The word “zombie” traces its origin to the Caribbean country of Haiti.
The notion is believed to have arrived in the Caribbean with the African people transported there as slaves by the Europeans to work in plantations. In Mitsogo language, ndzumbi means “corpse” and nzambi means the “spirit of a dead person” in the Kongo language.
According to Haiti's rural belief system, people who died unnaturally, such as in murders, would linger around their graves and could be revived through magic or a potion by witch doctors. But the doctor would take all agency away from these revived entities, turning them into their slaves.
“The zombie, in effect, is the logical outcome of being a slave: without will, without name, and trapped in a living death of unending labour,” writes Roger Luckhurst, author of the book Zombies: A Cultural History.
Zombies have represented deeper social and political themes since their introduction in popular culture. While it was slavery in the beginning, it has evolved over the years to represent anxieties regarding the Nazis, the fears around nuclear weapons, and racial tensions in the West, among other themes.
Tracing the evolution of zombies in films, Zachary Crockett and Javier Zarracina wrote for Vox that the undead creatures have over the years represented American fears.
Until 1940s, zombies in American films represented fears of voodooism and blackness, according to them. Films kept tracking contemporary anxieties through the years.
The 1941 film King of the Zombies featured a pilot crashing in the Caribbean and coming across a foreign spy using zombies to extract intelligence from an American officer.
The Vox article added, “Likewise, in Revenge of the Zombies (1943), an evil doctor creates an army of Nazi zombies to ensure a German victory.”
In the 1955 film Creature with the Atom Brain, a former Nazi scientist used radio-controlled nuclear zombies to help an American gangster return to power.
Films over the years have continued to include contemporary socio-political themes in their plots around zombies, making these creatures much more than ugly, scary selves they usually appear to be. These themes have included climate change, the conflict between the state and Indigenous people, and colonial thirst for power among others.
George Romero made politically-charged films featuring zombies, beginning with Night of the Living Dead in 1968, in which he made a Black man his hero, who was tragically killed towards the end of the film by people who were meant to rescue him and others fighting the zombies. That was not unlike the violence that Black people have faced in the USA from police personnel.
In India, however, the genre appears to be underdeveloped as well known films have not dived into these deeper themes. Go Goa Gone, a trailblazer for Indian zombie films, blamed the zombie outbreak in Goa on foreigners and appeared to turn zombies into caricatures.
On the contrary, one of the four short films making up Ghost Stories on Netflix featured a heavily loaded plot. An earlier Outlook article noted, “It follows a man who arrives in a little village only to discover it is deserted and odd. The more he thinks about it, the more difficulty he gets into. While he figures that people in the town have been converted to zombies, he somehow manages to save himself from there, just to realise that it was a sad reflection of the current situation that we are going through in the country right now.”
Similarly, Netflix’s Betaal dealt with the themes of Indigenous people, colonial lust for power, and state apathy. In the webseries, an Indigenous community guards a tunnel inside which a British zombie army is trapped, whose commander had went inside to seek supernatural strength from the titular Betaal. A tunnel has to be made through that area, so government soldiers attack the villagers and enter the tunnel, only to set free the British zombie army.
The theme of slavery was also seen here in a subtle manner. The British zombie army had in a way held the local people as slaves – they could not migrate even if they wanted to as they had to stay and protect that area because zombies would be set free if they moved out.
Other films such as Rise of the Zombies (2013) and Zombie Reddy (2021) also featured zombies but these films appeared to be more of typical South Indian action films with action at the centre rather than a Zombie-related theme.
A running theme in Indian zombie films, seen in Go Goa Gone and 2019 film Zombie (yes, just Zombie) is an “adventure gone bad” where a bunch of friends go on a trip but run into zombies, where zombies appear to be a minor plot element rather than central theme of the film.