Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Haitian Zombie Issue part 2

Picking up from where we left off yesterday

Design by Javier Ramos Eguiluz
Now that we've gone through and poked holes in their apparent similarities, I want to discuss some of the substantial differences between Haitian zombies and those introduced in Night of the Living Dead. First and foremost, there is a startling discrepancy in appetite. As noted above, the walking dead in Romero's film feast on the flesh of their victims. Haitian zombies... not so much. In "... Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields," the zombies' diet is described as a pot of millet or plantains seasoned with dried fish and garlic” (Seabrook 43). Not only was the food prepared for the zombie slaves "flavorless and unseasoned," it was decidedly vegetarian (well, pescatarian, I guess, with the dried fish seasoning): “for as everyone knows, the zombies must never be permitted to taste salt or meat” (Seabrook 43 emphasis mine). I read that and I turned into that lady from My Big Fat Greek Wedding. What do you mean they don't eat no MEAT?
However, not only do the zombies from Haiti not consume the human body, they don't rend or tear it either. Theoretically they could, if they were commanded to, but there don't seem to be many (or any) Haitian narratives where this is the case. The dismemberment and consumption of the body, ideas so central to the uncanny dread embodied by Romero's monsters, are simply not accounted for, or even gestured to, by their Haitian counterparts. 

Incredible art by Luca Cauchi
Haitian zombies also fail to proliferate in the way that modern zombies do. If Romero's zombies gain their terrifying power from their ever-increasing numbers, from their ability to overwhelm (they certainly don't get it from their agility or intelligence), it is important to acknowledge that the state of Voduo zombification does not spread from the undead to the living. Although the numbers of Haitian zombies can be said to increase, that increase is limited by the level of activity of the bokor. However many zombies he or she can reasonably create and control is how many we have. That's not the case with Romero's zombies. Because every newly dead person will return as a violent and voracious zombie in Romero's films, their numbers increase exponentially. Not only does each newly dead person come back a zombie, but each new zombie kills people and creates new zombies, who then kill people and create new zombies, and so on. 
The fear of the horde or the swarm is, for the most part, not present in the tales of Haitian zombies. Even when there are large numbers of Haitian zombies present, they usually have better (read - more lucrative) things to do than to terrorize the living with their sheer numbers: I mean, that cane isn't going to cut itself, now is it. The fact that Haitian zombies are almost always in the minority with regards to their living counterparts, while the Romero zombies constitute a horrifying and multiplying majority in their fictions, situates the Haitian zombie as a deeply marginalized figure in a way that makes them more analogous to the "survivors" of modern zombie narratives than their monsters.  

Finally, Haitian zombies, though often physically impressive, do not seem to be by any means indestructible (they are similarly as disposable as Romero zombies, but that's something different entirely). I will admit some ignorance as to what it takes to kill a Haitian zombie and how they react to pain (if at all); this issue simply hasn't been raised in any of the Haitian zombie narratives that I am familiar with ("... Dead Men" mentions zombies being beaten, but it does not indicate to what effect). There is nothing that would seem to indicate, though, that they are impervious to bullets or having their fingers mangled the way that the risen corpses from Night of the Living Dead clearly are. Whether your understanding of the Haitian zombie posits them as real corpses or only apparently dead, most of the normal rules of human physiology seem to apply: though in lesser amounts than living humans, they still require some amount of food, water, and rest. Although we know that tasting salt will make them aware of their condition and lead them to march directly back to their graves and fall down, "carrion," we are never given any reason to think that a bullet to the head, or being engulfed in flames, wouldn't work just as well. Much of the fragility of humans seems to be retained by the Haitian zombie figure, in a way that it isn't by the Romero zombie, which again aligns them more with people than with the people eaters.

To be concluded in part 3

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