Colonialism spawned a zombie movie

George Romero created modern zombies as a metaphor for infectious disease and consumerism. But, as film scholar Jennifer Fay writes, the first full-length zombie film emerged from a different kind of metaphor – the long-standing relationship of Haitian living dead to slavery and exploitative labor.

When White Zombie It premiered in 1932, Fay writes, that the United States was in the seventeenth year of the occupation of Haiti and faced mass strikes and demonstrations that would lead to their complete withdrawal two years later. The film focuses on white characters – the title zombie is an American woman stolen from her husband on his wedding night by a rival with the help of voodoo practitioner European plantation owner Murder Legendre (played by the horror icon Bela Legosi). However, the background of the action is occupied Haiti, described by the American journalist and occultist WB Seabrook.

In Magic Island, in his book about traveling in Haiti, Seabrook describes attending voodoo ceremonies chaired by a priestess and a village leader in the interior of the island. Rather than portraying the animal sacrifices and the drinking of blood associated with the ritual as grotesque, he presents them as an authentic religious experience, contrasting them with what he sees as empty practices of Christianity in the US.

The White Zombie, 1932
White Zombie1932 via Wikimedia Commons

But, as Fay notes, Seabrook returns later in his narrative to what he sees as “Americanized Haiti” in Port-au-Prince. Here he describes the voodoo magic warped to provide undead workers for the Haitian-American Sugar Company (HASCO), an operation owned by American interests known for paying low wages for exhausting work. The locals tell him about the intermediaries who exhume the bodies from the graves and resurrect them, collecting wages on payday.

“In this sense, zombies are a modern industrial practice of an occupation culture in which the more enterprising Haitians enslave the corpses of their compatriots,” writes Fay.

Madge Bellamy picks up a knife above the man in a scene from the movie White Zombie1932 Getty

From its origins in the French slave colony, then known as Saint-Domingue, the legend of Haitian zombies was intertwined with slavery. Promotion for White Zombie in the US it relied heavily on this connection while sensing the supposed wildness of black Haitians. The advertising copy promised that the film’s depiction of a body “dug up and employed as slaves” was based on actual observations by American researchers. Promoters encouraged local exhibitors to hire black performers to dress in “tropical costumes”, beat volumes and scream.

The promotions were based on allegations of voodoo voodoo practices that had been used to justify the US invasion, while pointing to the exploitation of the Haitians by their occupiers. (Fay notes that in 1921 New York Times An estimated 2,500 Haitians have already been killed in the first seven years of the occupation, many of them fleeing the forced labor system established by the occupiers). internationally, but at home.

“Fear of a ghostly workforce securing both the Haitian occupation and the country’s industry may well explain White Zombie’s possible commercial success,” writes Fay.


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Author: Jennifer Fay

CR: New Century Review, Vol. 8, no. 1, Cultures of the Occupation (Spring 2008), pp. 81–101

Michigan State University Press

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