatural zombies are, in fact, produced by scientific (i.e. rational) means, whereas AR zombies which, on the face of it, owe their existence to 'science' have no real rationale for how they can possibly sustain their 'life', and therefore are considerably more supernatural than they might at first appear. Not that most zombie filmmakers are concerned with such details, and still less so their viewers and fans. So, bearing all that in mind, let's at last start looking at the films.
If we ignore forerunners such as Frankenstein's creation (1910-1931) and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919), important though they may be (in some respects), the first real zombie film is undoubtedly White Zombie (1932) directed by Victor Halperin and starring Bela Lugosi, cashing in on the latter's stardom in the previous year's Dracula. Halperin chose for his scriptwriter Garnett Weston who, under the pen-name G. W. Hutter, had published in the magazine Ghost Stories the zombie short story 'Salt Is Not For Slaves' (1931) - zombies who taste salt are supposed to regain their memories long enough to re-bury themselves in their graves - as well as having written a critique of Seabrook's book. The film was 'lost' for many years, but was re-found in the 1960s, since when a debate as to its quality has raged. For some it is a 'classic', whereas for others it is 'creaky and awful', with similar differences of opinion regarding the actors' performances. As ever, the truth probably lies somewhere between the two extremes. Madeline (Madge Bellamy) and her fiancé (John Harron) travel to Haiti for their wedding and are befriended by a man (Robert Frazer) who offers to let them hold the ceremony at his mansion. But the man wants Madeline for himself and, to this end, enlists the aid of Murder Legendre (Lugosi), who supplies zombie labour for the local mills. With the aid of voodoo and a poisoned flower Legendre turns Madeline into a zombie, but double-crosses the man who commissioned him, deciding to keep the girl for himself. The grief-stricken fiancé tracks Legendre to a cliff top castle where, eventually, the bad guys fall over the edge and Madeline regains her independence. The idea that victims can be saved from zombification (if you'll excuse the term) is important to many of the early films, though perhaps more understandable in films where the process can be carried out by the simple expedient of using hypnosis, which rather calls into question whether such victims are actually zombies at all…? Be that as it may, the film relied heavily on marketing its star, Lugosi, and the poster featured an artistic rendition of his eyes and 'trademark' hand-grip, along with the legend "With these zombie eyes he rendered her powerless. With this zombie grip he made her perform his every desire!" Since said desire seemed to largely consist of having Bellamy shuffle along like a, well, zombie it is perhaps not surprising that the film was not exactly what you'd call a hit. Indeed, the next film to even feature a zombie was not until 1935's Ouanga, directed by George Terwilliger, more a voodoo film than a zombie film per se.
Halperin returned to zombies in 1936 with the, frankly, awful Revolt of the Zombies, which remains interesting only as the first film to look at the 'weaponisation' of zombies. The efficacy of zombie troops is proved during World War 1 along the Franco-Austrian border, so a soldier (Dean Jagger) is sent to Cambodia(!) to recover the formula for creating zombies. However, his desire for a girl (Dorothy Stone), who he cannot have due to her love for another man (Robert Noland), causes him to abuse his new-found power and raise a zombie army of his own. Eventually he realises what a cad he's become and kills himself. A better film from '36, though perhaps not strictly speaking a zombie film, is the aptly titled The Walking Dead, directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Boris Karloff. Framed for a murder he did not commit, Karloff is electrocuted then brought back to life as a blank-eyed, hollow-faced cadaver by a doctor (Edmund Gwenn). Karloff then stalks those who framed him, backing them into situations where they bring about their own deaths. Owing more to Frankenstein than zombie lore, corpses continued to be revived by electricity, for instance in The Face at the Window (1939) dir. George King, and Return of Dr X (1939) dir. Vincent Sherman (probably the only horror film to feature Humphrey Bogart!), but these films can safely be ignored, at least as far as zombies are concerned. Though a zombie was featured in the 1940 film The Ghost Breakers, dir. George Marshall, the next real zombie film was King of the Zombies (1941) dir. Jean Yarbrough. Some military types (Dick Purcell and John Archer) crash-land on a remote island, along with their comic-relief black servant (the excellent Mantan Moreland, easily the best thing about this film), to discover a bad guy (Henry Victor) creating zombie slaves for the Nazis. Aided by Victor's innocent and sympathetic daughter (Joan Woodbury) the good guys smash the plot. A near re-make, Revenge of the Zombies (1943) dir. Steve Sekely, also featured Moreland, but this time the bad guy is played by John Carradine, his zombified wife by Veda Ann Borg, and the hero and heroine by Robert Lowery and Gale Storm. Once again the zombifying is done in the service of Nazis, but Borg emerges as the real heroine, leading a zombie revolt against her husband. Though the better of the two films, this low-budget 'programmer' was actually commissioned in the wake of a zombie classic, I Walked with a Zombie (1943).
