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The Year's Work at the Zombie Research Center

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They have stalked the horizons of our culture, wreaked havoc on moribund concepts of dead and not dead, threatened our sense of identity, and endangered our personal safety. Now zombies have emerged from the lurking shadows of society’s fringes to wander the sacred halls of the academy, feasting on tender minds and hurling rot across our intellectual landscape. It is time to unite in common cause, to shore up defenses, firm up critical and analytical resources, and fortify crumbling lines of inquiry. Responding to this call, Brain Workers from the Zombie Research Center poke and prod the rotting corpus of zombie culture trying to make sense of cult classics and the unstoppable growth of new and even more disturbing work. They exhume "zombie theory" and decaying historical documents from America, Europe, and the Caribbean in order to unearth the zombie world and arm readers with the brain tools necessary for everyday survival. Readers will see that zombie culture today "lives" in shapes as mutable as a zombie horde—and is often just as violent.

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14 Chapters

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1 Zombie Psychology

ePub

I wasn’t a sex symbol, I was a sex zombie.

Veronica Lake

Two scenes in Ruben Fleisher’s Zombieland (2009) emblematize key psychical and affective dimensions of much zombie culture, dimensions that are often subordinated in critical discussions to such terms as terror or horror or neglected altogether. At first glance the earlier of these scenes seems almost silly—so much fodder for gifted actors to exploit—and irrelevant both to the film’s narrative and to the larger psychical and affective issues inherent to such recent films as 28 Days Later (2002), Shaun of the Dead (2004), Pontypool (2009), and others. After Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), zombie exterminator extraordinaire and one of the film’s two protagonists, makes his brash entrance and confronts Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) on a highway littered with wrecked vehicles, debris, and even the broken fuselage of a downed jet, the pair join forces and make their way down a more rural, uncluttered road. Shortly thereafter, as Columbus recounts in his voice-over narration, Tallahassee reveals his one “weakness” when they stop at a breach in a twisted metal barrier on the roadside, gazing down into a grassy ravine where a Hostess Bakeries truck has veered off the road. Tallahassee announces that he could “use a Twinkie” and begins his descent to the truck, prompting Columbus to recommend a regimen of light calisthenics and stretching as dictated by his self-imposed Rule #18: “Limber up.” Tallahassee rejects the suggestion, reminding his companion that lions don’t “limber up” before taking down a gazelle. When they arrive at the truck, Fleisher trains close-ups on the Hostess name and strands of red hearts that comprise the company’s logo on the side and back of the trailer, which Tallahassee opens excitedly, expecting to find a Twinkie. Instead, a cascade of Hostess Sno Balls falls at his feet. Feverishly searching for a Twinkie, he is both enraged and repulsed by the Sno Balls, shouting, casting them irreverently aside, and stomping them into pulp. By contrast, Columbus opens a package and enjoys eating one, promoting the freshness of its distinctive coconut flavor, which, in turn, motivates Tallahassee’s retort: “I hate coconut—it’s not the taste, it’s the consistency.” The scene ends with Tallahassee vowing to continue his quest for a Twinkie, which he does later when the duo enters Blaine’s Supermarket, and where, after the requisite dispatching of zombies, they meet and are conned by Wichita (Emma Stone) and her sister Little Rock (Abigail Breslin).

 

2 Zombie Demographics

ePub

listen: there’s a hell / of a good universe next door; let’s go.

e. e. cummings, “pity this busy monster, manunkind”

The first is marked by a silhouetted human form, shambling along the interface between earth and sky; a head flops to one side. In a word: zombie! A corpse that doesn’t know it’s dead, as George A. Romero defined the concept, a concept he still refuses to name out loud. “A Zombie being a corpse that won’t give in and admit it,” reads the communiqué in Pacific Islands Monthly from the outermost rim, even earlier, arriving right after V-J Day (49). The uplink from Zombieville reports that “the sea is flat, an opaque disc of green-blue . . . without as much as a ripple to mar its mirrored surface” (49). The second horizon is more familiar: the churchyard at dusk, after the three-hour drive, where Johnny spots a “huddled figure in the distance up on the mounded hill walking among the graves.”

JOHN: They’re coming for you, Barbra.

 

3 Zombie Spaces

ePub

New York City in death was very much like New York City in life. It was still hard to get a cab, for example. The main difference was that there were fewer people.

