In his book American Zombie Gothic, Kyle Bishop claims that Romero’s quintessential film Night of the Living Dead serves to reinvent the zombie. Based on the previous manifestations of the creature as products of voodoo and magic, Romero’s flesh-eating monsters are quite different. However, Romero does not necessarily reinvent the zombie as Bishop claims, but expands on and adapts the meaning of the zombie in a cultural context. By doing so, Romero’s use of the zombie in his film Night of the Living Dead is quite similar to the use of the same creature in White Zombie.
The origin of the zombie can be traced back to the island of Haiti. As a former French colony, Haiti had ties to African culture, where the majority of the slaves were obtained from, and Western culture. The religion that developed on Haiti reflected the hybrid nature of the population. The result was voodoo, a mixture of Western Christianity and African mysticism (Bishop 42). Voodoo beliefs and rituals deal directly with death. The zombie comes about by stealing the soul of a human and bringing their corpse back to life through the use of voodoo rituals. The creatures were then forced to serve their master as mindless slaves. The widespread belief in the zombie among the population of Haiti reflects the prominence of a cultural anxiety based on the history of slavery on the island. For the Haitians, the process of zombification reflects having your identity and autonomy unwillingly stripped from you, as in the process of enslavement. In White Zombie, this process is clearly shown when Madeleine is forced to become the slave of the wealthy landowner Beaumont who has tragically fallen in love with her. Beaumont seeks help from Legendre, a powerful sorcerer who practices voodoo on the victims of Haiti. When Madeleine is under Legendre’s spell he orders her to kill her lover, Neil, and willingly does so until an intervening third party stops her. She has no control over her actions and is subjected to the needs and wills of Legendre. Consequently, by turning Madeleine, an innocent white American woman, into a zombie rather than a local Haitian, White Zombie also reflects American cultural anxieties of becoming mindless slaves to capitalism as well as the fear of being colonized by a foreign Other.
On the other hand, the zombies of Night of the Living Dead deviate from the Haitian zombies in many ways. For instance, Romero’s zombies are flesh eating, reanimated corpses that can only be stopped by a blow to the head. In his book, Bishop notes that Romero’s reinvention of the zombie narrative combines elements drawn from “classical Gothic literature, vampire tales, and science-fiction invasion narratives” (Bishop 94). By combining elements from established texts and traditions, Bishop claims that Romero is able to author a completely original text, bringing a new sort of narrative to popular culture (Bishop 94). The zombie narrative may be assembled out of an existing monster tradition, but Romero’s zombies are no different from the zombies in Haitian folklore on a cultural level. Traditionally, the zombie reflects cultural anxieties of the contemporary culture that produces the narrative. For example, in Night of the Living Dead, the zombie as well as the zombie narrative has been adapted to reflect a change in the cultural anxieties in 1960’s America. There are many new fears that the zombies symbolize in Romero’s film, including the civil rights protests. This aspect of the film is most evident during the radio and television broadcasts, simultaneously providing an explanation of the zombie’s origin in the film. The broadcasts report that the zombies are coming from the southeast part of America, and that nothing west of the Mississippi River, except for southern Texas, has been affected yet. Evidently, these parts of America were the most active centers for civil rights during the protests. The difference between the zombies reflects the shift in cultural fears during the time when each film was produced. The absence of magic and voodoo in the creation of the zombie suggests that there is no master, and perhaps suggests that the zombies symbolize a mass rebellion that was feared during the civil rights protests. In comparison to White Zombie, the zombie narrative in Night of the Living Dead may also symbolize a fear of an invasion of the Other. Contrary to Bishop’s claim that Romero has reinvented to subgenre, Night of the Living Dead proves that Romero has instead adapted the zombie narrative to contemporary issues.