the success of the Halperin brother’s film ensured that the zombie would remain curreny in films of the 1930s. In all of these films, the zombies followed the apparent real-world formula of mindless, but not hostile, reanimated corpses, representing to those who raised them in the first place as the chief antagonists and dangers to the systemic (racial) order. In the majority of these films, the exotic Caribbean locale and the mainly black zombies revealved the latent—and often overt—racism of the times.
2. The Emergence of the African-Caribbean Voodoo, Obeah and Zombies in Euro-American Literature and Cinema: ‘Blood-Maddened, Sex-Maddened, God-Maddened’
in 1920, the occupation became a controversial news topic and presidential campaign issue when allegations of excessive violence and oppressive policies surfaced. Although opposition grew, even its critics continued to characterize Haitians as an inferior population, and evaluated the level of success the U.S. had achieved uplifting them. As government officials, politicians, and the press debated U.S. withdrawal in the latter half of the occupation, memoirs and travel books that exoticized Haiti were published to great success.
3. Ouanga: The ‘Magic of Deadly Jungle Gods’ and ‘Pulsating Beat of the Voodoo Drums’
Jamaica possesses, as far as we have found out here, very many advantages from the point of view of making moving pictures (…) it has a light and climate every bit as good as Hollywood; magnificent natural scenery; is easily accessible from New York; it is British; and the people of Jamaica are orderly and intelligent, which is a good deal more than we can say of some of the other countries around the Caribbean’.(JG, 25 October 1933)
With the coming of science supernatural phenomena were explained and supposedly banished, yet in many out of the way corners of the earth there may still be found remnants of races that believe implicitly in the religious formulas that have come down to them from the dim and distant past. Of all these strange beliefs perhaps the most inexplicable and disturbing is that of the Haitians, known to white men as ‘VOODOO’.
Ouanga Wanga, that’s voodoo, a love or death charm created through the magic of deadly jungle gods. It is come down through the ages from the witch doctors of ancient Africa and we find it today in the secret places of paradise island in the West Indies. Paradise Island, where majestic mountains reefed in clouds hem in verdant tropical valleys or tumble down to palm-line shores and lagoons of breathtaking beauty. Under the spell of astral skies, the daily lives of its inhabitants is marked by an unhearded peacefulness and a joyess contentment. Their simple occupations are colourful and primitive, and whether they live in the mountain valley or town, eventually they find their way to the great city markets. Night falls, and with the rise of the great white tropical moon comes a sinister awakening. Mysterious figures slip silently from shadow to shadow, nature becomes ghostly and unearthly, alive with evil movement, shuttering incantations and gruesome rights. And seemingly from everywhere comes the throbbing, pulsating beat of the voodoo drums … drums … drums …
4. Obeah and The Devil’s Daughter: ‘Mumbo Jumbo’ in ‘Savage Tropical Islands’
5. Conclusions: Hollywood’s Continuing ‘Tradition of Terror Caribbean Cultures’
Data Availability Statement
Conflicts of Interest
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Throughout this article, I chiefly use the English/American, non-capitalized spellings of ‘obeah’ or ‘voodoo’ instead of ‘Obeah’ or ‘Voodoo’ (or alternate spellings such as ‘Vodou’, ‘Vodun’, ‘Vodun’, or ‘Vaudou’, dependent on the language of the country in which it is practiced) to emphasize the focus on the (stereotypical) representation of the two African-Caribbean religions in Euro-American cinema and wider popular culture.
Since newspaper reports of the Jamaica Gleaner are my primary source materials of the archival newspaper research, I use the abbreviation JG when quoting or paraphrasing from these reports. When referring to other newspapers and magazines, I provide their full title in the text.
Paradoxically, these stories co-existed with stories of ‘natives’ as childlike hosts and peaceful savages, equally serving as a justification for imperial conquest and colonial control.
According to JoAnn Castagna (2010, p. 236), ‘Obeah is not a religion but rather a sacred healing practice that acknowledges a spiritual belief system. In the British imagination, [however,] Obeah has historically been the umbrella term for any African-based spiritual practice unknown to the European tradition that purports to give the black population a sense of agency or authority’.
