As a species, zombies originate in the 17th-18th-century Haiti at the times of slavery. Throughout the ages, zombies evolved in myths and retellings of their stories. Via the contact of cultures, zombies were appropriated by other countries. This way, they spread all over the globe, residing and concentrating, inter alia, in the USA. As zombies entered the “white” world, their origins were “whitewashed”, using the term coined by Mariani. Zombies lost much of their authentic identity and adapted to their new environment, namely the American popular culture. The first man who “reinvented the zombie for American audiences” was George Romero, the Hollywood film director. From that moment on, the total zombification of the Hollywood started that is lasting until the present day. The cinematic environment happened to be a fruitful soil for the monsters from Haiti to thrive. Interestingly, the roles of zombies changed from being instruments of white supremacy and racial scares to being the instruments of entertaining. Moreover, modern Hollywood zombies revitalize and repopularize the old classics of the world literature giving them new meaning, as well as bringing up the eternal themes. This discussion will refer to the two contemporary films, namely Warm Bodies (2013) and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016), to study how modern zombies have changed and how they fit into the old stories and the themes of love, emancipation, and apocalypse.
Zombies were not always like this, i.e. like contemporaries know them. Interestingly, the original Haitian zombie that Mariani refers to as “the zombie archetype” was preying on his own brains and not other people’s. That old-world zombie embraced the image and pains of the enslaved Africans of those times for whom suicide was the only way out of the misery. However, suicide turned to be a punishment instead of salvation since the slaves were “condemned to skulk the Hispaniola plantations for eternity, an undead slave at once denied their own bodies and yet trapped inside them—a soulless zombie”. Thus, the first, “original” zombies were the slaves to their own bodies. In the nineteenth century, within the Haitian and American cultures, zombies became associated with voodoo and shamanism – the practices that shaped zombies into corpses reanimated to life. During the American occupation of Haiti, the transition of the phenomenon and adjacent legends about zombies took place. During this transition, the “racialization” of the zombie phenomenon occurred. In this process, zombification and zombies were the byproduct and instrument of racism and propaganda of civilization. In the twenty-first century, zombies have evolved into cinematic characters associated with pandemics and viruses that turn people into zombies. It is this interpretation/theme that is widely shown and popularized. Thus, the modern era is the era of zombie apocalypse, at least in the Hollywood movies.
Quite unexpectedly in their evolution, modern zombies make a turnabout and target the classics of the world literature of the 16th-18th centuries (the epoch around the time of their own creation). Using Julie’s (the protagonist from Warm Bodies) words, modern zombies “exhumed” the eternal theme of love, as well as breathed new life into the old, somewhat forgotten stories, such as those by William Shakespeare and Jane Austen. Reinterpretation of the old stories is not a new technique in the world of cinema. In fact, both Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice found many cinematic adaptations. Cinematic Romeo and Juliet appear on screen in 1968, 1996, 2013, etc., of which the 1996 version is a modern adaptation of the story to contemporary reality, with DiCaprio playing the main part. As for Pride and Prejudice, the renowned screen adaptations are the films of 1995 and 2005. However, the cinematic narrations of these stories never included zombies, at least not until now.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016) is the newest to date cinematic creation of the joint American-UK production that is based on the namesake parody novel by Seth Grahame-Smith. It incorporates the ‘true’ story of Jane Austen and the new addition in the form of a zombie element in the plot. The reality of the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is the 19th-century England on the verge of a zombie apocalypse and in the heat of the ongoing war between zombie and human species. In other words, the presence of zombies in the story puts it into the pre-apocalyptic context. Respectively, this context cannot but affect the lives and performance of the characters. In a way, the film retells the story and contributes a cardinally new meaning. In fact, zombies do not alter the original plotline much, except for adding new traits to characters, new motivation to their deeds, as well as new background context in which the story unfolds. For example, if in Pride and Prejudice, Jane gets sick because of getting into the heavy rain, in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Jane engages in a close fight with a zombie (viewers do not know how it ends) and shows symptoms that fit both a common cold and even more common zombification. In terms of motivation, a good example of the alteration in the new story compared to the original one is Darcy’s decision to take Bingley away from Jane due to his concern that Jane Bennett could be infected with a zombie plague after the aforementioned incident. While in the original Jane Austen story, the daily routine of the five sisters Bennett consists in playing piano and reading books, in the new novel and its adaptation for the screen, the sisters are shown as engaged in cleaning their weapons and infighting training during small talk and pep talk. By the way, the manner of talk was also affected. One may call it zombificiation of the language. An example is Elizabeth saying, “Mr. Darcy, you are as unfeeling as the undead”. Thus, the presence of zombies transforms the Austenian ‘good girls’ into daring, emancipated women who know the craft of fighting. As Mr. Bennett says to Mr. Collins, “My daughters are trained for battle, sir, not the kitchen”. In the original story, the only girls’ concern was to marry. In the new version, they have to worry about two things: finding a decent guy to marry and fighting with zombies. Some, like Lizzie, favor the latter by saying, “I shall never relinquish my sword for a ring”. Besides, the primary concern for all characters is how not to fall prey to zombies that manage to infiltrate into the human crowd.
