Analyzing humanized zombies in popular culture across nearly a century, this innovative book discloses how the “extra-ordinary” undead mediate our fears of losing agency in the world of the living.
The zombie apocalypse hasn’t happened—yet—but zombies are all over popular culture. From movies and TV shows to video games and zombie walks, the undead stalk through our collective fantasies. What is it about zombies that exerts such a powerful fascination? In Not Your Average Zombie, Chera Kee offers an innovative answer by looking at zombies that don’t conform to the stereotypes of mindless slaves or flesh-eating cannibals. Zombies who think, who speak, and who feel love can be sympathetic and even politically powerful, she asserts.
Kee analyzes zombies in popular culture from 1930s depictions of zombies in voodoo rituals to contemporary film and television, comic books, video games, and fan practices such as zombie walks. She discusses how the zombie has embodied our fears of losing the self through slavery and cannibalism and shows how “extra-ordinary” zombies defy that loss of free will by refusing to be dehumanized. By challenging their masters, falling in love, and leading rebellions, “extra-ordinary” zombies become figures of liberation and resistance. Kee also thoroughly investigates how representations of racial and gendered identities in zombie texts offer opportunities for living people to gain agency over their lives. Not Your Average Zombie thus deepens and broadens our understanding of how media producers and consumers take up and use these undead figures to make political interventions in the world of the living.
- Introduction. From the Zombi to the Zombie: The Extra-Ordinary Undead
- Part I. Zombie Identities
- Chapter 1. From Cannibals to Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields: Haiti, Vodou, and Early Zombie Films
- Chapter 2. Racialized and Raceless: Race after Death and Zombie Revolution
- Chapter 3. "You Can't Hurt Me, You Can't Destroy Me, You Can't Control Me": White Women in Zombie Films
- Chapter 4. A Proud and Powerful Line: Women of Color and Voodoo
- Part II. Playing the Zombie
- Chapter 5. "Be Safe, Have Fun, Eat Brains": Playing the Zombie in Video Games
- Chapter 6. I Walked with a Zombie: Performing the Living Dead
- Conclusion. "I Think I'm Dead."
Introduction | From the Zombi to the Zombie
The Extra-Ordinary Undead
About half the time when I tell someone I study zombies, they wince or instinctively move back—as if I might bite them—and tell me, “No, I couldn’t do it. Too scary.” I always chuckle at this. Zombies don’t scare me. It could be that after years of watching zombie movies, I have become desensitized, but I think it has something to do with the first zombies I ever saw. It was the early 1980s, and the video for “Thriller” (Landis, 1983) played twice an hour every hour on MTV. Michael Jackson and his zombies danced across the screen, and they were mesmerizing. I didn’t care that the zombies were decomposing, that their clothes were tattered and torn. It never occurred to me that these creatures were meant to be frightening cannibals. To me, they were just about the coolest things around.
My friends and I were obsessed with “Thriller”; we knew the song by heart, and soon we knew every move of the dance. At sleepovers, we would push the furniture out of the way so that we could reenact the video over and over again. We didn’t care about the love story that frames the video—we would fast-forward to the good stuff: the dancing. We wanted to be those dancing zombies. I think about that often, how cool the dancing undead of “Thriller” were, how my first zombies were anything other than what you would expect a zombie to be. Perhaps my childhood identifi cation of zombies as cool wouldn’t have made sense to those more familiar with zombie media, yet in many ways, it was through this portrayal of zombies as dancing creatures that “Thriller” exposed me to some of the deeper contradictions of the zombie.
Zombies entered the US imaginary as slaves bowing to the will of a zombie master. By the 1970s, zombies in popular culture had become the cannibalistic undead, unthinking adversaries out to eat the living. In either case, the zombie has no free will. Either the zombie is a slave, powerless to resist the control of its master, or it is a cannibal whose will has been subsumed by an animalistic urge to eat. Those are our cultural expectations: zombies as nightmares of loss of control over the self—something most of us wouldn’t want to be. The zombie thus becomes a potent symbol for disenfranchisement and loss of agency. But this symbolism works only if we start from the assumption that zombies, in whatever form, are living beings made over as dead: people who have somehow lost their status as fully human, who have become “things.” Thought of in this way, zombies should not possess individuality; they should not be able to act freely; they shouldn’t be able to speak; and they certainly shouldn’t be able to dance.
Imagining zombies as dehumanized things is one reason why zombies have become convenient metaphors for any number of contemporary anxieties. They are little more than empty shells, waiting for someone to project fears onto them. Zombie-making cultures, for example, can become threats to American travelers abroad, and cannibal zombies can become shorthand for terrorists or disease. As a former person who has somehow lost their claim to enjoy the full rights of a human being, a zombie is not only something one might fear becoming but also something one might fear will attack. Seemingly pitiless and remorseless, zombies simply act, either on orders from their masters or in response to the drive to eat. The zombie, then, is more a mechanical device than anything else. Its loss of agency corresponds to its loss of the ability to feel (as a human) and its loss of value (as a human).
As voiceless beings without agency, threatening us with attack or conversion, zombies become fascinating figures for considering power relations, master-slave relationships, and unthinking urges to violence, among other things. Many scholars have, in fact, approached zombies in this way, their expectations of zombies paralleling general cultural expectations of zombiness. Frankly, most scholarly work on zombies is less interested in zombies than in the living humans interacting with them, but even in those works more solidly focused on zombies themselves, scholars most often see the zombie as a symbol of something else. Their status as things becomes important because it is much easier to make theoretical arguments about beings seen as devoid of humanity and free will—beings that are practically blank slates—than it is about individual beings who clearly think, act, and love.
American media is full of ordinary zombies that meet our expectations of a mute and impotent victim or an unthinking cannibal, but I have discovered that these aren’t the only zombies running around. Time and again, I found that the zombies imagined in film, television, video games, and literature sometimes wandered into the realm of the humanized individual. Zombies in American media have been the boy next door, the family pet, and the seductive stripper. They have foiled Nazi doctors, kidnappers, and mobsters, and they have helped and even taken care of the living. These zombies may have started in places of total powerlessness, but they often didn’t remain there. What’s more, people are choosing to inhabit the zombie body as self in zombie video games and in events like zombie walks, which would suggest that there is something attractive to trying on the zombie identity.
The somewhat seductive pull of the zombie may have something to do with the fact that US pop culture is full of what I call extra- ordinary zombies, and I mean extra-ordinary in the sense that these zombies go beyond expectations of ordinary zombiness. These zombies may begin in a traditional state of powerlessness, but they gain some sort of agency over their existence and defy our expectations of zombie nature. Extra-ordinary zombies aren’t something new, though. Even in the earliest tales of the zombi in Haiti, there are zombis who overcome their slavery and escape their masters. It should be no surprise, then, that in American media, zombies who somehow refuse to conform to the slave or cannibal characterization are plentiful. While many expected, ordinary zombies wander around American pop culture, there are also zombies who decline to take orders, zombies who fall in love, even zombies who dance.
The Zombi, Vodou, and Haiti
Zombies are by no means the only undead monsters populating American media, but they are a bit different from their undead brethren. The zombie is one of the few popular Hollywood monsters originating from outside a European literary or folkloric tradition; rather, it arises out of stories connected to Haitian Vodou, and early zombie fiction in the United States owes much to fears of and fascination with Haiti as an independent black republic. While the zombie entered the popular consciousness as a Haitian figure, Kyle William Bishop reminds us the zombie is also a “fundamentally American creation.”
Still, it is imperative to keep in mind that even though the zombie is now thoroughly Americanized, its roots lie in Haiti and Vodou.
As we will see in chapter 1, even before the appearance of the zombie, Haiti and Vodou had long captured American and European imaginations. The Haitian Revolution (1791–1804) and the subsequent creation of the Western Hemisphere’s first black republic generated an abundance of curiosity about Haitians and their beliefs. The American occupation of Haiti (1915–1934) rekindled interest in Haiti over a century later. Tales of Haiti, in either century, often centered on its supposedly strange beliefs and barbarism, and when the concept of the zombie entered into the American mainstream, it fit right into a world-view that saw Haiti as a mysterious place full of sorcerers and fiends.
No book on Haiti published before or during the occupation was as influential for the zombie phenomenon as William Seabrook’s The Magic Island (1929). Seabrook was an explorer who spent time in Haiti and returned to the United States with stories of Vodou—and zombies. The zombie, as Seabrook defined it, was “a soulless human corpse, still dead, but taken from the grave and endowed by sorcery with a mechanical semblance of life—it is a dead body which is made to walk and act and move as if it were alive.” There had been reports of the walking dead before The Magic Island, but Seabrook’s book popularized the zombie as never before.
It may be hard to imagine a world where everyone doesn’t know what a zombie is. Even though stories of zombies have circulated throughout the Western world since before Haiti became a nation— when it was still a part of the French colony of Saint-Domingue—outside academic circles, the idea of the zombie as a dead body returned to life did not really take hold until The Magic Island. Very quickly after the publication of Seabrook’s account, though, the notion of the zombie as the living dead had become so intertwined with how people thought of Haiti that one couldn’t mention the nation without commenting on zombies, even in nonfiction. In Zora Neale Hurston’s 1938 book Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica, she acknowledges: “No one can stay in Haiti long without hearing Zombies mentioned in one way or another.” Katherine Dunham, who traveled in Haiti in the late 1930s, also observed that the zombie was ever present: “Favorite stories beyond those already discussed were of people believed dead but buried alive, which led to the dead coming to life, which inevitably led to the word which never fails to interest tourists in Haiti, zombies.” Still, the creature that Seabrook imported—and even the one that Hurston and Dunham acknowledged in their work—was not the zombi of Haitian Vodou.
Seabrook’s account didn’t tell the full story. He told of bodies enslaved, but he made no mention of subjugated souls or spirits. Within Vodou belief, there are zombis of the body, which are what Seabrook described, and zombi astral, or zombis of the spirit. Even with these two designations, there are discrepancies and ambiguities. As the folklorists Hans-W. Ackermann and Jeanine Gauthier note, “Both the zombi of the body and the zombi of the soul include many sub-types classified either according to their origin or to the mode of zombification”; in addition, “folktales do not always make clear distinctions between the two main types of zombi.” Ackermann and Gauthier’s research suggests that expectations of finding zombis of the body—or, more to the point, zombis that correspond better to the popular American understanding of the zombie—may often color the presentation of the zombi as it exists in Haitian belief, even in academic circles.
Generally speaking, the two kinds of zombis in Vodou can be characterized as follows: the zombi of the body is a body believed to be dead that someone buries and later resurrects and forces to work, usually on a plantation. The zombi of the spirit is a little harder to define, but it is generally believed to be a soul that has been separated from its body. Sometimes this means that a soul has been magically enslaved; typically, a houngan (a male Vodou priest), a mambo (a female Vodou priest), or a bokor (sorcerer) has trapped the soul in a bottle so that the power of the soul will work on behalf of the living. Thus, whether a zombi is a zombi astral or a zombi of the body, someone else controls it. For this reason, Hurston is quick to point out that since many associate houngans and mambos with positive or neutral works, and bokors with malevolent practices, zombis could be seen as the sole province of bokors. Malevolent associations thus become attached to zombi making, and that is, indeed, how many scholars describe the practice. But the processes of zombi making may be a little less clear cut than that. Elizabeth McAlister, in her discussion of zombis of the spirit, notes that “capturing zonbi in order to perform mystical work can be an act of sorcery, but it is also a practice that can be morally benign.” There is thus a difference of opinion whether zombi making is inherently sinister.
Still, in the Haitian context, the concept of the zombi—especially the zombi of the body or those zombis of the spirit captured to work for others—and the concept of slavery are intertwined. Equating zombis with slavery, though, doesn’t always take into account the complexities of the situation: the lingering specter of slavery in a former colony that has faced numerous outside attempts to undermine its legitimacy as an independent nation means that slavery is not a simple, black-orwhite issue in Haiti, but rather provokes a complex set of responses from diverse groups of people. Tales of zombis in Haiti may focus on the loss of free will or some sort of punishment, but they can also speak to rebellion against servitude—as when the zombis wake up. The slavery implied through zombi making in the Vodou tradition is even more complicated, since it is, ostensibly, Haitians enslaving Haitians—and since there are zombis of the body and zombi astral, this may mean anything from real-world Haitians enslaving real-world Haitians to real-world Haitians symbolically enslaving a part of one’s spirit after death.
Because zombis become intertwined with the ways in which many people conceive of Vodou and Haiti, the tendency to associate zombis with slavery (and nothing else) ties these three concepts (Haiti, Vodou, zombi) together in a way that is indicative of an overall victimization. Haiti, Vodou, and zombis become forever powerless in the process. Joan Dayan, however, reads the relationship between zombis and slavery differently. In Haiti, History, and the Gods, she links the concept of zombis to the Haitian revolutionary Jean Zombi and observes that in such a linking, the concept might give former slaves power over their oppressors: “Names, gods, and heroes from an oppressive colonial past remained in order to infuse ordinary citizens and devotees with a stubborn sense of independence and survival. The undead zombi, recalled in the name of Jean Zombi, thus became a terrible composite power: slave turned rebel ancestor turned lwa, an incongruous, demonic spirit recognized through dreams, divination, or possession.” Dayan notes that the zombi does not always possess this revolutionary fervor and that the fear of being enslaved, especially during the American occupation, colored local understandings of the zombie. Thus, Dayan still sees slavery as underlying zombi tales, but acknowledges that this interpretation does not mean that the slaves were automatically at a disadvantage.
Therefore, there may be ways to see the zombi as both enslaved and yet still quite powerful. For instance, Rara is a type of Haitian festival music used in street processions—usually occurring during Easter week—and it often has a political flavor to it. McAlister describes how Rara bandleaders capture zombis to harness “the energies and talents of the community’s recently dead, and [launch] spiritual and military campaigns with those energies.” These zombis offer up protection and strength, so in this conception, a zombi of the spirit, while it may be working for others, is powerful and important to the living community.
Even zombi of the body can be powerful. Lawrence W. Levine, writing on African American folk belief, notes that slave magic implied, in part, that “the environment did not have to be accepted docilely; it could be manipulated and controlled to some extent.” Levine argues that knowledge of this magic proved that there was information outside the purview of white masters, confirming that they weren’t omniscient. If one applies Levine’s arguments to the concept of zombification in Haiti, especially as it may have existed during the colonial era or the US occupation, then knowledge of zombis and zombification granted (and continues to grant) Vodouists a certain amount of political power in the face of French, American, or other outside control. Hence, American occupiers and, later, American moviegoing audiences would naturally fear the zombi/e because deep knowledge of the creature—despite the travelogues and tales about it—still rested in Haitian hands. Thus, the zombi may be a slave, but that does not necessarily make it powerless or unable to act. That is why we should, in thinking about the Americanized zombie, keep in mind the complexities of the Vodou zombi’s slavery and see the strength that can arise out of those complexities.
The Rise of the Slave-Style Zombie
A push and pull between slavery and agency may be at the heart of how the zombi operates within Vodou belief, but as American media producers took Seabrook’s creature and made it their own in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the zombie wasn’t quite so nuanced. In many ways, it was merely a brand-new bogeyman for audiences to consume. One of the earliest appearances of a zombie in US pop culture was in Kenneth Webb’s 1932 stage play Zombie, which, according to a writer for Time magazine, borrowed liberally from Seabrook in its depiction of the walking dead. The first feature-length zombie film, White Zombie (Halperin, 1932), soon followed, and it too borrowed from Seabrook. These early fictionalizations, based at least in part on Seabrook’s supposedly true tale, helped inaugurate the zombie in American media, and the slave-style zombie rather quickly developed a consistent set of characteristics.
Slave-style zombies arise out of folklore and stories about Haitian Vodou, and their most direct antecedent is Seabrook’s The Magic Island. These zombies are slaves without a will of their own, but despite their roots in stories of Haitian zombis, they may or may not be dead bodies resurrected from the grave—at least as American media have imagined them. Often, they are people who only appear dead. There is always an identifiable cause for zombification in slave-style texts: a magic spell, a potion, a hypnotizing machine, or some other form of mind control. These zombies are under the command of a zombie master. Originally, this master had ties to voodoo, or black magic. As slave-style media moved further and further from the Haitian origins of the zombie, though, the master changed. He (or sometimes she) might be a mad scientist, an alien, or even a communist. What matters is that slave-style zombification is traceable back to a source. Because there is always a clear cause for zombification, someone usually figures out a “cure” for zombiism or vanquishes the zombie master, reversing the spell and thus freeing their zombified friends.
As several scholars have pointed out, because zombies did not come to US popular culture via an already-established literary tradition, nor did they have a long history in Western folklore, US audiences did not have firm expectations when it came to zombies. As Peter Haining noted in 1986 when discussing the lack of anthologies of zombie stories in the United States up to that time, “Part of the reason for this scarcity of tales about the Walking Undead is no doubt due to the fact that the subject has no great novels to its credit or even famous zombie characters.” Because audiences didn’t know what to expect from zombie narratives, zombies moved to a variety of spaces and situations, and zombie fiction therefore enjoyed a great deal of room for experimentation, which meant artists could mold and manipulate the zombie as they saw fit.
By the time of Revolt of the Zombies (Halperin/Yarbrough, 1936), cinematic zombies had already traveled out of Haiti. Yet the ties to foreign lands and people of color remained. Often, these early slave-style zombie tales focused on what happened when an unscrupulous zombie master used voodoo, mad science, or alien technologies to zombify Americans. Well before fears of brainwashing manifested in films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Siegel, 1956) and The Manchurian Candidate (Frankenheimer, 1962), zombie fi lms played out nightmare scenarios of young Americans forced to act against their wills (and against their nation’s best interests).
Zombies were fl exible creatures, and that made it easier for artists to change the unscrupulous zombie masters to fit the times. Zombie films responded to World War II with Nazi zombie masters working against the US military in King of the Zombies (Yarbrough, 1941) and Revenge of the Zombies (Sekely, 1943). Likewise, as the rest of the horror genre got swept up in the technological fears of the 1950s, foreign scientists produced zombies via mechanical devices working off brain waves in Creature with the Atom Brain (Cahn, 1955). When fears of alien (or communist) invasions took over horror, alien zombie masters created zombies in Invisible Invaders (Cahn, 1959).
As the 1940s and 1950s progressed, more and more of these zombie films were set in the United States. The earliest zombie texts imagined zombiism as something that foreign hands created in exotic spaces— since that was what was supposedly really happening in Haiti. As zombies entered the mid-twentieth century, however, zombiism managed to retain its exotic Otherness on American soil. Often, this meant the importation of “native” experts from foreign lands, or it meant that filmmakers removed explicit mentions of voodoo while still linking the potions and spells used in zombification with the foreign in some way. Thus, in Creature with the Atom Brain, the zombie masters are foreign criminals, and in Teenage Zombies (Warren, 1959), the zombie masters are communist spies.
Zombies tied explicitly to voodoo and black magic did not disappear, nor were all ties to Haiti necessarily severed. In 1965, for instance, the episode “The Very Important Zombie Affair” of the television series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (NBC) revolved around the corrupt leader of an unnamed Caribbean nation (meant to stand in for Haiti) who used voodoo and zombification to secure his power. Likewise, the 1964 film I Eat Your Skin (Tenney) takes place on a fi ctional Caribbean island full of natives performing voodoo ceremonies. For the most part, zombification—whether emanating from Caribbean religion, American science, or outer space—remained tied to the foreign or “alien,” since those who used it were criminals, Martians, or nonnative English speakers with thick accents who were outsiders in normative American society. Thus, the causes of zombification and the locations in which it happened changed, but the zombie itself remained a fairly stable character—it was someone without free will under the control of another.
In the late 1960s, zombies underwent a transformation that reshaped everything. This fit with changes that were remaking US horror more generally at the time. As censorship weakened, horror films became bloodier and more visceral, but the gore didn’t typically accompany far-fl ung foreign threats. Instead, horror became much more focused on the home. Films such as Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960), The Birds (Hitchcock, 1963), and Rosemary’s Baby (Polanski, 1968) ushered in this new kind of horror, and soon there was a new kind of zombie film as well.
George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), set in the Pennsylvania countryside, centers on an inexplicable phenomenon whereby the dead rise from their graves to attack and eat the living. The film follows the fates of a group of people who are stranded at a farmhouse and are trying to keep these decomposing, flesh-eating zombies out while social relations within the house break down. It sounds simple enough, but Romero’s low-budget film dramatically altered the zombie genre and introduced a new kind of zombie to the American public: the cannibal zombie. No longer were zombies necessarily slaves bowing to the will of a zombie master; they were the dead come back to life, with a taste for human flesh.
A cannibal zombie is a resurrected corpse, and unlike its slave-style cousin, it cannot be cured or rescued from its fate. This change may have much to do with the fact that Richard Matheson’s novella I Am Legend (1954)—the story of the sole survivor of a vampiric epidemic that has taken over the world—served as an inspiration for Romero. Not only do the apocalyptic themes of the novella mirror the end-of-the world scenario of Night of the Living Dead, but while Romero chose ghouls instead of vampires for his returning dead, the vampiric notion of an infection became a part of the film and, hence, the zombie genre as a whole. Zombiism was now a disease.
One of the biggest changes to zombie narratives was that Night of the Living Dead got rid of the zombie master. Instead of following a master’s instructions, the zombies were driven by hunger. Cannibal-style zombie films have thus redirected the typical focus of the genre. Rather than the rescue of loved ones from zombiism and the vanquishing of a villain, the narrative thrust of these stories comes from interpersonal relations among the living. The zombies are also more purely adversarial in cannibal-style films than in slave-style ones, but the true antagonists of these films are usually the living. The living survivors in cannibal-style zombie films often end up becoming monstrous as their petty squabbles and infighting lead to their ruin. Thus, in slave-style films, the zombie master typically stood for an evil that those representing good needed to vanquish; in cannibal-style films, it is often the living humans who pose the biggest threats to themselves.
Slave-style zombies didn’t completely disappear with the coming of cannibal zombies. The 1970s saw blaxploitation zombie films that retained the slave-style premise, including Sugar Hill (Maslansky, 1974) and The House on Skull Mountain (Honthaner, 1974). William Castle cast the legendary mime Marcel Marceau as a zombie master using dead bodies as reanimated marionettes in Shanks (1974), and zombies on television series such as Kolchack: The Night Stalker (ABC, 1974–1975) or in the TV movie The Dead Don’t Die (Harrington, 1975) stayed true to the zombie’s slave-style roots. As Christopher M. More-man and Cory James Rushton point out, Marvel Comics even tried “to cash in on the sudden popularity of zombies” after Night of the Living Dead, but rather than create a comic featuring cannibal zombies, they returned to the zombie’s voodoo roots in series such as Tales of the Zombie (Marvel, 1973–1975).
Still, over time, the cannibal zombie came to be the predominant kind of zombie in US media, and the 1970s, in particular, were a fertile time for experimenting with this new zombie premise. There were films such as Deathdream (Clark, 1974), which dealt with the repercussions of the Vietnam War by having a soldier return home as a zombie; films that mixed the slave-style premise with cannibal zombies (Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, Clark, 1972); and even films with Nazi cannibal zombies (Shock Waves, Wiederhorn, 1977). Plus, George
A. Romero came back to the genre in 1978 with Dawn of the Dead.
While filmmakers continued to make serious zombie films, such as Romero’s next film, Day of the Dead (1985), a gradually evolving comedy cycle started in the 1980s. At that point, the horror of earlier slave- and cannibal-style films gave way to pure visual excess in films that imagined zombie invasions as carnivalesque farces with lessthan-heroic protagonists. The gore in these films, such as Re- Animator (Gordon, 1985) and Return of the Living Dead (O’Bannon, 1985), unlike the relatively understated carnage in earlier films such as Night of the Living Dead, celebrated bodily decay and cannibalized body parts—it was no longer necessarily the horrors of decomposition that framed these narratives, but rather the comic excesses of bodies falling apart that filled the screen. The change in how bodies were depicted brought forth a drastic change in characterizations of the zombie, too. Slave-style zombies were often somewhat humanized—since they tended to be friends and loved ones who needed rescuing from zombification. The cannibal-style zombie, as initially conceived, was not necessarily intended to be appealing: it was a cannibalistic, decomposing corpse, after all.
Almost from the beginning, though, there were those zombies who were set apart from the rest of the hordes of zombie infected. Even Night of the Living Dead relied on the slave-style convention of having a loved one turn into a zombie: its heroine, Barbara, eventually confronts her newly zombified brother. By the 1980s, more and more zombies were becoming humanized, and by the late 1980s and early 1990s, films with zombie protagonists, including Dead Heat (Goldblatt, 1988) and My Boyfriend’s Back (Balaban, 1993), were possible. To be sure, horrific zombies hungry for living humans were still around, but filmmakers were now presenting zombies not only as pitiful figures in need of rescue but also as agents of change.
Video Game Zombies and the Zombie Renaissance
By the mid-1990s, zombies were occasionally popping up on television and in a growing direct-to-video market, but mainstream zombie films were largely a thing of the past. Zombies were heating up in another media, though. Film zombies had largely become comic creatures, but with their appearances as adversaries in Wolfenstein 3-D (id Software, 1992), Doom (id Software, 1993), Area 51 (Mesa Logic, 1995), and the ever-popular Resident Evil series (Capcom, 1996–present), zombies started making a resurgence as serious fare in video games. Developers replaced the humanized zombie born in the films of the 1980s comedy cycle with a bloodthirsty antagonist that players needed to destroy, and in most games, zombies followed the cannibal-style blueprint—being the infected undead hungry for human flesh—but subtle changes to that formula took place, too.
Films such as Romero’s “Dead” trilogy tend to view zombies as creatures on the outside, attacking living humans on the inside, but many video-game-style zombie texts imagine a reverse scenario: living humans entering a space infested with zombies in order to kill them and prevent the virus from spreading. Thus, there is a return to the slave-style idea that zombies exist in very specific, contained spaces, and the thrust of these texts, as it was in slave-style narratives, is to keep zombification and zombies from spreading outside their current borders. In cannibal-style narratives, invasion underlies the zombie threat; in slave- and video-game-style narratives, containment is key. This reversal provides very different conceptions of space within these narratives: cannibal-style texts tend to envision the space occupied by zombies as ever growing, even if not quite limitless. Slave- and videogame-style texts tend to envision the space currently occupied by zombies as limited; it is the hero’s (or player’s) job to keep it that way.
While Romero’s films and those directly borrowing from his premise are nihilistic in nature, zombie video games often envision a way to beat the zombie apocalypse and vanquish a zombie threat: in other words, you can win the game. With video game zombies, there is also a return of a zombie master of sorts, or at least an identifiable source of the zombie contagion: some corrupt (or inept) force, often the government, big business, or both, created the zombie virus. Thus, as with slave-style zombie media, the existence of a traceable source of the zombie problem implies that there is a potential way to solve the problem—or at least a way to make those responsible for it pay.
By the early 2000s, the rising popularity of zombie video games made Hollywood take notice, and films based on these games soon followed, including the Resident Evil series of fi lms (2002–2017) and the House of the Dead films (2003, 2005). This trend coincided with a new breed of zombie. Films such as Zack Snyder’s 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake and Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) imagined zombies as fast moving and hard to defeat. In fact, the popularity of zombie video games, coupled with the newer, faster zombies of films, prompted a zombie renaissance in the early 2000s. The renaissance saw markedly different zombies from those that audiences enjoyed during the 1980s comic turn. For instance, in 28 Days Later, a man wakes up from a coma to discover fast-moving (and technically not undead) rage zombies, and in Resident Evil (Anderson, 2002), a group battles biochemically engineered zombies of all sizes and shapes—including terrifying zombie dogs—as they try to escape from a research facility. In both instances, researchers created the zombie virus and unwittingly unleashed it upon an unsuspecting populace. This premise resonated with filmgoers: both films were popular and inspired a number of imitators.
Zombies resurfaced not only in films, though. Besides remaining one of the favorite adversaries in video games, they have popped up in a number of novels and literary series, including Stephen King’s Cell (2006), Max Brooks’s World War Z (2006), and Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009). Zombies have likewise become a popular staple in comic books and on television series, with The Walking Dead (Image Comics, 2003–present; AMC TV, 2010– present) perhaps the most visible example in both mediums.29 In the last decade or so, more and more fans have been showing off their inner zombie in zombie walks, in which groups of people dress up as zombies to invade public spaces. People can shoot the living dead in zombie safaris. In zombie fun runs, zombies “chase” runners during the race. And since 2005, students on college campuses have been playing Humans vs. Zombies, in which one zombie portrayer attempts to turn fellow participants into zombies during a game of tag. The zombie has, indeed, been experiencing a renaissance.
Ordinary and Extra-Ordinary Zombies
Many scholars make a connection between the zombie renaissance and the events of September 11, 2001. Noting the similarities in stories of the living battling the undead in order to protect “our way of life,” or in the anxieties expressed in a genre focused on rampant pandemics in the era of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and the Zika virus, scholars see the zombie as a sort of mirror for American anxieties in the contemporary world. Underlying most discussions of the zombie’s social relevance, especially in the post-9/11 world, is the widespread assumption that zombies and the zombie state are negatives; zombies are monsters to avoid. The idea is that zombies must stand for what we fear or dread: terrorists, pandemics, or exclusion. This book reconsiders that premise by exploring those zombies that defy our expectations and force us to reexamine our assumptions of the zombie state. In short, if ordinary zombies exist, at least in part, as a way to think about powerlessness or the loss of one’s free will, then extra-ordinary zombies temper tales of slavery and cannibalism by giving us individuals who refuse to be completely dehumanized. Extraordinary zombies tell us stories of slaves able to challenge their masters, or of cannibals who can prove their continued humanity.
Of course, having zombies who are able to defy their zombiness problematizes their status as zombies. Is it still a zombie if it can articulate its feelings, if it isn’t powerless? My answer is yes. While there have been thousands of Internet debates over whether this zombie or that was really a zombie according to one person’s rules or another’s, these debates belie the slippery nature of the zombie in the first place, and this is where I begin in saying yes. There is no single canonical defi nition of the zombie, so the idea of a single, innate form of zombiness becomes difficult to defend. Sarah Juliet Lauro discusses this at the beginning of her book The Transatlantic Zombie: Slavery, Rebellion, and Living Death when she suggests not trying to pin a singular definition onto the concept but rather to approach the zombie as “myth” and “metaphor.” Yet many people feel confident that they know what a zombie is, that even without a standard definition, there are assumptions that most of us share when it comes to zombies. These assumptions are what I want to push back against.
At its most basic, a zombie—in any of its forms—is a body that appears functionally alive but that has lost those qualities that would otherwise make it human. Often, these qualities are directly connected with expressions of free will. The zombie is a being that has lost its free will, through magic, mad science, or a virus, and the expectation is that this loss is defined by victimization or degradation. Yet as this book shows, from the very beginning, there have been problems with this assumption. Numerous zombies have sidestepped their victimization. Therefore, if we step back and reconceptualize zombihood as a state existing somewhere between the human and the not quite human, as a state of liminality associated with—but not entirely dictated by—a loss of free will, then we have a broad definition of zombiness. This broad definition is flexible enough to be amended, depending on the kind of zombie one encounters—a slave zombie, a cannibal zombie, a fast zombie, a slow zombie, an ordinary zombie, or an extra-ordinary zombie—and more importantly, it allows for zombies to change within the course of their zombihood while still remaining zombies.
Extra-ordinary zombies may expand our expectations of zombiness and challenge narratives of victimization. Their tales tell us that slavery and powerlessness are conditions that that can be overcome. If the extra-ordinary zombie can rise above its powerlessness and act, one wonders why other zombies aren’t inclined to do the same. The lesson, then, is that if you remain an ordinary zombie, you have only yourself to blame. Thus, if tales of ordinary zombies expose systemic prejudices that might render some of us slaves or cannibals, then extraordinary zombie stories not only show individuals battling the system, but also take the onus off the system and place it squarely back on the individual’s shoulders: change, in this case, can come only from within. This emphasis on personal responsibility would seem to make the extra-ordinary zombie a reactionary figure, yet perhaps that inference sells extra-ordinary zombies short. In many texts, it isn’t only one or two zombies that have the ability to become extra-ordinary; it is a characteristic of all of them. Even in texts in which only one zombie out of the horde is able to become extra-ordinary, that zombie is often fighting against corrupt systems of power.
Additionally, in zombie stories in which the zombies remain firmly rooted in the expected, a living human’s interaction with zombie culture—as someone in need of rescue, as a zombie master, or as someone battling zombies—often changes that human. This brush with zombie-making culture is most transformative for women and people of color, those already at a disadvantage in white patriarchal culture, and their interactions with zombie making are often empowering, even if not positive, experiences. Therefore, just as extra-ordinary zombies may speak to fantasies of gaining agency, contact with zombie-making cultures often does similar work.
That is one of the reasons why race and gender become so important when examining zombie media, and why they form a major lens through which I interrogate how media producers and fans have deployed zombies over the last eighty years. Because of the zombie’s strong ties to Haiti in its initial conception, it entered pop culture as a racialized concept, and over the years, even with the coming of cannibal zombies, this racialization—often accompanying a hierarchical ranking of cultures into those that produce zombies and those that resist them—has continued. Women also play a vital role in zombie texts across eras—as victims, zombie hunters, and even zombie lovers. Markers of racial and gender difference within zombie media thus help highlight how, in these texts, the marginalized are able to resist their marginalization via zombie culture.
Throughout this book, I explore both ordinary and extra-ordinary zombies and the living people who interact with zombie-making cultures, in order to get at why many representations of zombies and zombie-making cultures defy our expectations. If expected, ordinary zombies produce stories that warn of the dangers of losing the self, then extra-ordinary zombies show us what it is like to gain the self again. Similarly, the stories of the living who somehow become a part of zombie-making culture are often about people able to defy social rules or stigmas—they are about the powerless being able to feel powerful. Ordinary zombies prepare us for a world where humans can be robbed of their humanity and turned into things, where we are taught to feel no compunction about killing such things or using them as a workforce. Extra-ordinary zombies challenge the logic of being able to strip someone of their humanity. These zombies—the ones who speak, have names, and fall in love—are less killable, less subservient, less reducible to something else. In either form, then, the zombie mediates our fears of losing agency and our hopes that we might get it back.
To understand how this works, I present this book in two parts. In part 1, I explore the appearances of ordinary and extra-ordinary zombies via the lenses of race and gender, showing that extra-ordinary zombies have made regular appearances in American media from the very beginning. Thus, while zombies can be horrific, they can also stand as symbols of resistance and change. Chapter 1 begins before the zombie’s appearance in US popular culture, in order to consider how it entered the US imaginary and what kinds of assumptions and ideas accompanied this creature when it first arrived on stages and screens in the early 1930s. Here, I consider the zombie’s ties to representations of Haiti circulating in the United States since the Haitian Revolution (1790–1804).
Haiti was an anomaly in the nineteenth century: a postcolonial nation before much of the world had even been colonized. As a black-ruled nation, Haiti was a constant ideological threat in a largely racist world; there were fears that its success might influence other peoples to rise up against colonial powers and slaveholders. It became necessary for these powers to try to paint Haiti in as negative a light as possible, and to this end, stories of voodoo and of cannibalism in Haiti started to circulate throughout the world.
These stories had implications for people of color besides Haitians. By examining how representations of Haiti’s supposed barbarity and cannibalism worked in concert with justifications of racist practices in the United States and abroad, chapter 1 shows that the zombie entered into the rhetoric about Haiti as a means of continuing the same ideological work that the cannibal had done previously. Depictions of zombies and cannibals showed that there were people in the world incapable of taking care of themselves, and early zombie films often invited audiences to separate the world into zombie makers and those willing to push back against zombie-making cultures: the lesson being that some bodies were better suited to the kinds of exploitation that ordinary slave-style zombies represented. These films traded on the notion that some people simply make better slaves than others.
The first chapter focuses on early slave-style zombie texts, in which, more often than not, young (white) Americans would battle zombie-making cultures and win. The second chapter explores extra-ordinary cannibal-style zombies who fight back against those who would exploit them. In particular, it focuses on the postapocalyptic nature of cannibal- style zombie films. I argue that cannibal-style films toy with fantasies envisioning the death of the current world order and its attendant forms of capitalist white patriarchy in order to imagine what a world without race or class would be like. While many look to the living survivors of zombie media to see how this postapocalyptic fantasy would play out, I turn to the zombies. In particular, this chapter examines George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead (2005), whose zombies are agents of postapocalyptic change, to suggest that the revolutionary potential of these zombies isn’t located so much in their being nonraced or beyond race as it is in their separation from the systems that would tell them that race matters at all. But because the living are still very invested in these systems—even after the apocalypse—the zombies, while capable of enacting the sorts of changes that the living seem incapable of carrying out, still become trapped by (living) systems that ascribe value to bodies based on markers like race.
Chapter 3 considers race from another angle, namely, the roles that white women have played in slave-style and cannibal-style zombie films. Many slave-style stories revolve around the rescue of a white woman, and even in contemporary cannibal-style texts, it is the rare zombie story that doesn’t feature a white woman as a potential victim, a lover, or a stalwart soldier defending the living against the undead. In fact, it is the white woman’s propensity to misbehave and become aligned with zombies in one way or another that disrupts her claims to both whiteness and stereotypical femininity. To understand how this happens, the chapter explores the whiteness of both heroes and villains in zombie texts, and pays special attention to the ways in which white women sometimes attain tremendous power by “contaminating” their whiteness through an alliance with zombie culture. Ultimately, white women often function in the same sorts of ways that extra-ordinary zombies do in zombie texts: as disruptive figures that white, patriarchal culture must rein in.
Unlike white women, who are hypervisible in zombie media, people of color, and especially women of color, if they appear at all in early slave-style zombie films, usually exist in the background, as either slaves or servants. Even those who command zombies in these films, the zombie masters, are almost always white men. As the relationship between voodoo and zombies weakened with the coming of cannibal-style zombies in the late 1960s, the overwhelming majority of zombie films still focused on the survival of white bodies. But a handful of films since the 1930s have undermined this formula by featuring black female zombie masters and powerful black zombies. Continuing the discussion of gender and race from the previous chapter, chapter 4 considers women of color in zombie films.
