Given this week’s topic, it seems fitting that next week I review The Slab by Jeff Marriotte. If you’ve read The Slab, you’ll understand the connection. If not, I’ll tell you next Friday (but it’s not zombies). And the Friday following (1/20), I’ll be posing my Seven Questions to Jeff.
But without further ado…
As I responded in the comments section of last week’s post, if you would’ve told me twenty-some-odd years ago when I was in high school with Kyle Bishop that I would be featuring an excerpt on my blog from his academic text on zombie films in popular culture, well, my first response would’ve been, “What’s a blog?”
But there would’ve been several other questions that would’ve followed. For one, I had no idea that Kyle was another horror movie fan. And for another, at that point in my life, even though I loved writing stories, I was getting ready to major in Biology.
So needless to say, it was a pleasant surprise to run into Kyle many years later and find out he had written his Ph.D. dissertation on zombie movies. Academia needs more Kyle Bishops, English professors who don’t look down their noses at genre storytelling and, as Kyle has done, even go so far as to examine deeper connections between these genres and our civilization (or fall thereof 🙂 )
And NOW without further ado…
When it came to picking an excerpt from Kyle’s American Zombie Gothic: The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popular Culture, after being given the go-ahead from his publisher for reprint of 1000 words, I debated whether I should use his preface (where his voice, an entertaining one at that, comes through) or his intro where he states his main argument. Ultimately, I decided on the latter because I think it sets up the rest of the book. And it’s a pretty fascinating concept.
First, the legalese:
From American Zombie Gothic: The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popular Culture © 2010 Kyle William Bishop by permission of McFarland & Company, Inc., Box 611, Jefferson NC 28640. http://www.mcfarlandpub.com.
Jerrold E. Hogle has said, “[Gothic fiction] helps us address and disguise some of the most important desires, quandaries, and sources of anxiety, from the most internal and mental to the widely social and cultural.”3 For example, wars, natural disasters, financial crises, and other political and social tragedies affect cultural consciousness as much as the blast from a high-yield explosive or a massive earthquake, and the ensuing shockwaves reach far and wide.
One of the most reliable ways to recognize and understand these undulations is by analyzing the literature and dramatization of any particular era. For instance, the use of atomic weapons at the end of World War II ushered in nuclear paranoia narratives such as the films Godzilla (1954) and Them! (1954), and that era’s fear of the encroaching Communist threat inspired alien invasion stories such as Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1954) and the earlier Invaders from Mars (1953). The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, have unleashed perhaps the largest wave of paranoia and anxiety on American society since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. From the beginning of the War on Terror that followed 9/11, the popular culture produced in the United States has been colored by the fear of possible terrorist attacks and the grim realization that people are not as safe and secure as they might have once thought.
As in the past, perceptive scholars can quite readily recognize and understand this shift in the cultural consciousness through patterns in narrative fiction, and I ultimately want to argue that zombie cinema is among the most culturally revealing and resonant fictions of the recent decade of unrest.
Of course, Hans Robert Jauss has already emphasized how we cannot approach a cultural product simply through its historical context or its formal elements alone. Instead, the audience, those intended to receive a given work, prove essentially relevant, for “it is only through the process of its mediation that the work enters into the changing horizon-of-experience of a continuity in which the perpetual inversion occurs from simple reception to critical understanding.”4 In other words, the reception of a literary text, its popularity among consumers, is an important component of cultural studies.
For example, big-screen zombie narratives have proven increasingly popular since their inception in the early 1930s, and in the years following September 11, the number of both studio and independent zombie movies has risen dramatically. Although interest in the subgenre had noticeably decreased during the halcyon days of America in the 1990s, Hollywood has since re-embraced the genre with revisionist films such as 28 Days Later (2002), video game-inspired action movies such as Resident Evil (2002), big-budget remakes such as Dawn of the Dead (2004), and even romantic comedies such as Shaun of the Dead (2004). Even now, the zombie craze shows no signs of slowing down, with 2007 seeing the theatrical releases of Planet Terror, 28 Weeks Later, and Resident Evil: Extinction—the Sundance Film Festival even featured two zombie films that season5—and with a remake of Day of the Dead, George A. Romero’s own Diary of the Dead, and Zombie Strippers all coming out in 2008. David Oakes’ Zombie Movie Data-Base website confirms this increased interest in zombie cinema, with data showing a marked swell in all kinds of zombie narratives over the past ten years, with 41 titles listed for 2008 alone.6 And so far, 2009 is proving to be an even greater banner year for the screen zombie, with titles such as Dead Snow; Romeo & Juliet vs. The Living Dead; Silent Night, Zombie Night; Yesterday; Zombieland; and Romero’s sixth zombie movie, Survival of the Dead, to name just a few of the titles listed on The Internet Movie Database website.7
In a recent interview I conducted with Peter Dendle, Pennsylvania State University professor and an expert on zombies, he observed how the number of amateur zombie movies has “mushroomed considerably” since 2000, with fan filmmakers spending thousands on digital video and fake blood. Although the quality of many of these backyard, straight-to-video and internet-based productions remains a matter of debate, a clear surge in the subgenre’s popularity among fans and filmmakers cannot be denied.
Such an array of films and narrative genres has thus addressed the social and cultural anxieties stemming from recent terrorist attacks, and I want to show that they do so because of a foundation on which they build. The fundamental generic conventions of Gothic fiction in general and zombie cinema in particular make the subgenre the most likely and appropriate vehicle with which to explore America’s post-9/11 cultural consciousness. During the latter half of the twentieth century, for example, zombie movies repeatedly reacted to social and political unrest, graphically representing the inescapable realities of an untimely death (via infection, infestation, or violence) while presenting a grim view of the modern apocalypse in which society’s supportive infrastructure irrevocably breaks down.
The twenty-first-century zombie movies are not much different from their historical antecedents, but society itself has changed markedly since the World Trade Center towers were destroyed, making cinematic zombies and their accompanying narratives all the more timely and affecting. Scenes depicting deserted metropolitan streets, abandoned human corpses, and gangs of lawless vigilantes have become more common than ever, appearing on the nightly news as often as on the movie screen. Because the aftereffects of war, terrorism, and natural disasters so closely resemble the scenarios depicted by zombie cinema, such images of death and destruction have all the more power to shock and terrify a population that has become otherwise jaded to more traditional horror films.
The most telling barometer of this modern age, therefore, is to be found not in the romanticized undead protagonists of vampire melodramas such as Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series (2005–2008) or with the nihilistic sadists torturing victims in the latest Saw movie (2004– ), but in the unstoppable hoards of the zombie invasion narrative. That is why many now speak, and speak correctly, of a current “Zombie Renaissance.”
What do I want from you?
What are your thoughts on this idea?
As you have figured out, this is definitely more of an academic text than a literary one, but if you want to pursue this line of thought, I’d hope you’d check out Kyle’s book. For more information, click here.
You can also check out a very brief excerpt of Kyle’s piece in Smart Pop Books’ Triumph of The Walking Dead: Robert Kirkman’s Zombie Epic on Page and Screen (which includes a forward by Joe R. Lansdale). To read, click here.
Finally, don’t forget to check back next week for my review of Jeff Marriotte’s The Slab
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