This is a follow-up class to a seminar on zombie culture that I have taught in summer 2016. We will cover some of the same ground but also build on the results of that previous seminar and take into account more recent zombie media.
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.
In this writing-intensive seminar we will explore the zombie as metaphor and we will use cultural theory (biopolitics, queer theory) 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, ethnicity, or even sexuality do different zombie media advocate? What concepts of ‘humanity’ are threatened by zombies?
Some of the tropes of zombie media (often intersecting) that we will investigate are:
social coldness, individual alienation, and sexual ‘deviance’ (threats from the erosion of middle-class heteronormative family values)
mass migration and terrorism (threats from enemies of the nation)
virality and pandemic infections (threats from environmental and evolutionary changes)
precarity and uselessness (threats from the breakdown of capitalism and labour economies)
Thus, zombies are never ‘just zombies’. They are agents within cultural products and as scholars of literature and culture we are interested in the meaning of these products.
The following texts will be the basis of our in-class discussion, please either consume them before classes start or be prepared to devour them during the semester:
28 Days Later (2002 film, dir. Danny Boyle). Foundational movie for the post-9/11-era of zombie media. Key topics: gender roles, genre tropes.
The Walking Dead (Season 2) (2011–12 TV series, AMC). We will focus exclusively on the second season of TWD, but you will probably have to watch season 1 too. Key topics: gender roles (especially toxic masculinity), biopolitics: reproductive futurism, bare life, state of exception.
In the Flesh (Season 1) (2013, BBC Three). British series of three one-hour episodes (the show’s second season has been aborted prematurely and is not really worth watching). Key topics: sexual politics/Othering, postmodern fragmentation of society and alienation of individuals.
The Girl with All the Gifts (2016 film, dir. Colm McCarthy). Adaptation of a young adult novel of the same name (which is not as good as the film, unfortunately). Key topics: Generational conflict of adults vs. children, childhood discourses.
I chose these texts because they are either exemplary for genre core features (the first two), or because they play interesting twists on genre conventions and use zombies in innovative ways (the latter two).
Selected further reading
This is a selection of additional relevant media which you can browse for a deeper look into the topic (e.g. study for the Studienleistung or a module paper).
Literature: Richard Matheson, I Am Legend (1954); Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore, The Walking Dead (2003–2019 comic book series); Stephen King, Cell (2006); David Wellington, Monster Island (2006); Max Brooks, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie Wars (2007); Seth Grahame-Smith, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009); S.G. Browne, Breathers: A Zombie’s Lament (2009); Carrie Ryan, The Forest of Hands and Teeth (2009); Mira Grant, Feed (2010); Alden Bell, The Reapers Are the Angels (2010); Colson Whitehead, Zone One (2011); Diana Rowland, My Life as a White Trash Zombie (2011); Courtney Summers, This Is Not a Test (2012); Isaac Marion, Warm Bodies (2012); Brian Keene, The Rising (2013); M.R. Carey, The Girl with All the Gifts (2014); Lily Anderson, Undead Girl Gang (2018).
Film: Night of the Living Dead (1968); Dawn of the Dead (1978; remake 2004); Resident Evil (2002 and a gazillion sequels); Shaun of the Dead (2004); Fido (2004); They Came Back (2004); Land of the Dead (2005); REC (2007 and three sequels); Deadgirl (2008; well-written movie that I will recommend only with a serious trigger warning for sexual violence!); 28 Weeks Later (2007 sequel of 28 Days Later); Pontypool (2008); La Horde (2009); Dead Snow/Død Snø (2009); Warm Bodies (2013); World War Z (2013); Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead (2014); Life After Beth (2014); Cooties (2015); Maggie (2015); What We Become/Sorgenfri (2015); Train to Busan (2016); Seoul Station (2016); The Night Eats the World (2018); Endzeit/Ever After (2018); Patient Zero (2018); Cargo (2018); Rampant (2018); The Cured (2018); The Dead Don’t Die (2019).
TV: Dead Set (2008); The Walking Dead (2010–); Les Revenants (2012–2015 French TV series; with a poor American remake as The Returned (2015)); Helix (2014–2015); Z Nation (2014–2018); I Survived a Zombie Apocalypse (2015); Fear the Walking Dead (2015–); iZombie (2015–2019); Santa Clarita Diet (2017–); Black Summer (2019–); Kingdom (2019–).
Video Games: Resident Evil series (1996–); Urban Dead (2005); Dead Rising series (2006–2017); Left 4 Dead (2008, sequel 2009); Dead Nation (2010); Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare (2010); Telltale’s The Walking Dead (2012–2014); DayZ (2012 ARMA II mod/2018 standalone); The Last of Us (2013); Dying Light (2015); Killing Floor 2 (2016); State of Decay 2 (2018); Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 (2018); World War Z (2019); Days Gone (2019); Project Zomboid (?).