November 26, 2009

Zombies: The Boris Karloff Connection

Frankenstein's monster is not a zombie.

Let's just put that debate to rest before we get started. Despite what others may say, even people I respect, it takes more than being of dead flesh to be considered a zombie. On the other hand, you cannot separate the cultural influence of Frankenstein's monster from the zombie. In particular, I think that zombie fans owe a debt of gratitude to Boris Karloff for his depiction of the Frankenstein's monster. More than we might realize, Karloff's monster has influenced the zombies in George Romero's films and, as a consequence of Romero's popularity, many of the zombie films today.

Frankenstein's monster at Louis Tussaud's in Niagra Falls
The literary Frankenstein's monster and Karloff's depiction of the creature in 1931's Frankenstein differ substantially, yet both are clearly not zombies. Unlike zombies (living or dead) whom exhibit a suppressed or subverted will, both Mary Shelley's monster and Karloff's monster are willful creatures that do as they please and make rational choices based on self-preservation. Even Karloff's creature, whose intelligence and expression are severely limited, is shown to be consciously kind to those he likes, wrathful to those who do him harm, and capable of making plans and acting upon them. He's hardly the instinctual and indiscriminately violent creature we see in most zombie films. If we look at the George Romero's zombies in Night of the Living Dead (1968), however, there are some striking similarities between the physical performance of these zombies and Karloff's performance of the monster. Karloff's contribution to the zombie genre becomes even more apparent when we look at the recent trend at creating "sympathetic zombies" in Romero's films and others such as Fido (2006).

First, let's look at the way Karloff physically depicted the creature. When Karloff makes his first full on-screen appearance in Frankenstein, he turns around and lumbers forward at heavy, shuffling pace. His arms are stiff and awkward, his hands quite inflexible, and when he turns around he stares out at the audience with a vacant yet oddly intent expression. His power comes from his his stiff arms and dead hands with which he bats, beats, and strangles others or pounds on walls and doors of his prison. A similar physical performance is echoed by the zombies in Romero's Night of the Living Dead, especially through Bill Hinzman's Graveyard Zombie, the first zombie to appear in the film. In the graveyard scene, Hinzman's performance is not clearly identical to Karloff's monster (nor as nuanced), but Hinzman seems to be drawing on the same stiff, shuffling gait (if not more stooped) popularized by Karloff and his imitators. In this film and later zombie films by Romero or inspired by Romero, we see the same shuffling, heavy gait in zombies who, like Karloff's monster, reach out with their powerful hands to strangle and rend their victims or pound down the doors and walls that block their way.

Why do I see a connection to Karloff? First, this typical physical depiction of the undead zombie that we now consider standard owes very little to previous zombie films, ironically. Prior to Frankenstein in 1931, there were virtually no moving pictures of zombies available to audiences. Representations of the Haitian zombie appeared in fiction and sensationalized tales from Haiti, but it wasn't until White Zombie was released in 1932 that zombies lurched into motion pictures. Still, from 1932 until Romero's Night of the Living Dead in 1968, zombies were not a popular movie monster. In their obscurity during these pre-Romero years, zombies were often depicted as wide-eyed sleepwalkers (think Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in 1920). Post-Frankenstein and pre-Romero zombies didn't have any particular difficulty moving although they were slightly awkward sometimes. The only moved slowly; no stumbling or showing of any overt stiffness or acute awkwardness from physical decay as we find in Frankenstein's monster and Hinzman's graveyard zombie. There seemed to be little in pre-Romero zombie films to inspire the shambolic zombies in Night and future films. It's more likely that Romero's cast was inspired by Karloff. Thanks to the popularization of television, whole generations of monster fans were growing up in the 1950s and 1960s with Karloff's depiction of the creature, a depiction echoed by imitators in other Frankesntein or horror films. For this reason, I think it is quite likely that when Romero was directing his zombies, his zombie cast probably drew consciously or unconsciously from Karloff's iconic and culturally identifiable depiction of the walking reanimated rather than the obscure zombies in films like White Zombie (1932), King of the Zombies (1941), and I Walked with a Zombie (1943).

