Literature of Horror, Fantasy & Sci-Fi

Course Blog for LMST345 Ringling College of Art


Coffee for Zombies
This week we are discussing the short novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson.  The sub-genre for this story might be considered either zombie or vampire, it lies somewhat in between the two. It is one of the origin stories for the zombie genre and a compelling read. The alternate text is Monster Island which is an internet novel. There is a link to this text which is available on the internet as a blogged novel, on the course syllabus. If you are seeking a literary version of the undead I recommend Colson Whitehead"s novel of a zombie apocalypse, Zone One.

Zombies, unlike vampires, werewolves, and a bevy of other monster types, really have few literary antecedants. There are some popular journalistic, folkloric and anthropologic accounts of zombies, usually of the type associated with the practice of "voodoo" in the Carribean.  These type of zombie tales are some of the earliest to make their way into the cinema, such as the 1932 film, White Zombie. In this conceptualization of the Zombie, the zombie is either a reanimated corpse or a living human being brought under the power of a powerful Voudun shaman or sorceror, usually by the use of psychoactive chemicals or secret magic. 

By the late 1960s the zombie in its contemporary shape makes its appearance in George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968). Various incarnations since envision the willless zombie as not under the control of an individual, but rather part of a mass event where the dead are reanimated and seek to feast on the living.

How do the rules for zombies expressed in the work you read for this week embody the rules for zombies generally?  Just what is the metaphor being presented by the figure of the zombie? Moreover, what can we make of the zombie as it has become a fixture in contemporary popular culture; why have zombies become so popular?


13 comments:

Zombies are such a phenomenon to me, in particular, because they are truly an unknown "monster". Unlike other creatures of the night zombies are sometimes undetermined when considering their "birth". We know that werwolves come to life during a full moon, but the distinction of when a human becomes a zombie is unknown... or at least to me. In Pride and Prejudice and Zombies they author speaks of the stricken but not really how they become so. That piece to the story became so frustrating to me! Another unknown mystery to zombies is how they can be killed... Elizabeth beheads and sets fire to many of "sick" but from previous movies and what I know to be fact it seems that they don't die. That's why they are considered the undead. When Jane becomes ill in the start it made me wonder if she caught the horrid disease but it turned out to be just a cold. If catching a cold and becoming a zombie are that similar then they could be the worst of creatures.

Zombies are so funny... they walk so slow if you can call it walking... they kind of just stumble around clumsily looking for brains. Why do the eat brains? In a lot of movies they will eat flesh and stuff too but it seems like the cliche zombie mostly wants to eat brains. More than the 'voodoo' zombie or the 'unexplained' zombie I like the zombies that are brought on by some sort of disease or plague like in Brain Dead. Maybe I just like the movie Brain Dead a lot though... I can't think of a lot of other movies that have this except for the Resident Evil movies involved some weird genetic stuff to explain the zombies. There is also this movie called The Signal which I wouldn't call a zombie movie technically but basically people go crazy because of an electronic signal and everyone starts killing eachother but part of the movie is that the signal brings people back to life and I thought that was pretty cool even though when they came back to life they were not really zombies they were just alive again and still crazy because of the signal.

To me, zombies seem to be a critique of modern society and culture. You mentioned in class that horror movies are meant to shake us from the dull routine of our safe little lives. Zombies seem to embody this in particular. They represent what our modern lives have become. Society at large is filled with mindless consumerism. Many of us are slaves to our impulses and don't give much thought to our actions. We go through our daily routine without much thought. Anyone who's ever had a work commute can relate to the "driving trance". You leave work, and then suddenly you're 3/4 of the way home without having consciously realized it. Kinda makes you feel like a zombie.

In P&P&Z, I think this critique definitely applies. The high society portrayed in the original seems rather complacent. Go to a ball, go home, go to another ball, look for a husband/wife. Then it's time for another dinner/ball! Adding the zombies into this setting shakes the upper class from their routine (albeit temporarily. Nothing seems to deter them from a good ball).

I believe zombies have become so popular because it is a way for us to imagine escaping from the daily grind. Generally speaking, living in a modern, industrialized society prevents us from having to fight for our lives on a daily basis. Zombies are a truly modern monster. We can imagine being in the middle of an outbreak and being scared (and thrilled) at the thought of struggling for survival.

