Intelligent Zombies

Finally, zombies get the academic treatment that they deserve! Deborah Christie and Sarah Juliet Lauro‘s collection of essays, Better Off Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie as Post-Human, presents a fascinating discussion on the role of zombies throughout history and their ever-changing (yes they change!) identities. For all you zombie addicts, monster lovers, horror fans, or observers of the genre…this is a must read.

Of course, many zombie lovers might roll their eyes as academics “ruin” the objects of their affection. It’s evident, however, that the contributors here are zombie fans too. They’re damn smart too. The collected essays do not read as disjointed reflection on a common theme, like so many academic pop culture texts do, but actually shed light on, support, or disagree with each other. In a very real way, the book reads like a panel discussion on zombies. The contributors reveal the multiple identities of and roles that zombies play throughout history and in contemporary popular culture. The zombies we know today, or many of them, would be unrecognizable to audiences that witnessed their origins in Haitian voodoo tales and practices. Despite their differences, many contemporary zombies still serve similar socio-political, economic roles that critique power(lessness), capitalism, racism and a host of other phenomena. The contributors here sharpen their focus to heighten the reality that, as W. Scott Poole reveals in Monsters in America, the victim and the violator run to zombies, ironically, to make sense of unsettling experiences. I couldn’t recommend Better Off Dead more strongly as a cornerstone text that will, hopefully, support a more extensive area of research, zombie studies. Read on for further coverage of the book’s highlights.

Christie and Lauro order their essays into three parts built around the “three most recognizable stages of twentieth- and twenty-first-century zombie configurations: the classic mindless corpse [from Haitian folklore to the United States], the relentless instinct-driven newly dead [the classical horror zombie from the 1950s to late 1970s], and the millenial voracious and fast-moving predator” (2). Each section features an introduction that outlines the contributors’ essays and how they both fit together and contribute to the broader theme of the book. In her essay, “They are not men…they are dead bodies!”: From Cannibal to Zombie and Back Again,” Chera Kee traces the origins of zombies to Haitian voodoo and briefly follows its (d)evolution in American history. This essay most closely parallels Poole’s discussion of the use of monsters to conceptualize “the Other.” As we will see later, because of the zombie’s (un)familiarity (it is both us and not us), this process is porous to be sure. In his essay, “We are the mirror of your fears”: Haitian Identity and Zombification,” Franck Degoul keeps his focus on the Haitian context of origin but also reveals how contemporary zombifications harken back to those very origins. Richard Hand examines an often-ignored aspect of pop culture, radio dramas, and uncovers some fascinating zombie narratives there that contain a wide array of the living dead. Finally, in his essay, “The Zombie as Other: Mortality and the Monstrous in the Post-Nuclear Age,” Kevin Boon attempts to categorize zombies and finds nine classifications: zombie drone, zombie ghoul, tech zombie, bio zombie, zombie channel, psychological zombie, cultural zombie, zombie ghost, and zombie ruse” (57-60). He also notes the shift from faith in God to faith in science that impacts the portrayal of zombies and, most often, the source of the zombie apocalypse (from Divine punishment to biological hazard).

"On the Beach" introduces what Nick Muntean calls "trauma zombies."

The second section covers the ways in which zombies took on a more autonomous nature, no longer serving the will of a controlling force or enslaver. While most observers and scholars turn to George Romero’s The Night of the Living Dead as the historical zombie hinge, Christie actually considers Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend to be a foundational zombie text, even though he employs vampires. Here, she posits the idea that humanity might be the “villainous” roadblock in evolution, delaying the liberating (?) zombie apocalypse. She writes, “Robert Neville [one of the last survivors] is legend because he is the single largest threat to a new society, one that has superseded humanity.” Christie argues that many readers (viewers) will miss this part because they “focus solely on the restoration of the human status quo rather than considering the potential for advancement in both mind and body that are often the focus of post-humanist considerations” (68). Also humans and zombies become harder to define. In his essay, “Nuclear Death and Radical Hope in Dawn of the Dead and On the Beach,” Nick Muntean provides an insightful viewing and comparison of these two films, arguing boldly that On the Beach (1959) is, in fact, a zombie film as its living dead nuclear survivors shuffle around waiting for their actual deaths. The film introduces what Muntean calls “trauma zombies,” whose “psychic annihilation precedes their physical destruction […].” As a result, Muntean adds, “death becomes a state that we inhabit within our own earthly vessels, something we become, rather than somewhere we go” (82, 83). Muntean also considers the real world zombies, Musselmanner and hibakusha that we have seen. Steven Zani and Kevin Meaux discuss the, perhaps, less familiar filmmaker Lucio Fulci and the ways in which his zombie films re-define or complicate zombie identity by refusing to explain the origin of the zombie plague or by giving contradictory explanations for it. Unlike so many other zombie filmmakers, Fulci allows an essentially unbelievable and inexplicable event remain undefinable. In her essay, “Imitations of Life: Zombies and the Suburban Gothic,” Bernice Murphy discusses the migration of zombies to the suburbs in films like Fido and The Stepford Wives. In “All Dark Inside: Dehumanization and Zombification in Postmodern Cinema,” Sorcha Ni Fhlainn examines war films like Full Metal Jacket (1987), Universal Soldier (1992), Platoon(1986) and others to reveal the ways in which militaries necessitate zombification. Fhlainn’s chapter is a “study of personalized horrors, dehumanization, and violence that targets others and the self, which psychologically alters, damages, and annihilates the soldier, and depicts them, subtly or overtly, as zombified bodies” (140).

Zombie walks embody (r)evolutionary potential.

In the final section, the contributors consider the myriad ways in which the zombie genre is perfectly suited for “future” questions. Questions of identity, art, life, slacker culture arise in contemporary zombie films. Lynn Pifer studies the ways in which the plot of Shaun of the Dead (2004) affirm intentional slacker culture and critiques capitalism and work for work’s sake. In its uniquely humorous way, Pifer writes, “[…] Shaun of the Dead‘s zombies reveal and warn against the deadening effects of modern life” (165). Peter Dendle considers the ways in which the zombie genre expresses fears of and escapism for the millenial generation. It’s an interesting relationship, Dendle writes, “between history’s least energetic monster and history’s most energetic generation” (181). Margo Collins and Elson Bond offer an in-depth reading of Max Brooks’ World War Z and “funny” zombies like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies for their hopefulness in horrific situations. Finally, Sarah Juliet Lauro, in her concluding chapter, “Playing Dead: Zombies Invade Performance Art…and Your Neighborhood,” and Afterword reflects on the role of zombies in performance art and the spreading phenomenon of zombie walks and the ways in which zombie narratives have infiltrated the broader culture and speculates on an ecological zombie future for the genre. She also recognizes that though devoid of power or effectiveness, zombie walks represent the potential for (r)evolution in our networked culture.

Be an intellectual old school zombie and do as I command: read this book!