It is hard to avoid using the term masterpiece when considering the films of producer (and writer) Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur, for that is what they are. They had previously collaborated on the 1942 film Cat People, a classic of its kind, and combined again to stunning effect in I Walked with a Zombie. Scripted by Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray, the film is loosely based on a series of newspaper articles by American journalist Inez Wallace, with thematic borrowings from Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. A nurse (Frances Dee) is looking after a sick woman (Christine Gordon) on the island of St Sebastian. She seems almost catatonic, or perhaps more somnambulistic, and the nurse thinks it might help her to attend a voodoo ceremony(!). Things are further complicated by the fact that the nurse is falling for her charge’s husband (Tom Conway). The women brave the night, escorted by a cadaverous-faced zombie (Darby Jones), finding at the ceremony the husband’s mother (Edith Barrett) who, it turns out, is the one who zombiefied her daughter-in-law when she feared that she was going to run away with her husband’s alcoholic half-brother (James Ellison). Just about everything in this film is excellent, from the direction, script and acting, to the cinematography of J. Roy Hunt and the calypso-inspired soundtrack of Roy Webb. Lewton produced a second zombie film in 1945, Isle of the Dead directed by Mark Robson, based partly on the magazine article 'American Zombie' by Dr Gordon Leigh Bromley and partly on the eponymously titled painting by Arnold Boecklin. Boris Karloff plays a Greek General from the Balkan Wars who returns home to find that his wife, supposedly fifteen years dead, is running around as a zombie. While it has its moments, the film is quite slow and confuses zombies with people who recover from death-like catatonic trances. Nonetheless, the film was deemed so disturbing that it was effectively banned in England for around ten years. Sandwiched between these two films is The Voodoo Man (1944), directed by William Beaudine and starring Bela Lugosi, John Carradine and George Zucco. This film falls (somewhat heavily) into the so-bad-it's-good category, with Lugosi trying to transfer 'life energy' from a succession of girl victims into his dead (or catatonic) wife, who has been out of it for over two decades. All he succeeds in doing is zombifying the girls who all return to normal when he is shot and killed at the end. 1945's comedy Zombies on Broadway, directed by Gordon Douglas, features music-hall duo Wally Brown and Alan Carney alongside the likes of Bela Lugosi and Darby Jones, but it is awful stuff, best forgotten. 1946 was the last gasp of the zombie for that decade: Valley of the Zombies, directed by Philip Ford, was completely awful; Face of Marble, on the other hand, was quite interesting. Directed by William Beaudine and starring John Carradine, this is more of a Mad Doctor film than a zombie film, in which Carradine experiments with reviving the dead only to create (from a dead sailor and his own wife) semi-transparent, blood-drinking wraiths who can walk through walls and glass, with rigid faces, hence the title.
