Evolution of Zombies on Film

The term zombie is referred to as a corpse reanimated through unnatural means, and in some cases, is usually depicted to have a knack for human flesh (Clute & Grant, 1999). Zombies are believed to have originated in the Caribbean Republic of Haiti where witch doctors revive dead people to do their bidding (Chevallier, 2006). This concept and origin of the Zombie was first introduced to the United States by W. S. Seabrook’s Magic Island (Mumble-Jumble,1940). Seabrook’s publication then spawned other works encompassing resurrected mindless corpses which subsequently became elements elements of interest for filmmakers.
From paper to reel, the process of creating Zombies has tremendously evolved with the birth of computer generating image technology. The Epic of Gilgamesh (1960) also alluded the Zombie’s concept, as the goddess Ishtar pledged to “knock down the gates of the Netherworld, and let the dead outnumber and devour the living. ” Though the epic does not give any description of the appearance of the dead, the concept of flesh eating dead creatures are still synonymous to the idea of Zombies.
While William Seabrook’s Magic Island brought the idea of Zombies to the United States, Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s Herbert West – Reanimator fully furnished the concept of Zombies in American Popular Culture (Braun, 2008). The story entails scientist Herbert West reanimating corpses that result to vile horrible beastly creatures with violent tendencies (Joshi & Cannon,1999), The Idea of Zombies was first introduced to the motion picture industry upon the release of the 1932 independent cult film, White Zombie. The film drew its idea of Zombies from the Haitian folklore of using paranormal powers to revive the dead.

As the film’s title suggests, the story revolves around couple, Neil and Madeleine who decide to accept an invitation Charles, a common acquaintance, to exchange vows in his plantation in Haiti. In an attempt to fulfill his hidden desires for Madeleine, Charles persuades the former to marry him instead. Madeleine immediately rejects Charles, who in return vindicates himself by consulting voodoo master Legendre to momentarily turn her in to a Zombie, to fake her death, send Neil back to the United States grieving, and bring Madeleine back to reality to pursue her again.
Legendre meanwhile has his own selfish ploys which are thwarted by Charles with the aid of a missionary who goes by the name Dr. Bruner (Halperin & Halperin, 1932). In white Zombie, there is simplicity in presentation, as far as the Zombies appearance is concerned, considering that it is the first film to tackle such subject, the Zombies appeared a little close to human, but the mindless unwilled personality is already obvious. Though there is not much technique or technology available during the time, it is quite blatant that the Zombie interpretation was innovative.
While the film was considered pioneer in Zombies, the concept of reanimated corpses do not have apocalyptic implications similar to later films, the concept of the Zombie strictly conformed to the Haitian voodoo practice which does not involve any scientific procedures or freak accidents. Soon after the release of White Zombie, Zombies on film have evolved, notable films such as Things to Come and Plan 9 From Outer Space further shaped the zombie as an element of horror. 936’s Things to Come did not really focus on Zombies that were reanimated as living dead but the effects of a viral outbreak that causes the infected to mindlessly ramble without a definite purpose, which is synonymous to the mindlessness of zombies. In he film, the Zombie like creatures do not stray away from human appearance. Science Fiction met with Horror as 1959’s Plan 9 From Outer Space tells the story of aliens who planned to stop human endeavor on a Doomsday Weapon that would bring the Universe in to oblivion.
The aliens then executed plan 9 which concerns reanimation of the dead to divert human attention. The appearance of zombies in the film do not differ from human appearance, the only distinctive quality among zombies are the absence of the pupil. Though special effects were not sophisticated, zombies reanimated by alien technology is still a conceptual breakthrough. Despite the seemingly incompetent zombies of classic horror films, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead became the mother of all zombie films, and is considered the greatest zombie movie of all time (Braun, 2008).
The film is highly influential in the tradition of zombies as it revolutionized the zombie appearance in motion pictures and influenced zombie oriented films. The secret behind the horrifying appearance of the zombies in Night of the Living Dead is credited to the use of primitive techniques for special effects. (Williams, 2003). In night of the Living Dead, costumes consisted of second-hand apparel and the zombie appearance was complemented by mortician wax (Hardman & Eastman, 1997). Some of the blood used were just chocolate syrup, it looked like blood smears when shot on black and white (Homepage of the Dead, 2008).
The materials used proved to be a little stingy for a successful film, but the efficiency of it has set a standard in the field of special effects. George Romero’s follow up to Night of the Living Dead produced a better and more believable look for the zombie, special effects master Tom Savini has created a look with tremors still being imitated today but never surpassed. Savini primarily applied gray make up to give the zombie cast a more undead appearance. The zombies with close-up shots were had latex applied on their faces to emphasize wounds and other causes for their being undead (Savini, 1983).
Savini adds that the zombies were supposed to appear as people recently killed, so he tried to make them look like victims of car accidents and fatal ailments. There is even one zombie that appear well groomed, Savini’s intention here is to make that zombie look as if he just had been to an undertaker (Savini, 1983). Savini casted specific body parts to hydrocal and had them painted with red and black on the bottom to match the flesh colors in order to make bite-scars more believable (Savini, 1983).
For the zombie killed in the truck, Savini sculpted a face lay over and filled it with blood and sealed with a layer of dermwax for the zombie actress (Savini, 1983). The effect was for a zombie who was shot in the head with an exit wound in the face (Savini, 1983). In Day of the dead, there are slight differences in the appearance of the zombie, the only notable difference came in the green color which emphasize the vestiges of decomposition (Savini, 1983). The development of zombies also came in speech as one zombie manifested the ability of speech (Rubenstein & Romero, 1985).
Nonetheless, the film still takes pride in the advanced special effects. In a different note, the 80s saw a decline on zombie films, however there are some satirical innovations that proved to be arguable developments such as Return of the Living Dead (Fox, Henderson & O’Bannon) where zombies are shown to have a hunger for human brains, this garnered some recognition, most notably on an episode of The Simpsons Halloween special. The breakthroughs of modern technology in special effects and other cinematic techniques became a big help in developing zombies far better than they last appealed viewers.
For nearly 2 decades, the zombie film was in hibernation, however, recent productions such as the movie adaptations of Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and I am Legend revitalized the zombie film. The motion picture resident evil utilized computer generated imaging technology to some extent, but most of the furnishings for the zombies are done with make-up (Anderson, 2002). The motion picture gives a new approach to zombies as some of them wielded weapons such as the hatchet held by the first zombie who appeared (Anderson, 2002).
Another groundbreaking addition in resident evil is the zombie dog which is a total departure from the usual human undead (Anderson, 2002). The sequel to the first Resident Evil film brought about fresh ideas in zombie films wherein sophistication and advanced movements such as climbing stairs and opening doors have become part of zombie abilities. The introduction of the super zombie Nemesis is also a first, since the aforementioned can wield heavy armaments such as gattling guns and missile launchers, and it can also filter its victims via a remote controlled targeting system (Witt, 2004).
Zombies on film have progressed since its humble beginnings in White Zombie, and most motion pictures serve as testimony to the immortality of the zombie as an element in horror. The extensive innovations in make-up and special effects applications has given rise to evolution of zombies on cinema, from simple mindless speechless individuals, to decapitated decomposing flesh hungry monsters, to weapon wielding, stair climbing semi-intelligent beasts, the film industry has done a great job in revolutionizing an idea that seem to be lame and childish. Moreover, the advent of modern technology has also aided the evolution of zombies on film.

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