I think that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies follows the rules in a way. Not completely however. When you watch a film about zombies, the entire plot is focused around why there are zombies, where they came from and who it was that made them come into being. P&P&Z focuses simply on the zombies as an unfortunate circumstance that just happens. Like sometimes you are on the way to a suitor's home and zombies take down your carriage or your letter carrier gets dragged off the road and is never seen again. It doesn't have the full, horrific impact than something like Resident Evil or I Am Legend or even Quarantine (which isn't zombies but close enough).

The metaphor I believe being represented is truly of a society base. They are the lowest of monsters and undead types. I mean, a single vampire is definitely a problem or a werewolf even but unless you have a mob of zombies, one good gun or machete will fix your problems right up. It's the lower class of monster in horror. Zombies are easy sacrifices and expendable in play rather than a more powerful monster. It's like how a noble feels about their peasants or serfs... there are more of them so if you lose a few, it's no big deal.

And that is part of why I believe they are so popular. Zombies are nothing more than trash monsters. If you are playing a game, either you love coming to a mob of zombies because you can wipe them out with a few spells or moves or you just don't feel like being inconvenienced. They are fun and easy to kill in games and, well, as horrifying as they can be, most movies about them have a lot of humor integrated. You can make fun of the slow, clumsy and ignorant...

But only if they are undead.

Zombies have grown to become probably my favorite icon of horror and notably popular in our culture today. To me, zombies are an amazing literary antagonist because they force so much out of society.
In about every film or story I read it is always 'The living undead bringing about the fall of structured modern society and forcing individuals to call upon their forgotten survival instincts.' I believe this theme in a story is always interesting to people because it is interesting to see what they'd do or choose. You have the character that realize "I must look out for myself" and proceeds to deceive, steal and watch his own back. On the other hand of it, you may have the character that clings to others for support or tries to survive with the comfort of allies. In a world of zombies, none of these archeotypes are generally wrong or right which is what I love. Many times we even come find that zombies aren't the real enemy but more of a natural disaster or hurricane-like conflict and the real "evil" villain is another survivor or the government that is willfully choosing to take your life.
Zombie horror stories, which may seem mindless and silly, really pushes a lot of thought in us. "What would we do if our friend became a zombie?" "Should I trust people who would be better off without having to share food/water with me?""Should we try to save the people amongst the infected or kill them off in an effort to control this plague?"
Zombie stories have always pushed these thoughts and they generally are all right, despite some feeling wrong. The undead chooses society as its enemy, unlike Vampires/werewolf vs lone adventurer or horny teens, it's always 'former friends, families and humans like us turning into merciless fiends that break down our comfortable world and forces us to adapt. I suppose I just love it because amongst the fun scenes and widespread doom there are so much psychological conflicts and ideas that becomes present in the subtext compared to many of the other horror icons that seem to carry just one or a few messages to convey.

Zombies are fluid and transformable.

I always thought of zombies to be created from some kind of nuclear explosion, that formed a chemical reaction and raised the dead. They never really seemed to intimidating, especially the zombies that were talked about when I was little. Usually they were all slow, so I figured it would be really easy to escape them. They probably are popular because they have been in a lot of nifty movies, they just make an interesting story. Like Micheal Jackson's thriller, Resident Evil, 28 Days, there are a lot of zombie related stories out there. Plus, who doesn't dream of the day zombies take over ,have to live on top of a superstore and get to shoot a crap load of zombies everyday.
P&P&Z is a great example of why zombies are so popular,there is no way I would be able to get through the entire Pride and Prejudice book, but when random zombie attacks were added, it just made it so much more interesting and funny.

ight. Let's see if I can gather my thoughts here. Disjointed commentary is a go!

In Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the titular characters in the book are generally members of the working lower class; they are usually unnamed, and hardly worth identifying or describing unless the author is trying to clarify precisely which character is attacking what zombie in a melee combat; the main characters find it hardly worth mentioning who the nondescript zombies once were. The irony is that the way the main characters treat the zombies is probably no different form how they treated them when they were alive (aside from the kicking, cutting, and killing bit). Zombies aside (Whoa, what? That's the whole point!), the way the co-author changed the text makes it seem like a perfect candidate for...well, zombification, particularly with the strong-willed heroine - you can't have a romp through a cinematic or literary field with zombies without the strong heroine (look at films like the Resident Evil series or 28 Days Later). You also have the matter of being able to isolate the characters - technology like cars, telephones, and television is not at their disposal, so the co-author has another perfect situation to insert zombies into the plot.

Unfortunately I've never seen the original film that sparked the sudden rise of zombies in pop culture; but in the mean time I've seen enough films and played enough video games to take a decent stab at why zombies are so popular. Zombies provide cannon fodder for the media: in both film and video games, they're the enemy to be destroyed, usually en masse. While they were once human, and can provide some connection for the characters through this (for instance, presenting a zombified loved one to create a dilemma for one or more of the characters), they are still distanced from the audience and other characters through their lost humanity. While the same can be said about other creatures in the media, like vampires or shape-shifters, zombies are further distanced by how they are physically represented: rotting, lost limbs and organs hanging from their guts, ragged flesh hanging from old bones, etc. Unless you find those aspects appealing, people are generally repulsed by such an appearance - and in doing so, we're distanced from them as an audience, while the characters are distanced from them as participants.

The physical appearance of the zombies can also serve comedy's purpose: lob off a leg, watch them hobble about before falling down, then smash their head in (preferably with the zombie's own detached limb - more fun that way). Doing so not only provides a dark-humored laugh, also allows for the modern-day audience to vent their frustrations, particularly in interactive media. Zombified boss bugging you? He's a zombie, so it's no problem if you release him from his...un-life[?] by throwing him out the window. Hate dealing with the pedestrian traffic while you're driving down-town? They're zombies, so it's alright if you decide to go "Grand Theft Auto" on them and run 'em over.

Zombies are a malleable entity in the media: their origins can change from being revived via Voo-Doo ritual to viral infection; the way other zombies are created change from being bitten by another zombie to merely getting a drop of their blood or saliva in your system; their motivations can fluctuate, from the need to consume live human organs (brains in particular) to spreading the virus to create more zombies, or simply to run amuck and kill people; and the different ways that you can kill a zombie are so numerous that just killing hordes of 'em can provide hours of entertainment and/or comedy. If you don't like 'em, just remember the most traditional way to kill a zombie: by shooting them in the head.

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Also: zombie ants!

The zombie is the embodiment of a lot of mankind's basic fears. We have learned to fear plagues, and in modern times this has been increased due to paranoia from biological warfare and foreign diseases spreading so easily. We have the fear of not being in control of ourselves, we don't want to become mindless clones. In addition, our society hides death from our eyes. We never are exposed to it. We like to think of our dead with dignity, as they way they were when they were alive. So corpses coming back to life decayed and rotten are disrespectful to those who have died.

Rob Boehm here...

Zombies have become so prevalent in popular culture because of the appeal to our generation's bloodlust and desire for gore. In a way that horror is a cult genre, zombies have essentially become a genre of its own. In more recent years, zombies have been more comic relief and simply a gateway to over the top violence as opposed to strictly horror. Video games have played a huge role in the popularity of zombies, perhaps more than any other medium. It's really all about satisfying our fix for violence and gore, without feeling morally wrong about killing.

I never really got into the zombie craze. I think it's because you see hundreds of movies being made and overplaying the use of them. Though I guess people believe just love the idea that it's you against the whole world... seeing if you have a chance to overcome society and be who you are and no one else telling you how to be you. Oh and plus you can anything without remorse.

I personally have a very small scope of zombie knowledge and experience. Before this novel I have only watched Shawn of the Dead and I Am Legend. The first being a comedy parody and the latter actually being closer to vampires. They're really not undead at all so it's really only in appearance, their mob scavenging tactics, and non verbal communication that you could confuse them. So I really am inexperienced in the extreme in this sub-genre of horror.

But I can speculate on the popularity. Out of all the monster characters I can think of they are all usually solitary figures who can only do a limited amount of damage to a limited amount of people. Only the werewolf and vampire have the possibility of transforming a human into their own. But the zombie quickly becomes a mass outbreak of destruction upon family, friend, and loved one. You may find yourself fighting for your life against your next door neighbor or have to put down your own mother i she becomes infected. It brings the problem much closer to home. It is alien in its infection just like all other monsters but strangely familiar in the most twisted of ways. The epidemic can spread over countries and continents and leaves the option of running away only limited. It brings the danger close to home, within the family, and trials relationships to the limit. It usually comments on the human character under trials and banding together in a small group. Other monsters lead to more individualist examination.

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