American Zombie Gothic: The Rise And Fall (And Rise) Of The Walking Dead In Popular Culture by Kyle William Bishop (book review)
Kyle William Bishop is an Associate Professor of English at Southern Utah University in the USA. ‘American Zombie Gothic’ is a book-length presentation of his academic work on the place of the zombie in horror films. Given the subject matter, this book has the potential to be of interest to a wide range of genre fans, well beyond the audience of film studies academics for whom it was originally intended. Is it a hit or a miss?
There are five main chapters, bookended by a substantial introduction and a set of conclusions. The introduction sets out Bishop’s two-fold thesis for the book. He asserts that zombies are a peculiarly American fictional construct, originating in the voodoo religion as practiced in the Caribbean country of Haiti. He also suggests that zombie films are an acute indicator of the level of social anxiety in the USA, with the periods when zombie films have been most popular coinciding with times when Americans have been particularly fearful due to war, civil unrest or, most recently, terrorism.
Chapter One explores the origins of the zombie in Caribbean folklore. Bishop discusses the history of Haiti as a country, the place of the voodoo religion in Haitian society and the folkloric origins of the zombie as a soul-less, mindless, shambling person who has allegedly been resurrected from the dead by a voodoo priest. This zombie mythology was supposedly used by those in authority in Haiti to promote fear and obedience amongst the poor working class, lest they should be the next one to be turned into a dull-witted monster. The chapter concludes by explaining how these folk tales were introduced to the continental USA during the American occupation of Haiti between 1915 and 1934, through ethnographic studies and travelogues.
Chapter Two summarises the early history of American zombie cinema, focusing on two representative films in particular, Victor Halperin’s 1932 movie ‘White Zombie’ and the 1943 film ‘I Walked With A Zombie’ by Jacques Tourneur. Bishop discusses how the earlier movie, ‘White Zombie’ exploited deep-seated racial and sexual prejudices in its audience by showing a native Haitian voodoo sorcerer called Legendre (actor Bela Lugosi) turning the white female protagonist, Madeleine Short Parker (actress Madge Bellamy), into the ‘white zombie’ of the title. On the other hand, Tourneur’s ‘I Walked With A Zombie’, whose basic storyline is loosely based on ‘Jane Eyre’, presents a more enlightened view of Haitian society. Although Jessica Holland (actress Christine Gordon), the zombie of the title, is once again a beautiful white woman, this film presents a more accurate and less sensationalised version of the voodoo religion and its Haitian followers. In both cases, however, the person to worry about is not the powerless zombie themselves, but the voodoo sorcerer who made them so. Bishop’s conclusion is that Hollywood’s early zombie films were largely an experiment in tapping into the fears of post-imperial whites about the risks of previously enslaved races rising up against their former oppressors.
Chapter Three forms the cornerstone of the book, presenting a close analysis of George A. Romero’s genre-changing 1968 film, ‘Night Of The Living Dead’. This created the now-standard storyline of the world being invaded by cannibalistic and infectious zombies who seek human flesh. From Romero onwards, new zombies are no longer created by a voodoo priest, but by the bite of an existing zombie. Bishop suggests that the film’s primary literary inspiration was Richard Matheson’s 1954 post-apocalyptic vampire novella, ‘I Am Legend’, and proposes that what is so scary in both cases is that the monsters are not easy to identify or avoid because they look exactly like us. To reinforce this point, ‘Night Of The Living Dead’ is set in small-town America and features a cast of unexceptional men and women, struggling to understand what is going on around them. This apocalypse could happen to any of us and there is no happy ending. In the last scene, the movie’s hero, Ben, having survived the zombie onslaught is shot and killed by a trigger-happy deputy who simply presumes that anything still moving must be undead. The fact that Ben is played by black actor Duane Jones, one of a very few non-white characters in the film, makes his violent death doubly poignant when put into the historical context of America in 1968, the year of Martin Luther King’s assassination. Bishop concludes that ‘Night Of The Living Dead’ transformed the narrative of the zombie movie from one revolving around post-imperialist worries to one that reflected the social anxieties of an American people that was far from comfortable with itself.
Chapter Four complements Chapter Three, presenting an analysis of Romero’s 1978 follow-up to ‘Night Of The Living Dead’. ‘Dawn Of The Dead’ is widely seen as a critique of the rampantly consumerist culture of 1970s America. At the start of the film, the protagonists are trying to escape the zombie horde. They stop at an abandoned shopping mall for supplies but quickly decide that it is as good a place as any to use as their base of operations. Having secured all the entrances, the group are quickly seduced by the surfeit of consumer goods around them and take up a hedonistic lifestyle that leaves them almost as devoid of meaningful purpose as the zombies from which they are hiding. Bishop proposes that this is the central message of the movie, that we are all mindless zombies when it comes to our need to buy, own and consume ‘stuff’.
Chapter Five discusses the gradual decline of the zombie movie from a space for meaningful social commentary into low-budget outings containing ever more gratuitous amounts of sex, gore and, finally, comedy. Following a long period when the genre was kept alive only in video games and graphic novels, Bishop suggests that zombie films became both relevant and popular again at the start of the 21st century in the aftermath of 9/11. He proposes that this reinvention has taken place through a gradual process of humanising the zombies, turning them from mindless shambling monsters into characters with some understanding of what has happened to them and with whom the viewer can start to sympathise. He illustrates this using George A. Romero’s fourth zombie film, the 2005 movie ‘Land Of The Dead’, where the zombies are able to remember, learn, communicate and organise. They are still very different from ordinary humans, but it no longer seems reasonable to murder them without just cause. Bishop suggests that this is Romero’s response to the Bush administration’s post-9/11 ‘War On Terror’.
In the concluding section, Bishop brings us up to date, surveying recent zombie movies up to the book’s publication date of 2010. He suggests that if the genre is not to get stale, it will need to continue to reinvent itself. He suggests that the most promising current avenues for exploration are the creation of sympathetic zombie protagonists, such as appear in ‘Land Of The Dead’, the further development of zombie comedies like Edgar Wright’s 2004 British hit, ‘Shaun Of The Dead’, and the use of serialisation, as per Robert Kirkman’s graphic novel and TV series, ‘The Walking Dead’, to provide a larger canvas on which to present and discuss the contemporary issues which zombie fiction is so well-placed to comment. Bishop is optimistic that if film-makers continue to
innovate in these ways, then the zombie movie has a long and healthy future ahead of it.
This is an interesting and thought-provoking book, bringing a degree of academic rigour to a poorly-served area of film studies. If you want to know more about the history of the zombie as a sub-genre of horror films you’ll find a lot of useful material to consider here.
At the same time, there were some areas where I was not totally convinced by Bishop’s analysis. In particular, I’m not really sure that either of the main assertions he put forward in the introduction to the book is borne out by the evidence presented later on. While it is certainly true that early Hollywood zombie films such as ‘White Zombie’ can trace their origins to Haiti and its voodoo religion, Bishop himself points out that Romero’s ‘Night Of The Living Dead’ reinvented the genre in 1968. That film is set in the USA and features white zombies, a black hero and no mention of voodoo or Haiti at all. So Romero seems to have broken the link to Haitian folklore that Bishop saw as a vital one in his introduction.
As to the assertion that zombie films are a peculiarly American phenomenon, this seems even less clear. Amongst the zombie films that Bishop repeatedly name-checks in this book are two highly successful movies, ’28 Days Later’ (2002) and ‘Shaun Of The Dead’ (2004), both of which were set in Britain and written and made by Brits. He also refers extensively in Chapter Five to the wave of low-budget Italian zombie films that tried to cash in on the box office success of Romero’s ‘Dawn Of The Dead’, including such infamous films as Lucio Fulci’s ‘Zombi 2’. So the idea that zombie films are a purely American art form seems unproved at best.
Equally, I’m not sure I entirely accept Bishop’s assertion that the popularity of zombie films is tied to levels of social anxiety in America, with the terrorist attacks of 9/11 leading to the current popularity of this sub-genre of horror movies. While I would certainly agree that a fearful society may find escapist horror films a good way to ‘lance the boil’ of their worries, Bishop’s repeated reference to 9/11 betrays the overwhelmingly American slant of this study. Many countries suffered from terrorist attacks prior to 9/11, with the IRA’s campaign against the British presence in Northern Ireland between the 1970s and 1990s being just one example. It’s not clear that zombie movies became any more popular in the UK during this period than they were before or afterwards. In fact, having studied a graph that Bishop prints on page 14 of the book, showing the frequency of global zombie film production by year, I would contest that his conclusion that ‘the frequency of these movies has noticeably increased during periods of social and political unrest’ could just as easily be replaced by the assertion that zombie movies are a bellwether of economic, not social or political, trouble, since the peaks in his graph map very well onto the dates when the last few world recessions started (1973, 1980, 1990 and 2008).
Notwithstanding these reservations, if you’re a fan of zombie films and want to read a detailed study of their origin, history and place in American culture, you could do a lot worse than read this book. I didn’t agree with everything in it but I learned a lot and enjoyed myself at the same time. What more can you possibly ask of an academic tome?
(pub: McFarland, 248 page paperback. Price: $25.00, £31.50 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-7864-4806-7)