The Big Issue : Edition 508
ZOMBIES: MEAN, MALEVOLENT OR MISUNDERSTOOD? PERHAPS THEY ACTUALLY REPRESENT “THE ULTIMATE PROLETARIAN MONSTER” OR “A COMMENT ON EXCESSIVE CONSUMERISM”. THE BIG ISSUE 29 MARCH – 7 APRIL 2016 15 LIKE A FAST-MOVING pathogen, the zombie continues to invade every aspect of our popular culture. Film, television, books, computer games, music; nothing is immune. The living dead have even invaded the genteel 19th century Britain of Jane Austen, in the new movie Pride, Prejudice and Zombies. Like the 2009 parody novel on which it is based, five sisters must deal with expectations to behave a certain way because of their gender, amid a mysterious plague of flesh-eating zombies. This is neither the start nor the end of it. The Internet Movie Database suggests that 49 zombie titles were released last year alone. Many, like MILFs vs Zombies and The Scouts Guide to the Apocalypse (reviewed in Ed#506), are as cheaply made and unimaginative as their titles suggest. Others – such as the television show The Walking Dead, which averages 13 million viewers a week in the US – offer a more sophisticated take. Based on a series of graphic novels of the same name, The Walking Dead revolves around a sheriff’s deputy who wakes up from a coma to find the world overrun by zombies. He leads a band of survivors who must battle not only the hungry undead, but also other humans – who are just as dangerous. So why does the zombie have such a powerful hold on our cultural imagination? “It isn’t just the zombie film, it’s the horror genre as a whole,” says US- based horror historian Troy Howarth. “It never really seems to go completely out of style. These films are typically cheap to produce. They don’t rely on star power. They turn a profit.” But the widespread fascination with zombies goes much deeper than the attraction of being scared, or the creatures’ ability to make entertainment dollars. Historically, it seems that horror movies have peaked in times of economic uncertainty and social upheaval: the 1930s, the 1970s and now. Zombies not only offer a glimpse into the dark recesses of society, they also embody modern-day fears and anxieties. First introduced to Western audiences in the early 19th century through literary travelogues, “zombie” originates from a Haitian-French term for an undead human corpse reanimated through magic. The concept appeared in the work of writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce and HP Lovecraft. But it is on the big screen that they have exercised the most powerful hold on the collective imagination. Early examples are White Zombie (1932), about a young woman transformed into a monster at the hands of an evil voodoo master (Bela Lugosi); and Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie (1943), in which a nurse is hired by a rich, white plantation owner in the Caribbean to care for his sick wife, whose zombie-like condition may be the result of voodoo. Camilla Nelson, an academic at Sydney’s University of Notre Dame, says both films represent “the historical memory of slavery, the idea of one human being being dominated by the will of another”. She adds, “It was only in the 20th century that zombies were incorporated into American popular culture.” The film most responsible for this, says Melbourne film theorist Ben Buckingham, is George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). “All major alterations to the zombie’s archetypal configuration have been inspired by Night of the Living Dead,” says Buckingham. Made on a shoestring budget with a cast of amateur actors, Romero’s film depicts a group of people trapped in a rural Pennsylvanian farmhouse surrounded by the living dead. The word “zombie” is never spoken and never appears in the script – the creatures are referred to as “those things” and one character calls them “ghouls” – but it codified the key characteristics of the modern cinematic zombie: they hunt in packs; they have an insatiable hunger for human flesh; they are unstoppable unless decapitated; they can turn the living into the undead with a single bite. Upon its release, the film was attacked by critics for what was then seen as excessive violence. But it was a slowburn hit with audiences, resulting in five direct sequels. The second instalment, Dawn of the Dead (1978) saw a small band of survivors hide in a vast shopping mall from masses of zombies – named such in the film. By the third instalment in 1985, Day of the Dead, zombies have destroyed civilisation and the story focuses on a group of scientists and soldiers living in an underground bunker. ANDREW LINCOLN COMES (ALMOST) FACE- TO-FACE WITH DEATH AS RICK GRIMES IN THE WALKING DEAD. CAST FROM THE WALKING DEAD ON AN EVENING STROLL.