The Resurgence of Zombie Narratives

A zombie episode of ABC’s Radio National Books and Arts Daily program was broadcast on Friday the 22nd of February 2013 with academic Sarah Juliet Lauro (@zombiescholar), the showrunner for the Walking Dead, Glen Mazzara (@GlenMazzara), zombie fanatic Chuck McKenzie (@notionsun) and horror author Robert Hood (@undeadhood). I was very happy to live-tweet the show for them!

Below is the storify, but you can also download the episode here.

  1. RT @RNBooksAndArts: Tomorrow’s show with @zombiescholar, @glenmazzara, @undeadhood and more presented by Zombie Cathcart http://pic.twitter.com/i8boiRrGuQ
  2. Today on @RNBooksAndArts 10am – the rise of the #zombie in pop culture, high art and political protests. ow.ly/hVPhp
  3. Welcome to the year of the zombie! But what has started this re-emergence in their popularity? #abcrn
  4. The original zombie was a pathetic being, & @zombiescholar research is into how it transformed into the monster of today #abcrn
  5. @zombiescholar says a theory of recent popularity is related to the dis-empowerment of people through the weak economy #abcrn
  6. @zombiescholar – The zombie is a convenient myth as to how we face the evils of humanity, without being so blunt about it #abcrn
  7. @zombiescholar – The zombie is a monster we can really put any form of social anxiety on top of, fear of economy, terrorism, war, etc #abcrn
  8. Zombies are always about slavery even our slavery to consume says @zombiescholar
  9. There’s a rebelliousness in zombies, the myth having coming from Haitian revolution. Not just slavery, but defiance of power #abcrn
  10. There is deeper meaning in cultural works than people usually give it credit for, and this works for zombies #abcrn
  11. Zombies entered movies because they weren’t copyrighted says @zombiescholar
  12. Micael with @glennmazzara, exec producer of The Walking Dead http://pic.twitter.com/rNjPWbwYrB
  13. Up now with @glenmazzara on #abcrn – showrunner for The Walking Dead (executive producer, head writer, working with directors, edits, etc)
  14. @glenmazzara is a promoter of the showrunner model. It’s about consistency of story and character growth #abcrn
  15. The Walking Dead is about the choices people make when there’s no one to rely on (govt, army etc) and how they survive #abcrn
  16. We’ve lost faith in big institutions. The Walking Dead taps into the idea that we don’t feel we can rely on them #abcrn
  17. @glenmazzara was always a horror fan: there’s something simple about zombies with less mythology than other monsters #abcrn
  18. The Walking Dead zombies are modeled on Romero’s zombies and try to stay true to the rules he created. #abcrn
  19. From Day Land of the Dead, the zombies are adapting, Glen says The Walking Dead zombies won’t quite go that way #abcrn
  20. The rage virus (28 Days Later) isn’t a real zombie, according to their rules. People love fast zombies, but TWD maintain slow zoms #abcrn
  21. The directors change for each episode, so containing the story and style is most important with an ongoing series #abcrn
  22. @RNBooksAndArts referring to The Omega Man – the book, I Am Legend, was actually great inspiration for Romero’s works #abcrn
  23. Best zombie books (Chuck): Mira Grant’s Feed series, Zone One by Colson Whitehead, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies #abcrn
  24. What’s your favourite zombie book? I rather love Generation Dead by Daniel Waters and Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion #abcrn
  25. Cross-genre books are the go now-a-days for zombies – zomliterary, zomromance, zomerotica… #abcrn
  26. Rob Hood: zombies don’t really have the mythological background that vampires do. #abcrn
  27. Rob writes both children’s fiction and zombies that are much more for adult readers #abcrn
  28. There are actually a few zombie books for children. I do want to read ‘That’s not your mommy anymore’ #abcrn
  29. Rob: End of the world scenarios are very popular at the moment, dealing with no social structure and dealing with other people #abcrn
  30. Is the zombie still the American myth? Rob: Italy loves zombies! Technically, walking dead have existed for a long time in tales #abcrn
  31. And that’s it for zombies at #abcrn ! Stay safe and keep up the cardio!
  32. There’s a range of Australian writers who meddle with zombies, check out some of them here: nyssaharkness.wordpress.com… (incl Chuck & Rob)
  33. Margaret Atwood’s serial zombies are here wattpad.com/story/2426517-t… She’s on Monday’s show

