Zombies and why we love them (Part 1)
When you picture zombies, a visual of brain-eating, mindless ex-humans pops into mind. Well, most of the time.
However, zombies were not always portrayed as such. With a recent influx of zombie-centric content in film, one might wonder, what makes these stinky creatures so endearing to generations of audiences.
Let us look at how the undead forces have mutated over the years on our screens.
First, we shall explore some of the origins leading to their onscreen adaptations:
The word zombie finds its roots within West African culture. This arose from the tribal lands where witch doctors prospered, often guiding their society through magically-influenced wisdom.
In other words, voodoo was involved.
It is a dark art that eradicates memories of another person to gain control of their being.
It was with such physical hijacking that the term zombie arose.
This was way before any of the Walking Dead and Resident Evil stuff. The original zombies were not exactly undead or victims of terrorism-driven viral outbreaks, they were in fact, people who had fallen into the hallucinogenic trances of voodoo hypnotism.
In the world of film however, it was the 1968-piece, Night of the Living Dead, that introduced the popular interpretation of zombies to the mass public.
The movie also spread the notion that zombies were ever-hungry for brains and were hardier than human beings, being impervious to injuries except well-placed gunshots and blows to the head. The undead in the film were raised by a satellite malfunction that released strange radiation.
The film was a low-budget nightmare brought to screen. According to the late director of the film, George Romero, ’I used to be the only guy on the zombie playground.’
These days however, one requires the budget of an oil magnate and state-of-the-art CGI to create a relevant zombie piece. It has become highly competitive amongst modern film-makers. Romero though, retains his place in the hall of fame, being the man who brought zombies into pop culture.
High-browed movie buffs might argue that zombies entered film way before the 1968 classic, they are not wrong.
If one considered The Mummy (1932) starring legendary thespian Boris Karloff, a mummy is in fact a person brought back from the celestial divide and technically a zombie, but it was Romero who created the modern concept of the slow-moving, organ-munching creep, associated with zombie flicks.
Types of Zombies
Aside from the common Hollywood depictions of zombies, there have been other variants in film. Here are some of the popular ones:
Jiangshi A.K.A. The oriental hoppers
Vile blood-sucking creatures that are usually dressed in the garb of Chinese imperial officials, hinting that they were dignitaries in life who had not gone to rest. These pale undead depend on hopping as their favourite mode of travel (as their limbs were stiff from rigour mortis) and they were often stopped in their tracks when a talisman was pasted on their foreheads.
The Chinese term, Jiangshi, translates to stiff corpse. These beings have appeared in Chinese folklore for centuries.
It was believed that many scenarios could lead to the formation of a Jiangshi, such as a person suffering a tragic death, a black cat jumping over a corpse or a body being struck by lightning.
The myth may have arisen during the early days of China when undertakers would attach bamboo poles to the back of the dead for support when delivering the deceased back to their home villages.
When seen from afar, there is a disturbing illusion during the procession that the bodies were raised by the undertaker, who were maligned for being warlocks or necromancers with the powers of bringing the dead back to life.
In the 1980s, several Hongkong films used this concept of zombies for a variety of effects, including comedic relief. Some titles include Vampire Vs. Vampire (1989) and Mr Vampire (1985).
Wrapped up in layers of linen bandages and spices, and with their organs removed through a complex embalming ritual, it is a tale as ancient as the great pyramid itself.
These zombies are perhaps the oldest kind known to mankind. The idea comes from ancient Egypt, from kingdoms when priests possessed all the power in the world and were said to affect the afterlife.
The mummy is linked to curses and labyrinth-like death rooms laden with endless riches.
People seem to be enticed by the idea of a tireless guardian maintaining its eternal watch over possessions while greedy tomb raiders try their luck, surviving (or not) scores of traps and deadly enchantments.
This has been evident since 1930, after the film that was constantly being remade up till now.
Since the incipient movie in 1932, there have been multiple spinoffs such as The Mummy trilogy (The Mummy 1999, The Mummy Returns 2001 and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor 2008) and The Mummy 2017. The cast and crew may have changed over the years, but the central theme still revolves around an unspoken evil that breaks free from imprisonment to wreak havoc in the modern world.
The original. In White Zombie (1932), a man is infatuated with a beautiful woman and decides to marry her against her wishes. He decides to have her murdered and revived as a droning slave by a zombie master who bathes in the power of voodoo.
The movie, shot in 11 days and with a low budget, was an experimental piece that paid homage to zombie origins.
It is said in Haitian folklore, the ‘’dead’’ were ‘’resurrected’’ by a witch or bokor, through voodoo rites involving a zombie powder. The entire process was harsh and traumatic for the unwilling victim, who was selected by the bokor. Essentially, a person is driven to the brink of death, loses sanity and is barely returned to society by reducing the life-threatening effects.
Zombie portrayal has evolved through time and we shall see in modern adaptations that the Romero-prototype has gone on to become the gold standard in film.
Speaking of film, we at Premise TV had the wonderful opportunity to hear from Jacen Tan, the director of Zombiepura. He shared his thoughts on the challenges faced on set, zombie stereotypes and offers some advice for aspiring horror filmmakers.
An interview with Director Jacen Tan:
1) The conceptualization of the movie had lingered on your mind through seven years, a substantial time-frame, what kept you glued to your vision?
Jacen: I always believed in the idea of a fun zombie flick: throwing two opposing army guys, a lazy corporal and his tough commander, into a crazy zombie apocalypse. It’s a buddy movie about them finding out what it means to be real soldiers.
2) Seeing how the theme of a zombie-infested world has been reproduced to a fault, were there some stereotypes that you took special pains to avoid?
Jacen: There are a lot of Singaporean elements which we injected into the movie. Most Singaporean guys need to serve National Service. The movie asks this question in a tongue-in-cheek manner: Will military training really help us during a zombie outbreak? Can we really fight zombies with that?
3) You once stated that the monotony of NS guard duty had inspired you for Zombiepura, were there any characters in the film who were based loosely off people you had met in service?
Jacen: Every character you meet in the film, you’d meet in the army :)
4) Some audiences might not know this but for the movie, you decided on a rather interesting venue as your main premise, what was the greatest challenge in recreating the environment of an old school military facility?
Jacen: In Singapore everything looks very new and clean, so we had to find abandoned places to dress up as military camp. Our art director Junior Foong and team were instrumental in recreating an authentic look for the film. When the taxi driver drove me to set one day, he was shocked and asked me: “What camp is this?” He thought he really drove into a real army camp.
5) Being a hardcore horror buff, were there instances when you were tempted to leap away from the camera and join in on the action?
Jacen: I was planning to appear as a zombie, but that would require me spending 2–3 hours in the makeup chair. Time was tight, and I decided to spend it preparing for the shoot!
6) What is one advice that you wish to impart to aspiring horror filmmakers?
Jacen: Watch more movies, the classics, like The Exorcist and Night of the Living Dead. That’s where everything came from.
Zombiepura is a 2018 comedic zombie flick set in the military camp of Singapore following a brave commander (played by Benjamin Heng) and a loafing soldier (portrayed by Alaric Tay) as they repel hordes of walking dead that suddenly appear in their military facility.
In our next article, we shall take a closer look at the modern adaptations of Zombies and how they have been modified through the ages in film, additionally, we shall explore some of the recent movies of the zombie style.
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Author: Laurenzo Jude