Colson Whitehead, Zone One

Over the past decade the zombie has been transformed from a movie monster that appeared primarily in American underground cinema and Italian horror films to a ubiquitous trope in popular culture. Instantly recognizable to general global audiences, yet flexible enough to serve both as a legitimate monster and as the punch line to a bad joke, the figure of the mindless undead has clearly found resonance in late capitalist culture and has been connected to a wide range of concepts and ideas. In the same way that Marx and Engels related the system of industrial capitalism to the figure of the vampire, many critics have pointed out that our postindustrial obsession with zombies is no coincidence: “the nineteenth century, with its classic régime of industrial capitalism, was the age of the vampire, but the network society of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries is rather characterized by a plague of zombies” (Shaviro 282).

 

4 Zombie Media

ePub

We are the hostages of news coverage, but we acquiesce secretly in this hostage-taking.

Jean Baudrillard, Virtuality and Events

The news is always horseshit.

Tony, Diary of the Dead

Taken as a whole, George A. Romero’s body of work has most often been thought to mark shifts in cultural anxieties—anxieties around the Vietnam War and the civil rights era, the rise of a consumer economy, the relation of science and the military during the Cold War, the war in Iraq, and the irruptive spectacle of terrorism—anxieties that his films not only embody but also critically respond to, and all of which have been well documented. Yet, by regarding these films as markers of cultural anxieties or repressions, such readings either implicitly or explicitly tend to use psychological models, often ones that have been transposed to a cultural level.1 Such frameworks, while certainly useful, also tend to domesticate the zombie.2 Under such models, the zombie becomes safe and familiar, immanently legible as political allegory and cultural construct. In the end, it all comes back to us humans.

 

5 Zombie Health Care

ePub

Wouldn’t it be kinder, more compassionate to just hold your loved ones and wait for the clock to run down?

Dr. Edwin Jenner in “TS-19,” The Walking Dead (2010)

“Wildfire,” the fifth episode of AMC’s The Walking Dead’s first season, shows a crisis many Americans are currently facing.1 In the aftermath of a zombie attack, the human survivors must prevent their killed loved ones from returning as zombies. One woman, Carol, refuses to let the group’s men take responsibility for “decraniating” her prone life partner. “He’s my husband,” she says before splattering his gray matter onto the viewing lens. The scene cuts to another woman, Andrea, cradling her dead sister and waiting for the first sign of reanimation. Over a soundtrack of sentimentalized music, Andrea mournfully says, “Amy. Amy. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for not ever being there. I always thought that there’d be more time. I’m here now, Amy. I’m here. I love you.” When Amy’s groans indicate her undead return, the men move to dispatch her. But Andrea preempts this outsider intervention by shooting her own sister’s brains out.

 

6 Zombie Physiology

ePub

The point is, it wasn’t a surprise, the war . . . or emergency, or whatever you want to call it . . . it was already on. It had been, what, three months since everyone jumped on the panic train.

Max Brooks, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

While it has become de rigueur to portray the zombie onslaught as a war, this analogy is in fact seriously flawed and can result in lethal outcomes for humans who hew to orthodox strategies of offensive or defensive warfare. Consider that zombie warfare is not driven by a religious motive or geopolitical objective. Beyond the common innate drive to consume human flesh, zombies exhibit no cooperative group objective. Moreover, zombie predation does not appear to be driven by any planned or organized strategies conforming to the strictures of either traditional or terrorist warfare, although as described later, sufficient densities of zombies can spontaneously generate several rudimentary but lethal modes of uncoached clustering.

 

7 Zombie Performance

ePub

Come and get it! It’s a running buffet! All you can eat!

Shaun, Shaun of the Dead

The zombie consumes us. It occupies our minds, books, screens, and streets; devours and squanders our flesh and bodies; infects us with disease; and overwhelms our very social order. And yet we chase after zombies. In recent years we have facilitated their rise as a veritable cultural phenomenon, compelling them into our movie-theater screens in greater and faster-moving hordes than ever before, into our homes with shows like The Walking Dead, and onto our college campuses with Humans vs. Zombies, a live-action game of survival. Even the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have launched a zombie preparedness campaign, encouraging people to equip themselves against a whole range of catastrophes. The zombie apocalypse, it appears, offers itself as a natural disaster par excellence.

But we humans do not simply want to destroy and survive the zombies; we actually want to be them. In walks and runs across the country, people regularly adorn themselves in fake blood, gaping wounds, and tattered clothing to perform zombie “undeath” in our very streets. The zombie survival guides in our bookstores now find themselves in the company of titles such as So Now You’re a Zombie: A Handbook for the Newly Undead (Austin); Zombies for Zombies: Advice and Etiquette for the Living Dead (Murphy); and How to Speak Zombie: A Guide for the Living (Mockus and Millard). For every piece of information on how to combat zombies, there is now parallel advice on how to enact zombie existence.

