Zombies: When the Dead Walk
Zombies are part of pop culture, but what are they? Where do they come from? How can we ever be free of the curse of the living dead? To find real zombies we will have to go quite a ways from Hollywood and its pop culture offshoots. In Haiti Zombies are an integral part of the island’s cultural and religious roots. Outlawed by the government, zombification is said to be performed secretly in the countryside. It’s meant as a punishment for crimes against the community. The culprit is magically killed, resurrected and enslaved. We take a look at the practice of Voodoo, examine advances in psychopharmacology, and zombies in popular culture. It’s a surreal mix of religion, science and fun ‘When the Dead Walk’.
Produced, Directed & Written by
Executive Producer, VisionTV
Director of Photography
Tango Media Group
Dan Johnston, Imarion Inc.
Jakob Thiesen, Kitchen Sync
Ian Rodness, Kitchen Sync
Fred Smith Studio
Richard Hanet, Lewis Birnberg Hanet, LLP
Richard Warburton, Kay & Warburton
Jones Brown Inc.
Stock Footage/Archival Visuals
BBC Motion Gallery
Mary Evans Picture Library
Archives of the Gray Herbarium
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division
Reel Time Images Inc.
The WPA Film Library
With Special Thanks To
Trinity College CT
Students of ‘Vodou Haiti – Hollywood’ class
Produced in association with VisionTV with the participation of the Canadian Television Fund, the Canadian Film
or Video Production Tax Credits and the Ontario film & Television Tax Credits.
The Globe & Mail
Review by John Doyle,Zombies: When the Dead Walk is a new documentary that looks at the history of the living dead. It’s all about the religious-spiritual traditions that came out of the fusion of the West African and Caribbean experiences. It opens with footage of the zombie walk in my ‘hood and then moves quickly to Haiti, the centre of the zombie culture, so to speak.
Many professors, anthropologists and experts on Haiti turn up to give their views and explain things. But this program, made by Donna Zuckerbrot, is not just a talking-heads doc about the zombie phenomenon. The program also looks closely at the most famous Haitian zombie, one Clairvius Narcisse. In 1962, Narcisse was ill and taken to a hospital in rural Haiti. He appeared to decline quickly, was pronounced dead, and was duly buried.
However, in 1980, a member of his family encountered Narcisse in another part of Haiti. He wasn’t exactly hale and hearty, but he certainly had a story to tell. His tale was, you might say, straight out of a lurid zombie movie. He said that when he was pronounced dead, he was alive, and could hear the doctors talking even as they told others he had passed away. He remained alive while being buried, but shortly after his coffin was in the ground, it was dug up and he was taken away by strangers. For years, he claimed, he had worked on a farm, a virtual slave, alongside others who seemed to be half-dead, as he was.
There is footage of Narcisse from the time he returned from the dead and, indeed, he doesn’t look too good. His case attracted the attention of doctors and anthropologists. The first thing they noted was that while Narcisse was initially welcomed back by his family, he was soon shunned and feared and left alone.
We hear a lot about voodoo and the unique social customs of rural Haiti. And we learn about a specific poison, used in Haiti to create a coma-like state in which the victim can function in a very limited way. This proves useful for creating a group of people who are malleable and can work, slave-like, doing farm labouring.
With its information about advances in psychopharmacology, and zombies in popular culture, this is an excellent, informative program, a weird but intriguing story that blends religion, science and wit.
Some say that television is mindless entertainment that sucks the lifeblood out of you. While that may be debatable in the larger realm of society, the imagery is eerily apt when it comes to VisionTV’s latest installment of its Enigma anthology series, Zombies: When the Dead Walk.
The hour-long documentary from filmmaker Donna Zuckerbrot probes the truth behind zombies, those half-alive, half-dead creatures who have a hankering for human brains. Thanks to pop culture – ahem, director George A. Romero – we’re well familiar with the mythology. His films Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead pretty much covered all aspects of the reanimated human corpses. Zombies: When the Dead Walk, however, travels to Haiti, where voodoo and zombies are part of the cultural and religious identity of the island.
Word has it that secret societies punish and enslave criminals with zombification. Backing the validity of that claim is the case of Clairvius Narcisse, who was pronounced dead in 1962 but was found among the living 18 years later. Zuckerbrot also interviews author and anthropologist Wade Davis, who recorded his search through Haiti for the folk poison rumoured to create zombies in the 1985 bestseller The Serpent and the Rainbow.
So walk – don’t run – to the tube for this investigation of the cultural and historical significance of zombies.
Halloween comes early this year.
Yorkton This Week
Review by Calvin DanielsHow can you ever go wrong with a film about Zombies? Even the worst zombie flicks are worth a laugh for their corniness. On the other hand how often do you see a serious film on the subject of the walking dead? Rarely to be sure, although Zombies: When the Dead Walk is one excellent exception to that general statement.
Donna Zuckerbrot, producer and director of this film does a nice job of taking us beyond the Hollywood myth of the zombie to get to the roots of where the idea of zombies comes from, the island of Haiti.