For example, in the 1870s, British author Charles Rampini stated in his Letters from Jamaica (Rampini 1873, p. 131): ‘Of all the motive powers which influence the negro character, by far the most potent, as it is also the most dangerous, is that of Obeah. (…) The Obeah man or woman is one of the great guild or fraternity of crime. Hardly a criminal trial occurs in the colony in which he is not implicated in one way or another’.
After the establishment of the Code Noir, voodoo practices were aggressively suppressed by arrests, fines, and corporal punishment. In response, the enslaved Africans conducted their rites in secrecy; under the cover of Catholic ceremonies, during clandestine gatherings at night, and on the hidden Maroon camps in the mountains. In due course, voodoo ‘created a communal bond that served as the secret foundation for their various struggles for freedom’ (Renda 2001, p. 33). As such, the religion played a significant role in Haitian Revolution and, eventually, the abolition of slavery and independence of Haiti.
Two of those writings were Faustin Wirkus’ The White King of La Gonave (Wirkus 1931) and John Craige’s Cannibal Cousins (Craige 1934). Both Wirkus and Craige were U.S. marines based in Haiti during the occupation. Their memoirs largely portrayed voodoo practitioners as cultist cannibals spreading anarchy and terror across Haiti. As Hurbon (1995, p. 56) notes, ‘Wirkus (…) gave an account of the damage he inflicted in order to “save” the Haitian people from cannibalism and black magic. As far as he was concerned, the (…) protestors against the occupation, were practitioners of voodoo. (…) [Craige’s] Cannibal Cousins painted a picture of Haiti as the land of ‘zombies’, for voodoo, it was reported, had the strange custom of “reviving the dead”’.
In between The Sea Bat and White Zombie, in 1931, UA released Arrowsmith, an adaptation of the 1925 novel of the same name, which was set in a fictional Caribbean island. While not featuring voodoo or zombies, its story of island natives suffering a bubonic plague to be saved by an American scientist, mirrored the rhetoric of the U.S. administration after invading Haiti.
Combining the imperial gothic themes of going native and black invasion, the white American characters, lured by the romantic promise of tropical paradise, soon come to experience the island as horrific and maddening.
According to Russell (2005, p. 27), the box office success of ‘White Zombie didn’t encourage any established filmmakers to turn their hand to movies about the walking corpses of the Caribbean. Most of the Hollywood establishment regarded the zombie as little more than (…) a one-hit wonder (…). Unconvinced (…), the big studios turned their backs to the zombie and the monster’s long-running association with low-budget, critically dismissed films began in earnest’.
Already in the 1970s, Richards (1973, p. 2) defined empire cinema as ‘not simply film which are set in the territories of the British Empire but films which detail the attitudes, ideals and myths of British Imperialism’. In the following years, the definition of empire cinema was extended to include the national cinemas of other empires, notably the United States, which emerged as an imperialist power by the early twentieth century (though the British tradition remained prominent). At present, empire cinema is most closely associated with the British and American empire films of the 1930s and 1940s. According to Chowdhry (2000, p. 1), these empire films were popular in both Britain and Hollywood because they ‘shared a common viewpoint and the acceptance of certain ideological concerns and images in keeping with this vision’. Taves (1993, p. 71) similarly explains that ‘the era of colonialism was still under way, with much of Europe’s colonial system enduring and America’s own imperial tendencies still on the rise. Most English-language audiences could share equally in the vicarious thrill of stories of conquest in remote lands’. Interestingly, the 1930s cycle of American empire films generally featured the ‘old’ British Empire instead of its own ‘new’ one. Richards (1973, p. 4) even argues that most ‘American films of Empire were little different from British films of Empire’. This may be explained by both cultural and economic reasons. Culturally, Britain and the United States shared a deep Anglo-Saxon heritage. Richards (1973, p. 1) asserts that many empire films of the 1930s ‘brought to life the heroic dreams and romantic fancies that are part of the folk tradition of the English-speaking world’. In a similar vein, Chapman and Cull (2009, p. 6) refer to ‘the existence of a shared Anglo-American culture of chivalry that exerts a strong hold on the popular imagination on both sides of the Atlantic’.
