Zombie Labor

Zombie Repellent

It may come as no surprise that I am fascinated by the privileged position zombies have come to occupy in our cultural imagination recently. And while this surge may be related to our penchant for endless war as this article argues, I wonder if it might not have something to do with a trend towards disinvestment and dehumanizing of the labor force around the world in our current moment.  It’s a big jump, so bear with me for a bit.

zombie hut 1

I’m actually excited that zombies have become the operating metaphor for our culture these days, because I think it’s right on in many ways. Lets face it, we all go mindlessly about our consumption of both things and one another, and our world is becoming a wasteland filled with the walking dead as a result. I’ve been thinking a lot about the various “uncarnations” of  zombies in popular culture over the last 75 years, and I originally thought this post would be a wide-ranging, idiosyncratic link fest to a ton of online examples. However, the thought of such a project is way too overwhelming at the moment. Hopefully I’ll get to this project, but in the mean time I’ve recently watched the zombie film that started it all: White Zombie (film) (1932).

White Zombie provides an interesting frame for making sense of one of the things that has kind of pissed me off about the recent rash of zombies in movies and games, namely they move too god damned fast. What’s up with that? From 28 Days Later (2002) to the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, zombies started pulling a Jessie Owens on un-expecting audiences everywhere, and I for one found it not only off-putting but disorientating. How does the idea of speed and a kind of angry intensity figure into the long, rich tradition of the zombie? I have pained over this question, and I have heard some interesting talk about the idea of zombies being scarier if they are faster or a reflection of our instantaneous, efficiency driven culture.  There are also the ideas that the CGI craze has replaced an interest in make-up artistry—which is hopefully not a disappearing art form.

The thing is, zombie movies have transmogrified into fast-paced, vapid action films—a Hollywood standard these day—rather than keeping any focus upon the more psychologically grinding and gory tradition of horror that is often a vehicle for cultural critiques though allegory. So while we have an explosion of interest in all things zombies these days, it often turns out to be divorced from a powerful critique of our culture as we might see in classics like Night of the Living Dead (1968) or the original Dawn of the Dead (1978). Current films don’t even have the hardcore gore and insane scenes like a zombie battling a tiger shark which you’ll find in Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2.

These days zombies have never been in greater need of some kind of direction, a larger purpose in our popular imagination, and that’s why a recent viewing of White Zombie has me thinking anew about the rich possibilities of the zombie figure. This film is freely available on the Internet Archive here, and it comes highly recommended. You can also find Victor Halperin’s follow-up zombie film Revolt of the Zombies (1936) on the Internet Archive as well.

What I find remarkable about White Zombie is the logic of labor that runs through the film. Bela Lugosi plays the evil, colonial plantation owner in Haiti who has been turning the locals into zombies so that they can effectively run his sugar plantation and mill. An entirely zombified labor force that effectively does his bidding without question, all thought is lost and the act of labor is eternally repeated even from beyond the grave. The zombies are not flesh eating automatons in this film, but rather a disenfranchised group who have been forced into mindless labor by a wicked sorcerer/master.

Image of Haitian Revolution

What’s wild about this early vision of the laboring undead in White Zombie is that it carries with it a rich history of insurrection in Haiti. Toussaint Louverture is the slave who became the leader of the Haitian Revolution against the French colonial power during the late 18th century, which was the first and only successful African-led revolution in the Western Hemisphere. A nine year insurrection (1791-1800) that established the first republic run by self-liberated slaves of African descent. Interestingly enough, such a revolutionary sentiment was widespread at this moment in history, especially given the recently formed United States of America and the French Revolution, yet such a successful slave revolution was more a source of fear and horror than solidarity and support for what might seem obvious reasons.

Image of a Zombie from 19th century

So it may be no surprise that the very idea of zombies would originate in the “Afro-Caribbean spiritual belief system of Vodou, which told of the people being controlled as laborers by a powerful sorcerer.” Think about this for a second, laborers controlled by a powerful sorcerer, which seems so much more germane to our moment than some virus strain, aliens, or a cosmic meteorite.  At the very heart of the figure of zombies is the idea of the exploitation of labor.  The divorce of everything that is human and soulful about individuals in an attempt to make them mindless automatons who simply go about the process of producing for someone elses profit.  Wow! That’s wild.

Tthe following clips from White Zombie capture this spirit wonderfully.  The first takes place in the opening of the film wherein we are introduced to the unassuming protagonists of the film who are being taken by coach to their guests plantation. On the way they encounter the evil master/sorcerer (Lugosi) and his army of zombie laborers.  Not only does this scene have an awesome special effect wherein Lugosi’s disembodied evil eyes are  superimposed upon the carriage and we slowly watch them  return to his head as he comes into the scene—suggesting this magical/otherworldly quality of this figure immediately.  After seeing the Zombies the black coach (Clarence Muse) driver immediately yells “Zombies!” and takes off like a bat out of hell. And when he is questioned about his actions he delivers a classic, non-stereotypical explanation of zombies as laborers in the local sugar mill.

white zombie eyes full from Jim Groom on Vimeo.

In a scene soon after this one, we actually get to see the Zombies in the sugar mill which may be my favorite one in the entire movie.  The shots are both beautiful and creepy—it’s reminiscent of the famous scene from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis wherein Freder’s discovers the workers who labor deep beneath the city and whose bodies are in many ways tied to the machines that they operate.

white zombie mill from Jim Groom on Vimeo.

How about that, who knew zombies where all about the state of labor both in the late 18th century, as well at the height of the depression in 1932 when White Zombie was made? Perhaps the idea of the zombie as a representation of the all but dead logic of collective bargaining and organized labor might be a new and extremely important thread of the zombie legend to return to for our moment.

