How often have we longed for well-researched and documented scholarly works on zombie literature and films? And how equally often have we been disappointed by its paucity, even though the market is inundated with zombie fiction and films. Deborah Christie and Sarah Juliet Lauro’s edited collection Better off Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie as Post-Human fills this lacuna with a very exhaustive study of zombie narratives cutting across all genres and generations. This anthology of essays by film scholars and horror specialists attempts an ethno-critical, political, social and generic assessment of the zombie trope in literature, films, social networking sites and other modes of public sphere participation. This book is indubitably a major and much-longed for contribution to the study of horror, and, of course, more specifically, to zombie studies. The essays range from analyses of medieval European fictional and non-fictional accounts of the Plague, and eighteenth century Haitian socio-cultural history, to the more contemporary, technologically connected “millennium” generation. This book maps very thoroughly the zombie’s evolution from the traditional “mindless” corpse of the pre-1970s, to the relentless, instinct-driven newly dead as seen, for example in George A. Romero’s films of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, to the newer and more recent fast-moving contemporary predator.
The first section of this collection very valuably contextualises, through anthropological work, the emergence of the zombie myth. Noting that this myth, unlike those associated with the vampire or Dracula, lacks literary antecedents, the essays included in this section trace the origin of zombie narratives to the folklore and ancient customs of Haiti, and its troubled relationships with both the USA and the Dominican Republic. This section is an invaluable historicisation of the “zombie” as both literal figure and trope; its worth lies in its unbiased and balanced socio-cultural explorations of Haiti’s history. For example, Chera Kee studies the very disturbing mainstream American categorisation of Haiti as a chaotic savage land besotted with voodoo practises, while Franck Degoul examines the perspectives of the native Haitians: “Positively reappropriated, this allocation of practices conditions an affirmation of Haitian Power that, simultaneously, protects Haiti from the iniquity of all involuntary occupation of its soil and imposes respect for its sovereignty outside its natural borders – all by means of the fear that zombification instills” (p. 32). The book is intellectually satisfying in its persistent investigation of the various sub-texts embedded within the dominant discourses of zombie narratives. Thus Kee points out that when films like White Zombie (Victor Halperin, 1932) depict white females as susceptible to the charms of the black zombie, there is also a simultaneous “othering” of women along with that of the black native. The first section then moves from films to other forms of media through Richard Hand’s analysis of zombie stories in the radio dramas of the 1930s and the 1940s. Kevin Boon takes zombie studies to the next level, the “post-nuclear age”, with his nine classifications of zombies: “zombie drone”, “zombie ghoul”, “tech zombie”, “bio zombie”, “zombie channel”, “psychological zombie”, “cultural zombie”, “zombie ghost” and “zombie ruse”. Though these different categories are useful for studying zombie history, a few of them do appear redundant, marred by either a lack of conceptual clarity in the delineation of particular categories, or by excessively zealous category-making resulting in some categories collapsing, unsupported by a sufficient catalogue of examples to hold it up. So no explanation is provided for why, for example, the “tech zombie” should not be considered a part of the “cultural zombie” category.
Zombie literature has traditionally been a feeding ground for apocalyptic and catastrophic scholastic interpretations that abound with bleak prophecies for the future. The essays included in the second section of this book challenge such normative evaluations. Deborah Christie, for example, explores the possibilities of reading zombie narratives as the displacement of one civilisation by another through a process of violent renewal: “This renewal gives us the opportunity to take a second look at the zombie, to consider its status as post-human, or as an antagonist that facilitates our own accession to post-humanity, and prompts us to ask ourselves whether post-human is an improvement” (p. 65). Nick Muntean’s argument builds on Christie’s to show the failings of the present civilisation and argues that the evolution of the modern zombie, which he calls the “trauma zombie” could be linked with the atrocities of World War II, exemplified by the Nazi concentration camps and the aftermath of the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. While Muntean’s historical framework is persuasive, his formulation of the nomenclature “trauma zombie” appears to be riddled with problems, for it pre-supposes the existence of “non-trauma” zombies. Since he contrasts his modern zombie with that of the traditional Haitian voodoo one, the application of this “non-trauma” category to Haiti by extension suggests an unsympathetic appraisal of the cruelties meted out to the slaves.
