Zombies, Reavers, Butchers, and Actuals in Joss Whedon's Work

Gerry Canavan
From Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 'Dead Man's Party'

Zombies have been one of the more popular monster types in films and television in recent decades following the popularity of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. Joss Whedon's somewhat different take on the Zombie in his various projects is here examined in detail.

For all the standard horror movie monsters Joss Whedon took up in Buffy and Angel -- vampires, of course, but also ghosts, demons, werewolves, witches, Frankenstein’s monster, the Devil, mummies, haunted puppets, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the “bad boyfriend,” and so on -- you’d think there would have been more zombies. In twelve years of television across both series zombies appear in only a handful of episodes. They attack almost as an afterthought at Buffy’s drama-laden homecoming party early in Buffy Season Three; they completely ruin Xander’s evening in “The Zeppo” later that same season; they patrol a Los Angeles neighborhood in “The Thin Dead Line” in Angel Season Two; they stalk the halls of Wolfram & Hart in “Habeas Corpses” (4.8) in Angel Season Four. A single zombie comes back from the dead to work things out with the girlfriend who poisoned him in a subplot in “Provider” in Angel Season Three; Adam uses science to reanimate dead bodies to make his lab assistants near the end of Buffy Season Four; zombies guard a fail-safe device in the basement of Wolfram & Hart in “You’re Welcome” in Angel Season Five.

That’s about it -- and most of these don’t even really count as zombies at all. Many can talk, and most exhibit a capacity for complex reasoning and decision-making that is totally antithetical to the zombie myth. Not a one of these so-called zombies seems especially interested in devouring our heroes’ delicious flesh. Of the aforementioned episodes only “Dead Man’s Party” and “Habeas Corpses” really come close to evoking the wonderfully claustrophobic adrenaline rush of the shambling, groaning zombie horde that has become so popular in American horror since George Romero’s genre-establishing Night of the Living Dead series: a small group of people, desperately hiding within a confined, fortified space, with nowhere to run and no hope for survival when the zombies finally penetrate their defenses.

In interviews Whedon frequently cites Romero as a major influence on his work. In one he describes his early ambition to become a “a brilliant, independent filmmaker who then went on to make giant, major box office summer movies” as “Spielberg by way of George Romero”; in another he credits Romero with writing strong, complex female characters long before either James Cameron or Whedon himself came around. In a video interview with Whedon describes Romero as “a huge influence,” adding that Romero “is the only really ambitiously political filmmaker in that genre -- and the Night of the Living Dead trilogy is just an incredible example of what can be done with gut-wrenching terror.”

Why then are there so few (and such poor) zombies in the early Whedon canon? We might speculate that filming a properly immense zombie horde would have risked busting the budget for the series, an ever-present concern for supernatural and science fiction series on television, especially on UPN and the WB. A properly ravenous horde, too, might have made Broadcast Standards and Practices rather nervous; American television’s very first zombie-themed series, AMC’s gory hit The Walking Dead, only made it to cable last year. When cost and potential censorship are not a factor, Mutant Enemy turns to zombies almost immediately; Whedon wrote a zombie horde attack on the Slayer castle in the first arc of the Buffy Season 8 comic, “The Long Way Home,” and zombies have been a common fixture in Buffy video games as well.

But let me suggest there’s something more at work. First, despite his admiration for Romero, Whedon seems to exhibit a strong preference for the original Haitian zombi -- a nightmarish transfiguration of slavery into a curse that continues even after death -- over George Romero’s mindless, ravenous consumer of flesh. The American horror zombie is a corpse without a mind, wandering aimlessly in search of food and governed by pure instinct; the zombi, in contrast, is only sometimes a revivified corpse, and is more commonly a traumatized but still living person whose will has been replaced with the will of the zombie master and whose body has been put to work. Whedon fairly frequently makes his characters pedants on this point; in “Some Assembly Required” Giles scolds Xander when he suggests that zombies might feed on the living, and Wesley does the same thing to Gunn in Angel’s “Provider” (3.12), dismissing flesh-eating as a myth (though Wesley’s zombies still “mangle, mutilate, and occasionally wear human flesh”)...

Dear reader:

Joss Whedon’s importance in contemporary pop culture can hardly be overstated, but there has never been a book providing a comprehensive survey and analysis of his career as a whole -- until now. Published to coincide with Whedon’s blockbuster movie The Avengers, Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion by PopMatters (May 2012) covers every aspect of his work, through insightful essays and in-depth interviews with key figures in the ‘Whedonverse’. This article, along with previously unpublished material, can be read in its entirety in this book.

Place your order for Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion by PopMatters, published with Titan Books, here.





A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.