Don Siegel’s 1956 B-movie masterpiece Invasion of the Body Snatchers is almost the perfect Rorschach blot of a film. You can make equally compelling cases that the film is either a parable of the feared Communist infiltration of the United States that strangled the country at the time or the mindless conformity being demanded of Red Baiters like Joe McCarthy and his assistant Robert Kennedy who saw political hay to be made from the national unease.
But I propose you could also read the film’s central conceit, that aliens are wiping out emotion and individuality, as a proto-zombie text. Sleep next to a pod and you wake up a pod person. But are you a zombie?
The case for: Twenty years before Romero sent zombies mindlessly shambling through the mall to send up consumerism, Siegel’s pod people were featureless imitations of humanity simply going through the motions of living without all the emotional messiness actually being a person entails. Like zombies, the pod person invasion spreads almost virally. One person will be converted and feel compelled to infect their friends and neighbors as the infection spreads exponentially through a small California town. Dr. Miles Bennell’s patients, who complained to him just days earlier that family members were impostors, suddenly laugh off their prior fears as they join the ranks of the pod people. As Miles, love thang Becky Driscoll, and their neighbors slowly piece together what is happening to their town, the zombie elements of the film come to the fore. The survivors get trapped in a web of paranoia, fearing any friend or family member could turn on them at any time, much like they would if they were the walking dead. Becky and Miles even spend a night holed up in his medical office waiting out the invasion, much like the cast of Night of the Living Dead boarding themselves in the farm house. Beating Shaun of the Dead by half a century, Miles and Becky even feign being emotionless pod people at one point to escape a dragnet of infected townsfolk.
The case against: Making the case for viewing Invasion of the Body Snatchers is hampered by the fact that the film is never clear on what exactly is happening with the pod people. Our plucky band of heroes find gigantic pea pods containing featureless, anthropomorphic slugs hidden in their basements and greenhouses, which slowly taking the characteristics of their psychic hosts as they sleep. At first, the film implies the pod people, having absorbed the human’s memories, will replace their doppelgangers. Which would seem to imply there would be a whole rack of murdered bodies stinking up the town. (Miles does suggest perhaps the humans’ bodies simply dissolve once they’ve been drained). However, violating its own rules, Becky later becomes a pod person without an actual pod in the vicinity, making it hard to determine whether she’s been zombified or murdered and replaced. More importantly, can you really make the case the pod people qualify as the living dead?
The verdict: While a pretty compelling case can be made that Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ cinematic DNA eventually trickled down through the zombie canon, all of the elements just aren’t there yet. The fact remains the pod people are not the reanimated dead in the conventional sense whether they’re mind stealing doppelgangers or murdering impostors. However, this is another transitional fossil, much like Frankenstein's monster, in the proud lineage we’ve come to love.