Zombies Ahead!

Peter Wood

The National Association of Scholars has no official position on zombies. That doesn’t mean we lack opinions on the walking dead. Our members hold a variety of views on questions such as whether zombies should qualify for student financial aid, whether colleges should respect a student’s desire not to have a zombie roommate, and whether it is good academic policy to have courses taught by adjunct zombies. 

                NAS, however, recognizes that there is increasing public controversy about the role of zombies in our society and we are weighing whether to become more actively involved with the issue. For example, the New York Times reported this Sunday in the “Ideas and Trends” section that a new edition of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is being issued by Quirk Books in San Francisco, titled Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.   Should we embrace this new spirit of inclusiveness? According to the Times, the classic text is “juiced up with ‘all-new scenes of bone-crunching zombie mayhem.’” This sounds well and good, but we admit some trepidation over changing the actual texts of canonical books to make them more appealing to identity groups. 

                The Times also reports a movie in the works titled Pride and Predator, in which the Bennet family has to face down the scalp-hunting alien from “the 1987 cult classic” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. 

                Zombies are still not socially acceptable in some parts of the country.  Only a few years ago, Max Brooks had a best-seller with his rapidly zombi-phobic book, The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead (2003). Brooks took advantage of a loophole in state and federal law which permits people to “kill” zombies without fear of murder charges, since the victims are already technically dead. This irrational fear of zombies was recently dramatized by a hacker who altered a digital road sign in Austin warn drivers, “zombies ahead.” 

                The major academic contributions to zombie studies have come, surprisingly, not from biology departments or schools of medicine, but from faculty members in “cultural studies” programs. See for example, Zombies, Culture and Critique. Here is a call for papers for a book on interdisciplinary studies of zombies. A pre-college course at Brown University, “Zombie! A Multi-Media Perspective” seeks to illuminate us by:

“…interrogating the zombie, which illustrates racial conflicts, sexual anxieties, and contemporary culture from a cross-cultural perspective. Scary, gross, and sometimes very funny, zombies manage to infect multiple genres (horror, romance, western, comedy) and national boundaries, while addressing modern societal concerns with conformity, crowds, colonialism, contagion, biotechnology and terrorism through the mirror of popular media and culture –”

As with any scholarly discussion, the debates quickly become complicated, but I can offer a short guide for those just venturing into this literature. 

                One popular academic theory is that the current surge in zombies is an emanation of the nation’s fear of illegal immigrants.   According to this view, Americans who find it difficult to admit their anxieties about the cultural consequences of mass immigration by mainly Mexicans and Central Americans, may transfer their fears to the hordes of walking dead. In this interpretation, the fear of immigration displaces an earlier anxiety about “the other.” Previous zombie surges tended to feature black zombies. In any case, American interest in zombies should be seen primarily through the lens of racial antagonism.

                But critics of this view point out that the zombies are mostly disinterred Americans and often the parents and relatives of the living people on whom they prey. (Grandparents and older ancestors seldom are sufficiently preserved to become effective zombies.) According to this view, zombies cannot be metaphoric Mexicans. They are, to the contrary, an image of ourselves, reflecting a fear of our own soullessness. This theory of zombies branches in several directions. One view, which puts forward the George Romero film, Dawn of the Dead (1978) as a key illustration, focuses on American consumerism. The movie mostly takes place in a shopping mall where a small group of survivors is besieged by zombies. But the “we are the zombies” thesis also branches in a more conservative critique that emphasizes that Americans have been zombified by their loss of confidence in the vitality of their culture. 

                These views too have critics, who argue that zombies cannot be simply a reflection of current anxieties, since they have been present in the popular imagination for many decades. Zombies first captured attention in the United States in the 1930s. According to this view, it makes no sense to interpret their presence in our lives as a reflex of contemporary developments. They must speak to something deeper that has been brought to the surface. But what? 

                Zombies first came to public attention in the United States from the folk traditions of Haiti. Afro-Caribbean tales were mined by Hollywood in such films as White Zombie (1932), in which Bela Lugosi took the role of Murder Legendre, the bokor or voodoo practitioner who zombifies living people. Mostly Legendre is interested in acquiring free labor to run his sugar plantation, but he agrees to zombify the beautiful Madeline as a favor to a fellow plantation owner. Madeline, engaged to marry another man, has spurned the advances of the wealthy Charles Beaumont, but alas, after Beaumont succeeds in zombifying her, he discovers that zombies are, after all, neither sexy nor lovable.  