Crafton (1997, p. 388) argues that the introduction of sound attributed greatly to the popularity of the imperial adventure film, adding yet another level of immediacy and realism to the travelogue tradition of the silent era: ‘The travel film, part ethnographic documentary, part titillating attraction, had been an important component of cinema since its beginning. Producers quickly adapted it to take advantage of sound’s transportive function. Commentators and reviewers invariably mentioned the enhanced impression of imaginary presence and “realism” that sound afforded. The overt purpose of these films was to capture the ambience of exotic lands, and sound helped complete the illusion’.
Generally speaking, classic imperial adventure films focused on a white male hero, or a bond of people (usually white men) led by a white male hero, who travels (voluntarily or not) to faraway places in search or need of a higher purpose (e.g., wealth, fame, land, science, justice, order, civilization), which he eventually, after overcoming numerous trials and dangers, achieves, together with a moral learning experience and the beautiful white maiden he loves (if that was not his higher purpose in the first place).
For example, in Columbia Pictures’ Black Moon (1934), as the New York Times reported at the time, ‘2.000 crazed natives [set out] to exterminate all the white folk’ on the imaginary West Indian island of San Christopher (28 June 1934). According to Senn (1998, p. 36), in ‘making voodoo nothing more than the driving superstition of the fanatical savages (…), Black Moon did the religion (…) no favors,’ particularly as the name of the island closely resembled the name of a real West Indian island, i.e., Saint Christopher Island, better known as Saint Kitts.
More generally, in 1930s American empire films depicting the U.S. presence overseas, Americans often do not enter empty spaces to be seized —as is the case in many films set in the ‘old’ British Empire or American West – but already populated and cultivated areas to be monitored and protected. Sinha (2011, p. 542) argues that such films constituted ‘a way of imagining the nation not as an empire,’ as in most British empire films, ‘but rather as a global economic power’. Directly reflecting the (covert imperialist) rhetoric of U.S. foreign policy in the early twentieth century, these empire films usually featured a contemporary (post-1900) setting in which white American characters were involved in ‘mediating world conflicts, promoting international camaraderie and creating the conditions for modernization’ (Sinha 2011, p. 542).
The genre of the southern plantation drama reached its peak in the 1930s. Film historians have explained the genre’s popularity during this period by considering them as forms of white nostalgia and escapism in economically desperate times. According to Williams (2001, p. 187), ‘in the decade of the Great Depression, American popular culture would wax even more nostalgic over the traditional virtues of the agrarian southern home then it had in [earlier] day[s], to the point of reviving its most controversial symbol of white mastery: the plantation’. In a similar vein, Guerero (1993, p. 19) argues that ‘tendency toward denial and escapism in times of crisis accounted for the plantation melodrama’s national popularity, which resulted in the production and exhibition of more than seventy-five features about the South between 1929 and 1941’. Both the southern plantation drama and the imperial zombie film often featured segregation stories with a strict core-periphery geography and black-white hierarchy.
The African-American characters in southern plantation dramas were generally pacified and docile slaves who happily served their functions on the plantation. According to Masood (2003, pp. 14–16), as such, they were not only reduced to supportive objects of white fantasies, but also detached from the ‘civilized’ and ‘modern’ world, making them ‘luminal to the expansion of an industrial economy’.
