Zombie Lore: From Dracula to 'Night of the Living Dead'

October 30, 2013

My search started after I watched World War Z, the much-hyped Brad Pitt epic which tells the story of a global war against zombies.

The film was entertaining and kept me interested all the way through, but I was disappointed in one particular aspect: fast zombies.

It seemed to me that zombies always adhered to a few basic rules, rules that kept things at least interesting between the living and the undead.

One of those rules is speed. Zombies don’t generally move faster than a reanimated corpse trying to keep all the rotted flesh from falling off at once, which is about the pace of a small, bumbling child in front of you on a busy sidewalk.

Second death was another rule, of sorts. Zombies, it seems, have one easy dispatch mechanism. A bullet or a good solid bashing of the noggin will take them out for good.

The living, with enough resources, always stood a fighting chance against the zombie hordes, and the ingenuity, courage, trust and will to live of the living is what made zombie stories so engaging.

Watch: Night of the Living Dead

After watching the speed-demon zombies in World War Z, I got to thinking about zombie lore. Who sets the rules for monsters? Does anyone police the world of horror and maintain some semblance of order and reason, or are we going to have to deal with sparkly vampires and the super-human undead from now on?

I decided to research the topic of zombie lore in literature, and finding none involving the modern zombie, that which is an infected, slow-moving, reanimated corpse with an insatiable hunger for living flesh, I moved on to film. It turns out zombies are one in a long line of very traditional monsters carved out of superstition and legend by capable writers in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries and brought to life by filmmakers of the 20th century.

Monster Lore: The evolution of zombies

This is not a peer-reviewed literary study, merely a rough retracing of monster lore as it winds its way through popular culture.

But it would seem that zombies are the bastard-children of vampire literature and a copyright mistake.

A French Benedictine monk, Antoine Augustin Calmet, wrote two-volumes on the mysticism, superstitions and culture of Southern Europe first published in one volume in 1759 as Dissertations Upon the Apparitions of Angels, Daemons, and Ghosts, and Concerning the Vampires of Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia.

Many of the rules of vampirism can be traced to Calmet’s inclusion of Christian symbols in combatting particularly fearsome creatures like blood-sucking dead people. Stakes, crosses, Holy Water, fire and other pieces of vampire lore were included in Calmet’s volumes, which provided more than enough fodder for Irish writers Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and the godfather of vampirism, Bram Stoker.

Literary types contend Fanu borrowed heavily from Calmet’s books to create the iconic Carmilla, a lesbian, blood-sipping archetype who appeared in the form of a massive black cat stealing the life essence from her female victims.

Fanu’s short story predates Bram Stoker’s genre-setting Dracula by 25 years, and it is a point of continuing controversy whether Stoker was influenced by Carmilla or if both books just used much of Calmet’s work to build their respective monsters.

Regardless, Stoker’s Dracula set the initial rules for vampires based heavily on Calmet’s inclusion of religious superstitions and mysticism, a kind of empirical hold on the genre that has lasted until recently, when genre-bending, sparkly vampires appeared in popular culture.

Vampires: From one to many

Just about 57 years after Stoker penned the penultimate vampire, American author Richard Matheson wrote his own vampire novel, I Am Legend.

Matheson’s vampires retained traces of the old count from Transylvania in their fear of garlic and mirrors, but they were born not of the bitten lineage of their forefathers, but instead created as a result of some kind of genetic mutation caused by nuclear war and spread by dust and mosquitoes.

Matheson, who acknowledged the influence of Stoker’s Dracula on his own vampires expounded on his new-fangled concept of an older monster during a video acceptance speech when I Am Legend was named the Vampire Novel of the Century by the Horror Writers Association in coordination with the Stoker family estate, according to The Guardian.

