James Whale’s Frankenstein was released on November 21, 1931—85 years ago. The film not only began the American horror tradition but has remained enormously generative. Its influence can be seen not only in its contemporaries, like King Kong (1933), but also in films of the 1950s such as The Thing from Another World (1951) and The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and in still later horror monsters such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Leatherface (Tobe Hooper, 1974) and Halloween’s mute and malevolent Michael Myers (John Carpenter, 1978).
Frankenstein has also clearly had a powerful influence on the zombie film: it’s hard not to see the specter of Henry Frankenstein’s creation in the first “ghoul” of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), for instance. Both Frankenstein’s creature and Romero’s ghouls were born in the graveyard, born from humans doing what they should not.
While at first glance, Frankenstein seems to have little presence in the “fast zombie” tradition—the films of the raging infected—there is actually a profound parallel between a particular scene from Frankenstein and one from Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002).
This short clip from Frankenstein shows the creature (Boris Karloff) chained within Henry Frankenstein’s castle, abandoned by his creator (Colin Clive)—who is repulsed by his appearance and ignorance—and tormented by Frankenstein’s henchman, Fritz (Dwight Frye).
Check out how closely this clip from 28 Days Later echoes the scene from Frankenstein. One of the infected, Private Mailer (Marvin Campbell), is chained up in the fortified mansion under the command of Henry West (Christopher Eccleston). West reveals to Jim (Cillian Murphy) that he is conducting an experiment on Mailer—keeping him chained and alive to see how long it takes him to starve to death.
This scene from 28 Days Later replicates the arc of Frankenstein perfectly: we see a “monster” chained up, resisting his bondage; at some point both creatures are driven to the ground and cower in what seems to be fear; they are both tormented in ways that seem downright sadistic. Both creatures are the subjects of an “experiment”: what seem to be (and look like) humans are thoroughly dehumanized, treated as less than human, to serve the ends of someone else (as West says to an appalled Jim, “The idea was to learn something”). And, of course, later in both films, both creatures go on murderous and vengeful rampages. Despite both creatures’ marginal humanity, they are also both thoroughly ambivalent figures: viewers feel sympathy as well as horror—not least because of how they have been treated by their hubristic and even sadistic “creators.”
Both scenes also tap into a repressed social subtext: the effect of Mailer being chained up like a dog in the grounds of the mansion is intensified by the fact that he is black (West, Jim, and almost all of the other soldiers in the mansion are white). So his rampage, when it comes—and his attack on West, in particular—has inevitable connotations of a racial uprising (thus also drawing on the Haitian roots of the zombie tradition).
Tying the knot to Frankenstein still closer, the creature of that film, as Elizabeth Young has argued, serves as a “marker of racial difference,” and, Young continues, the extended concluding scene of Frankenstein, in which the creature is chased by a mob with “barking dogs, fiery torches, angry shouts,” has all the visual signs “of a lynch mob.”[i] This “lynch mob” is pursuing the creature in retaliation for his own retaliatory violence—although the mob would, of course, never allow that the creature’s violence had any justification.
Part of the enduring power of Frankenstein, then, has been not only its terrifyingly hybrid monster (part living and part dead), but also the sympathy that monster acquires and the way in which it is able to stand in for a whole array of real oppressed groups. Frankenstein’s creature brings with it historical associations, in short, that only heighten the audience’s ambivalent feelings of fear and sympathy, desire and dread.
[i] Elizabeth Young, “Here Comes the Bride: Wedding Gender and Race in Bride of Frankenstein,” in The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film, edited by Barry Keith Grant (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1996), 310, 323. The focus of Young’s essay, as her title suggests, is The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).