Bitter Cane

Thanks to Kamal Joory for pointing out an interesting coincidence between Jacques Arceline’s excellent 1983 documentary about life in Haiti during the Duvalier dictatorship Bitter Cane and a key scene from Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead.

As the four surviving protagonists of Dawn survey the empty shopping mall that has become their prison-home, they reflect on why the zombies keep coming back.

Francine – “They’re still here”

Stephen – “They’re after us. They know we’re still in here”

Peter – “They’re after the place. They don’t know why. They just remember. Remember that they want to be in here.”

Francine – “What the hell are they?”

Peter – “They’re us that’s all. There’s no more room in hell.”

Stephen – “What?”

Peter – “Something my granddaddy used to tell us. You know Macumba? Voodoo. Grandad was a priest in Trinidad. He used to tell us “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.””

It’s the only reference to voodoo, and by implication Haiti, in the film. As I suggested in the talk I gave before the screening of Dawn at Nottingham Contemporary two weeks ago, in the apocalyptic cannibal zombie movies that emerged after Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead, the Vodou sorcery explanation of zombiedom tended to recede into the background of the narrative, as the ‘plague of unknown origin’ took over.

But in the actual background of this scene from Dawn is a J.C.Penny store, which at that time of the film’s production was selling consumer goods made in Haiti under unimaginably exploitative, sweat-shop labour conditions. One informant in Bitter Cane, a worker at the TMT clothing factory, then supplying garments for J.C. Penney and GAP stores in the US – a young woman who lives without electricity or running water in  one of the shanty towns in Port-au-Prince that emerged alongside the US owned clothing manufactories – explains how, for her $2.64 daily wage, she has to achieve a production quota of 720 bras. If she doesn’t make the quota, she doesn’t get paid. To make it she has to start work at 7 am and work without a break of any kind until the evening. But it’s worse than that…In order to get and keep a job women are expected to sleep with the bosses. And if the bosses don’t enjoy it for some reason, they get fired.

Another important coincidence for the zonbi diaspora narrative is that the the first popular depiction of folkloric Haitian zombies in modern literature – Willam Seabrook’s The Magic Island (1929) – were rural peasants who had been brought to the city by their master to work at the HASCO sugar manufactory.

Founded in 1912, HASCO (the Haitian American Sugar Company) was the largest industrial sugar manufacturer at the time of Seabrook’s sejourn in the county. HASCO’s production methods differed from the traditional feudal system which had involved large-landholders controlling large numbers of tenant farmers. Instead they employed wage-laborers and used industrial production methods which eventually eroded the traditional agricultural economy and forced thousands of newly landless peasants into the cities looking for work. In 1915 HASCO’s operations were threatened by anti-American political unrest which prompted the first full-blown US military occupation of the country. During the occupation the US military re-introduced forced labour (corvée) to the country which was used to build an infrastructure that would ready the country for foreign investors.

Bitter Cane details the structures of political economy in Haiti during 1970’s in which HASCO continued to play a central role. The capitalist plantation system introduced by HASCO set a precedent for foreign business and industry in Haiti. Most of Haiti’s fertile land, often rented from the big Haitian landowners, is used by foreign companies to grow cash crops for export. Meanwhile most Haitians no longer have land on which to grow their own food and are forced into dependency on foreign food aid. Under Jean Claude Duvalier the Haitian government introduced the Food for Work program in which landless peasants were put to work to build roads and other infrastructure in much the same way they had worked in the corvée system during the US occupation. Workers would be paid two sacks of flour and a gallon of oil per month. The food was supplied by US charities like Catholic Relief Services and CARE, establishing a pattern of charitable complicity with the exploitation of the Haitian people by foreign capitalist interests, which, as we have seen, continues unabated today.

One of the great ironies of the current phase of zonbi diaspora – the mass zombie emulations that began in 2001 and now attract thousands of ‘undead’ participants – is that one of the major issues they raise awareness and charity for is world hunger.


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