14 December 2015


Roger Luckhurst.   Zombies: A Cultural History.  Reaktion Books, 2015.

Zombies are all the rage today, the subjects of numerous films, comic books, video games and TV series, so much so that there is even a series of academic monographs entitled 'Zombie Studies. It is surely only a matter of time before some university or other creates a Department of Zombie Studies. Roger Luckhurst, the author of books on telepathy and the Mummy's Curse, here traces the evolution of the image of the zombie from its Caribbean roots to the global mass media.
In the beginning was the zombi, a protean entity of African-Caribbean folklore, which was brought to wider audiences by the writings of Lafcadio Hern, William Seabrook and Zora Hurston. The latter two in particular crystallised the image of the zombi as a resurrected corpse, and both claimed to have met them. However these zombis were not the decaying flesh eaters of the modern horror genre but something more disturbing, flesh and blood people seemingly deprived of their minds. Seabrook and later the anthropologist Wade Davis suggested that these zombis were people who had been reduced to a catatonic state by secret poisons, buried and later dug and given at least a partial antidote,

These original zombis are essentially modern day slaves, broken by years of abuse and oppression, indeed they become the metaphor for and memory of slavery. They become part of mainstream European culture as part of the racist image of Haiti, 'The Black Republic', as the epitome of savagery and superstition, with its religion Vodou as being founded on human sacrifice and cannibalism. The early zombie films were often based in the Caribbean and featured white women being menaced by the black undead.

Luckhurst sees the translation from the Caribbean zombi to the global zombie as a product of war time catastrophe. Images of the skeletal concentration camp survivors, mingled with the post -nuclear 'walking dead' to create this new image. While the original zombis were mindless but intact, these are now the well and truly dead and decaying. Of course, from the film makers point of view this makes the mass disposal of zombies much more palatable they are already dead, so 'killing' them is not really murder.

Many of these films present the zombies as raw wilderness, mindless wandering hunger, threatening to overwhelm the last vestiges of human culture, and clearly contain echoes of the fear of the mob, and Luckhurst argues that they can also be seen as the satires of the mindlessness of much routine consumer behaviour. Recently some zombie series have presented the creatures in a much more human and humane light, as another minority having to be resettled back into the community and being the potential victims of hate crime.

He also suggests that medical advances have created ambiguities about the boundaries of life and death, with ideas of whole brain death, brain-stem death, persistent vegetative state, minimal conscious state, brain stem consciousness, etc. Perhaps hiding behind all of these is the fear of one’s own potential zombification by dementia. A real zombie plague, Pandemic Acute Dementia, would indeed have zombies much closer to the Caribbean-style original than the decaying corpses: living, breathing human beings, sans mind, sans memory, perhaps indeed possessed of insatiable hunger and restlessness. Though self-limiting, they would all eventually die off, it would pose much more acute ethical dilemmas than the easy fiction.

A theme that I think that Luckhurst has missed is the idea of the zombie as the dead thing that won’t lie down and gradually consumes the living, representing the demonic forces of history that prevent each successive generation from building the safe, rational world. Perhaps the real problem is that the very structures of human habitats, culture, tradition, civilisation etc. were all constructed by the dead and through their agency the dead still hold us in thrall. -- Peter Rogerson.

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