Ourselves Made Other: ‘Zombies! An Illustrated History of the Undead’

What accounts for the current popularity of zombies? These shambling messes of rotting flesh don’t just pop up in movies anymore; they crawl out of books, comics, video games, television, and they even appear in real-world cities during annual Zombie Walks. Vampires are easy–they’re all about sex — but zombies, Jovanka Vukovic writes, area “ourselves made other”.

Zombies are monstrous versions of ourselves, sometimes wandering slow and alone, other times frenzied and part of a pack. “They symbolize the temporary relationship with our bodies,” Vukovic writes. That goes a long way toward explaining our continued fascination with the things. None of us wants to die, but to take a peek behind the veil is very tempting, like looking up a “death clock” online to find out what day you’re going to die.

Vukovic’s lavishly illustrated book covers the broad scope of zombie history, from the ancient Egyptians’ worship of Osiris and the belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ to the latest splatter films. The word “zombie” entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 1819, and the public’s fascination with the phenomenon rose from sensational travelogues like Patrick Lufcadio Hearn’s 1889 essay on Haiti, “Country of the Comers-Back”. Vukovic notes her book is less than comprehensive, but the early chapters on the zombie’s Haitian origins and its relevance to that island’s troubled history provide a firm historical footing for the guts and gore to come.

American fascination with Haiti peaked during the military’s occupation of 1915, Vukovic writes, and this interest carried over into the talking film era. It was in the movies that zombies began to flourish. The Bela Lugosi-starring White Zombie (1932) was American’s first zombie film, and many more followed. The early films stuck primarily with the Haiti/voodoo connection and, as Vukovic tells it, many producers simply slapped the dreaded z-word onto films that were simply rehashes of earlier works. Here, the short chapters of the book begin to sag, the plots of these largely forgotten B-movies translating as poorly to the page as they did to the big screen.

Things get interesting again in the ’50s when zombies became a metaphor for the loss of autonomy under communism in films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Of course it’s Night of the Living Dead, released in 1968, and its 1978 sequel Dawn of the Dead, which codified the modern zombie. (Writer-director George Romero provides the introduction for this book, a ringing endorsement if there ever was one.)

After the big bang created by these films, zombies spread throughout Europe and Asia, and Vukovic sends us down a blood-splattered path of low-budget gore, zombie/porn mash-ups and the seemingly endless entries of the Resident Evil franchise. There’s a bit of everything in here, from the Zombeatles to the Bruce Willis, Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn film Death Becomes Her.

These sorts of books aren’t comprehensive because a complete history would fill many volumes and cover everything from the slave trade in the Caribbean to adult films of the ’70s. As it stands, the book is a welcome addition to the zombie hordes currently descending upon bookstores. Zombies! An Illustrated History of the Undead distinguishes itself with humor, insight and lots of gory pictures. Every chapter serves as an introduction to this wide and varied genre, and is a good jumping-off point for learning to love the undead.

RATING 6 / 10