Issue 7: Revolution in the Dead: The Cultural Evolution of the Zombie. Guest Editor Anthony Anderson (with special thanks to Colin Younger)
Matthew Paris, monk of St. Albans, was certain that the world would end in the year 1250. He inscribed a poem to that effect in his Chronica Maiora (1259), a massive chronicle of world history from the time of creation. When the end did not come, he continued with his work, dictating from his deathbed until he finally succumbed in 1259. Matthew understood his world through Christian prophecy and used his learning to interpret the signs he saw as he compiled his chronicle such as strange weather, earthquakes, omens in the heavens and in the East, as the Mongol empire advanced. Western history offers many examples of Christian End Times prophecy, from the proliferation of apocalyptic pamphleteering in the Reformation period to the blockbuster Left Behind thrillers, which describe the events after the Rapture. These narratives rely on a central text, the Book of Revelations, and a unified prophetic voice to warn and promise of a reckoning and an afterlife.
This essay uses a discussion of pre- and early modern Christian End Times narrative as the starting point for an exploration of how zombie apocalypse narrative inverts and fractures traditional apocalyptic forms. An obvious point of comparison is the zombie itself—an inversion or, more aptly, perversion of 1 Corinthian’s ‘heavenly man’ and of the sacred cannibalism of Eucharistic rite.
The zombie corpus, however, raises far more interesting questions than the zombie corpse. Our frequent references to ‘the zombie genre,’ belie the multiplicity of genres in which the zombie appears as well as the fascinating splintering of perspective and voice and experiments with genre breaking and blending that have emerged in zombie narratives of the last fifteen years. I will argue that the way that this multiplicity of form reflects how the nihilistic zombie apocalypse develops in direct contrast to the telos of Christian apocalyptic form. Contemporary narratives discussed will include George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), Edgar Wright, Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Max Brooks World War Z (2006), Dead Inside: Do Not Enter: Notes from the Zombie Apocalypse (2011), Max Braillier, Can You Survive the Zombie Apocalypse? (2011) and the Walking Dead franchise.
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This article will explore how images were used to define ‘us’ and ‘them’ by other sides during the First World War. I begin with a discussion of how the figure of the angel is found in both side’s propaganda, both embodying and protecting the fighting forces. The way the ‘other’ comes to be defined in hyper-real terms as being monstrous will be explored using Cohen’s (2002) discussion of ‘folk devils’ whose deviance from righteousness must be repelled. In addition, the ‘other’ that is found in the poetry of this time often draws upon images that emphasise the subhuman acts of warfare through tropes that we would later refer to as ‘zombie’. In this way, I contend the First World War draws on traditional images of angels and monsters, but for the first time employs the image of the zombie to articulate the horror of the first mechanised mass conflict.
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William Seabrook’s depictions of Haitian zombies in his 1929 book, The Magic Island, sparked a cultural craze for the undead; even Zora Neale Hurston admitted that Seabrook’s dramatic description of zombies and masters ‘fired’ her imagination (Hurston 2018 : 134). The film industry was primed to profit from this first-wave zombie fad by producing a spate of interwar zombie films throughout the 1930s and early 1940s. These included the genre-establishing White Zombie (1932) and the subsequent Revolt of the Zombies (1936). However, whereas the racialization of early zombies and the films’ American southern settings bespoke a cultural anxiety over the legacies of plantation slavery, alternative versions of the zombie film during World War II framed zombies and their masters as participating in wartime ideological debates between fascism and liberal democracy. I will contend that, building upon the history of zombie films in allegorizing racial difference, wartime zombie films shifted their focus and began expressing anxieties about ideological differences. Within the small subgenre of the ‘Nazi zombie’ film, I suggest zombification comes to represent fear of political brainwashing and the subject’s susceptibility to fascist demagoguery. To discuss the ideology of wartime zombie films, I will focus on two of the most significant Nazi zombie films of the period: King of the Zombies (1941) and Revenge of the Zombies (1943), both of which adopt the established film trope of the zombie and the zombie master to address the way that fascist leaders command attention, mirroring contemporaneous debates about the reception of fascist philosophies. The major thread through all these films is the maintenance of western democratic values as the key to reversing the process of fascist zombification. In sum, I argue that films like these reinforce an Anglocentric vision of democratic ideologies, with American and British characters finding themselves preternaturally incapable of seduction by fascist ideologies, thus reifying the common myth that fascism remained a ‘foreign’ problem and actively working to bolster home-front security in democratic norms.