In Haiti zombies are not something of film and pop culture, but are instead something rooted in the island’s history and religion. There is more to a zombie story in Haiti than make-up, and this film takes the viewer into that cultural experience. Information on the film points out “In Haiti, Zombies are an integral part of the island’s cultural and religious roots. Outlawed by the government, zombification is said to be performed secretly in the countryside. It’s meant as a punishment for crimes against the community. The culprit is magically killed, resurrected and enslaved.
Through footage from Haiti, interviews with experts in the field of cultural study, and a look at the history of the country, we begin to better understand where the idea of the walking dead comes from, and why it exists. The film then goes the next step to show how the zombie shambled its way to Hollywood, where it has been a staple of the horror film genre for decades.
While a serious documentary, there is a definite sense of fun here too. How could it be otherwise given the subject matter?
In Haiti there may be a cultural element where the idea of zombies is used to keep people in line in terms of community law, for the rest of the world the zombie is a Hollywood horror staple, with even the best of the genre being rather silly when viewed in any way other than a dark theatre when you’re in the mood for a scare.
If you are a fan of zombie flicks this is a must to understand what lies behind the Hollywood version of the undead. If you are simply interested in a unique look at a mysterious aspect of another culture, this is still a doc for you. Well done, and highly enjoyable. Check it out at www.reeltimeimages.ca
– This film was made available for review courtesy of the Yorkton Film Festival
The Zed Word Zombie Blog
Zombies: When the Dead Walk is a briskly-paced and intriguing documentary by Donna Zuckerbrot that begins with a brief look at zombies in popular culture before spending the bulk of its running time exploring the origins of the zombie in Haitian spiritual beliefs.
Zombies: When the Dead Walk is narrated by Colm Feore and produced by Reel Time Images in association with Vision TV for Vision TV’s anthology series Enigma. This expertly edited documentary takes the audience on an intelligent and respectful journey into Haitian beliefs to examine the role the zombie plays in rural Haitian culture and society as a product of history, a magical world view, and — perhaps — even chemical science.
Zombies: When the Dead Walk features a number of knowledgeable interviews with writers and academics. Writer and anthropologist Wade Davis (The Serpent and the Rainbow) shares his observations about Hatian beliefs and his experience searching for the scientific basis of the so-called “zombie powder.” Professor Elizabeth McAlister discusses zombisim’s role as a method of rural justice and the North American and European misrepresentation of Voodoo in horror films. Also, Professor McAlister joins Professor Patrick Bellegarde-Smith and Professor Leslie Desmangles to detail how the concept of the zombie fits into Haitian rural justice, political dynamics, and approaches to death.
I was familiar with most of the ideas and stories recounted in Zombies but even I learned something new. For example, I had never heard much about the zombie astral – a bodiless spirit that can be put to work by a voodoo bokor (sorcerer).
I would have liked to see more discussion of the current interest in the flesh-hungry zombies pioneered by George A. Romero. Unfortunately, because of the film’s television-defined running time, the documentary does not have enough time to explore in any real detail how the Haitian voodoo zombie evolved into the cannibalistic creature of fiction. On the other hand, Zombies: When the Dead Walk remains a fascinating and intriguing look into the notion of the zombie and its hold on our imaginations.
The Zed Word recommends Zombies to hardcore and new zombie fans alike.
Review by Roger LandesZombies: How to make em, and how to make em popular
The phenomenon of zombies is two fold, the obvious one being people rising from the dead to serve the living. But the real enigma is how did a secretive Voodoo practice from Haiti find its way into our television screens and movie theaters (and on Memorial Day it can even be found on our streets!)
Zombie Walk Columbus has been running for years now. It begins in Goodale Park and makes its way along High Street. Thousands have taken part through the years and it has been welcomed as some sort of undead parade. But, where did it all begin? Where did the concept of the living-dead originate? And why do they need brains so badly?
Zombies: When the Dead Walk is a documentary that serves to answer these questions. It chronicles the cultural beginnings of the zombie ritual from Haiti all the way to its involvement in major motion pictures in the United States. The highlight of the documentary is Wade Davis, an anthropologist and writer who traveled to Haiti to find the formula used to create a zombie.
The film also does an amazing job of explaining how zombies have become such an integral part of modern day horror films. After World War I, American troops were sent to Haiti to protect U.S. assets (mainly coffee and sugar). When the troops returned, hundreds of soldiers were commissioned to record their tales amongst the Haitians. This sparked a rash of novels and films distorting some of the Voodoo practices.
The initial popularity of Voodoo films in American can easily be attributed as Western fascination with Black culture, in particular the fear of it. The films manipulate Voodoo’s practices to appear particularly threatening, as nothing sells better to the American public than that which they don’t understand. But later filmmakers like George A. Romero tweaked the racist elements and something else evolved. Our love for zombies comes from our fear of death. Death is seen as the release from pain. To not even achieve peace after death is, well, horrifying.
Worldfest Houston (Gold)
Columbus International Film and Video Festival Honorable Mention