Louisiana voodoo was another African-derived religion that had developed since the eighteenth century. According to Schmitt and O’Neill (2019, p. 39), voodoo came to Louisiana in the early 1700s when enslaved Africans were brought to the Deep South to work on the plantations. As they were ‘not allowed to practice any religion’ except Catholicism, ‘gathering for Voodoo or any other rites in those early days was impossible’ (Schmitt and O’Neill 2019, p. 41). According to Touchstone (1972, p. 374), the presence of voodoo increased around 1800, ‘when many Haitian and West Indian blacks who were already acquainted with it were brought as slaves to Louisiana’ when it was a short-lived French colony. After Louisiana became a state of the United States in the early nineteenth century (the French sold Louisiana to the U.S. in 1803 and the territory was officially admitted as an American state in 1812), attempts were made to ‘curtail voodoo activities’, notably by the Union army during the American Civil War (1861–1865) (Touchstone 1972, p. 374). However, although the large commercial voodoo ceremonies deteriorated after the Civil War—in part since by the 1880s the ‘New Orleans authorities became less tolerant of even semi-public, benign voodoo and, whenever possible, the police broke up voodoo assemblies which were now termed illegal’—the ‘more clandestine New Orleans voodoos’ continued many of their activities underground (Touchstone 1972, pp. 381–82). In early twentieth-century Louisiana, the ‘remnants of commercial voodoo and of the underground variety survived in the guise of a few “hoodoo-men,” witchcraft stores and odd charms’ (Touchstone 1972, p. 386). The 1930s Hollywood zombie films thus also seemed to negotiate the presence of voodoo ‘at home’. In addition, some voodoo films of this period were especially made for the so-called ‘Negro circuit’, i.e., the ‘specialty market’ on ‘the margins of the [American] motion picture industry’ that supplied ‘independently produced material featuring all-back casts’ to ‘all-black venues called “race houses”‘ (Doherty 1999, p. 207), of which around 450 existed in the United States in the mid-1930s. For example, following White Zombie, American cinema’s ‘second voodoo entry’ became Drums o’ Voodoo (1934), an ‘all-coloured’ low-budget production written by African-American playwright J. Augustus Smith (Senn 1998, p. 29). As such, Drums o’ Voodoo holds ‘the distinciton of being the first [American] film based on the work of a black dramatist—and the first blaxploitation voodoo movie’ (Senn 1998, p. 29). Significantly, taking ‘a diametrically opposed direction from its predecessor’, Drums o’ Voodoo was also ‘the first picture to shine a benign light on its topic’ by capturing ‘the sense of community integral to Voudoun spirituality’ (Senn 1998, p. 29).
Due to shooting delays, the production was not ready for its planned release in December 1933 and consequently lost its place in the British quota that year. Ouanga finally premiered in Britain in 1935. From then, it would last another seven years before the film was released in the United States. According to Senn (1998, p. 41), the film ‘was not shown in America until early 1942, when states-rights distributor J.H. Hoffberg exhibited it briefly under the new title of The Love Wanga’ before languishing in obscurity.
In his autobiography And the Show Goes on, Leonard recounted the following about their initial decision to travel to Haiti to shoot Ouanga: ‘Our first port of call was Port Au Prince, Haiti. Our picture was to be about voodoo and Port Au Prince was (…) the center of the voodoo religion. (…) [Here,] our company prop man expected to find many of the things with which to dress the sets so that they would look like authentic places of voodoo worship’ (Leonard and Griffith 1995, p. 19).
According to Leonard (Leonard and Griffith 1995, p. 23), ‘there’d been three deaths, countless misadventures, we were thousands of dollars over budget, and I had lost eighteen pounds. Did it have anything to do with the things our prop man stole in Port Au Prince’?
As the production was eventually not shot in Haiti, the ‘authentic’ voodoo island, they opted for the label ‘West Indies’ instead of ‘Jamaica’. This shows the tendency to see the Caribbean as one and the same.
At the time, in the United States a ‘self-regulatory Production Code of ethics’ was in place (since 1934, replacing and updating the Hays Code) that ‘specified what could and could not be depiced on screen’ (Bogle 2005, p. 138). On the topic of interracial sex or love, the code stated: “‘Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races) is forbidden”’ (in Bogle 2005, p. 138).
The two African-American characters in Ouanga, performed by ‘vaudeville burlesque and screen stars,’ Syd Easton and Baby Joyce (JG, 24 November 1933), were depicted very differently from their Caribbean counterparts. Adam brings his African-American domestics, Susie and Johnson, from Harlem to work in the plantation house. Throughout the film they appear as loyal-but-stupid servants. They are infantilized and represented as faithful and gullible children who are easily frightened and manipulated by voodoo practices. This marked an important difference with the Caribbean characters in Ouanga, who were portrayed as untamed and primitive. Besides the low intelligence of Susie and Johnson (particularly apparent when they foolishly confuse Adam’s driver for a zombie), they were also depicted as licentious (e.g., Susie is constantly hitting on Johnson and Johnson looks playfully at black women). As in many American movies of that period, the black servants served for comic relief for the predominantly white urban audiences who endured the Great Depression and negotiated the segregated assimilation of African-Americans in ‘their’ American cities: ‘The black servants of the Hollywood films of the 1930s met the demands of their times. (…) As they delivered their wisecracks or acted the fool, the servants were a marvellous relief from the harsh financial realities of the day’ (Bogle 1973, p. 36).