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This article examines the impact of familial burdens in three prominent zombie narratives, focusing primarily on the transformative nature of the familial bonds, particularly the failure of parents to protect children (and the family as a whole), sibling loyalty, and responsibility to humanity versus blood-ties are important issues survivors face. George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), the television series The Walking Dead (2010 – present), and BBC’s In the Flesh (2013-14) illustrate that those best equipped to survive are the ones who accept that their family members have indeed changed, even if such acceptance is difficult. In the real world, familial bonds can be a source of strength, providing members with love, support, and motivation making them stronger. During a zombie apocalypse, however, the characters who are most likely to survive are the ones who can overcome them.
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Zombies are often theorized as liminal creatures. The 2017 Australian film Cargo positions such in-betweenness not only as characteristic of zombies but also as mirroring a hybridity that provides alternatives for the living to dominant norms. Cargo’s Aboriginal community believes that zombies possess souls, while the protagonist, Andy, occupies a liminal state of infection. Hybrid social practices, meanwhile, manifest around family and collectivity. White male, Vic, hoards goods, loots zombies, and has a hostage-wife. The indigenous community, contrastingly, communally approaches zombies not as sources of profit but as an infection of the land. Andy protects his child, Rosie, by combining the governmental and Aboriginal approaches to infection. Ultimately, Rosie becomes part of a community based more on collectivity than on nuclear families. Often in zombie narratives, groups fragment into competing tribes or families. In Cargo, this occurs only with the dominant, white culture; there are, the film posits, other ways of being.
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This essay looks at the ecological trauma and subsequent revenge caused in relation to the traumatic flooding of the landscape due to the construction of dams. The subsequent trauma enacted on the landscape not only creates zombies as an embodiment of the ecological violence perpetrated but also, in some way, makes the landscape itself equally undead seeing it locked in, or out, of time and unable to move on. This rupture in the natural order then causes it to expel the dead both as symptom of its undead state but also as revenge on those that caused it.
Ecological trauma here involves what might be termed a Gothicizing of the dam itself and the surrounding landscape, in the way that it sees an undying past haunt and/or erupt into the present. However, as the current study will show, this is not meant to eternally lock the present in the past but to offer the possibility of a different future
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R. Carey’s The Girl with all the Gifts(2014) and its 2016 cinematic adaptation chart a young girl’s slow acceptance of her zombie identity and the abilities and appetites that derive from it. This journey of self-discovery is, of course, a central concern of young adult (YA) literature. In many of these novels, a romantic subplot between the female protagonist and a male age-mate is the most important catalyst behind the protagonist’s character arc. In Carey’s novel, however, Melanie’s most significant relationship is with her black teacher, Miss Justineau, whom she clearly desires on a romantic and potentially sexual level—feelings she herself does not fully understand. While its portrayal of queer desire is refreshingly unusual, the novel uses zombie behavior to symbolize Melanie’s queer desires and therefore runs the risk of coding them as monstrous. While The Girl with All the Giftsdiverges from YA’s most trodden paths, it may also be paving the way for equally problematic issues.
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Carrie Ryan’s young adult zombie novel The Forest of Hands and Teeth (2009) offers a space for reflection on the humanist underpinnings surrounding the role of memory in narratives. Ryan’s novel deploys memory initially as a bulwark against the loss of individual and cultural identity but increasingly complicates the notion that memory salvages the past. Oral and written memory guide the protagonist Mary on her journey toward self-fulfillment but, as the novel progresses, various memorial markers she encounters reveal that history is hidden and lost. Moreover, the post-apocalyptic zombie genre involves an ongoing series of spatial re-iterations that undermines specificity of value within particular cultures and persons. Memory becomes a ‘burden’ for the survivor. Ultimately, even this exhausted repetition is subsumed within the annihilation of humanity as a species. Rather than reassuring us of ‘meaningful’ humanist alternatives, the zombie space reminds us of our impending death, decay, and disappearance into oblivion.