As for Warm Bodies (2013) - the film based on the novel by Isaac Marion – the association with or relation to the Shakespeare’s renowned love story is vague. At the beginning, not much hints on the protagonists’ being the modern incarnations of Romeo and Juliet. Perhaps the only such hint is the characters’ names. The female protagonist is named Julie, whereas the male character (aka zombie) cannot remember much about his name, except for the letter “R” with which it supposedly started. At this point, some viewers could already recognize the parallel between the cinematic heroes and those invented by Shakespeare. Love that ignites the hearts of the two young people – to be precise, one living girl and one undead boy – is the second key. The final proof of Warm Bodies being the modern retelling of the old Shakespearian story is the well-known and easily recognizable ‘balcony scene’ when R comes to Julie’s mansion. One has to say, the substitution of one of the Shakespearian lovers for a zombie is a challenging, provocative and daring innovation. Nevertheless, for the cinematic world where the story unfolds on the background of the human struggle for survival in wars with zombies, the change in the character’s essence (i.e. his zombification) is justified. Assessed more generally, the film substitutes the original Shakespearian war of the two noble families for the war of the two species – the humans and zombies. Thus, unlike Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Warm Bodies shows the world already in a post-apocalyptic state. Nevertheless, in both movies, this human world – be it on the verge of the apocalypse or already in it – is separated from the zombie world by the walls.
Now that the plot for both films and stories is outlined, it would be appropriate to give some credit and attention to the characters. Noteworthy, just as the protagonist in Warm Bodies is a zombie, one of the main characters in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is also an undead. Both can be described as the major forces that stand behind the main twists and turns of the plot. Being a zombie, R represents his kind. The narration of the film takes place from his perspective. Since zombies in Warm Bodies (just like all typical zombies) cannot talk, the viewers can hear the boy’s thoughts as an off-screen voice-over. From his voiced thoughts, one can understand that R is an unusual zombie. He is “conflicted about” his current position as an undead brain-eater. Moreover, he asks many questions that normal, alive people ask in a lifetime, such as those regarding his identity, purpose, need in communication, friends and love. R says to no one in particular but himself, “What’s wrong with me? I just want to connect. Why can’t I connect with people?”, or, “This is what I get for wanting more. I should just be happy with what I had. Things don't change. I need to accept that. It's easier not to feel. Then I wouldn't have to feel like this”. Undoubtedly, it is a bright example of humanization of a monster that arouses sympathy towards it and makes people try to see the good in it. By the end of the film, R finds all that he was seeking: friends among humans, communication with humans and a human girl to love. R, together with all his accomplishments in coming back to ‘life’, becomes the breaking point that ends the war between humans and zombies.
The narration in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is centered around Elizabeth Bennett, a human. The only zombie – a zombie in disguise – in the circle of the main characters is George Wickham. Although he is a cursory character, his role in the war between humans and zombies is crucial, just like that of R from the other film. However, the outcome is different. In a way, George, too, is a ‘good’ zombie. He is not fully transformed, he does not mean harm to the living, but he also means to protect other undead from perishing. In Church of St. Lazarus, he organizes a safe haven for zombies feeding on animals’ brains instead of human, thus, protecting and preserving them as a separate, non-aggressive zombie species. On a meeting with humans, George Wickham suggests a peace treaty, but Mr. Darcy rejects the idea of coexisting with zombies. Dramatically, it is Darcy who turns Wickham’s peaceful undead into true monsters and unleashes them and it is Darcy who kills George after revealing his true nature of a zombie-bitten man. Consequently, unlike in Warm Bodies where R ignites human feelings and processes in other zombies’ brains and bodies, thus, bringing them back to humanness, Darcy nullifies all George’s attempts to show zombies in good light. Hence, in Warm Bodies, zombies are cured by the human compassion, whereas in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies they remain monsters who cause the zombie apocalypse in the form of the zombie insurgence. Thus, in the former movie, the separating wall falls, while in the latter, it only has to be reinforced.
The only essential theme that remains to be discussed is that of love. Love is one of the eternal themes revitalized by the two films under analysis. Warm Bodies resurrects the all-conquering love sung by Shakespeare. A human and a zombie fall in love with one another, and this love makes the undead boy’s heart beat again. This testimony of the power of love will later grow to involve the whole two species – that of humans and that of zombies. Seeing the curing effect of love, Julie and R use their relationship as an example set for the wider ‘society’: humans find love (in its more general, humanist sense) in their hearts to rid the feeling of fear towards zombies and substitute it with compassion. Thus, love in the film takes more than one form. As for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the main love story occurs between two humans, Darcy and Lizzie. Thus, it is an intra-species love. The inter-species love also takes place, but it is unrequited since Elizabeth rejects the half-zombie George Wickham and his feelings for her. Nevertheless, even this seemingly unimportant love-line shows that zombies are capable of experiencing human feelings. Thus, among other things, love, as felt by zombies in both films, can be regarded as a testimony of monster humanization. Unfortunately, in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, love did not cure zombies, even the ‘good’ ones, since humans appeared unready to accept the undead as a species worthy of saving.
In conclusion, zombies are truly undead. They emerged as a Haitian myth from the slavery times, lived through the stage of voodoo-related associations as corpses resurrected from the graves until they finally entered the cinematic world and the new culture of zombie apocalypse. There, they truly came to life. Moreover, they managed to revitalize and repopularize the old classics of the world literature, such as Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet giving them new meaning, such as altered context and motivation of characters, as well as bringing up the eternal themes, such as the theme of love. Most importantly, the new Hollywood zombies have acquired many human traits that shifted them farther from monsters and closer to humans.