March 12, 2013 at 3:23 PM

2 Zom-B or Not 2 Zom-B?

"...most zombie movies are really ghoul movies."

By Casey St. Charnez

Media Rare

Casey St. Charnez has been video editor for Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide since 1986 and buyer for Lisa Harris' Video Library since 1981. He likes Lisa, cats, crosswords, and the Metropolitan Opera, probably in that order.

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This is a zombie. “I Walked With a Zombie” (1943)

Unless mythologists have changed the definition of “zombie” since I studied folklore in graduate school, the truth is that—appearances to the contrary—there are not a lot of bona fide zombie movies out there.

True, the undead are on a lot of screens, from “Warm Bodies” at the movies, to “The Walking Dead” on cable TV, to “Dead Space” for PlayStation 3, Wii, and Xbox.

But not all those shuffling flesh-munchers are zombies. By definition, the zombie is a product of Haiti. It is not a reanimated dead person; instead, it is a living entity robbed of its sentience through voodoo.

RKO producer Val Lewton’s “I Walked With a Zombie” (1943) is the recognized progenitor of the sub-genre (often described as “Jane Eyre in the West Indies”), although the Bela Lugosi “White Zombie” (1932) uses this creature with no will as its villainous plantation marauder. There are other movies, of course, like the Bob Hope comedy “The Ghost Breakers” (1940) and its Martin-and-Lewis remake “Scared Stiff” (1954), or, say, the 007 thriller “Live and Let Die” (1973), but none was as influential.  

The making of a Haitian zombie long was attributed to arcane supernatural ritual until 1982, when Harvard scientist Wade Davis discovered a zombie is made, not born, through the use of what commonly is known in the Caribbean as “corpse powder.” By distilling, measuring, and quantifying the substance, Davis concluded that humans could be transformed into seemingly soulless slaves with the application of the ingredient tetrodotoxin.

Tetrodotoxin is the chemical that kills macho Japanese men who feel the need to display their invincibility by partaking of fugu, aka the pufferfish, which is a fatal entrée if not prepared the right way at the correct time. Each fugu has enough poison to annihilate 30 people, and 100 die from it annually, usually through deliberate consumption. In minute doses, as used ceremonially, it can numb and paralyze, mimicking death. Whence, a zombie.

Davis’ 1985 nonfiction bestseller, “The Serpent and the Rainbow,” was adapted into one of horror-meister Wes Craven’s better films in 1988, but it did nothing to change a deep public impression established by George A. Romero’s indelible “Night of the Living Dead” (1968), in which a returning Venus probe may or may not have resurrected corpses, now ravenous for brain food.

Curiously, Romero’s film never once uses the word “zombie,” but the appellation somehow has stuck, and his subsequent “…of the Dead” series (Dawn, Day, Land, etc.) likewise leave the z-word unspoken. These films are considered by fan and critic alike as the high watermark, or bloodmark, of the zombie flick.

Strictly speaking, though, if it’s dining on people, it’s a ghoul, and only a ghoul. According to classic fairy-tale literature, whose themes and tropes form the basis of world fantastica, of all the beings in Faerie, it’s the ghoul alone that eats people. Not goblins, trolls, ogres (although this last was said to feed on children occasionally—take that, Shrek!). It’s ghouls. Period, if not exclamation point.

This is a ghoul.

In other words, most zombie movies are really ghoul movies. However, popular misconception is now the norm, and the majority rules. So now anything that used to be an anybody who wants to take a bite out of you is a zombie, that’s it, that’s all, and that’s that.    

As metaphors of humanity’s trepidations--that someday there will be a pandemic the Center for Disease Control is unable to stem, that bio-warfare will escalate and infect friend and enemy, that there is no more room in Hell so the dead may soon walk the earth—the idea of the zombie is pervasive and persuasive.

After all: The real dead are everywhere. Some six million long-deceased Parisians rest in catacombs, just a few meters below a city of 10 million alive. Globally, one estimate says about 70 billion people have lived on Earth over the millennia, compared to the 7 billion currently extant.

In other words, the dead outnumber the living by 10 to 1. No wonder living-dead paranoia runs rampant, starting with religion, passing through pop culture, and finally invading our dreams. So far, reality has escaped Death’s attention.

If there’s one thing all of the above teaches us, it’s that it may not always be thus.

This is a mistake.

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