The zombie, mirror of the West

“Vhead off! » Anyone who is directly or indirectly interested in zombie stories knows this golden rule: always go after the brain if you want to put the undead predator out of harm’s way. But why should we attack the organ of thought, in putrefied creatures who, obviously, no longer use it, driven by a single obsession: to devour their neighbor?

The origin of this theory undoubtedly goes back to that of the zombie itself, which is none other, in the Haitian culture where it was born (its first appearances in literature date back to the 17e century, from the pen of Pierre-Corneille de Blessebois), than a disembodied being, having lost all self-will and submitting to the will of a sorcerer, who reduces him to slavery. A creature without soul or brain…

An alienated worker

Born in Voodoo culture, the zombie appeared at the cinema in 1932 with the film White Zombie, by Victor Halperin. It depicts a young American couple whose wife, coveted by a rich planter, is reduced to the status of vegetable by a voodoo master paid by the latter. In 1943, I Walked with a Zombie, by Jacques Tourneur, also features a young American, recruited to take care of a wealthy wife on an island near Haiti. But soon, she will realize that the woman has been zombified according to a voodoo rite…

Find our series pop terror
The witch, from horror to girl power
The zombie, mirror of the West
Ghosts at the bedside of our souls
UFOs: from great fear to fraternization
The arts under the influence of vampires

“These two American films depoliticize the zombie, which was, in Haitian culture, a tool of social criticism denouncing the exploitation of slaves. There they are in the background, the real subject is the white woman, bewitched by an exotic magic, a black magic in the “negro” sense, with a condescending look at the natives, presented as not very evolved magicians”, analyzes Manouk Borzakian, author of the book Zombie Geography. The ruins of capitalism (Playlist Society, 2019).

READ ALSOIn times of pandemic, no Cannes Film Festival without zombies

After these first two appearances of the zombie in Western cinema, the zombie is rather discreet, until the 1960s, when it reappears, still in its “historical” form, but this time transposed to England. The Undead Invasiondirected by John Gilling in 1966, imagines the story of a sinister squire wielding exotic black magic in a small British village, in order to transform its inhabitants into willless creatures that he can exploit at will.

Alright, but when are the zombies going to get down to business, and rush on human flesh ? While some filmmakers seize on this political zombie, aiming to denounce the alienation of the worker through more or less good B series, the branch mutates and evolves, transforming the Haitian zombie into a completely different creature. , not amorphous, but hungry. And his master will, of course, be the essential American filmmaker George A. Romero.

Cannibal, rabid and local

In 1968, when he was not yet thirty, he produced with a modest budget Night of the Living Dead, a film destined to become cult. For the first time, the zombies appear there not as poor humans brainwashed by a cruel master, but as evil beings, dead coming out of their graves in order to feed on humans.

It’s the beginning of a long and prolific tradition of more terrifying (or kitsch, and sometimes both) zombie stories. “What’s funny about this first film in Romero’s Zombies Saga is that at no point in the film does the term zombie is not used to refer to the living dead. It is the critics and the public who will be responsible for using the term and popularizing it, creating the zombie a posteriori”, analyzes Manouk Borzakian.

READ ALSOThe apocalypse according to the creator of “Walking Dead”

The zombie settles in, with its putrid flesh, mournful growls, clumsy gait and snapping jaws. After the success of Night of the Living DeadGeorge A. Romero returned to the genre ten years later by directing zombieEuropean sound title Dawn of the Dead“the twilight of the dead”.

“A new line appears, with a cannibalistic, enraged and above all local zombie: it becomes an American-American zombie, totally independent of the Caribbean zombie,” explains Manouk Borzakian. This will be available at Romero with Day of the Living Dead (1985), The Territory of the Dead (2005), Chronicle of the Living Dead (2008) and The Vestige of the Living Dead (2010). And it will multiply in front of the camera of a multitude of directors.

Social criticism vector

“Protean in both the literal and figurative sense, the zombie is conducive to a multitude of different readings, and evolves with the times,” comments Manouk Borzakian. A single constant to our putrefied killers: under their air of big mindless brutes, they offer, for the most part, a snapshot of the ideology of their time.

The great Romero took advantage of each of his Zombies Saga films to criticize an aspect of society: Vietnam War and the conflict between generations are at the heart of Night of the Living Dead. In 1978, he criticized the consumer society and the false security of abundance with zombie. In 1985, Day of the Living Dead is a charge against Reagan, the military in power and the excesses of science. In 2005, the Territory of the DeadThird Worldist, slays American imperialism in reaction to the iraq war

READ ALSOPhilippe Charlier: “Yes, zombies really exist! »

The genre enjoyed a revival in the early 2000s, with strong audience interest and big-budget Hollywood blockbusters. We thus see the birth of the series of resident Evilwith Milla Jovovich, inspired by the successful video games of the same name, the first part of which was released in 2002, the model of the genre, 28 days laterproduced in 2002 by Danny Boyleor the blockbuster World War Zwith Brad Pitt, adaptation in 2013 of the bestseller of Max Brooks by Mark Forster. On the series side, it is the advent of the survivalist tale The Walking Deadadapted from Robert Kirkman comicswhich will bring together, in his primemore than 17 million viewers.

“The 2000s were a period of post-AIDS and pre-influenza trauma. The attacks hit hard, bringing with them fear of the other and the need to consolidate borders, to build walls, sometimes in a very concrete way,” analyzes Manouk Borzakian. The zombie uses Sartre’s adage in his own way: “Hell is other people.” »

In the series The Walking Dead, each season develops a villain character even more formidable than the “walkers” who devour the living. In the very big Korean success Last train to Busan (Yeon Sang-Ho, 2016), a rather unworthy family man finds himself locked up with his daughter in a train full of undead. Very quickly, the young dad finds himself faced with two realities: he is not that bad in his role as a father, and the living who try to survive on the train can be just as dangerous, if not more. , than zombies.

“There is an interesting angle in the zombie film, notes Manouk Borzakian, it is that they sometimes bring us tracks of survival. In The Last Girl, filmed in 2016 by Colm McCarthy, a fungus pushes humanity into a hybrid species between human and disease that turns it into a monster, and we come to this rather violent and wry conclusion that “it doesn’t matter , that’s life, the planet will be better for it”. Same green subtext with Jim Jarmusch, in The Dead Don’t Die (2020): the zombie is a natural disaster that highlights the dysfunctions of ultra-capitalism.

Over time, the zombies seem to have closed their jaws on two visions of the world, which engage in a fight under their sharp teeth. On the one hand, a Western universe “obsessed with borders, on the other, which shows an all-powerful American, a unique figure of the good, facing hordes of unqualified individuals seeking to defend him”, as well that Manouk Borzakian describes the heroes of World War Z. On the other, suffering humans, who seek new ways of surviving in a hostile world.


Surprisingly, the zombie also offers a breeding ground for comedy. An outlet creature par excellence, conjuring up both our fear of death and our fear of the other, he stands where horror meets the absurd. Deformed, grotesque, these clumsy ex-humans can also make us laugh, defusing our worries.

The more silly and gore, the better: witness the nanars such as the cult Braindeadrealized by peter jackson in 1992, in which a “monkey-rat” brought back from an exotic island (we appreciate the little cuckoo at the origins of the genre) transforms, among other things, a grandmother into a bloodthirsty monster.

READ ALSOHollywood, grinding machine, monstrous world, for David Cronenberg

As Rabelaisian as one could wish, the zombie is also the site of all offenses against good taste, and we happily wallow in scatology and gore (the pinnacle of the genre is reached by the English series Dead Setfilming reality TV actors and actresses locked in the set of their show, witnesses to the collapse of the world, which will eventually reach their sanctuary.) We meet sheep zombies (Black Sheep2006), Nazi zombies (Dead Snow2009), Hispanic zombies (Juan of the Dead2011), zombies at the nursing home (Cockneys vs Zombies2012), and even, hold on tight, zombies (rather not bad, by the way) with Jane Austen sauce (Pride and prejudice and zombies2016).

But the zombie-comedy is not a sub-genre: it has given rise to a string of Hollywood successes. Welcome to Zombieland and Back to Zombielandmade by Ruben Fleischer in 2009 and 2019, in which a band of wandering teenagers in a zombified America find love and adventure with an air of wry irony; the extraordinary Shaun of the Dead (2005), in which two good London losers seek to escape the epidemic by running into their favorite pub, or even the very cute Warm Bodies (2013), by Jonathan Levine, which depicts a zombie falling in love with a human…

And if we had to keep only one, or become familiar with the genre? You have to see the masterpiece The Battery (2012), jewel of spleen and poetry, shot in sixteen days, with a budget of 6,000 dollars, by Jeremy Gardner. Two young men wander side by side in an America invaded by the living dead, marked by the violence of the survivors, in a poignant whirlwind of emotions. Who would have thought that zombies also had the power to make us love life?

The zombie, mirror of the West