The habits of highly effective zombie types

One of the problems I have with people who look at something, as the (AWESOME) Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion, and say “Err they’re not real zombies!” is we don’t really have a static definition of a zombie anyway. The zombie really isn’t that old as a fictional monster and is constantly evolving. It’s taken bits of lore from other monsters, and as always, authors and screenwriters lead the charge in creating unique perspectives. Would anyone be interested in vampires if they never changed (let’s ignore sparkles for the moment before everyone’s head blows up)? If every zombie were exactly the same and never changed, Romero could never have been the Godfather of Zombies. He did change them. And are we glad he did!

The Voodoo Zombie

  • Controlled by one person
  • Created by powders and potions
  • Tool using
  • Rarely is there recognition of former life
  • Can be changed back – salt, death of bokor/sorcerer
  • Used or created for a purpose – slavery, retribution, or fear of losing loved one
  • Not a horde

The Romero Zombie (*=some movies only)

  • Dead and undead
  • Created by infection
  • Mindless, no will but hunger*
  • No changing back
  • Eat flesh
  • Not tool using *
  • No glimpse of recognition of former life *
  • Physically less able
  • Quick transition
  • Rotting

Variations on the modern zombie

  • Can sometimes affect the long dead (Return of the Living Dead)
  • Changes between what causes zombies – aliens, bio-weapons, natural virus, technology, psychological on a society-wide level
  • Can talk
  • Have some memory, not complete
  • Can run, climb, jump, chase
  • Differences in ability to be able to find people and how those senses can be deceived – smell, hearing, sight
  • Hierarchy of zombies – some able to run with others not, physical and mental abilities not evenly spread
  • Rotting
  • Lack of consciousness,or may have a highly focused will

The Romantic Zombie

  • Physically undead
  • Limits on physical/mental abilities
  • Limited lifespan
  • Can talk
  • Rarely eat/require flesh
  • Can retain mind, it can be returned (not necessarily specific memories of their individual past)
  • Sometimes infectious
  • Hero never overtly rotting
  • Some sense of society/culture amongst them

(Pics from IMDB)

Human cruelty

One of the clearest themes in horror, and other genres besides, is pointing out human cruelty. The desire to stay alive in a zombie apocalypse leads some people to sacrifice others so they can live (usually rich and rude jerks we don’t care about living anyway). One of my favourite Twilight Zone episodes is The Shelter, where people do ask ‘Why should your family live while mine dies?’

In Zombies, Vampires and Philosophy, Leah Murray refers to Thomas Hobbes claim that life in a “state of nature”, without government or authority, is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” . Murray extends this to the zombie apocalypse, looking at Romero’s Dead series. In thinking about recent battlegrounds, you could go further and apply this to jerks on the inernet – with anonymity and seeming no authority or law, people are free to call you whatever negative terms they can think of (although I do think ‘baddie’ is a stupid term).

Hiding away food, weapons, information is fairly common – especially outside of horror. But there are other examples of human cruelty that is not against each other. Cruelty against weak/helpless zombies is common, usually red necks picking them off, blowing them up, stringing them up and using them as target practise. Admittedly, this could just be a reflection of what could be our cruelty to each other if we had anarchy.

There’s nothing in the world I love like a person who likes and is kind to animals, especially my cat. There are quite a few heroes in the zombpocalypse who still look after animals and share meager stores with them (non-zombiepocalypses too!). Human cruelty is seen in so many ways and with varying levels of severity. Some see horse jumping as cruelty. Dog fights are definitely cruel. I forget where it’s from, whether academic or fiction, but I remember a saying that our civilisations worth is based upon how we treat our smallest, our weakest.

Racism and Sexism

Despite all the various undead from myths around the world of physical beings rising from the grave, it’s generally accepted that it is from the Haitian Voodoo that we developed our media monster of the zombie. Zombie fiction is often defined as post-colonial – “a term for a collection of … strategies used to examine the culture of former colonies of the European empires and their relation to the rest of the world … [and] share many assumptions: they question the salutary effects of the empire … and raise such issues as racism and exploitation” (Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory: Approaches, Scholars, Terms By Irene Rima Makaryk).