F. Herrick Herrick and his film team arrived in Jamaica in April 1934 to shoot various sequences of Obeah on the island. Besides Herrick, the visiting party consisted of a sound engineer, two cameramen, and a cast comprising Philips Lord, Alice Wessler and Kelly Jeanne. Other sequences of the film were allegedly shot in Haiti, Tobago, Panama and the Pearl Islands and during the sea voyage (Film Daily, 26 October 1934).
In addition, local business men and tourism promoters valued the production for generating both film location employment and advertisement. According to the Jamaica Gleaner, the location filming of Obeah had ‘afforded employment to a total number of approximately one hundred and fifty Jamaicans who acted in the capacities of actors, actresses, assistants, electricians, etc’ (JG, 12 May 1994). Much interest was directed to the presence of well-known radio broadcaster Philips H. Lord, one of the film’s lead actors, who stated that he would record a radio broadcast about Jamaica that would offer ‘a great deal of publicity’ (JG, 8 June 1934). On the other hand, tourism stakeholders on the island did not expect ‘to derive publicity to any great extent’ from the film itself as the plot was laid in the South Seas (JG, 16 November 1933). Still, one local resident pointed to ‘the benefits that would accrue to the island if pictures were made here’ (JG, 17 October 1934). He claimed that Jamaica had much to offer to foreign film companies as the island was able to supply ‘all a film company can desire—sunshine, scenery, climate, cheap labour, etc’ (JG, 17 October 1934).
Apart from a lack of push factors—for both Hollywood studios and independent filmmakers it was usually easier, cheaper and safer to remain at home base—the absence of runaway productions in the late 1930s may also in part have been due to a shortage of pull factors resulting from the unstable internal situation of the colony throughout the decade. In the early 1930s, Jamaica’s economy was severely hit by the Great Depression, witnessing a collapse of banana and agricultural produce sales, a fall of wages, and a rise of unemployment. The black working class suffered widespread poverty and inequality, and in the spring of 1938 sugar and dock workers across the island rose in revolt. The labour strikes and riots continued for five months and were eventually violently put down by the colonial police force. The nationwide uprising was a direct confrontation with the British colonial officials and planter elites over the demand to end ‘the semi-slavery conditions of the society’ (Campbell 1988, p. 81) and marked a major turning point in the political history of the island. Out of the worker riots emerged the country’s modern nationalist movement under black and brown leadership, the formation of the first labour unions, and the development of party politics (i.e., the two-party system of the People’s National Party and the Jamaica Labour Party that still exists today). At the same time, driven by the work of black activist and labour leader Marcus Garvey, the 1930s saw a rise of racial consciousness and confidence among the black poor masses of Jamaica, which, among other things, led to the origin of the early Rastafari movement (Gray 2004). Still, as Thompson (2006, p. 236) notes, ‘despite these new political gains, (…) racial discrimination still pervaded other social spheres, placing limits on black social mobility’. Within this wider political context, foreign film companies may have been discouraged from travelling to Jamaica, afraid for the safety of their (usually) predominantly white staff members. Perhaps both fittingly and ironically, the only film company visiting Jamaica in the late 1930s was a company consisting of an all-black cast.
Until then, foreign film companies had always travelled to Jamaica by boat. Although commercial aviation had commenced in Jamaica in the early 1930s, arrival by plane was still relatively rare during the first decade of aviation (though an increasing number of American tourists started to arrive by plane from the mid-1930s). The team of The Devil’s Daughter flew from Miami to Kingston with a small flying boat that in total ‘bought seven landing passengers’ (JG, 10 August 1939), of which five were part of the filmmaking party.
The film also again featured a painfully gullible loyal servant from Harlem, this time performed by African-American comedian Hamtree Harrington. Senn (1998, p. 41) notes that ‘the “comic relief” of Harrington, whose rolling eyes and “feets-do-your-stuff” portrayal is simply demeaning rather than funny, shows that even in all-black films such as this, it’s difficult to get away from the pervasive stereotype of the day’.
