I wonder how many people who join in on hip zombie walks or watch “The Walking Dead” obsessively or waste hours blasting zombies in the face while playing “Resident Evil” really know or care about the origins of their favorite creature? Do they know that origin is not traced to atomic radiation or rage virus outbreaks? Serious horror fans do not need to be schooled about the back story of the modern zombie, about how the thing once known as zombi was not a radiation-tainted brain muncher that tended to go with the crowd, but rather a voodoo-enchanted victim of slave labor. Even such serious horror fans will learn a thing or two about these overused, overworked monsters in Roger Luckhurst’s Zombies: A Cultural History, even though some of these revelations shouldn’t be too surprising.
As used in Caribbean culture, zombi seemed an elusive term, sort of a catchall phrase for all things monstrous or weird—an unusually tall dog or a three-legged horse that has no trouble walking, for example. Only when the term passed into the lexicons of anthropologists with a yen for the strange did the zombie begin to come into focus as a colonialist’s overheated metaphor for all that is “bizarre,” “superstitious,” and “savage” about non-white cultures. Luckhurst spends a great deal of his book discussing the racist implications of the zombie that have largely been lost since it became an easy metaphor for anything run out of control in the twenty-first century. Luckhurst points out that the original racist implications are still apparent in such contemporary works as World War Z, but his book is interesting because it is so largely concentrated on the creature’s pre-George Romero breed. Luckhurst not only discusses the zombie’s historical background—and he shows how it is always lurking around history’s worst atrocities from slavery to the holocaust to the dawn of WMDs— but its depiction in film (unlike other zombie books I’ve read, this one spends as much time dissecting White Zombie as Night of the Living Dead), pulp literature, comics, cocktails, and so on. In doing so, the author has made today’s most overly familiar monster seem fresh again.
The writer’s tendency to lean on academic clichés makes the tale-telling a little less fresh (everything is liminal), but the narrative is always readable and accessible. Luckhurst is highly critical of most of the works he discusses, but he usually makes his case well. I only took issue with his main criticism of Dawn of the Dead, which the author believes is “smug” for implying that its audience is exceptional for being in on the joke and not falling into the mindless consumerism of the film’s monsters. I think the film has a more constructive purpose in exposing the destructiveness of such consumerism, that Romero is attempting to give his audience something to aspire to by inspiring them to reject the behavior they see on screen, behavior they’ve probably indulged in many times before. Zombies: A Cultural History can serve a similarly constructive function by getting zombie fans to start thinking more critically about the creatures they’ve watched kill and be killed so many times before. Now be a good consumer and get it on Amazon.com here: