In Zombies: A Cultural History, Roger Luckhurst chronicles the over century long development of the modern day zombie, which has come to represent the “depersonalized” masses, “flat-lined by the alien tedium of modern life.” This is very similar to Karl Marx’s theory of alienation, where the individual becomes estranged from those around him due to the stratification of social classes.
Despite the image we now have of the zombie, the brainless and deteriorated wonderer searching for human flesh, these creatures actually began as the zombi, an experiment in 19th century black magic. Conjured up by priests in Haitian voodoo rites, they were living beings, albeit without the turning mouse-wheel that made them human.
Although this way of life, which supposedly included cannibalism, can be seen by us in the modern industrialized world as backward and savage, Luckhurst argues that the indigenous people were indeed victims of foreign imperialism, enslaved by American colonists and sentenced to “social death”. Therefore, Zombies is just as much an anti-imperialist work as it is an historical examination of the walking dead.
Luckhurst states that a later interpretation of the zombie came from American citizens, who feared the victims of their Caribbean empire would rise from their dead-like state and invade them on their own turf. Ironically, these hypothetical revenge plots that played out in pulp magazines of the ’20s and ’30s would have been caused by the harsh conditions that they themselves inflicted on the native populations. This predicament also echoes the contemporary issues of immigration from Latin America to the United States, and the migration of refugees from the Middle East to the West.
Not only does Luckhurst delve into the history and deeper meaning of the zombie, but he also critiques some of horror cinema’s most unforgettable characters, such as Dracula, Frankenstein, and particularly, the Mummy. Contrary to popular opinion that Karl Freund 1932 horror classic, The Mummy simply depicts the clash of civilizations between the West and Egypt, the author insists that it is in fact an allegory for the British occupation of Egypt, and that the titular villain is exacting vengeance on his descendant’s oppressors.
Like William Seabrook’s Magic Island, Luckhurst dedicates a large amount of his time to the novel’s 1932 film adaptation, White Zombie, whose title inspired the name of Rob Zombie’s band.
Midway through the book, Luckhurst coins the term “Zombie Massification”, and applies it to the ideologies of fascism and Nazism, and the practice of McCarthyism. It’s also during the first half of the 20th century that the distinction between the Haitian zombi (the singular spiritual missionary), and the American zombie (the multiple brain-dead fiends), is made. Like the authoritarian regimes and the suburban conformity of time, the term zombie came to symbolize the concept of like-minded mass movements.
George A. Romero’s game changing zombie films are some of the book’s main focus points. Luckhurst makes the case that the original 1968 Night of the Living Dead, and particularly its 1990 remake, are commentaries on conservative America, as the packs of gun-totting zombie hunters sometimes mirror the very creatures they are putting down. Luckhrst also insists that themes of consumerism, militarism and class struggle are also touched upon in Romero’s later releases, such as 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, 1985’s Day of the Dead, and 2005’s Land of the Dead.
For the film buffs, the author also gives some production notes on ’80s Cannibal Holocaust, where animals were killed in the making of the film and the director, Ruggero Deadato, was arrested for making a “snuff film”. Luckhurst also points out the influence that this Italian exploitative horror classic had on the found footage genre, whose notable titles include 1999’s The Blair Witch Project and 2009’s Paranormal Activity.
Now, in the digital era, “the zombie offers transmedial synergies for global entertainment corporations.” This is in reference to the Resident Evil video game series; the subsequent film adaptations starring Mila Jovovich, and the AMC hit televisions series The Walking Dead, based on the comic book series created by Robert Kirkman. Luckhurst is very critical of the 2013 blockbuster World War Z, where in true Biblical form, hoards of Arab zombies are mowed down as they relentlessly climb centuries old walls in order to infect the now heavily militarized Holy Land.
In his closing arguments, the author states that the current rendition of the zombie has become the epitome of globalization. Like Brad Pitt’s character in World War Z, the uniquely American flesh-eaters are being shipped overseas. The Walking Dead is now being broadcasted in the UK, and France has developed a zombie series of its own, The Returned, based on the 2004 film They Came Back. Like the online gaming phenomenon, Luckhurst notices that the zombie counterculture is uniting “dead-head”, regardless of national boarders.
Although Luckhurst doesn’t score any brownie points with us gamers when he, “can vividly recall being bitten to death” while playing the original Resident Evil, his work is certainly an entertaining history of those who continue to walk among us, even after death.