Approaches to Zombie Culture
In this seminar we will explore the zombie as metaphor and we will use theories of popular culture to read the contemporary zombie phenomenon symptomatically and critically: What cultural functions does it serve? Which discourses does it affirm or subvert? What politics of gender, class, or ethnicity do different zombie media advocate? What concepts of ‘humanity’ are threatened by zombies? The class will start from a core corpus of zombie media and will rely on student input to extend this corpus to various other media of your choice.
In preparation for the seminar (i.e. before the start of the semester), please make yourselves familiar with as much of the two TV series The Walking Dead (2010–present, AMC) and In the Flesh (2013–2014, BBC Three) as you can, and in addition read/watch/play/consume at least one of the following media (one which you do not already know):
Movie: Dawn of the Dead (1978) – not the first George Romero movie but maybe the most iconic and influential.
Movie: Shaun of the Dead (2004) – British tribute comedy to the Romero films.
Movie: 28 Days Later (2002) – this British movie is one of the first popular post-9/11 zombie movies, it especially popularized ‘rage zombies’ or ‘fast zombies’ as opposed to the traditional slow or straggling zombies.
Novella: I Am Legend (Richard Matheson, 1954) – this American novella actually is about vampires, but Matheson’s vampires feel much more like modern zombies (and have been the inspiration for Romero’s zombies), it’s a short and intense read with an interesting ending.
Novel: Feed (Mira Grant, 2010) – one of the most popular modern American zombie novels, which frequently pops up in Top 10 lists.
Novel: Zone One (Colson Whitehead, 2011) – a more literary zombie novel which has even become a New York Times bestseller.
Comic Book: The Walking Dead (2003–present) – the inspiration for the TV series; to analyse the differences between certain story lines in comic and series would be a very interesting project.
Video Game: The Walking Dead (2012–2014) – game adaptation of the comic and TV series of the same title. Especially interesting here are aspects of participation and moral choice of the player in the narrative.
Video Game: DayZ (2012) – multiplayer indie mod of a popular war game which came to huge popularity in a very short span of time; watch Let’s Plays (e.g. by FRANKIEonPC) on Youtube if you don’t want to play the game itself. Also read the forum posts from the time of mod development about what kind of zombies are preferable for players.
If you still need more zombie stuff, there must be something wrong with y— uhm, you might want to check out the following which also are of possible interest for our class (in chronological order): Resident Evil (2002 movie adaptation of popular video game franchise), Fido (2004 zom-com), Cell (2006 Stephen King novel), 28 Weeks Later (2007 sequel of 28 Days Later), World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie Wars (2007 bestselling novel by Max Brooks), Dead Set (2008 British mini series), Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009 novel mashup of the Jane Austen classic with added zombies), Les Revenants (2012–present French TV series; with a poor American remake as The Returned (2015)), Warm Bodies (2013 zom-rom-com), World War Z (2013 loose movie adaptation of Max Brooke’s zombie novel), Cooties (2015 zom-com).
Zombies have a long history, with roots in voodoo cults and folklore. Their early Western cultural forms are expressed in nineteenth century gothic literature, in early twentieth century cinema, and in post-war literature. The current form of the zombie has emerged in the 1970s with the films of George Romero, which have inspired a gruesomely satirical subcultural genre of splatter and body horror throughout the 1980s and 90s. But only in the twenty-first century, in the wake of 9/11 and the US-American War on Terror have zombie apocalypse narratives exploded into a global phenomenon of popular culture. Today, zombies inhabit all kinds of genres ranging from survival horror, disaster movie, epidemic drama, soap opera, and even comedy and romance; they are used as a metaphor for many different socio- and psycho-cultural phenomena.
Thus, zombies are never ‘just zombies’. They are agents within cultural products and as literary scholars we are interested in the meaning of these products.
Zombie Studies Bibliography
See the separate entry for an extensive bibliography on zombie scholarship that I have assembled during the seminar.