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The Year’s Work at the Zombie Research Center

Edward P. Comentale, Aaron Jaffe

The Year's Work at the Zombie Research Center answers any questions you might have about the burgeoning field of zombie studies.

Introduction: The Zombie Research Center FAQ

Excerpted from The Year's Work at the Zombie Research Center, edited by Edward P. Comentale and Aaron Jaffe. Copyright © 2014 by the author and reprinted by permission of Indiana University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.

We’re sure you’ve noticed that zombies are everywhere these days. Why else would you be reading this book? As it says in the stairwell: the end is extremely fucking nigh. [#zombies.] In the bunker, out on the rooftop, inside and out back, stalking the horizon, zombies pose significant threats to both human identity and human civilization. Who are they? What do they want? How do they “think”? What do they mean? The recent explosion of zombies in film, literature, graphic novels, video games, and fan culture is inescapable. Even sociology, philosophy, and literary theory have gotten into the zombie act, elaborating core concepts around borrowings from this undead corner of pop culture. But who has time to read a book—let alone a tome as hefty as The Year’s Work at the Zombie Research Center—during a zombie apocalypse? Perhaps you’re curious about your world. (A little late, no?) Perhaps you need a few tips. In this book we’ll look at zombie cult classics; historical documents from America, Europe, and the Caribbean; and some “zombie theory” by philosophers, sociologists, and literary theorists. We’ll also consult some of the more recent hits from the ever growing zombie corpus in order to explore the contemporary meanings of the zombie and the zombie world. At the Zombie Research Center we’ve grown desensitized to the groans and eye rolls that names like Freud, Derrida, or Lacan sometimes elicit. You should never feel stupid for ordering brains. As you’ll find, though, zombie culture today is as shapeless and mutable as an actual zombie horde—and often just as violent. Since any total theory of this field seems impossible, we’re here to provide not so much the “answer to infection” (as the broadcast in 28 Days Later says), but a few suggestions for brain work, tactical maneuvering, and sufficient day-to-day survival.

Why are we obsessed with zombies?

Obsession is a good word, but we like zombie fixation even better. Zombies are clearly the pop-cultural fixation of the moment; more than anything else, we seem to be under siege by an endless stream of zombie commodities (zombie-themed mugs, doormats, onesies, bumper stickers, etc.). Because people know we at the Zombie Research Center are keenly interested in the topic, sometimes we hear refrains like “zombies are so over” or “zombies are so dead.” It’s not hard for us to agree, but isn’t that the point? Zombies are dead, but they’re not. The zombie fad is perfect, because it’s autoimmunized from the kind of obligatory boredom dooming other fads. The zombie is “born” exhausted. It can’t die, because you can’t kill what’s not alive. “I’m so sick of zombies” doesn’t work either, because you’re supposed to be sick of zombies.

Psychoanalysis—in its examination of undying ideas and imperishable drives—provides one avenue for understanding zombie fixation. About the prefix un-: Freud gives us the definition of uncanny as “that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar” (Uncanny 124). The buried past returns, but in strange, distorted form, as in a dream, something at once desired and feared. The shock of the survivor in the face of the zombie is the shock of no longer knowing what’s on the other end of the gun: mother or other, father or fiend. Or the prefix ab-: in her feminist revision of Freud, titled Powers of Horror: An Essay on Objection, Julia Kristeva flags the abject as the decrepit thing that transgresses the boundary between subject and object. It occurs in four forms—disgust of (1) food, (2) bodily waste, (3) dead bodies, and (4) the mother’s body—which, taken together, harken back to the forbidden pleasures of infancy (which, not incidentally, supplies the grotesque fourfold in Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive [aka Braindead; 1992]).

0.1. Sean Bieri, "Ordering Brains" (2008)

Where Freud sees the castrating threat of the father, Kristeva detects the smothering power of the mother; where the uncanny signals psychological anxiety, the abject produces physical disgust. Faced with abjection, the survivor experiences not so much the immobility of shock, but a sort of convulsion—an instantaneous attraction/repulsion toward that which threatens pleasurable destruction: to smell the sour milk, to play with the shits, to kiss the corpse. Thus, the survivor as lusty wanderer, manic territorialist, sniffs out the sweet-smelling corpses in order to kiss/kill them: “A deviser of territories, languages, works, the deject never stops demarcating his universe whose fluid confines—for they are constituted of non-object, the abject—constantly question his solidity and impel him to start afresh. A tireless builder, the deject is in short a stray. He is on a journey, during the night, the end of which keeps receding” (Kristeva 8). (For more on the uncanny and the abject in the zombie tradition, see Stephen Watt’s report in chapter 1.)

And yet we hardly need to think about zombie fixation in human terms at all. Ozone holes, AIDS, Y2K, computer viruses, mad cow disease, SARS, MRSA, terrorist attacks, unending wars, miscellaneous hazmat, environmental degradation, climate change, self-replicating Ponzi schemes—panic culture grows around us, one unmanageable crisis after another, pushing our fascination with the zombie into the realm of hard science. In fact, given the state of emergency in which we currently conduct our lives, one can only chuckle at the quaint postmodernism of the “panic” concept as first outlined in the Panic Encyclopedia of 1989: “Panic is the key psychological mood of postmodern culture ... as a floating reality, with the actual as a dream world, where we live on the edge of ecstasy and dread” (Kroker et al. 13–14). The Panic Encyclopedia locates its titular crisis in an imaginary collusion of science and culture (with postmodern physics affirming the hyperrealism of postmodern culture), but today’s panic culture seems to have leaped beyond anything like sociological critique. The zombie infection module has us thinking beyond all human perspectives and institutions, thinking through the organism rather than the person, thinking corporately instead of nationally, leaping anxiously between the microscopic and the macroscopic.

0.2. Plague Inc., Ndemic Creations (2012).

As seen in the recent outbreak of outbreak films and the viral success of viral smartphone apps such as Plague Inc., zombie fixation flows everywhere through a mass-mediated virophilia. Derived from virus, a Latin word meaning a poisonous sap (“I tried to take a blood sample and instead extracted only brown, viscous matter” [Brooks, World War Z, 7]), and the Greek -phile, meaning, of course, one who loves, virophilia = infection + affection. The word speaks to (1) our fascination with both real and hypothetical contagions, plagues, viruses, and other agents of noxious transmission and (2) our obsessive etiological tracking of ideas, trends, and parasitic social malfunction back to its presumed origin, whether a batch of toxic sap, a polluted patient zero, a bite-marked child, rabid critter, microbe, prion, or spilled barrel of radioactive matter.1 In a way, virophilia points toward a much larger attempt to police cultural boundaries that have been delegitimized by the fluidity of multinational capital, the decentered power networks of transnational terrorism, and the rampant effects of pollution and ecological degradation. Susan Sontag nailed it years ago in Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors. To represent disease as an “alien invasion” allows society to mobilize not just its more conservative emotions and desires, but also the necessary funds, resources, and power to preserve them. Thinking microscopically and macroscopically about infection frees us from the ethical considerations that marked prior treatment of other humans in our midst; science colludes with power to confront, paranoically, what is always couched as a “domestic disturbance” in an otherwise “pluralistic world” (105–106).

“I’m so sick of zombies” doesn’t work... because you’re supposed to be sick of zombies.

There’s no need to squabble about the precise nature of the outbreak. The film 28 Days Later (2002) stages it in a secret government lab at a university, a setting that speaks as much to widespread ambivalence about scientific research as it does to the failure of both liberal human ism and militarist nationalism to staunch the imperium in decline. They know not what they do, sayeth the chimp, moral animal-rights activists/ campus protesters, and venal university-military-industrial praetorians alike. Nothing in the film, however, seems so scary—or so poignant— as the drop of infected blood that falls from a crow’s foot into the eye of loving father Frank, one castrating drop that immediately sets him into a spastic, zomboid age and draws out a fatal rain of suppression gunfire from the military. But for virophilia-as-technophilia nothing beats [REC] (2007), the Spanish zombie classic that locks a bubbly late-night television reporter inside a quarantined building infected with a virus that is as much biological as it is demonic. [REC] is notable for the way it stages Angela’s degradation as spectator and spectacle; as the reporter confronts the stages of female life as a process of bodily corruption (culminating in the horrific sunken-breasted image of the “Medieros Girl”), so the audience is forced to confront its own desirous relation to gendered violence and decay. Here, though, the camera proves the best mediator of zombie fixation. “We have to tape everything,” Angela lustily shouts at Pablo, her cameraman, shifting her role from spectacle to spectator. The recording device serves to manage an OCD-like relation to abjection, containing as well as copying (inoculating and incubating) the disease that threatens bodily integrity. (For gender and feminism in the zombie tradition, see Andrea Ruthven’s analysis in chapter 10; for zombie technology and media, see Erik Bohman’s research in chapter 4.)

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