The Blooded Lens Filter
Distorting Horror Fiction through Cinema (Part 2)
Back to a bit of self-indulgence and my list of fictional horror icons and archetypes that have been changed so much by celluloid that the popular perception of them little resembles their pre-film state. As always, spoilers ahead for the respective works being referenced. If you haven't read/seen "Psycho" and are unaware of the famous twist I urge that you do before reading my piece on Norman Bates.
Anthony Perkins portrayal of Norman Bates has established how we see everyone's favourite murdering Dissociative Mental Disorder patient. If Freud ever had a nightmare he couldn't have done a lot worse than Norman Bates. The whole composite of the psychology that drives this character are made up favourite themes in the now largely debunked field of Freudian psychoanalysis. Bates has multiple personalties - three to be exact - and these are driven by a variation of the Oedipus Complex. Bates represses the traumas in his life and they manifest themselves most dramatically in his own murderous version of his overbearing mother who he had killed, along with her lover, in a fit of jealous rage. The character of Bates and several other famous fictional killers were inspired by the real-life convicted murderer and body-snatcher, Ed Gein. Gein used the bodies he mainly dug from graves to make all sorts of paraphernalia, including using the tanned skins to wear as clothes. Bates and Gein several characteristics - taxidermy and a warped attachment to a long-dead overbearing mother. However, they were really very different personalities. Gein's taxidermy seems to have been completely driven in the direction of using human corpses whereas Bates's interest in taxidermy is focused entirely on the legitimate stuffing and preserving of birds. Gein was diagnosed as a "sexual psychopath" not long after his arrest and later confirmed, more accurately as a schizophrenic. Bates's condition, as we have described earlier, would have been classified as something quite different.
Robert Bloch's 1959 creation is described as middle-aged, overweight and is probably an alcoholic. He presents a very pathetic and pitiful, if clearly unhinged, figure to Mary Crane in the novel. After eating a small dinner with him, she sees his grotesque image and situation as representative of what can happen to a human being, and it inspires her to return the money she stole towards the beginning of the novel. Bloch's description of his lead antagonist might have not physically resembled Gein, but his manner and look tends resemble the look of many recreational criminals. Many serial killers and sexual criminals are unkempt and unattractive loners. By comparison, Perkins was an up-and-coming actor in the mould of James Dean, Rock Hudson and other '50s stars. He was handsome, lean and even had a good voice, having released a successful pop single prior to auditioning for "Psycho". When Alfred Hitchcock saw him, he could see how Perkins could make the character more sympathetic. Perkins had a boyish vulnerability about him and he played it up excellently by using his superb acting skills. Having already garnered nominations and awards for his acting both on film and stage, he plunged into this new interpretation of Bates, part created by Hitchcock and new screenplay writer, Joseph Stefano, and made him the enduring image we know over half a decade later. The image they created is so powerful that I could only find one image that resembles Bloch's original character and that came from a website dedicated to creating mock police drawings of fictional criminals as they are described in the books.
Perkins, of course, is not the only person to play Norman Bates and the franchise has lived on since his death. Nevertheless, all caricatures drawn of Bates resemble Perkins and the actors who have the played role since Perkins have clearly been cast with the 1960 cinematic portrayal in mind. Vince Vaughan, like the vast majority of the atrocious 1998 remake, is completely modelled on the 1960s depiction. Amidst the very few new elements Gus Van Sant brought to the remake, was Norman Bates's interest in pornography. In Bloch's novel, Bates reads a lot on pornography, including the works of the Marquis De Sade and works on the occult. The real Ed Gein had a strong preoccupation with reading books on anatomy. However, the nervous and shy speech pattern, the slim figure, the politeness and kindliness that only changes when issues relating his mother start arising are all the Perkins/Hitchcock model as opposed to Bloch's character and this is all present in Vaughan's portrayal. Perkins also brought in a bird-like quality to the role that gave Bates an eeriness that Vaughan failed to recreate. Nevertheless, the peering and wide-eyed Norman Bates is all Anthony Perkins and, again, what regularly crops up in the popular imagining of the character.
