I was watching the 1936 film Revolt of the Zombies the other day, and it occurred to me how much zombies have changed since then. The typical zombie of today, since at least Night of the Living Dead (1968), is a dead person who has come back to life with a hunger for human flesh. He usually serves no master, but is a freelance perpetrator of horror. His origins may be mysterious, but if they are spelled out at all, they are usually scientific (eg, virus, satellite) rather than religious.
None of this holds for the zombies of Revolt of the Zombies, a not particularly good movie that is nevertheless instructive for the study of zombie evolution. Revolt's creatures are living people who are called zombies because they have fallen under the hypnotic spell of an archaeologist, played by Dean Jagger years before he became the loveable retired general in White Christmas (1954). What is horrible about these zombies of the 1930s is that they have lost their wills, not that they are undead or cannibalistic. The mechanism for making them into zombies has to do with ancient Cambodian writings of a vaguely religious nature.
With so many differences, it is hard to believe that the same word, "zombie," should apply to both species of monsters. But both are called zombies, and with reason. The link between them is the transformation of personality from something recognizably human to something inhuman, an unnatural lack of normal human appetites, whether that lack is marked by a loss of will or a hunger for human flesh. To signify this shared inhumanity, both types of zombies have similar glassy-eyed stares. Also, you can shoot them both in the chest, and they won't die.
Most zombies before Night of the Living Dead were voodoo-related; Revolt of the Zombies stands out for having gone all the way to Cambodia for its zombie origins. Regardless, Revolt of the Zombies is more typical of the zombie movies of its time--with their will-less, obedient zombies serving a master--than of the zombie movies of our time. By introducing the idea of cannibalistic, anarchic zombies, Night of the Living Dead marked a great leap forward in zombie evolution.
Zombies have kept evolving since then, becoming faster and smarter in many movies rather than shambling and stupid. What they will become next depends on the next movie. Perhaps a reboot of Revolt of the Zombies?
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