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10 Responses to Zombie Labor

  1. Luke says:

    What a rich post, Jim… leaves me with a better, more historicized understanding of the zombie milieu, and wanting more.

    Have you heard about Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies? Seth Grahame-Smith took Austen’s text and– you guessed it– added zombies. I couldn’t help but see the connection between his project, this post, and your conversation with Lessig.

  2. Steven Egan says:

    Wow, I’ve actually seen at least part of that one. A friend of mine is a bit of a zombie fan. She got me to watch Shawn of the Dead, too. Even won a DVD with a couple black and white zombie movies on it, from a Halloween party at her house.

    Anyways, it really is interesting how this has gone full circle. And to give some contribution to this, I’ll share some quotes from Ivan Illich. ( http://www.preservenet.com/theory/Illich.html )

    “Once a man or woman has accepted the need for school, he or she is easy prey for other institutions. Once young people have allowed their imaginations to be formed by curricular instruction, they are conditioned to institutional planning of every sort. “Instruction” smothers the horizon of their imaginations. They cannot be betrayed, but only short-changed, because they have been taught to substitute expectations for hope. They will no longer be surprised, for good or ill, by other people, because they have been taught what to expect from every other person who has been taught as they were. This is true in the case of another person or in the case of a machine.

    … personal growth is not a measurable entity. It is growth in disciplined dissidence, which cannot be measured against any rod, or any curriculum, nor compared to someone else’s achievement. In such learning one can emulate others only in imaginative endeavor, and follow in their footsteps rather than mimic their gait. The learning I prize is immeasurable re-creation.

    School pretends to break learning up into subject “matters,” to build into the pupil a curriculum made of these prefabricated blocks, and to gauge the result on an international scale. People who submit to the standard of others for the measure of their own personal growth soon apply the same ruler to themselves. They no longer have to be put in their place, but put themselves into their assigned slots, squeeze themselves into the niche which they have been taught to seek, and, in the very process, put their fellows into their places, too, until everybody and everything fits.

    People who have been schooled down to size let unmeasured experience slip out of their hands. To them, what cannot be measured becomes secondary, threatening. They do not have to be robbed of their creativity. Under instruction, they have unlearned to “do” their thing or “be” themselves, and value only what has been made or could be made.”

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  4. Serena says:

    I’m sure you get this all the time, but you look just like Miles in that photo.

  5. Ed Webb says:

    If you haven’t done so already, you should check out the excellent Zombie cover story from 2005 by the fabulous Philly Weekly’s curmudgeonly Brit, Stephen Wells: http://www.philadelphiaweekly.com/news-and-opinion/cover-story/38401614.html

  6. Martin says:

    Simon Pegg argued that zombies should never run: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2008/nov/04/television-simon-pegg-dead-set
    “You cannot kill a vampire with an MDF stake; werewolves can’t fly; zombies do not run. It’s a misconception, a bastardisation that diminishes a classic movie monster. The best phantasmagoria uses reality to render the inconceivable conceivable. The speedy zombie seems implausible to me, even within the fantastic realm it inhabits. A biological agent, I’ll buy. Some sort of super-virus? Sure, why not. But death? Death is a disability, not a superpower.”

    I liked the Dawn remake – I thought ‘ooh, fast moving zombies, that’s fun’. But it was an interesting experiment, not to be taken as the new rules. It is their very slowness that makes them menacing – the scene near the end of Zombie Flesh Eaters (as I will persist in calling it) where they are trapped in the hospital and the zombie hoardes are gathering is chilling because they gather _slowly_. It’s the ponderous inevitability of it all that makes it scary.

    There is also some kind of equation that needs to be balanced here:
    On their side zombies have numbers. They are also already dead so can only be killed by head removal (or blown up, etc).
    On our side we have being able to move fast and being able to think.
    Now if you give zombies speed that unbalances it. We need something else then – how about the ability to fly? You may as well make zombies intelligent.

    I watched the remake of Day of the Dead the other day, and they’d continued the fast moving zombie trend. It was shit – at one point zombies jump out of first floor windows and land like spiderman before getting up and sprinting after the heroes. ‘They’re zombies for chrissakes!’ I screamed.

    All of which you know, but I just want to get into that bava top 10.

  7. Reverend says:


    Beautifully rendered critique of fast-moving zombies, and as much as it may be a “more relevant” to out moment, I think the idea of slow-moving zombies may be ever more relevant because so many of our institutions can not keep up, are simply walking dead. I love the way you frame the fact that once you make them fast the game is effectively over, it’s true. It reminds me of another trend to cross-breed the zombie with vampire, as you can see in the recent I Am Legend film. I have to blog more about this just to get you to comment more about movies, because I love your stuff 🙂

  8. Dan Halford says:

    Very interesting stuff. Although I prefer the slow-moving, Romero-style zombie, I have to admit Danny Boyle’s ravenous variety in 28 Days Later truly seemed hungry, whereas previous incarnations just seem to be portrayed as curious, wandering, and totally braindead. They lack any real intelligence, unlike Boyle’s zombies and Zack Snyder’s in the Dawn of the Dead remake, which seem to have a sort of rabid instinct and thought process.
    Also I think there’s a role reversal in recent zombie films, in that often where scores of slow-moving zombie could be mown down by several people, faster varieties really put up a fight. The original Dawn of the Dead reflects on the effect of consumerism, in that we are slaves to it, even in death – the zombies congregating in the mall because it was the centre of their previous lives, but later models seem positively out for vengeance on humanity.

    – thoughts, not very good ones :3

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