According to Morrish (1982, p. 56), ‘for a very long time traditional Christian religion was controlled by white priests and missionaries, and many of the revivalist cults were an expression of protest against white domination, whilst the recrudescence of African rituals indicated an attempt to claim something which was specifically non-European’.
This included the effort to ‘prevent the exhibition of any films’ that would give ‘the native races (…) unfavourable impressions as to the characteristics and habit of the white races’ (Economic Sub-Committee 1926, p. 3).
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, following the theatrical release of Pocomania in Jamaica, the Jamaica Gleaner almost exclusively focused on the picturesque qualities of the production, not mentioning the content of the film. According to the newspaper, the film functioned as a travelogue providing emblematic images of the island: ‘Pocomania takes full advantage of the natural beauties and background of Jamaica by weaving the story in the framework of a travelogue, which opens the picture and leads the story’ (JG, 17 February 1940). However, despite its apparent picturesque qualities, the film’s portrayal of black magic as a dark superstitious practice, which dictated all promotions, undoubtedly left the most lasting impression among audiences.
In horror films such as Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952), Teenage Zombies (1959), Plan Nine from Outer Space (1959), Invisible Invaders (1959), and The Horror of Party Beach (1964), zombies were ‘devoid of their Caribbean racial dynamic’ (Russell 2005, p. 64) and variously represented drugged villains, evil aliens and radiated creatures.
Night of the Living Dead turned into an instant sensation in the American midnight circuits through word of mouth. Made on a US$114,000 budget, Romero’s production eventually grossed US$42 million worldwide. The film had an unprecedented impact on the zombie genre. In the next two decades, often labelled the Golden Age of zombie cinema (1968–1988), Night of the Living Dead spawned countless, mostly independent productions that followed the zombie archetype instituted by Romero, such as Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971), Hell of the Living Dead (1980), The Evil Dead (1981), Night of the Comet (1984), The Return of the Living Dead (1985), Night of the Creeps, 1986), and Romero’s own successor, Dawn of the Dead (1978).
Although the celluloid zombie chiefly became a ghoulish monster plaguing a post-apocalyptic Western world, some 1970s low-budget horror movies continued to feature voodoo plots and Caribbean settings—with or without zombies. Two of those films were shot in Jamaica: The Devil’s Garden (1971) and Vudú Sangriento (Voodoo Black Exorcist, Bogle 1973). Both were ultra-cheap independent productions emblematic of the offbeat splatter horror cycle of the 1970s. The Devil’s Garden was directed by American pornographic film director Robert Chinn and represented the emerging trend of low-budget horror porn (sometimes referred to as ‘sex horror’ or ‘torture porn’). Allegedly secretly filmed in Jamaica, this dubious sex horror opus presented, as the tagline stated, ‘Bizarre Rituals of Forbidden Ecstasy on the Island of the Possessed’. Throughout the film, voodoo ceremonies were depicted as possession rites ending in wild sex orgies. These rites were performed by dreadless Rastafarians who drugged their victims into zombie-like sex slaves. Jamaica and particularly the island’s ‘bizarre religious cult up in the hills,’ as one character in the film described the Rastafarians, represented a strange place tainted by black magic and exotic temptation. Then, the Spanish low-budget horror production Vudú Sangriento, directed by Manuel Caño and written by Santiago Moncada, perpetuated the association between black magic and erotic seduction. The film opened with a voodoo ceremony set in a tropical myth-time, where a Haitian voodoo priest is buried alive in a coffin for having a secret love affair with a married woman, who is, in turn, decapitated. After this prologue, the story continued in the present. The coffin is put on a holiday cruise liner during a port call in Port-Au-Prince by an eminent anthropologist and voodoo expert. On board, the priest, now a zombie-mummy, is revived and wreaks havoc on the ship for vengeance. The link between black magic and sexual desire is constantly reinforced, mainly through dramatic juxtapositions of voodoo horror and sensual dancing. The film also presented a typical confrontation between Western rationality and Caribbean mysticism, contrasting scientific explanations with the seducing lure of voodoo. Vudú Sangriento was largely shot on board a holiday cruise ship, but the scenes taking place ashore were filmed in Port au Prince, Santa Domingo and Kingston. After a limited release in Spain and France, the movie crossed over to the United States in May 1975. Here the horror import, now retitled Voodoo Black Exorcist and dubbed into English, aimed to exploit the success of the blaxploitation genre as well as William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973). However, the import only had a brief run in the American drive-in circuit before fading into obscurity (and rarity) on the video shelves.
