Zombie: The Living Dead by Rose London
(New York: Bounty Books, 1976), 112 pp.
Cover art by Robert Ellis
I don't know anything about Rose London. I assume she is a British author of popular works and not a university professor or scholar. Her book, Zombie: The Living Dead, is a popular, pictorial history of the undead in movies. It covers not only American movies but also those from Great Britain, Mexico, Canada, and other countries. The book was originally published in Britain. It's worth noting that, although Ms. London's book covers vampires, mummies, and other undead creatures, it is entitled Zombie: The Living Dead. That indicates to me that zombies were gaining traction in the mid-1970s as a leading monster type. Nevertheless, the author's discussion of zombies doesn't begin until page 76, and about half of that discussion is devoted to science fictional themes, including invasions by aliens bent on controlling the minds and lives of people on Earth. There is, without a doubt, a connection between movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and stories of zombies, but I'm not sure that stories of alien invasion belong with stories of zombies in a book like this one.
The zombie section of Zombies: The Living Dead includes a few movies worth mentioning in any history of zombies. One is Revenge of the Zombies (1943), in which "[a] doctor operating in the swamplands of the Deep South tried to create an army of invincible zombies to help the Nazis." (p. 82) Thus, even early on in the history of zombies in America, storytellers recognized the significance of zombies as representative of mass movements, especially political mass movements. Another is Invisible Invaders (1959), an alien invasion movie in which the dead rise from the grave en masse. Thus, as early as the 1950s, there were scientific undead vs. the supernatural undead. And they moved in masses. Still another is Plague of Zombies, a Hammer film from 1966 in which a strange plague kills off the inhabitants of an English town, only for them to come back as zombies. Although there is a scientific explanation for the zombie-ism in the movie, there is also a supernatural explanation in that the man responsible for the plague has been to Haiti and has learned about voodoo there. Having never seen Plague of Zombies, I can't say how those two things are reconciled. In any case, Plague of Zombies seems to have anticipated Night of the Living Dead and all subsequent stories of zombie hordes infected with disease.
So it looks like the zombie in film evolved over the years from a harmless and helpless slave--a walking deadman lacking any will of his own--into a frightening and dangerous monster. That is to be expected, as there aren't very many dramatic possibilities represented by a figure who lives, yet lacks all human personality and attributes, motivation or agency. There was also an evolution from the zombie made by magic to one made by science. And there was of course an evolution from solitary zombie slaves or small groups of slaves to out-of-control hordes or masses. I wonder if there will ever again be a zombie movie based on the original idea of the zombie as one of the harmless (and pitiable) undead. I have a feeling that moviegoers, having forgotten the slave origins of zombies, would complain, "That's not a zombie." That's how far we have come, I think. It seems obvious to me, though, that there was not a first of anything when it comes to zombies in film other than that there was a first zombie movie, which was, of course, White Zombie, from 1932. Instead, there was an evolution of zombies. I'll have more to write on that in an entry I will call "The Island Theory of Zombiation."
Original text copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley