Stephanie Boluk and Wylie Lenz, eds., ‘Generation Zombie: Essays on the Living Dead in Modern Culture’, Reviewed by Xavier Aldana Reyes

Posted by Xavier Aldana Reyes on December 11, 2012 in Reviews tagged with , ,

Stephanie Boluk and Wylie Lenz, eds., Generation Zombie: Essays on the Living Dead in Modern Culture (Jefferson, North Carolina and London: Thomas McFarland, 2011)

Thomas McFarland is quickly becoming the publisher of choice for scholars working in Zombie Studies. Recent volumes have included Peter Dendle’s foundational The Zombie Movie Encyclopaedia (2001, repr. 2011), Kyle William Bishop’s American Zombie Gothic: The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popular Culture (2010), Kevin J. Wetmore Jr.’s Back from the Dead: Remakes of the Romero Zombie Films as Markers of Their Times (2011) and the edited collection Race, Oppression and the Zombie: Essays on Cross-Cultural Appropriations of the Caribbean Tradition (2011). Following their trail, Generation Zombie seeks to research the contemporary ramifications of the zombie myth, from its evolution in film to its effect on our understanding of certain on-line communities. The sixteen essays in this collection purport to examine the zombie’s diverse manifestations in popular culture whilst also allowing for a nostalgic look at the Haitian past of the creature that reassesses its role and importance to late modernity. As Boluk and Lenz explain in their succinct and poignant introduction, the ‘mainstreaming’ of zombies in the shape of video games such as the Resident Evil series (1996-present) or in Hollywood blockbusters such as Zombieland (Ruben Fleischer, 2009), as well as the ‘bleeding of zombies into the everyday’ (p. 2) as demonstrated in the existence of American traffic signs announcing zombie invasions, would seem to signal that the living undead are rife for a thorough critical revision. The crystallisation of the viral or infected zombie in films like 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002) or I Am Legend (Francis Lawrence, 2007), our fascination with zombie artwork or the popularity of zombie walks point towards a new set of cultural functions for the undead which need to be put into perspective and articulated critically.

If the volume lacks the structural coherence of other collections, the various articles that constitute Generation Zombie shed light on what is rapidly turning into a vast field of studies. There are essays here that attempt to redress current misconceptions about zombies, like Kim Paffenroth’s ‘Zombies as Internal Fear or Threat’, which suggests that the all-too-easy zombie as terrorist metaphor might pre-empt us from seeing how this figure also manages to contain fears about ourselves in ‘all our hungry, grasping, mindless simplicity’ (p. 24). Similarly, Sean Moreland’s contribution reads the evolution of the zombie against the grain to conclude that a species of Darwinism that ‘de-stabilize[s] the rhetorical function of the zombie as an argument against materialism, evolution, capitalism, or any other fixed ideological reference point’ (p.86) is being championed by Romero’s most recent filmic instalments. Other essays offer much more focused case studies. Amongst these are Gyllian Phillips’s nuanced analysis of the creole in Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932), Randy Laist’s thoughts on moving pictures and Diary of the Dead (George A. Romero, 2007), Christopher Zealand’s exploration of the intersections between Romero’s Dead trilogy (1968-1985) and the real life survivalist organisation Zombie Squad, Aalya Ahmad comparison of Max Brooks’s novel World War Z (2006) with Tony Burgess’s Pontypool Changes Everything (1998), Chris Vials’ consideration of William Seabrook’s travel book The Magic Island (1942) and some key radio plays of the 1930s and 1940s, Terry Harpold’s theoretical recasting of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951), or Karen Randell’s discussion of the ways in which Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968) and Deathdream (Bob Clark, 1972) negotiate the Vietnam war. Some essays even attempt to engage the zombie with the field of biopolitics through the work of Agamben and Foucault (as does Tyson E. Lewis’s contribution), with the key concepts of suggestion and contagion as developed in crowd psychology (as does Phillip Mahoney’s article), or with the cyberpunk subgenre (as does Andrea Austin’s ‘Cyberpunk and the Living Dead’).

Invariably, the most paradigm-shifting articles in the collection are the ones which attempt to scrutinise the momentousness of the zombie in the context of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. For example, Sarah Juliet Lauro, who had already penned the thought-provoking ‘Zombie Manifesto’ (2008) together with Karen Embry, traces the evolution of the eco-zombie in less well-known texts such as Joe McKinney’s novel Dead City (2006) and cult films from the 1970s, namely The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (1975) or Les Raisins de la Mort (1978), to inscribe her/him as a result of ‘man’s tampering’ and therefore as part of the ‘natural order’ (p. 63). In a similar vein, Nicole LaRose reads the ZnZs (the zombies that are not zombies) in recent films such as 28 Days Later as positive metaphors of postwar Britain which ‘offer a future that revises the way we view our past by envisioning collective relationships unhindered by terror or horror’ (p. 178). But the zombie has also escaped the purely fictional world to permeate the digital, and the contributions from Shaka McGlotten and Brendan Riley do much to rethink the type of philosophical implications of such a move. The former focuses on queer online sociality and the challenge it poses to rigid notions of zombiehood, and the latter sees the rise of fast and infectious zombie as a reflection on the effect new communication technologies have had in identity formation and interpersonal relations. Accordingly, the collection also features two path-opening articles on zombie gaming. On the one hand, Brian Greenspan focuses on the liberating uses of Isolation U., a digital zombie video game set on a university campus. In stark contrast to shoot ‘em ups such as the House of the Dead (1997), these new video games allow ‘gamers to experience zombification not as the apocalyptic ascendancy of the non-human, but as exemplary of the political process that governs the formation of a people in a networked area’ (p. 207). On the other hand, Scott Reed expounds on ‘the suspension of agency’ (p. 227) instituted by multiplayer games like Left 4 Dead (2008), which, for him, frustrates and explodes the stolid ontological model of the traditional zombie.

Generation Zombie is a vibrant book that pushes the boundaries of Zombie Studies. The clearer sense of direction of collections like Shawn McIntosh and Marc Leverette’s Zombie Culture: Autopsies of the Living Dead (2008) or Christopher M. Moreman and Cory James Rushton’s Zombies Are Us: Essays on the Humanity of the Walking Dead (2011) is missing, but this volume provides a number of important and timely critical interventions that promise to influence the thinking of a new generation of zombie scholars. I have mentioned that McFarland seems keen to mine the resurgence of the zombie in popular culture. With Boluk and Lenz’s collection, Peter Dendle’s second volume of The Zombie Movie Encyclopaedia (out this year) and the forthcoming Better Angels: The Walking Dead’s Allegories of the Social and the Posthuman (2013), it will ensure its stay at the forefront of this flourishing and exciting area of studies.

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