Typically featuring zombies as consuming (rather than labouring) monsters spreading mayhem and disease in a post-apocalyptic western world, contemporary zombie films have since the 1970s been used to reflect social commentary on issues such as capitalism, pandemics, and global security. Especially from the 2000s, when the celluloid zombie returned from his grave and invaded Hollywood cinema and wider U.S. popular culture after being almost buried in the margins of straight-to-video splatter horror throughout the 1990s—which Kyle Bishop (2009) has called the ‘zombie renaissance’—many scholars have studied the new ‘millennial zombie’ (Birch-Bayley 2012) and the anxieties he expresses in (post)modern society (e.g., Shaviro 2002; Lauro and Embry 2008; Bishop 2009; Muntean and Payne 2009; Boluk and Lenz 2010; Birch-Bayley 2012). In doing so, these post-2000 zombie movies often did not consider the historical origins of the zombie and its continuing reverberations of imperialist intervention and racial suppression. However, as Gerry Canavan (2010, pp. 432–33) indicates, ‘zombies are always other people, which is to say they are Other people, which is to say they are people who are not quite people at all. (…) Before we can ever hope to “become zombies” we first must come to terms with the historical and ongoing colonial violence of which the zombie has always ever been only the thinnest sublimation’.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, two Jamaica-shot movies included a supernatural hint. The sea adventure film City Beneath the Sea (1953) featured a few menacing voodoo drums, while in Island of the Sun (1961) the hypnotic sounds of the drums were only heard in the background. Then, in the 1980s, two MGM dramas filmed on location in Jamaica integrated ‘a little voodoo’ (New York Times, 16 April 1989) into their plot. While Eureka (1981) featured a typical scene of a nightly voodoo ceremony with seducing sorcery and wild dancing, in The Mighty Quinn, which was set on ‘an unidentified tropical island fairly close to mainland America’ (JG, 31 March 1989), a local police chief on a quest to solve a mysterious murder on a wealthy white businessman eventually identifies a black voodoo witch as the perpetrator. Finally, in the 1987 MTM and Warner Bros. family drama Clara’s Heart (1988), which was partially shot in Jamaica but largely in the American state of Maryland, obeah was mentioned once. When Clara Mayfield (Whoopi Goldberg), a Jamaican chambermaid who is hired by a wealthy American family to be a housekeeper and child minder in Baltimore, an adversary Jamaican woman aims to scare the boy she is taking care of by saying that ‘where Mayfield go, death and obeah follow’.
In the disguise of the Prime Minister of the fictional Caribbean island of San Monique, the villain secretly grows heroin poppies on the isle and plans to distribute the drugs for free in the U.S. Throughout the plot, San Monique signifies corruption and anarchy. The heroin fields of this so-called ‘voodoo land’ are supposedly protected by the dark forces of black magic.
In Shattered Image, black magic contributes to the fuzzy dream world of female protagonist Jessie. The line between reality and fantasy gets blurred when Jessie develops paranoid delusions after a violent rape. She constructs a dream world for herself that is the opposite of her real one. In one world, Jessie is a cold-blooded assassin in Seattle; in the other world, she is a fragile newlywed who is honeymooning in Jamaica. The just-married Jessie is scared that her rapist has followed her to the island to kill her. Throughout the film, Jamaica functions as a surreal environment in which Jessie’s fears seem very much at home. The lush hideaway initially gives the impression of comfort and security, but from the start Jessie feels lost in the exotic surroundings. Mirroring her terrified psychological state, the island becomes a threatening landscape of alienation. One day, Jessie visits a local voodoo psychic who tells the past. The eerie experience she has there intensifies both Jessie’s state of paranoia and Jamaica’s landscape of paranoia.
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