 

8 Zombie Race

ePub

Profit, Profit, nigga I got it

Everybody know I’m a motherfucking monster

I’m-a need to see your fucking hands at the concert

I’m-a need to see your fucking hands

Kanye West, “Monster”

It begins with a thump, or rather, a scrape and a thump. Shhh-thump. The monster appears first as sound and then rhythm, or, rather, counter-rhythm. Its presence is made known, paradoxically, by its double absence, one physical and the other temporal.

It lags, behind itself, drags itself, before itself, somewhere in back of you, in front of you, over your shoulder—always where it is not. Shhh-thump. Its second beat is scarier than the first, not just because it is louder, closer, but because it recalls the first. The monster is always in two—two spaces, two times. It approaches as it recedes. It coheres as it falls apart. Each step revives as it destroys. Each step is the death of death, the death of death, over and over again.

 

9 Zombie Politics

ePub

Euretē moi he entolē hē eis zoēn, autē eis thanaton. (And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death.)

Saint Paul

Carl Grimes, the cowboy-hat-wearing son in The Walking Dead, gives his father, Rick, a cold reminder about the world they live in: “The costumes, the candy—everyone walking around, acting like nothing is happening around them. They’re all stupid. The roamers [zombies] don’t go away because you can’t see them. I hate this place, Dad. It doesn’t feel real. It feels like everyone is playing pretend. . . . I don’t want to get used to this. It will make us weak” (Kirkman 16). This cynical political philosophy—more “pragmatic than argumentative”—marks Carl as a member of Generation Zombie (Žižek, Sublime Object 29). Unlike the adult survivors in his group, he barely remembers a world before zombies, harboring no idealistic nostalgia about “recreating” what once was. In Critique of Cynical Reason, the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk describes the new generation of late twentieth-century cynics as those who understand “that things must first be better before you can learn anything sensible. . . . Basically, no one believes anymore that today’s learning solves tomorrow’s ‘problems’; it is almost certain that it causes them” (xxix). Slavoj Žižek derives his signature concept from this zombified version of political reason: “they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it” (Sublime Object 29). In this regard the cynicism present in zombie texts touches on an important political question: what does it mean to have a politics after a better, more reasonable world no longer retains credibility? This problem in turn concerns the existential contours of a world that is consensually shaped for a zombielike aimlessness in which they know very well that they’re becoming more and more like zombies, but still they are doing it.

 

10 Zombie Postfeminism

ePub

The corpse is death infecting life.

Julia Kristeva

While Julia Kristeva doubtless did not have in mind the undead corpse of the zombie when she wrote of the abject and how it forces death upon the living, the walking dead undeniably embody abjection. It is not strange, then, that in representations of zombies, in film, literature, television, or other media, the primary focus is on how the humans who have not been infected confront and battle those who have returned from the dead. Those who engage in zombie fighting are necessarily confronting and denying the death (among other things) that the posthuman monster represents. This analysis of Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009) looks at how the heroine of his contemporary novel is rewritten to be physically strong, capable of independence, and yet still chained to the necessity of finding the ideal mate that is the touchstone of the original Jane Austen text. The pervasiveness of postfeminism is apparent in the book as Elizabeth Bennet fights off the monsters even while the ideal end for her is to marry well.1 Her education and the fact that she is one of the best in her field are subsumed under the ability to use these skills to secure a man. In fact, it is her very prowess in fighting the zombie offensive, her abilities with a sword, and her capacity for killing that win her the esteem of those around her and garner her the greatest prize of all: Mr. Darcy, a rich and handsome (and equally well-trained) husband. Despite the fact that her militarized body and violence are constructed as being first and foremost for the defense of herself and her loved ones, her finely tuned body is heteronormatively attractive, though this is presented as an added bonus, the result of so much training for the defense of others and not the primary motive for her training. Her body is of primary concern, especially because it is one of the principal tools in the fight against the zombie hordes. It contrasts starkly with the zombie body: where one is contained, in control, and integral, the other is messy, falling apart, and contagious. Arguably, though, the difference between the body of the zombie and that of the zombie slayer hides a more chilling similarity: that both raise the heteronormative necessity of eliminating the other.

