In the beginning, there was the Zoumbie.
What began as a mixture of the ancient spirituality, chemical sciences, and social control practices of West and Central Africa ended up stranded in the former home of the Arawak and the Carib by way of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Just as water wears down stone, what started as historical reality became whittled into mythology. And where there were deep roots, the stalk that grew from that dark, fertile soil became forever altered by the gaze of the European Other.
The legendary flesh-and-blood inspiration for the modern cinematic motif arose and walked through the jungles of Haiti and other Caribbean islands in those days, allegedly bringing terror and destruction to those not wise enough to avoid the paths of voodoo, the false cognate for the misunderstood, syncretic systems of religion alternatively called Vodou, Vodun, Vaudou or Santeria.
So, naturally, someone had to make a movie about it.
In 1932, Hollywood came a’ knocking and our beloved Zoumbie left his sun kissed isle to star alongside Bela Lugosi in the black-and-white Golden Age horror classic, White Zombie. A title truly intentional in its contradiction. Lugosi plays a white Haitian landowner who discovers from his black peonage the secret of Zoumbie creation through a process of hypnosis and drugs.
Lugosi then, of course, uses his powers to cement his control over the black populace while subsequently terrorizing his white neighbors, kidnapping a visiting American co-ed and daring her beau to brave the terrors of his plantation to save her.
The strange, occult powers of his character are almost of secondary concern to our heroes given his over-familiarity with the way of “natives,” causing the boyfriend character to exclaim that if the damsel-in-distress were to accidentally fall into the hands of the black workers “it would be a fate worse than could be imagined!” His comrade-in-arms admonishes him strongly not to even consider such a horror.
Never fear… The movie going audience of 1932 was spared the threat of racial miscegenation when the aforementioned boyfriend confronts Lugosi and breaks the spell of the Zoumbie. All was again right in the world. Except it started a bit of a craze for more cinematic distortion of the Zoumbie tradition, the biggest of which was the mispronounced cultural appropriation of the Zoumbie name.
For a while, our hero held sway in the imagination of filmmakers wanting to explore the field of culturally incorrect exotica. He had regular work in those days, showing up in such forgotten gems as I Walked with a Zombie (1943) Voodoo Man (1944), with a return visit by Lugosi and a drop-in by John Carradine, and the Hammer horror classic, Plague of the Zombies (1966).
Then came George Romero. And like a lot things in the 60’s, there was a changing of the guard.
With Night of the Living Dead, the (pseudo) Scientific Zombie became the king of the block and our hero was forced back into semi-obscurity, though perhaps Romero gave a slight nod of sympathy by casting Duane Jones as a protagonist who shared some heritage with our ancient hero. But mostly, the original item ended sitting around the house, downing bottle-after-bottle of Red Stripe, waiting for his next close up.
Thankfully for him, the 80’s came along. And with it, a “real-life” novel length account from Harvard researcher Wade Davis called The Serpent and the Rainbow. Davis’ book, presented as his actual experiences with so-called “zombie masters” in Haiti during the final years of the Duvalier dictatorship. And with its publication came the most pointed scholarly disagreement since Carlos Castaneda‘s “Don Juan” thesis that ate the discipline of anthropology the 70’s.
How could it not help but start a new, focused sensation about the Zoumbie and the Voodoo system?
First up in March of 1987 was Angel Heart. The all-star cast of Mickey Rourke, Robert DeNiro and Lisa Bonet was steeped in both anticipation and controversy. It brought together two of the most respected “Method” actors of the era, one of whom (DeNiro) had already won his Oscar and the other (Rourke) was an odds-on favorite to be the next “great American actor.” It also was greeted with tabloid buzz as Bonet was on thin ice with her TV dad and employer, Bill Cosby, for the erotic nature of the film. Angel Heart was nearly hit with the emerging NC-17 rating before some compromising cuts were made.
The film itself was an atmospheric exploration of the “Hoodoo” belief system, a near American cousin to Voudon and Santeria. The Hoodoo concept, prevalent in Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas, sets the background for the New Orléans location of Angel Heart, as Rourke is a noir-cut detective tasked with finding a semi-famous singer who doesn’t want to be found. The set up, while simple sounding, is a complete misdirection for twists and turns, including bizarre symbolism, weird sex and DeNiro as a Brylcreem-infused version of the Devil.
The film, which got a fairly favorable critical reception, was less than a box office sensation, perhaps weighed down by all the expectations of fireworks between Rourke and DeNiro and the gossipy infighting over Bonet’s role. Angel Heart has grown in prominence in the decades since, with many fans citing it as a conversation piece for unconventional horror. However, the really frightening thing may be what happened to Rourke and Bonet’s careers after the film.
Hot on the heels of Angel Heart came The Believers. The May 1987 Martin Sheen vehicle attempted to explore the dangerous side of Santeria, the Spanish Speaking cousin of Vodun, as Sheen plays a skeptical psychologist who is drawn in to the world of Caribbean mysticism when his son is threatened by a group of evil Santeru.
While The Believers brought some big budget production values to the subject, the script and direction fell back into some dominant culture stereotypes as the ultimate villain revealed had only a flimsy link to the actual Santeria tradition. Apparently, Hollywood hadn’t found much new material for African traditional spiritualism in the intervening 55 years between it and White Zombie.
Fortunately for traditional zombie fans, the next year of 1988 contained a much more positive development as one of the decade’s legendary “Three C’s” took on adapting Wade Davis’ book. Wes Craven‘s The Serpent and the Rainbow brought the spotlight back to the place where it all began for our beloved friend.
Set in 1980s Haiti, our hero (played by Bill Pullman) is a biologist/ anthropologist /chemist (the script is never sure which) who comes to the island nation in order to find the ancient, narcotic powder used by voodoo masters to put their victims into a state of living death.
For Pullman’s trouble, he is kicked, beaten, buried alive and has a nail driven through his scrotum. But for his tribulations, he manages to do something thought impossible. Bring the undead back to life a second time.
Released in Feb. 1988, Serpent took advantage of Hollywood’s renewed interest in voodoo during the end of that decade. The previous year had seen modest hits for such voodoo themed movies as The Believers and Angel Heart. Craven, at the height of his powers and popularity, dove into the trend by giving us the most “naturalistic” Hollywood zombie movie to that date.
Shot on location around Hispaniola in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Serpent still stands as a glorious, although slower-paced, exploration of the Haitian “voodoo” culture. The film takes considerable time to explain the theology and worldview of the Zoumbie Makers while also deviling into the horrific.
Freaky undead doings abound, making for some killer scenes. Zombie hands in pea soup, crazy chicks eating glass, a corpse-bride with a python tongue and the topper of an undead Paul Winfield pulling off his own head to throw it at a freshly risen Bill Pullman (one of my personal favorite horror moments of the 80’s). And while it wasn’t a big hit for Craven, it’s remembered fondly by many fans, despite its over-the-top ending.
Despite the flurry of interest at the end of the Reagan years, Hollywood quickly returned to the modern Zombie model, pushing out the Romero clones with frightening efficiency in the last 30 years. There haven’t been a ton of film exploring the roots of the original Voodoo (2005’s The Skelton Key comes to mind), but that’s not to say our hero’s time won’t come again.
You can’t go anywhere in the horror genre without finding a Romero style cliché showing its decaying head. After nearly 90 years, maybe the original article will finally get his due. Maybe it’s time for Rick and Michonne to meet a Walker who doesn’t want to make them their next meal.
And maybe the next zombie apocalypse should feature something else than the requisite virus-gone-wild. All those brains have to be hell on the hips.