An ailing Matheson could not attend the ceremony and said in his video:

“I am certainly honored and delighted that you have chosen I Am Legend as the vampire novel of the century, which is a rather dubious but interesting distinction,” said the author. “When I was a teenager I went to see Dracula with Bela Lugosi and at that time, even as a teenager, the thought occurred to me that if one vampire is scary, what if all the world were full of vampires?”

Matheson’s more-is-better approach to vampirism began the bending of the genre into something more born of biological basis and scientific scenario than the heretofore mystical and religious implications of the monsters of the dark ages.

The zombie is born

Matheson’s I Am Legend first became a film in 1964’s The Last Man on Earth. Prior to that, the creature known as zombie could trace its lineage to the voodoo children carried on in traditions by people in the old world and the new world.

All the while, and certainly well before vampires existed as myth, the horrific creature known in parts of the world as nzumbe and zonbi allegedly walked the tropical realms of central Africa and the islands of the Caribbean as corpses raised from the dead by some magical means.

But Matheson’s vampire pandemic inspired another filmmaker to create a creature whose similarity to the vampires of old is limited to being undead and desirous for feeding on the living.

The Romero Zombie was born in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, a 1968 black and white horror film about the dead reanimated as creatures invading the Eastern United States and feasting on the flesh of the living.

Slow-moving, dim witted and with an insatiable hunger for flesh, the modern, also known as fictional zombie, owes its existence and guiding principles to Romero’s first film and his subsequent zombie films.

Here’s what Romero had to say about the influence of Matheson’s vampires on his modern zombie from an interview on CinemaBlend.com

“When I did the first film, I didn’t call them zombies. When I did Night of the Living Dead I called them ghouls, flesh eaters. To me back then, zombies were just those boys in Caribbean doing the wet-work for Bela Lugosi. So I never thought of them as zombies. I thought they were just back from the dead. I ripped off the idea for the first film from a Richard Matheson novel called I Am Legend, which is now back with us after a couple of incarnations prior. I thought I Am Legend was about revolution. I said if you’re going to do something about revolution you should start at the beginning. I mean, Richard starts his book with one man left; everybody in the world has become a vampire. I said we got to start at the beginning and tweak it up a little bit. I couldn’t use vampires because he did so I wanted something that would be an earth-shaking change. Something that was forever, something that was really at the heart of it. I said, so what if the dead stop staying dead? Diary of the Dead goes back theoretically to that first night. I didn’t use the word “zombie” until the second film and that’s only because people who were writing about the first film called them zombies. And I said, maybe they are in a way. But to me zombies were separate in the rainbow. In this film, because it goes back to that first night, nobody knows what to call them. By the time of Land of the Dead, they have this slang already: Stenchies. But I felt it was too early for anybody to know what they were or to have any sort of identifying moniker for them.”

Someone forgot to copyright the zombies

The Romero Zombie set the stage for nearly all modern zombie tales to follow, but it may have done so inadvertently.

According to the website Plagiarism Today, a copyright error, and not an infection, may have caused the apocalypse of the Romero Zombie.

From an article on Night of the Living Dead:

“The first prints of Night of the Living Dead didn’t use the title we know it as today. Instead, it referred to the movie as Night of the Flesh Eaters, one of the working titles of the movie. However, before release, the title was changed to its more familiar version but, when changing the title card, the distributor forgot to put the copyright notice on the final print.”

This error allowed Night of the Living Dead to enter the public domain immediately upon release.

And while Romero lost out big on profits from the movie, anyone could create a story using the modern zombie, which perhaps led to the proliferation of zombies with the same particular traits as the Romero Zombie.

Romero himself blew up his own creature, building in slight changes over the course of many zombie films, according to film critic Roger Ebert.

Without the zombie being in the public domain, it’s difficult to speculate on where Romero might have gone with this creature or what others would have done if limited by copyright protection.

In the end, I prefer the slow-moving, dim-witted Romero Zombie to some of the creature’s many incarnations.

And at least if I do not know any more creative ways to kill them, I now know where zombies were born.

is the Director of Digital Content at WBEZ. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook