(Return of) Run, Zombie, Run (Part 1)

Since my AP class was talking about zombie films this week, I decided to post my article from 2005 on the subject. Here’s Part 1:

In the wake of 28 Days Later (2002) and the remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004), there has been considerable debate among horror enthusiasts about fast zombies versus slow. These two films have inaugurated a new era of the very quick and the dead. For some fans, the fast zombie is an oxymoron: if a zombie is dead, it shouldn’t move very fast. Others say, hey moron, fast or slow, the living dead do not exist, so who cares?

Well, I do.

Zombies have played a considerable part in nightmares throughout my life. These nightmares populate the Big Brotherhood of 1984 with zombies. The strange thing is that they started before I had read 1984 or sat through my first of many screenings of zombie films. For years, I didn’t know what to make of all this, except that I didn’t like crowds and I feared brainwashing totalitarian states. Probably spurred on by all of the new movies about the walking– and sometimes racing– dead, I recently began analyzing my nightmare zombie-utopia.

I always thought utopia meant “good place” and dystopia meant “bad place.” The Greek translation for utopia is actually “nowhere” or “no-place” and it is a homophone for eutopia, which actually does mean “good place.” I always thought eggheaded sci-fi geeks started the whole dystopia thing so that they could be smarmy when they talked about Blade Runner (1982). Unfortunately, I found out that in the late 1800s John Stuart Mill had invented the term and that he also used cacotopia, an even more annoying word coined earlier by Jeremy Bentham. Regardless of when the term was created (and don’t think I am not above the thought of a Blade Runner conspiracy), the importance is in the word itself. Every utopia, starting with Plato’s Republic, is a dream for some and a nightmare for others. Therefore, the term expresses both ideas. Anyway, the significance for me is that the undead inhabit a “nowhere” between the living and the dead. In fact, I consider the zombie film a utopia of the late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Zombie films, like utopias, are grounded in social and economic concerns. The first zombie film, White Zombie (1932), features Bela Lugosi as a witch doctor and owner of a Haitian sugar mill exploiting the undead as a means of economic gain. Here the zombie is slave-laborer. This is pretty interesting, given that for over 100 years Haiti was a slave colony. But the film also depicts the cultural significance of zombies within Haiti itself.

In Haiti, Voodoo priests are able to make their own zombies by using a coupe poudre, a poison that causes the victim to die and to rise from the dead–sort of. The coupe poudre is religious magic for Haitians, poison for some, and possibly a really bad buzz for others. According to Wade Davis, author of The Serpent and the Rainbow, and Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie the active ingredient is tetrodotoxin, which is found in some organs of the puffer fish. So, in an odd way, zombies do exist, but Davis stresses the socio-cultural concerns and environment of their existence.

In other words, zombies can exist within certain shared cultural environments and situations where everyone knows what a zombie is and does–everyone including the “zombie.” A Japanese man who happens to get a little tetrodotoxin in his puffer fish soup wouldn’t rise from the dead; he would go to the emergency room. Still, it is interesting to note that a formerly enslaved country still sees the torment in the “undead” worker and the power gained in his ownership. Supposedly, witch doctors still gain status through their power over zombies.

NEXT: 20th Century Undead

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