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Zombies in the Sugar Mill

The first zombie film, White Zombie, was released in 1932.

The first zombie film, White Zombie, was released in 1932.

Zombies came to America in 1929. When journalist William Seabrook returned from a visit to Haiti he wrote of his experiences in a very successful travel memoir called The Magic Island. In it he described an exclusively Haitian counterpart to the werewolves, vampires, and demons of European folklore: the zombie. At the time of publication, the United States was 14 years into its occupation of Haiti, and it was common for Haitian communities and religious practices to be painted as primitive, cannibalistic, and in need of America’s civilizing presence. Not surprisingly, Seabrook’s visions of “dead men working in the cane fields” were picked up by the American press.

But what we usually forget about Seabrook’s zombie workers is who they were working for: Hasco, the Haitian-American Sugar Company. Seabrook wrote:

“Hasco is perhaps the last name anybody would think of connecting with either sorcery or superstition. The work is American-commercial-synthetic, like Nabisco, Delco . . . [Hasco is] an immense factory plant, dominated by a huge chimney, with clanging machinery, steam whistles, freight cars. . . . [It] pays low wages, twenty or thirty cents a day, and gives steady work. It is modern big business, and it sounds it, looks it, smells it.”

Zombie slaves were not yet flesh-eating monsters; they were the victims of masters who had raised them from the graves to contribute to the international sugar trade. This trope continued in the first zombie film, White Zombie (1932), which portrays Bela “Dracula” Lugosi as a factory-owner in Haiti who uses the undead as his labor force. His desire for control and power is limitless, and he eventually makes a zombie of a not-quite-dead white woman who had come to Haiti to visit her new husband.

These early zombies remind us that the original bad guys of zombie horror were not zombies, but rather zombie masters. Seabrook described the zombies he met as looking “like automatons,” more machine or laboring animal than man, without thought or malice of their own. Even when Lugosi’s zombies attack they are clearly doing so only under his direction. Painted as primitive and infantilized, these Haitian zombies, like Lugosi’s white female lead, were explicitly shown to be the pawns of industrialists, reflecting the fears and ambivalence that surrounded imperial capitalism at the dawn of the Great Depression.

For nearly a century, zombies have literally embodied our anxieties and our social concerns. When did we lose sight of zombie masters, and when did zombies start eating brains? Come back on August 29 for a discussion of space exploration, radiation sickness, and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.

If you want to find out more about the life of zombies, check out our #histchem conversation that includes Deanna. If you want to read more about zombies, Deanna suggests this collection: Better Off Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie as Post-Human. New York: Fordham University Press, 2011. It's edited by Deborah Christie and Sarah Juliet Lauro.

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