Despite all the various undead from myths around the world of physical beings rising from the grave, it’s generally accepted that it is from the Haitian Voodoo that we developed our media monster of the zombie. Zombie fiction is often defined as post-colonial – “a term for a collection of … strategies used to examine the culture of former colonies of the European empires and their relation to the rest of the world … [and] share many assumptions: they question the salutary effects of the empire … and raise such issues as racism and exploitation” (Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory: Approaches, Scholars, Terms By Irene Rima Makaryk).
In particularly the older zombie movies based around Voodoo, the natives are seen as superstitious to the extreme (which the white characters of the film dismiss as primitive) and are entirely unable to help themselves from the threat without outside (white) help. Just having watched Zombi 2 (Aka Zombie, and a billion other names) by Fulci, this Italian movie from the 70s replays that same role. Abhorrent as it is to us now, some of the actors in these early films were in black-face makeup. White Zombie is one of them, a story about a zombie master using black zombies as slaves in his mill, the threat of which is to frighten and control the population, but it all changes when he concocts a zombie potion for a white woman for a man who is not her to-be-husband to take over her. When the man no longer desires her without the sparkle and life in her eyes, the zombie master takes her for himself.
Romero is regarded highly for breaking away from this. His zombies do not relate to voodoo and ‘black’ magic, but are of unknown origin. The hero in the Night of the Living Dead is African American. Chosen because he was the best actor the producers knew and not for the colour of his skin (huzzah!), this was a big change for cinema and a shock to 1968. Romero’s follow up film, Dawn of the Dead had a deliberate scene of racial intolerance, where a community of apartment dwellers (mostly African American, Hispanic and Puerto Rican) are protecting their beloved ones who are now zombies. They are attacked by a SWAT team, mostly white, who firing off shots and racist insults with little regard (Check out American Zombie Gothic by Kyle Bishop for more).
Racism is in gaming too, with a lot of anger directed towards the makers of Resident Evil 5 in which a white hero kills all the infected whom are all black, being in an African village. There is of course, corners of defense for this (although reading the comments on some sites about it make me personally angry for people suggesting that there are no race issues anymore since Barack Obama came to office. *headdesk*)
There’s the old stereotype of horror films that if a person with dark skin is in the movie, he will be one of the first to die. And if there is a girl, she will have weak ankles, trip over and be taken over by the monster.
Already having mentioned White Zombie about the control of a white woman, women in particularly early movies are pretty weak. They sometimes don’t even fight back (although a fight between a woman and a zombie in Zombi 2 has a particularly gory scene which I almost had to turn away from). In the 70s and 80s, there’s also a lot of female nakedness in zombie movies (so many breasts everywhere!). There’s rape scenes, too, in a few of the zombie movies. which are really very disturbing (and would be a tirgger for many who have been sexually harrassed or raped themselves).
Fran in Dawn of the Dead, while the men were casually talking about if she should abort her baby, with her not even included in the discussion, provides the only voice of reason that they should move on rather than stay in the mall. Despite her home-making and cooking their little apartment they create, she is the only one pro-active, wanting to learn both to defend herself and learn to fly the helicopter. Fran isn’t the best example, but she is far from the weak and almost comatose Barbra from Night of the Living Dead. In Day of the Dead, Sarah is strong and smart and capable, but looked down upon by the military men who threaten her with death and rape.
Alice from the Resident Evil movies is the ultimate weapon against zombies. She’s not willing to sit by and let it all happen. While not all women in zombie stories are as familiar with weapons and fighting, they still provide much more assistance to the group’s survival. There’s a number of women in the We’re Alive podcast (which I love to undeath!), both strong and not so strong. It would be hard mentally for any person to adapt to zombies and pure survival after such a rich existence as we have now – and that’s the point of most of the zombie stories.
While society (despite what those silly comments on that gaming site said) still struggle with racial and gender issues, our fiction will reflect the same and especially in horror where our deepest desires and anxieties lay, and yet we can only deal with them by percieving the monster. The monster makes it seem that it’s not so close, not so near, but equality, as survival, is worth fighting for. And however strange it seems, this desire for equality is what is reflected in zombie romance brazenly!
As always, I’m still learning about these topics, but find it fascinating how we deal with these issues in horror and with zombies.