The Zombie: "A New Monster for a New World"

UA doctoral student Kyle W. Bishop argues that while the zombie has become a hugely popular cinematic device, the creature is a remnant of an imperialistic and racist era.
June 13, 2008
Kyle W. Bishop, a doctoral degree student in the UA's English department, has studied the zombie as a postcolonial creature. (Photo courtesy of Kyle W. Bishop)
Kyle W. Bishop, a doctoral degree student in the UA's English department, has studied the zombie as a postcolonial creature. (Photo courtesy of Kyle W. Bishop)

Kyle W. Bishop has spent his graduate studies researching a nearly century-old cinematic creation that has surfaced in films, cartoons, books and video games, and has even served as inspiration for parades, shopping sprees and certain musicians.

We’re talking about zombies.

Bishop, who is pursuing a doctorate in The University of Arizona’s English department with an emphasis on 20th century American literature and film studies, has published numerous articles about popular culture, television and film with much of his recent work centered on zombies.

Bishop, who has been hired as a lecturer at Southern Utah University while completing his dissertation on zombie narratives for his doctorate, makes the case that the zombie was “sired directly by the imperialist system.”

The zombie, he said, is a postcolonial creature that cloaked the racist sentiments of the early 20th century, a time when Westerners who wanted the United States to become an imperial power were, at the same time, consumed with concern about black-white race relations.

Charlie Bertsch, a UA assistant professor of English and Bishop’s adviser, said what makes Bishop’s research so unique is that he interprets both the historic and cinematic references in horror films instead of focusing on audience response.

“He isn’t going to have any difficulty turning his dissertation into a book,” Bertsch said, “because his work is so interesting.”

Unearthing Meanings Behind the "White Zombie"

Bishop’s dissertation takes a look at the origins and evolution of the zombie beginning with Victor Halperin’s 1932 film “White Zombie.”

He said the film influenced the trajectory of the zombie as a cinematic device and also warped voodoo into a horrifying practice in the mind of Westerners. Bishop said the film also served to diminish the importance of the religious tradition, which comes from Haiti, a country in the Caribbean that has a history of colonialism.

Bishop’s most recent article, “The Sub-Subaltern Monster: Imperialist Hegemony and the Cinematic Voodoo Zombie,” is published in the current issue of the Journal of American Culture and explores the relevance of the 76-year-old movie.

He wrote that “instead of enlightening Western audiences about the cultural realities of Haiti, the film merely exploits rumors of voodoo practices and paganism.” In this way, the film portrayed “whites as universally righteous and casting blacks as potentially wicked.”

In “White Zombie,” Madeleine and Neil, a soon-to-be wed couple, are convinced to get married on a friend’s Haitian plantation. The friend, Charles Beaumont, makes the gesture so he can ask Madeleine to flee with him. But, when she refuses, Beaumont seeks the help of a “native witch doctor” who has a powder that can turn people into zombies.

The powder kills Madeleine and the witch doctor, known as Murder Legendre and played by Bela Lugosi, eventually decides he wants to enslave her as a zombie, along with Beaumont. Ultimately, Madeleine's husband is able to restore back to their human selves his wife and Murder Legendre’s other zombies, who had been working in the fields and sugar mills.

Strangely, moviegoers at the time would often take these narratives as fact, Bishop said.

“There was a lot of sensationalist travel literature where people would make a big deal out of Haiti, saying this is what people did – that they brought people back from the dead and turned them into slaves,” he said.

Bishop said certain authors and social scientists notoriously slandered the voodoo practice and people of African descent.

“The zombie is, essentially, a colonial creation where the greatest fear is of a monster, a slavelike creature, and that those who had been enslaved would rise up and impose power on us,” he said. “In many ways, ‘White Zombie’ is getting to our fears of the other. Like a (William) Faulkner novel, the sins of our ancestors are going to come back and literally bite us.”

Bishop argues that Halperin fashioned the zombie on misrepresented information about voodoo.

He wrote: “For a Western white audience, the real threat and source of terror in these films are not the political vagaries of a postcolonial nation or the plights of the enslaved native zombies, but rather the risk that the white protagonists might become zombies themselves. In other words, the true horror in these movies lies in the prospect of a Westerner becoming dominated, subjugated, and effectively ‘colonized’ by a native pagan.”

This enabled the zombie to become “the first thoroughly postcolonial creature from the New World to appear in popular horror movies.”

Haiti was viewed as Gothic and mysterious, Bishop said. “And voodoo has always been grossly misrepresented and has been made as a threatening sign of the 'other.'"

Even though voodoo – which is spelled several different ways – is a fusion of African and Christian beliefs and is a system of ritutals that "deal directly with death and the spirit world," Bishop also said voodoo "is never treated as a religion or a lifestyle or something natural, but always as something threatening, other worldly or pagan.”

New Creature for the New World

Unlike the werewolf, Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster – creatures born in Europe – the zombie’s history is rooted in the United States and it origins came during a time of blatant racism and also competition for world power status.

“Part of my central thesis is that I think we wanted a monster of our own,” he said, noting that during the 1930s and 1940s, the United States had become an imperialist power and that its nationalistic character naturally extended into popular culture.

Bishop’s research seeks to unmask "a lot of imperialist racism and lack of tolerance – the idea that when the Western culture encounters a different culture,” he said, “the immediate thing to do is to make that culture seem threatening or horrific.”

Though the film resulted in the zombie’s ensuing popularity, the creature today is often portrayed quite differently than its original self.

Numerous directors have used the zombie to make social critiques and metaphors while the creature has also been portrayed in a whimsical and comedic way, as was evidenced by films like “Zombie Love” and “Shaun of the Dead,” which was inspired by George A. Romero’s classic 1978 film “Dawn of the Dead” – Bishop’s all-time favorite horror movie.

In film, the zombie saw a “revival” during the 1960s and 1970s, Bertsch said. In recent years, numerous popular films in the United States and in the United Kingdom have centered on the zombie or incorporated zombielike characters.

“The voodoo is pretty much gone now, but the idea of infectious cannibalism is still there,” Bishop said.

“There is still the sense of being enslaved, of losing your autonomy and becoming part of a kind of hoard, mob mentality. But instead of zombies working in sugar mills, they’re eating people,” he said. “So, it’s still morbid.”