This can even be seen in the TV series, "Bates Motel", which acts a modernized prequel. The series takes the greatest liberties with the "Psycho" mythology to the point where one is to assume that the entire "Psycho" story - Bloch or Stefano/Hitchcock version - is being re-imagined or "re-booted" as is the regular phrase these days. Bates back-story now involves more violent deaths, murders and the involvement of organized crime. He has an older brother, who is the result of his mother being raped by his uncle, and Norman, for all the shyness and problems around women, doesn't seem to have any trouble in getting girlfriends. Despite such vast divergences and complete reappraisal and rewriting of the whole "Psycho" mythology, Freddie Highmore's version of a teenage Norman Bates is clearly modelled on Anthony Perkins. Robert Bloch may have created Norman Bates, but one year after he first appeared in written form, Hitchcock's casting decision set the "Psycho" blueprint for well over half a century.
The zombie has its name and origins in Haitian folklore.The reanimated corpses were the work of an evil sorcerer known as a bokor. Once under the spell the zombie would be the personal slave of the bokor. They are most commonly put to work on the land or doing performing various manual labour jobs. Origins of the zombie are unclear and hypothesis on drugs that may cause zombie characteristics have little support. It has been postulated that the tradition extends back to Central Africa, where there are similar legends. There is also the belief in an astral zombie, which is a soul captured by a bokor and often contained in some form of vessel. Possession of the soul supposedly grants the bokor or a customer who purchases the soul mystical power or good luck. This is really where the myth of the zombie starts and finishes. The name was hijacked via the movie industry in the 1970s and now the term is now applied in popular culture and fiction to a somewhat different type of reanimated dead person.
The zombie history fiction is not nearly as clean-cut as other horror archetypes. It could be argued that the Monster in Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" is the first example of the modern science fiction zombie that George A. Romero and John Russo would popularize. However, the Monster really doesn't tick a lot of the boxes one associates with being a zombie - both in the traditional form and in the post-1960s form. He isn't a mindless brute for starters. The epic poem, "Gilgamesh", from ancient Mesopotamia (circa 2100 BCE) is regularly cited as the first example of zombie-like creatures. The goddess Ishtar declares:
"I will knock down the Gates of the Netherworld,
I will smash the door posts, and leave the doors flat down,
and will let the dead go up to eat the living!
And the dead will outnumber the living!"
Interestingly this example has more in common with the modern zombie form than the original zombie of folklore. The Haitian zombie is not typically depicted as the ravenous human-eating creatures we commonly think of in today's horror media. However, this changed when H.P. Lovecraft decided to write a parody of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in the 1921 serialized short story, "Herbert West-Reanimator". The reanimated corpses in this story become rampaging, bestial killers who devour their human prey. It's a strong argument that this would carry the blueprint for the popular image of the zombie today. However, it would take four decades before such an idea would materialize. The Haitian zombie would take to the screen first.
Despite short obscure references to the word in some late 18th century English and French literature, it wasn't until 1929 that we see W.B. Seabrook popularize the term "zombi". His sensationalized account of his travels to Haiti in his book "The Magic Island" inspired the 1932 film, "White Zombie". This is the first bonafide zombie movie and it would link the religion of Voodoo with the practice of zombie reanimation. It would be an idea that would find its way back into fictional literature. Notably by such occult novelists as Dennis Wheatley. "White Zombie" gave us the blank eyed slave who worked, as if in a trance-like sleepwalking state. It would become a mainstay of even the science fiction type of zombie-like creatures of 1950s B movies, where corpses might be reanimated as slaves by mad scientists or extra terrestrials.
The awkward, slumbering version that dragged its legs and moaned came directly from George A. Romero's "Night of the Living Dead". Like Lovecraft before him, Romero hadn't really considered the Haitian legend of the zombie as an influence. The look of his living dead were clearly inspired by horror comics that featured decaying undead monsters and obviously we cannot discount Lovecraft's influence here. The 1968 low budget classic took over from "White Zombie" in moulding our popular imagining of the living dead creature. The film is credited with being the single source for the modern and prevailing view of the zombie in horror fiction. The last notable example of the Haitian slave zombies prior to Romero's film was Hammer Films "Plague of Zombies". After "Night of the Living Dead" an unending slew of imitations overwhelmed the genre.