Zombies then pretty much disappeared from the film scene for the better part of a decade, barring scant cameos and references, though voodoo stuck around in contemporary witchcraft tales. In 1956 Boris Karloff starred in Voodoo Island, a dreadfully slow film directed by Reginald le Borg, in which most of the explorers of a tropical island get zombified, but we also got the now (in)famous Plan 9 from Outer Space dir. Edward D Wood in which invading aliens use zombies (Tor Johnson, Maila 'Vampira' Nurmi) to attack the Earth - a plot, ahem, that was light years ahead of its time, as we shall see. In 1957 we got our first (but by no means last) underwater zombies, guarding a treasure, in Zombies of Mora Tau directed by Edward L. Cahn. The same year produced Teenage Zombies (though it was not actually released for 3 years!) directed by Jerry Warren. Teenagers fall prey to a mad doctor (Katherine Victor) bent on world domination through her use of a zombifying toxic gas. By no means anywhere near as much fun as I Was A Teenage Werewolf and I Was A Teenage Frankenstein (both also 1957). So far had the zombie fallen that their only other appearance in the fifties was in Edward D Wood's Night of the Ghouls (1959), featuring the usual suspects: Criswell, Tor Johnson and Vampira. A fake medium (Keene Duncan) accidentally raises the dead and ends up getting buried by them. Once again the zombie slipped into cameo roles (as in The Curse of the Doll People (1960) and The Dead One (1961)) before again being used as would-be world dictator cannon fodder in War of the Zombies (1963) dir. Giuseppe Vari, or not really being present at all, being confused with mummification/embalming experiments gone wrong in Luciano Ricci/Warren Keifer's Castle of the Living Dead (1964), scripted by Michael Reeves. Voodoo Blood Bath (1964) dir. Del Tenney features zombies created as a side effect when a doctor (Robert Stanton) is attempting to find a drug to cure cancer. Working on a plantation on a tropical island it's hard for the owner (Walter Coy) to ignore all the zombies piling up, so he decides to use them - yes, you've guessed it - to take over the world. This film was not even released until 1971, under the title I Eat Your Skin (aka Zombies), as a double bill with I Drink Your Blood. However 1964 did give us the world's first monster musical, Ray Dennis Steckler's highly amusing The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Crazy Mixed-Up Zombies!!!, in which the acid-scarred zombified victims of a gypsy fortune teller go on a rampage and kill everyone in sight. Trust me, this is better than it sounds! Also that year Jesus Franco produced the world's first radio-controlled zombie in The Secret of Dr Orloff (only loosely related to his 1962 film The Awful Dr Orloff in which the main protagonist is killed). In the 1964 film a disciple of Dr Orloff, Fisherman (Marcelo Arroita-Jauregui) discovers his brother (Hugo Blanco) is having an affair with his wife (Perla Cristal), kills and zombifies Blanco, then sends him out to kill women. Blanco rebels when ordered to kill his own daughter (Agnes Spaak) and turns on his master.
Terror Creatures from the Grave (1965), dir. Massimo Pupillo, starred the gorgeous Barbara Steele as Cleo, the wife of a murdered medium whose curse resurrects plague-spreading zombies to avenge his death upon the five people responsible for it. In the end, their mission complete, the living dead are laid to rest by purifying rain. In 1966 Hammer Films got into the zombie business with The Plague of the Zombies, superbly directed by John Gilling and well-scripted by Peter Bryan, though the story itself is somewhat old-fashioned. Doctor Sir James Forbes (Andre Morell) and his daughter Sylvia (Diane Clare) visit a remote village in Cornwall to help the local practitioner Peter Tompson (Brook Williams) who thinks he has uncovered a rare malady. But the superstitious villagers, led by Constable Swift (Michael Ripper), do not allow autopsies of corpses. But when Swift sees Forbes and Tompson open an empty grave he agrees to help. At the centre of the mystery is the Squire, Clive Hamilton (John Carson), who has recently returned from Haiti and is raising zombies to work in an old tin mine. When Tompson’s wife Alice (Jacqueline Pearce) succumbs to the mysterious malady, she is beheaded and the heroes set off to confront the villains. There are many reasons for liking this wonderful film, not least the chilling (and much copied) resurrection scene as the dead claw their way out of their graves. Nearly all of the previously mentioned films fail to provide such a moment, because the zombies are either living victims or are produced in a laboratory, so this is among the first zombie films where the zombies are actually dead and buried before becoming the living dead, if you follow me. 1967 was zombie-free, but in 1968 came one of the most successful independent, low-budget film of all-time; I refer, or course, to the hugely influential Night of the Living Dead directed by George Romero…
This article continues in Zombies After Romero.
Meanwhile if you are into genre films then Concatenation's seasonal science fiction news page has a film news subsection. There is also an annual British science fiction films box office chart for top films for each year up to Easter.
Tony has also written an article on the Top 10 (and worst 10) SF Films. Meanwhile Adrian James has written a a couple of film articles: Science Fiction in Film Serials and The Masked Villains of Cinematic Serials.
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