In particularly the older zombie movies based around Voodoo, the natives are seen as superstitious to the extreme (which the white characters of the film dismiss as primitive) and are entirely unable to help themselves from the threat without outside (white) help. Just having watched Zombi 2 (Aka Zombie, and a billion other names) by Fulci, this Italian movie from the 70s replays that same role. Abhorrent as it is to us now, some of the actors in these early films were in black-face makeup. White Zombie is one of them, a story about a zombie master using black zombies as slaves in his mill, the threat of which is to frighten and control the population, but it all changes when he concocts a zombie potion for a white woman for a man who is not her to-be-husband to take over her. When the man no longer desires her without the sparkle and life in her eyes, the zombie master takes her for himself.

Romero is regarded highly for breaking away from this. His zombies do not relate to voodoo and ‘black’ magic, but are of unknown origin. The hero in the Night of the Living Dead is African American. Chosen because he was the best actor the producers knew and not for the colour of his skin (huzzah!), this was a big change for cinema and a shock to 1968. Romero’s follow up film, Dawn of the Dead had a deliberate scene of racial intolerance, where a community of apartment dwellers (mostly African American, Hispanic and Puerto Rican) are protecting their beloved ones who are now zombies. They are attacked by a SWAT team, mostly white, who firing off shots and racist insults with little regard (Check out American Zombie Gothic by Kyle Bishop for more).

Racism is in gaming too, with a lot of anger directed towards the makers of Resident Evil 5 in which a white hero kills all the infected whom are all black, being in an African village. There is of course, corners of defense for this (although reading the comments on some sites about it make me personally angry for people suggesting that there are no race issues anymore since Barack Obama came to office. *headdesk*)

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There’s the old stereotype of horror films that if a person with dark skin is in the movie, he will be one of the first to die. And if there is a girl, she will have weak ankles, trip over and be taken over by the monster.

Already having mentioned White Zombie about the control of a white woman, women in particularly early movies are pretty weak. They sometimes don’t even fight back (although a fight between a woman and a zombie in Zombi 2 has a particularly gory scene which I almost had to turn away from). In the 70s and 80s, there’s also a lot of female nakedness in zombie movies (so many breasts everywhere!). There’s rape scenes, too,  in a few of the zombie movies. which are really very disturbing (and would be a tirgger for many who have been sexually harrassed or raped themselves).

Fran in Dawn of the Dead, while the men were casually talking about if she should abort her baby, with her not even included in the discussion, provides the only voice of reason that they should move on rather than stay in the mall. Despite her home-making and cooking their little apartment they create, she is the only one pro-active, wanting to learn both to defend herself and learn to fly the helicopter. Fran isn’t the best example, but she is far from the weak and almost comatose Barbra from Night of the Living Dead. In Day of the Dead, Sarah is strong and smart and capable, but looked down upon by the military men who threaten her with death and rape.

Alice from the Resident Evil movies is the ultimate weapon against zombies. She’s not willing to sit by and let it all happen. While not all women in zombie stories are as familiar with weapons and fighting, they still provide much more assistance to the group’s survival. There’s a number of women in the We’re Alive podcast (which I love to undeath!), both strong and not so strong. It would be hard mentally for any person to adapt to zombies and pure survival after such a rich existence as we have now – and that’s the point of most of the zombie stories.

~

While society (despite what those silly comments on that gaming site said) still struggle with racial and gender issues, our fiction will reflect the same and especially in horror where our deepest desires and anxieties lay, and yet we can only deal with them by percieving the monster. The monster makes it seem that it’s not so close, not so near, but equality, as survival, is worth fighting for. And however strange it seems, this desire for equality is what is reflected in zombie romance brazenly!

As always, I’m still learning about these topics, but find it fascinating how we deal with these issues in horror and with zombies.

The Dead Will Walk

The Dead Will Walk (2004) is a documentary on the making of Dawn of the Dead and the perspective of it’s impact from those who made it. This doco is also included in the special edition DVD of Dawn of the Dead, as well as the original, the extended, and the European cuts of the film (check it here).

