There's a lot of debate around what was the first modern zombie story that has caused the current hordes of stumbling zombie cliches trying to get into our movie lists. Some claim it's White Zombie, the voodoo resurrection horror from 1932. Other purists claim it's George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead, which established most of the zombie tropes we know today. But in my expert opinion, that honor goes to the true pioneer in zombie horror: The Smurfs.
The genteel, mushroom-dwelling Smurfs have been through some shit since their creation. They've been hunted by a mad alchemist, been flung through time and space, and even carpet-bombed for a disturbing UNICEF ad. But they were never closer to an apocalypse than in their first-ever story. Marketed in the United States as The Purple Smurfs (more on that name later), it tells the terrifying tale of the Smurfs becoming victims of a zombie-like plague. Quickly overwhelmed, the surviving Smurfs have to fight a desperate battle against their infected friends, mindless ghouls who try to bite any uninfected and gutturally moan the word "Gnap!" over and over.
For a comic created in 1958 (a whole 10 years before Night of the Living Dead hit theaters), it, by all accounts, invents a ton of modern zombie tropes. There's, of course, the Smurfbies' desire to infect other Smurfs by biting them in their little vestigial tail. But these are no shuffling Lazy Smurfs. Skipping four decades into the future, the Purple Smurfs more resemble the rage-zombies from 28 Days Later, fast-moving hunters who can instantly infect others with their strain of super-rabies.
Like typical zombie movie dummies, the Smurfs underestimate the danger of the plague, trying to reason with them and search for a cure while the infected start overwhelming the population. The Smurf zombies even manage to pull a reverse The Walking Dead, disguising themselves as uninfected to infiltrate undetected.
When the Smurf hits the fan, the remaining survivors make their desperate last stand while waves of the infected little purple pixies rush towards the town -- like World War Z zombies but a lot less silly.
Seeing all his compatriots become overwhelmed (extra zombie trope points for having one Smurf flee like a coward and dooming the rest), Papa Smurf, the last Smurf standing, locks himself in his lab in the hopes of pulling an I Am Legend and curing the attackers before it's too late. But he gets bit in a moment of distraction, crying out that the Smurfs are "all doomed" as he slowly transforms into Papa Purple Smurf, his lab on fire and all hope lost.
But since this is still a children's book, there's a twist happy ending. When the laboratory explodes in the fire, its chemical cloud cures all the infected Smurfs. With the zombie plague stopped in its tracks, the camera pans out to show the Smurfs gathering around the smoldering ruins of their town, trying to begin anew in this post-Smurfpocalyptic world.
As we've mentioned before, instead of Purple Smurfs, in the book's original European release, these infected were portrayed as inhuman Black Smurfs, which is its own tangled bag of smurf-racism, smurf-fascism, and blue supremacy.
Yet this only entrenches its zombie credentials further, making the comic the very first bridge between the Afro-Caribbean magic-zombie and the flesh-hungry infected zombie that we've come to get so very, very bored of today. While the Black Smurf version has been pulled from shelves, The Purple Smurfs is still around today and is available in animated cartoon form on YouTube -- in case you want to send the link to your friends to prove that you're the real connoisseur on zombie horror.
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Top Image: Dupuis