If on the one hand this collection studies macrocosmic existentialist angst as a factor in the making of zombies, on the other it also explores a variety of microcosmic anxieties, as the subsequent batch of essays illustrates. Steven Zani and Kevin Meaux together posit that medieval European fictional and non-fictional plague narratives share some basic constitutive features with the modern day zombie narrative. The two writers of this highly original and well-researched essay demonstrate how both the plague and zombie narratives depict anxieties related to the crumbling institutions of law, family, faith and culture. This pair focuses mainly on the works of the Italian director Lucio Fulci (1927–96), a choice of primary text that helps diversify the range of the book considerably, as much of it focuses predominantly on Romero’s zombie films. Bernice Murphy’s essay links the zombification process depicted in some Romero films to the depersonalisation and anomie of the 1950s American suburban individual. Several social commentators and political analysts in the past have viewed American suburban life of the 1950s and ’60s as mundane, homogeneous and uninspiring, lacking in personal autonomy and completely at odds with traditional and idyllic American visions of existence. Murphy finds that this banal suburban existence rather closely resembles the zombie film, wherein depersonalised creatures are seen purposefully wandering about on their flesh-eating sprees. Sorcha Fhlainn rounds off this section with a persuasive analogy of zombies as soldiers in modern warfare, figures with no independence and conditioned to operate according to the orders of a centralised authority. The second section ends with the chimera of the “post-human soldier” who has no control over itself. This leaves readers to form their own opinions about the viability of the “post-human” that moves beyond a failing humanity.
The book’s third section is a versatile study of the contemporary manifestations of the zombie universe. Lynn Pifer explores Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004), a spoof on Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978), as a socio-political critique of its times, arguing that just as the Romero film was a satirical presentation of 1970s American capitalism and mall-culture, similarly Wright generates a picture of an uninterested and indifferent younger generation thriving on what turned out to be the very popular, significant and tenacious early 21st century discourse of the “slacker”. Pifer’s arguments are indeed interesting, but would have benefited from a more exhaustive study of the box office performances and distribution economies of these two films. The zombie film is one of the most popular forms of the modern horror film as Peter Dendle posits in the volume’s next essay:
Here then is the paradox: a highly stimulated, technologically saturated, and fast-paced generation has fixated on a monster known especially for its slowness, its unidimensionality of thought and action, its simplicity of character, and its inability to use even the least technologically sophisticated of tools. (p. 186)
Taking forward this argument, Margo Collins and Elson Bond attribute the contemporary fascination with zombies to the overlapping “zombie-as-comedy” and “zombie-as-threat” discourses. Carrying out a very resourceful survey of contemporary novels, graphic novels and films based on the zombie cult, the essayists show these narratives to be a vital means of communication for a culturally dislocated “millennium” generation. The distinct qualities of this anthology are borne out by the work of the final essayist, Sarah Lauro, who lays bare her correspondence with various zombie-walk organisers who have been very active since 2003. Bridging the gap between the traditionally accepted binary of “high art” and “low art”, Lauro demonstrates how different zombie movements that spill over from the reel to the real world serve to raise the social consciousness of a culturally disintegrating millennial society.
The few limitations discussed above are merely minor quibbles about what is a fine critical study of the zombie as cultural phenomenon. Instead of focussing on a uni-dimensional interpretation, the book’s anthology format presents multiple perspectives on the process of zombification, dealing in depth and with sensitivity an area of mass culture that is commonly dismissed or fetishised as taboo. All of the essays in this book are linked by the idea of the zombie as an imagined “post-human”, the evolution of which is necessitated by the failings of humanity itself. The inclusion of such approaches as audience reception studies of specific films further enhances the usefulness of this research by establishing that fan-responses contribute vitally to the zombie phenomenon. Detailed and exhaustive, and featuring interesting anecdotes and personal accounts, this book will prove equally fascinating to horror film scholars and the general fan of horror films. One of the chief qualities of any successful book is that it inspires readers to take another look at some of the primary texts it examines, and Better Off Dead definitely scores on that point.
Deborah Christie and Sarah Juliet Lauro (eds.), Better Off Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie as Post-Human, Fordham University Press, New York, 2011.