In particular, in some slave-style films, voodoo is something more than a simple, sensationalistic stereotype. Just as extra-ordinary zombies are, at least in part, zombies that somehow manage to resist their dehumanization, these films envision voodoo as a force able to do the same kind of work. For example, it endows some with the power to raise the dead—a power most often accessible to nonwhite or foreign believers—and often in slave-style films, it is through voodoo that women of color come to the fore. Examining two 1974 blaxploitation zombie films, Sugar Hill and The House on Skull Mountain, alongside the black-cast independent film Ouanga (Terwilliger, 1935) and the low-budget film Zombie Nation (Lommel, 2004), this chapter shows that when women of color can access their knowledge of voodoo, they become empowered to fight the white patriarchal systems that would otherwise keep them out of sight and out of mind.
Part 1 focuses on extra-ordinary zombies and the living people who take up with zombie-making culture in order to gain agency over their lives. In part 2, I turn to experiences that allow people to “try on” zombiness, in order to point to how the extra-ordinary zombie’s power to challenge narratives of exploitation or systemic prejudice can become problematized. Chapter 5 focuses on the ability to play as a zombie in the video games Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel without a Pulse (Wideload Games, 2005), World of Warcraft (Blizzard, 2004–present), and Plan-escape Torment (Black Isle, 1999). In many ways, zombie games highlight the tensions between our expectations of ordinary zombiness and the ways in which media producers have deployed extra-ordinary zombies over the past several decades. Many zombie video games encourage a logic whereby ordinary zombiness is vital: unthinking, ordinary zombie adversaries are dehumanized to make them easy targets and killable fodder. If a zombie begins to enter into extra-ordinary territory, then it potentially becomes that much more difficult to kill. But games that dispense with zombie-killing logic and allow one to play as a zombie create a clear hierarchy between ordinary and extra-ordinary zombies. In these situations, the extra-ordinary zombie becomes extraordinary, in part, through its ability to use or abuse the ordinary zombies it comes into contact with, its actions thus replicating the logic of zombie-killing games in which zombies must be treated as things in order to sidestep thorny ethical questions.
Chapter 6 extends the discussion of the ways in which extraordinary zombiness can be contrasted with ordinary zombiness. It explores zombie walks, which are contemporary gatherings of people dressed as zombies who travel through public spaces. Scholars have debated the political potential of these public events. I argue that while there could be a political thrust to zombie walks, these events, rather than challenging those mechanisms that work to separate the world into those worthy of life and those who are socially dead—as extra-ordinary zombies in fiction often do—tend to smooth over such binaries by producing a zombiness far removed from the theoretical zombiness of interest to scholars. By making it impossible to reach ordinary zombiness, the walks undercut the logic of the extra-ordinary zombie, which is supposed to somehow rise up out of degrading circumstances. Here, all the zombies are always already extra-ordinary: a walker does not start from a position of powerlessness and escape from it and is never in danger of being dehumanized. Yet by allowing participants to play at being zombies, these events can provide a spectacle in which pretending to be the walking dead subsumes the real-world mechanisms that render some groups socially dead.
In the conclusion, I further meditate on this real-world thingifi cation of people by examining how governmental agencies and others use the ordinary zombie in an effort to reimagine the world as full of potentially living and already (un)dead bodies. Focusing on the use of ordinary zombies in disaster-preparedness campaigns and military training exercises, this chapter highlights that while in its extra-ordinary form, the zombie can be a politically enlightened fi gure that speaks to the ways in which marginalized peoples can fight against their subjugation, in its ordinary form, the zombie can be a tool that zombifies and marginalizes real-world populations. The extra-ordinary zombie, then, becomes the logical result of a world where many people are already zombified—a fantasy of gaining agency off ered up to those who feel their agency slipping away.
Even though the zombie is a very slippery referent, media producers and consumers have long been complicating the zombie even further by humanizing it and making it extra-ordinary. This tendency may be due to audiences’ desires to relate to a humanized being, or to the anthropomorphic tendencies in American pop culture, but in light of real-world practices that serve to zombify entire populations, it might also reflect a need to value human life. In an essay exploring how Vodou has operated in American popular thought over the last century, Laënnec Hurbon analyzes the stereotypical and often grotesque portrayals of “voodoo” presented to American audiences: “Beyond the logic of expansionist interest, there is also a logic of desire. All that is repressed in the United States by the dominant Puritan culture is projected onto the Vodouist who then presents only a satanic face. Wirkus, Seabrook, but also Wade Davis, to cite only the most well known, find in Vodou their own fantasies. It is always the other part of the self which, because inadmissible, is devalued and returned to the self in the grimacing form of the cannibal and the sorcerer.” The zombie has often done similar work—artists have used it to project the image of the barbaric cannibal onto the Other so that audiences could forget about those cannibalistic urges deep within themselves.
But what if we were to alter this thinking slightly, in the same way that scholars such as Dayan suggest we reconsider the associations between slavery and the zombi? According to Hurbon, we see ourselves buried deep in stereotypical representations of Vodou. If we fi nd ourselves reflected in the zombie as well, then—as I argue throughout this book—the zombie reflected back to us is often extra-ordinary, not the mindless slave or the heartless cannibal. Instead, it is a zombie self that is searching for valuation, a self that is returned back to audiences as worthy of life and everything that entails. These zombies, then, represent not a loathing of our weaknesses and baser animal instincts, but a strong desire to be counted as fully human.
“Kee provides a compelling synthesis of theory and criticism...useful for horror scholars interested in how portrayals of zombie intersect with race and gender.”
Popular Culture Studies Journal
“Kee's Not Your Average Zombie is an important book…Put simply: if it's the one book you read about or cite on zombie, you've made an excellent choice.”
“I’m impressed by Kee’s scholarship across several fields—film history and gender and critical race studies, especially—and her cultural and historical contextualizing of the current zombie renaissance.”
James H. Cox, University of Texas at Austin, author of The Red Land to the South: American Indian Writers and Indigenous Mexico