 

11 Zombie Linguistics

ePub

Every universe, our own included, begins in conversation. Every golem in the history of the world, from Rabbi Hanina’s delectable goat to the river-clay Frankenstein of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, was summoned into existence through language, through murmuring, recital and kabbalistic chitchat—was, literally, talked into life.

Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

Introduction

Guk.

Glakk.

Guk.

Guh.

Gar.

Zombies don’t make good conversation partners. When Sydney and Grant, the two main characters in Pontypool (2009), realize that the disease that transforms humans into zombies might be carried through language—specifically, English language—they look for a source. In the sudden realization that understanding language is the source, Sydney asks Grant, “How do you stop understanding? How do you make it strange?” Such questions point to crucial issues concerning the nature of human language and the possibility of zombie language. First, they encourage us to examine general definitions of language use and communication. Must language always involve meaningful exchange? If language requires negotiation between a sender and a receiver, how do the murmurs, moans, grunts, or growls of the zombie function? Second, they ask us to consider how the presence or absence of language serves as a criterion for the distinction between humanness and zombie-ism. In a way, if communication is not successful, you’re probably dealing with a zombie; if you’re dealing with a zombie, you can’t communicate with it.

 

12 Zombie Arts and Letters

ePub

Then the idea hit him. Moses ran into his apartment and removed a leaf from the Book Isis had given him. He returned to the balcony where below the crowds had taken trees and were now using them to pound on the Palace gate. Moses uttered The Work aloud. 1st there was silence. Then the people turned toward the Nile and they saw a huge mushroom cloud arise.

A few minutes later, screaming of the most terrible kind came from that direction. The crowd dispersed, trampling 1 another as they rushed for the shelter of their homes. This was a turning point in the Book’s history.

Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo

Genre fiction is project-based art. Whether cowboy Western or inter-galactic sci-fi, genre writing entails a double inventiveness according to the set of directives imposed upon each story in advance. On the one hand, by definition such writing exercises a creative function following explicit conditions of constraint, whether formal, aesthetic, historical, moral, or economic. From the pulps to the remainder bin, genre fiction necessarily knows its limits; this is part of its “project.” On the other hand, it also recognizes and formalizes these limits as constraints in the first place, a gesture as constitutive of a genre’s artistic project as any subsequent improvisation or “genre bending” that arises in tension with these constraints. “Write a detective novel,” someone might say, and we already know what this means. It’s no different with zombie stories. The zombie genre, which began to take shape in the 1930s, reaching a kind of market saturation during the past decade, resembles virtually all other popular modes of genre fiction in the necessary restriction of its imaginative conditions. Every genre story, after all, must at once name and confront the exhaustion—or at least the exhausting familiarity—of its conventions. And keep on pursuing the project.

 

13 Zombie Philosophy

ePub

When we have to change our mind about a person, we hold the inconvenience he causes us very much against him.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Here is a list, very incomplete, of things one should keep in mind when attempting to write seriously about zombies. Zombies do not exist. Zombies are not related to werewolves or vampires.1 Zombies are not, literally, mindless consumers, enraged proletarians, or stupid Americans—although some were perhaps once these things—and there is little use in casting them, even metaphorically, as essentially such, especially when attempting to offer a “theory of zombies.” This is because zombies do not form a natural kind, not even a fictional natural kind. Within the genre, zombies vary greatly in behavior, cognitive power, and athletic ability: some shamble, some run at or near Olympic speeds; some are incapable of manipulating even simple objects, others play video games with erstwhile friends; some behave better, at least not worse, than the living, others are Nazis; some are created by ill-advised government programs, others by hearing (Canadian) English.2

 

14 Zombie Cocktails

ePub

We take great pleasure in drinking big zombies.

Simone de Beauvoir, America Day by Day

When Betsy Connell, female lead in Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943), confesses that is she isn’t in fact familiar with zombies, her interlocutor, Dr. Maxwell, first tells her that she is dealing with “a ghost, the living dead” and then informs her more cheerfully that the Zombie is also a drink, at which point Betsy finds herself on more familiar territory. “I tried one once,” she says, “but there wasn’t anything dead about it.” Uttered in 1943 at the height of Hollywood’s tiki craze, these lines are no doubt an inside joke. By this time, actors and audience alike were more than familiar with the real Zombies that had overrun America’s bars and the mystical powers they allegedly possessed. And much like Val Newton’s cinematic living dead, the Zombies served at bars such as Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s evoked echoes of Haitian vodou, supernatural possession, and the mystical, transatlantic origins of the zombie myth.1

 

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