Aug 18, 2009

zombies, leopards, and genre-theory

This is going to be a rather lenghty entry: What is a Zombie? The same as an undead person, or a "living dead". You might call it a "contradictio in adiecto", as someone is either dead or alive (although we know, that it is hard to draw the exact line between those two states of the body). Zombies are more or less popular figures in fiction (they have even given a name to a sub-genre of the horror-movie genre - I DO like genre theory a lot). Public notion holds this very concept to be somehow related to the Caribbean, especially to Haiti and "Voodoo".
I would rather call it a topic of folk-belief associated with the shape traditional West-African religions have taken in Haiti. To understand the notion of a Zombie in that particular context, we have to take a look at the concept of man behind it. In Voodoo thought, the human person is held to be guided by more than one soul or spiritual principle. The spiritual elements of the person are: the ti bónanj, the “little good angel”, the conscience of a person; the gwo bónanj, the “big good angel”, the personality of a given person and the lwa mét tét, the lwa, who is the master of the head, a personal "guardian angel". A lwa (pronounced as: lo-á) is a kind of spirit or deity. In the languages of the Bight of Benin it is called either a tro (ewe) or a vodu (fon). This is where the word "voodoo" stems from. In a way, it is the same as the Yorùbá orisha.
After death, the connection between the gwo bonanj and the lwa mét tét has to be resolved in the right way through ritual means. If that was done in the wrong way, it would lead to an imbalance that could be taken advantage of by an evil sorcerer (a bòkò), He will capture the gwo bonanj, and transform it into an evil spirit (a Zombie) that he uses for exerting witchcraft.
Another form of the Zombie is the above mentioned living dead, a corpse without a soul. In Haiti, these Zombies are thought of as corpses that the bòkò has taken out of the grave and revived. Since the gwo bonanj has already left the dead body, it is revived without a soul. The bòkò uses this Zombie to fulfil hard labour as a kind of human working machine. I keep on wondering, whether the circumstances of slavery have taken part in shaping such an imagination.
The latter notion is the movies' classic rendering: a person put into a state of a living dead. We find that in the movie that is commonly held to be the first "Zombie film" ever, White Zombie,  from 1932. It is worth viewing for the fact that it features Bela Lugosi and that it tells us some things about "race-relationship" (I do not think there there is such a thing as "race").

Although the movie draws heavily on (misrepresented) Afro-American religious ideas, and is settled in a Caribbean context, there is only one black person that is not merely depicted but also giving explanations: the coach-driver at the beginning of the film. The story is about a white couple invited by a white plantation-owner to have their marriage at his home. The latter wants to have the woman, so he makes a deal with a white sorcerer (master of an army of white zombies - hence the name of the film, I guess), who turns the woman into a zombie (by using a kind of "voodoo-doll", sympathetic magic). The plantation-owner has to learn the lesson, that in a pact with the devil one is very likely to be deceived, and the faithful husband succeeds in getting back his wife (with a little help from a friendly doctor and a black sage). Happy ending, the couple reunited.
A more sophisticated version of the eternal drama of mankind - will the two come together? (nobody ever is interested in their daily life AFTER THE FACT) - is given in "I Walked with a Zombie". In my humble opinion, Ulrike Sulikowski is more than damn right in highlighting that movie's merits. Obviously taking up the meager plot of "White Zombie", it brings in some reminiscences of Jane Eyre (the woman having fallen in love with the man who has a kind of Zombie wife at home) by darling Charlotte Bronté and unfolds the Zombie-theme against a background of a family-drama. Furthermore, there are dialogues that reflect outer image and inner practice of Voodoo, and black-skinned persons are allowed to act. The movie also stars a then famous calypso-singer, commenting on the family situation of the white patricians in the story's focus ("shame and scandal in the family").

In contradistinction to Jane Eyre, the drama unfolds in the colonies, as it is the Jane Eyre kind of woman that goes there, not the man having returned from there - a fine twist in the colonial construction of centre and periphery. The movie also shows some craftsmanship, as it is Jacques Tourneur, who has directed it. It was produced for RKO, and this meant a low budegt situation. Val Lewton was the producer (in charge of the horror genre at RKO), who engaged Tourneur, and most likely they would not have more than the title of the movie when starting to work on it. An example of such a film is the leopard man (click on it to watch the trailer), a story about a murderer who takes advantage of the situation, that a leopard has escaped during a publicity stunt. Nice movie, but no budget for special effects. As in "I walked with a Zombie", Tourneur compensates us with psychological finesse. He does the same in another production for RKO's suspense department, cat people (click on it to watch it), featuring lovely Simone Simon. Another one on cats of prey, this time on a woman turning into one. Her relationship to the psychoanalyst she is finally killing is a fine example of the psychological skills of Tourneur as a director, the way the killing is rendered is a striking example of "no budget". Back in the eighties, they did a remake directed by Paul Schrader, starring Nastassja Kinski and Malcolm McDowell, with a nice title song by David Bowie (I tried to find a good version on UTUBE, but there are only some live versions that do not match the original recording). Be that as it may, cat people does not offer us a happy ending. The disastrous energies of the catwoman are killing her lover and herself in the end (although we have a couple emerging out of that disorder). It is, in a way, a film noir, like "Out of the Past". (click on it to view it)
This one movie directed by Tourneur is worth viewing not only for the fact that it features Robert Mitchum as cool as he could be. It is regarded a classic film noir and I do think, more than rightly. It also shows that Tourneur could have been one of the great directors of his time (I like Truffaut, and for that I like auteur-theory). With all the twists of the plot, with all the sophistication of the main character, in a world where there is hardly someone to find you could trust in, it does not give us the classic happy ending. The one woman worth his love, faithfully waiting for the hero's return does not get him (or vice versa). In other words, the order of society is not restored fully, the chaos that has come in could not be overcome fully.
Might be a meek association, but the same seems to hold for the first Zombie Movie of the "apocalyptical type", albeit its ending in restoration of governmental power. Here, the figure of the Zombie is totally void of its meaning in the Afro-American world. For reasons that are not given in the film, the undead rise and invade the world, attacking the living and feasting on their corpses. A group of persons trying to protect themselves in a house does not succeed in its attempt to survive the attack, due to their failure of working together. Without indulging into ritual theory, it has to be mentioned, that funeral rites have to do with re-establishing order, as the order of society is disturbed by a corpse, the remnant of a living person, yet no longer in the realm of the living. Be it the shaman guiding the soul of the deceased, be it the procession accompanying the corpse from the community meeting locale (the church or some secular place) to the cemetry, and other examples galore, the line between the living and the dead has to be drawn clearly in order to have order. Fear of disruption of that order is, in my opinion, archaic both and modern, as it is universal among human beings. With "Night of the Living Dead", a low-budget independent film like White Zombie, a genre exploiting that fear, has been born.

A good read on the depiction of haitian vodu in the movies is: Ulrike Sulikowski, Hollywoodzombie: Vodou and the Caribbean in Mainstram Cinema. In: Manfred Kremser [ed.], Ay Bobo. African Caribbean Religions. Pt. 2. Voodoo, Vienna 1996, 77-96.

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