Director: Jim Stenstrum
Screenwriters: Glenn Leopold and Davis Doi
Animation Studio: Mook Animation
Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island (1998) is credited with revitalizing its animated franchise, and it has historical (mis)interpretations of voodoo to thank for that success. In Zombie Island, stylized environments and plot choices perpetuate distortions of Louisiana voodoo.
The film’s main action unravels on Moonscar Island, a fictional Cajun vista replete with a storied mansion, pepper plantations, decaying zombies and werewolves. It drips with journalistic intrigue, which is well-sustained by chipper voice-acting, tactile illustrations and rich characterization. Molten magic brews under the story’s surface — quickening to a boil as the Mystery Inc. crew uncovers it. In the Scooby-Doo universe, this representation of voodoo-as-sorcery turns out to be real, but in our universe, it’s a far cry from true voodoo practice.
Like many works in its Hollywood-horror tradition, Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island exploits touristy perceptions of voodoo — overplaying the centrality of voodoo dolls, and presenting voodoo as a black-magic readily defeated by white authorities — but it did stray from classic horror tropes by looking upon zombies sympathetically. Zombie Island’s notable ancestor is Voodoo Island (dir. Reginald LeBorg & written by Richard Landau, 1957). In the 1957 film, a famed investigator (hired by speculating businessmen) tries and fails to debunk the presence of voodoo on mysterious lands. It shares Zombie Island’s pity for the living-dead.
What is it about voodoo and its zombie phenomena that attracts voyeuristic gazes? Writer-anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston had answers in the early twentieth century. In her 1943 interview with the Mary Margaret McBride Show, Hurston explained that “a zombie is supposed to be the living dead. People who die and are resurrected, but without their souls. And they can take orders, and they’re supposed to be, never to be tired. And to do what the master says…” This signifies the appeal of zombification as a narrative device: Western storytellers have easy characters in zombies, since the living-dead fulfill hero-villain, master-slave narratives without talking back. In Western imaginations, zombies are humanoids to which nothing is owed because life has already been deprived. This parallels popular imaginings of ‘savage’ Black people.
Zombie Island’s direct-to-video feature is neither the first nor the last instance of the Scooby-Doo franchise exoticizing voodoo for outsider gazes, but it has been its most extensive effort so far.
*Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island is available for streaming on Netflix
‘Retro Review Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island’ by John Carter Jr.
‘When Zora Neale Hurston Studied Zombies in Haiti’ by Charles King
‘Voodoo Dolls, Charms, And Spells In The Classroom: Teaching, Screening, And Deconstructing The Misrepresentation Of The African Religion’ by Alexandra Reuber
‘How the zombie represents America’s deepest fears: A sociopolitical history of zombies, from Haiti to The Walking Dead.’ by Zachary Crockett and Javier Zarracina