FUN FACT: Both Boris Karloff's monster and the zombies in George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead fear fire and react by raising up their arms in protection. Coincidence or evidence of a deeper connection between Karloff and zombies?

Second, there is an even clearer connection between Karloff's monster and zombies if we look at and the recent depiction of "sympathetic zombies". Starting with Bub the zombie in Romero's Day of the Dead (1985) and including such characters as Big Daddy from Land of the Dead and Fido from Fido (2006), there has been a recent offering of sympathetic zombies. Often, these zombies shrug off the mindless trait of the zombie. They often appear in humorous short films or feature-length comedies such as Shaun of the Dead.

The sympathetic zombie is a monster that intends people no harm (or has learned not to harm people), but because of its limited intelligence, uncontrollable desires, or follies is feared, hated, and isolated. The sympathetic zombie has feelings, and although it is incapable of complex speech it can still tug at our heart strings with its very human moans, guttural noises, and soulful expressions. Does this sound a bit like a certain flat-headed, bolt-necked, big-shoed creature we know and love?

Perhaps Karloff's crowning achievement in Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein was to make the monster emotionally endearing as a cultural icon. Karloff's performance set the groundwork for an evolution in the character from monster to hero. Now that zombies are starting to make the same evolution in film, these zombie films and actors tend to hearken back to Karloff's work as the monster and his uncanny ability to emote very sympathetically with pure and primal human emotions from behind layers makeup.

Undoubtedly, the best example of the sympathetic zombie in the vein of Frankenstein is Bub from Day of the Dead. Fittingly, he is being groomed by a scientist called Dr. Logan who is nicknamed "Dr. Frankenstein." Instead of giving life to the dead, this Dr. Frankenstein is trying to bring civil manners and human behaviour to the dead. The scene between Logan (Richard Liberty) and Bub the zombie (Howard Sherman) in which Logan reintroduces Bub to shaving, music, telephones, and positive reinforcement is very similar to the scene in Bride of Frankenstein in which the blind hermit (O. P. Heggie) teaches the monster about music, food, and friends. Furthermore, Sherman's performance as Bub is probably the best depiction of the humanized monster since Karloff played the monster. Both Herman and Karloff, in their respective roles, found a way to connect with the audience so they could see past the monsters' grotesque appearances and anti-social tendencies to the shared humanity within.

The trend continues in modern films like Fido, in which zombies have been turned into slaves with control collars, and in Land of the Dead, where the zombie Big Daddy laments the slaughter of his kind and leads a revolution against the humans. The zombie named Fido (Billy Connolly) comes to love his adopted family but is persecuted by the father and others in the community whereas Big Daddy (Eugene Clark) just wants to find peace for his persecuted zombies that are neither dead nor alive. Like Karloff's monster, both these sympathetic monsters are strong silent types who emote through pitiful grunts or enraged moans. They are also both presented as "every man" working-class characters whose child-like discovery of the world and its pain and wonders reminds us what it means to be human even though the characters are monsters. This is the legacy of Karloff's creature. Every sympathetic zombie turns back to Karloff for inspiration on how to connect with the hearts of viewers.

On this week of Karloff's birthday (Nov 23, 1889), think about how Karloff's influence as Frankensten's monster has permeated the conventions of zombie culture. When people get together for zombie walks and pretend to be the undead, don't they seem to walk and moan and talk quite a lot like Karloff's Frankenstein? If you ask someone to walk like Frankenstein and then walk like a zombie, is there much of a difference?

In February, it will have been 41 years since Karloff died. Karloff never starred in a proper zombie film during his career. Frankenstein's monster is not a zombie either. However, if you peel back the layers of modern depiction of the zombie popularized by George Romero, you will find a very fertile kernel of Karloff at the heart.