Romero removed the magical reason for his zombie origin. Rather than rationalizing modern zombie fiction for the nuclear age, Romero did not initially give a reason for why people started returning from the dead to feed on the living. It could be argued that Romero invented the notion of a zombie apocalypse with everyone who dies with their brain intact returning to be a flesh-eating zombie. However, one might argue that "Gilgamesh" hinted at this and there are works in ancient scripture that describe the dead suddenly rising up. He did not necessarily invent the concept of the masterless zombie if we consider that these ancient works do not specify whether the living dead will be under the command of the respective deities who ordered their return. However, what seems to set Romero's origin aside from others is that the reanimation of the corpses does not come from spell or direct experiments of a single being. His zombies are not created by a deity or a scientist. Later on Romero's characters in his franchise would speculate, a la 1950s B movies and 1960s Marvel comics, that the cause of the zombie apocalypse was the result of radiation fall out, possibly from a nuclear attack. It would take other modern zombie films to develop more concrete explanations for why the zombies first came into being, which was often the result of an accident.
1981's much maligned "Horror of the Living Dead" established mutating gas as a root cause. The film might now be relegated to the "so-bad-its-good" of low budget horrors, but the film's zombie origin idea was good enough for the critically acclaimed horror comedy "Return of the Living Dead" to use as the basis for their zombie origins. This film was based on a novel of the same name by John A. Russo who was the co-creator of "Night of the Living Dead". When the two parted company Russo was supposedly granted permission to use "Living Dead" in his future works whereas Romero would be free to make direct sequels to the first film.
Romero added an element that had been the domain of the vampire by allowing his creations to infect others by biting them and turning them into living dead killers. He also introduced the notion of a zombie apocalypse. It could be argued that "Gilgamesh" hinted at this and there are references in works of ancient scripture about the suddenly dead rising up, but although Romero keeps the root cause of his zombie apocalypse a mystery, the implication is that it is man-made or science-based rather than anything to do with magic or god-like intervention. Romero also used his films to make strong political commentary on society, but one might say that the slave-zombie of Haitian tradition was partly born out of a view on the black slave trade. Similarly Romero might have popularized the masterless zombie, with Hammer Films' "Plague of Zombies" being the last notable Haitian zombie film prior to the release of "Night of the Living Dead", but we know Lovecraft was already in there. Nevertheless, despite these arguments, the most well-known version of the zombie today can be directly linked to Romero.
Romero didn't start calling his reanimated corpses zombies until he made the sequel, "Dawn of the Dead" in 1978 and by then his imitators across the world were starting to use the term and it would continue gather steam for successive decades and up to the present day. Romero often cited critics as being responsible for labelling his "living dead" monsters, zombies."Dawn of the Dead" bore the name "Zombi" when it was released in Italy and Lucio Fulci released a film the following year entitled "Zombi 2", clearly implying it was a sequel to Romero's film when it wasn't in anyway. However, the film was far more than a forgettable rip-off of an established franchise. The film won praise from horror fans for its make-up and special effects, and completely reignited Fulci's flagging career. Even Romero would follow his lead in "Day of the Dead" by raising the gore factor in accordance with the way Fulci had pushed the envelope with his seminal feature. Released in the UK as "Zombie Flesh-Eaters", the film gained an early reputation as a "video nasty" and used an example during the UK's puritanical censorship campaign in the 1980s and '90s.
Romero established that the removal of the head or destruction of the brain was the only way to kill a zombie. This has remained the prevailing view, leaving disembodied hands and the like to the realm of more supernatural-based films separate from the modern zombie idea, such as "The Evil Dead" trilogy. Notable exceptions to the rule being the aforementioned "Return of the Living Dead" and its sequels, as well as Peter Jackson's horror comedy, "Braindead" and the movie adaptations of Lovecraft's "Re-Animator".
As we can see zombies in popular fiction have diverted from Romero's premise.We have had faster and cleverer zombies. However, the prevailing zombie occurs after a man-made apocalypse, they are consumed with killing and devouring humans, they will infect and turn anyone who they bite into a zombie like them and lumber along at a relatively slow pace. The name is related to the West African words for "nzambi" (god) and "zumbi" (fetish), indicating no connection to Romero's creations and, as we have seen, Romero did not originally apply the name.
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