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The television series The Walking Dead (AMC, 2010 – ongoing) allows for sustained vivisection of frontier mythology within the generic conventions of a zombie apocalypse. As the guiding mythos behind the European conquest of the United States, the notion of the frontier, in historian Richard Slotkin’s terms, ‘regenerates’ mythic American exceptionalism and national identity ‘through violence’ as it justifies military invasions of ‘darker’ places both at home and around the globe (1973). This essay focuses primarily on how season seven of The Walking Dead relies on recycling frontier mythology’s captivity narrative and how communities deploy captivity and torture against members of other communities or attempt to assimilate them. The structure of the seasons and the frequent mid-season breaks likewise hold viewers captive to the elusive fates of favorite characters. While zombies are always a threat in the series, they do not constitute the ‘Big Bad’ of season six or seven. Instead, the undead, themselves captive to fates worse than death, have evolved, or devolved, into appetite-driven weapons that are subject to the living’s manipulation and deployment against others. In these later seasons, it is captivity and torture that both characters and viewers fear the most.
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America is teetering on a knife-edge of fascism, fueled by insidious social conservatism and questionable morality that has been festering for decades in the politics and culture of the United States. This article explores the deep concern expressed by Black Summer (Netflix, 2019) regarding several alarming facets of the Donald Trump era. With Trump’s rise to power ushering in a new age of right-wing radicalism, I present Black Summer as a socio-political commentary on the on-going issues regarding attitudes to immigration, race, and violence in America. I begin by discussing how Black Summer confronts the so-called ‘Family Separation’ policy, whereby the children of ‘illegal’ immigrants are separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border, and then explores the show’s multifaceted indictment of Trump’s America. It argues, then, that while Black Summer might seem to be little more than a graphically violent, guns ‘n’ guts zombie series concerned with wanton action and a high body count, it in fact makes its plentiful and pointed social and political comments as quickly as its zombies are able to reanimate.
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The zombie myth, once mainly attributed to the western culture, became globally recognized as a legitimate metaphor for our anxieties. In the recent years, the popularity of zombie films has reached its apex worldwide where even in Korea, a country that has relatively a short history of zombie films, we witnessed the resurgence of the undead. However, rather than considering the zombie as merely a reflection of anxieties at a given time, this paper illustrates — through an in-depth analysis of the distinct characteristics and the discourse surrounding the zombie in Train to Busan (2016) set in modern Korea and Rampant (2018) in the medieval Joseon period — how the Korean zombie becomes a concrete embodiment of the concept of fear whose actual nature has changed throughout history, shifting from a solid form (medieval zombie) to a liquid form (modern zombie). For the sake of convenience, I will be using the term Korea rather than South or North Korea throughout my paper, and in the course of the analysis, the words zombie, outbreak, night-demon, fear and ambivalence will be interchangeably used.
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Historically, zombie filmmakers cast female characters as ancillary or antagonistic juxtapositions to white, male, protagonists. Whether depicted as easy prey or meaningless sex objects, such as the unnamed, undead, sex slave in Deadgirl (2008), strong, female characters are purposely cast—if cast at all—as remonstrative figures, destined for death and dismay, to preserve long-established patriarchal values of male dominance and female inferiority. This article argues that Victor Fresco’s Santa Clarita Diet (2017–19) surreptitiously confronts the female-gendered zombie status quo. By constructing a feminist, female, undead, protagonist who simultaneously and successfully lives within and transgresses patriarchal structures and conventions with ease, Santa Clarita Diet presents an atypical zombie narrative, featuring what Elizabeth Aiossa calls a ‘fully-fledged embodiment of the monstrous-feminine’: the self-conscious, meek wife and mother, Sheila, who transforms into an impulsive, desire-oriented, flesh-eating zombie while simultaneously remaining within and promoting change to the heteronormative family unit (Aiossa 2018b: 142). Fresco departs from conventional female zombie representations, exchanging the mindless, entirely desire-centered, and uncontrollable, female zombie for an undead, woman protagonist whose unabashed sexual expression and social autonomy challenge the patriarchal family structure, yet do not implode the unit itself. Furthermore, I will argue the series also encourages women to seek autonomy within patriarchal structures and heteronormative family units, while advocating young women, undead or otherwise, to embrace their own identities, however monstrous they may be, through both Sheila and her daughter, Abby’s, individual character development throughout the three-season series.
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Notes on Contributors