When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth – Peter

George A Romero:

  • Was inspired by old monster classics
  • Tales of Hoffman, based on an opera, is the ‘one’ that made him want to make movies
  • His first short story was called Night of Anubis. He admits it was a total rip off of I am Legend by Richard Matheson, but in adapting and changing it, it became the screenplay for Night of the Living Dead
  • Shot Night of the Living Dead over the course of a year
  • Resisted Hollywood calls to make another movie or make others movies straight afterwards.
  • Took a tour of the Monroeville Mall, one of the first indoor malls, which was owned by friends. Was told could survive nuclear attack in there, Romero thought ‘what about a zombie attack?’.
  • Went to Rome to write screenplay for Dawn, encouraged by Dario Argento.
  • Always writes his vision and then works out how to do it
~
On the making of the film:
  • George’s instruction to Tom Savini, makeup & cosmetic special effects, was to simply “think of ways to kill people”. And that’s what he did.
  • The zombies had no direction in ‘zombie shuffling’ and could make it up as they went, as long as they were consistent.
  • Part of what they did in filming was to cover as many angles as possible andget as many shots as possible so there were many options during the editing process.
  • Tom Savini admired by the crew and cast as “invaluable and talented”, “couldn’t believe some of the ideas he came up with”. Savini says his time in Vietnam as a combat photographer had a big influence on him when it came to working with gory special effects.
  • Dario Argento tweaked the editing for non-English countries. George’s original edit was quite long for Dario, and thus ended up creating an entirely different version from Romero’s with less gore and comic scenes. Dario contributed to the score as well with the Goblins.
~
On the meaning of the film:

George: I wanted to try to give it the same thematic core that the original film had and speak about some of my own ideas about society  and … I don’t think it’s an underlying message, it’s like in your face, right up front. The way society has been conditioned to think that as long as you have this stuff, life is wonderful and being falsely attracted and seduced by things that really shouldn’t have value in your life, but do.

Tom: Everybody would love to be holed up in a shopping mall, everything you want is right there. Jewellery, money, it’s a fantasy come true.

The main cast understood what George was on about with his ‘satire of consumerism’, noting that George understood it earlier than most as shopping malls were barely starting in the late 70s. Gaylen Ross, who played Fran, said she was ‘surprised by the intelligence of the script. It’s a reflection of who we are. It’s funny.”

Romero: It’s a comic book, it’s a romp. With this underlying sense of society going to hell, I wanted to have this mash like effect of you can laugh, you can have as much fun as you want, but there’s something else going on here.

~

The fans:
  • Initially with European distribution they made a lot of money, but when they took it around the US, the distributors would come out of the screenings loving it, but saying ‘wow, that’s really rough, let’s clean it up’. Romero wanted to keep it as strong as possible and didn’t edit it further.
  • They ended up running the film themselves and United Film Distribution went and saw the intense reaction by the audience at one of the showings and did a deal right there.
  • Not having a rating on the film helped contribute to popularity, but advertising and showing was very limited because of it.
  • Audience very excited by gory scenes. Lots of different reactions with clapping during decapitating zombies, or running out vomiting. ‘If we’d done anything at all, we had made a crowd pleaser’ – Romero.
  • Romero so happy with intense fans who fly from all over the world to see him and love the film so much. Fans often say to actors how the film changed their lives. Another fan said: ‘When I die, I want the movie in my casket’. One fan had tattoos covering himself of every character from all of George’s movies.
~
After Dawn: 
  • Some wanted a sequel right away, but Romero wanted to work on other things first, including working with Stephen King.
  • When Day of the Dead came out, it had smaller distribution and it didn’t do any business, as George admits it ‘may have hurt us’.
  • Helped careers of many of those who worked on the film. George mentored everyone. “Lovely, bright, sweet man that you give 110% for. One of the best people I’ve ever known.” – Donna Siegel, assistant producer.
  • George is very comfortable with his body of work, though Hollywood still considers him a maverick. He’s ‘happy as hell’ to just keep doing what he wants.
  • Land of Dead (called Dead Reckoning at the time) script was all about ignoring the problem, ‘like trying to live with terrorism’ and reflecting what is going on today.