                There is clearly something in White Zombie for each of the competing theories of the zombie phenomenon. The Marxist reading of zombies as the oppressed proletariat is bolstered by images of zombies toiling endlessly in Legendre’s hellish sugar mill. Most of the zombies are black, which bolsters the Leftist identity politics reading of zombies as a refracted image of racial hierarchy.   Legendre, Beaumont, and others operate from positions of privilege and wealth, but also conspicuous consumption, ironically reversing the idea of zombies as mindless consumers. But what the movie really puts in the foreground is the issue of sexual desire—and its absence.   When Madeline becomes the White Zombie she loses as we would now say “agency” but along with it her allure to Beaumont. 

                So perhaps the interpretation that the zombies are us needs to be revised. Some of the zombies in White Zombie are Legendre’s former teacher, his local adversaries, and neighbors.  Zombies are thus people we know who turn out to be inwardly dead or soulless. This theme has a cinematic history that goes beyond the zombie genre per se. Invaders from Mars (1953), for instance, presents the folk of a coastal New England town zombified by space invaders, a theme reprised more famously a few years later in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). The pod people in that movie, however, are not true zombies, since the originals have been replaced by duplicates. Likewise, the robot replacements in The Stepford Wives (1975) are not zombies. And rather than finding their soulless partners undesirable, the husbands in the movie find the replacements an erotic improvement. The theme of alien takeover through something like zombification has many variants, including the chilling Planet of the Vampires, (1965) which suggests that zombification of those around us is practically inevitable.   

                Until recently Hollywood consistently portrayed zombies in an unflattering manner, caricaturing them as dim-witted, easily manipulated, and dangerous. In many cases, zombies were shown as physically inept as well as stupid. The dangers they pose come from their relative imperviousness to wounds that would often be fatal in living beings, their relentlessness, and their sheer numbers. More recently, however, movies such as the “Resident Evil” series and I Am Legend have begun to present what are called “fast zombies.” These are not the walking dead. They are the nimble, gymnastic, and acrobatic dead.

                While zombies played a minor role in the horror movie genre for decades, they never seriously competed with vampires, werewolves, mummies, and Frankenstein monsters, or, in later films, hostile aliens and giant insects. This changed in 1968 with the release of George Romero’s first zombie movie, Night of the Living Dead, which brought a new level of graphic and psychological horror to the mysteriously reanimated. As it happened, Romero set the movie in a graveyard near where I grew up and recruited much of his amateur cast from locals. The movie still has for me a shock of hometown recognition, and I keep a signed publicity still of Bill Hinzman (aka “Zombie No. 1”) over my desk.   But I worry now that I might be accused of insensitivity.

                Zombie Americans are finding it difficult to overcome the stereotypes. Despite the success of several zombie celebrities (Will Smith, Cher, Madonna) and the growing role of zombies in politics, zombies see themselves as perennial outsiders. The Zombie spokesman who calls himself Chalk Outline recently said, “We are still looking for our Woolworth’s lunch counter, our Stonewall Tavern, our Wounded Knee. We need to dramatize that the air-breathers have been grossly unfair to us. We have been exploited like no other group in movies and books. Let me tell you there is nothing grateful about these dead.”

                The battle for zombie social acceptance is nowhere more intense than on campus. It is estimated that up to a third of students currently enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities are actually zombies, though few of them are open about their post-mortem status.   Zombies are also a growing contingent of the faculty, and have their own national organization, the American Association of Undead People.   

                Perhaps the central question for the National Association of Scholars is whether the proliferation of zombies is a genuine academic concern. Other sectors of American society seem to be accommodating rapidly to the influx. We now have zombie banks, zombie computers, zombie games, zombie protest songs, and zombie cocktails, (light rum, creme de almond, triple sec, orange juice, pineapple juice, and dark rum).   We can expect, following the zombification of Pride and Prejudice, the emergence of a new genre of “revised” classics: The Naked and the Undead, Our Town Zombie, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back-Again

                Some might say the curriculum has already been zombified. By this we do not mean isolated courses on zombies such as English Professor Brendan Riley’s course, “Zombies in Popular Media” at Columbia College in Chicago. Rather, we refer to the walking corpse quality of English courses taught by professors who care more about “theory” than literature; programs of study that present key works of the humanities only to bury them; and a curriculum as whole that has all the coherence of zombies stumbling through the dark. 

                That image, like most things zombie, seems overdone.  At NAS, we remain perplexed. In his address to Congress last night, President Obama has called for all Americans to pursue a year or more of college. Since he didn’t limit this to the living, I assume we will see striking increases in zombie enrollment in higher education and will need to adjust accordingly. Should we be concerned about the soulless dead taking up space in our classrooms?  They would seem to fit right in with the current priorities of many colleges and universities, including sustainability. Not only do they have negligible carbon footprints, they don’t even consume oxygen. And the few rigorous studies that have been done show that it is extremely difficult for freshman English instructors to tell the difference between zombies and other students. 

                But perhaps the concern about zombies in higher education will be short-lived. The matter could be settled by the coming robot invasion.   

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