On Depictions of Zombies
Rachel, the good librarian who so thoroughly fortified this suburban library so long ago, the bibliobunker I call my home, also had the presence of mind to build a special collection at the reference desk under a banner reading “All Things Zombie: An Undead Wordhord"; and for this collection, her carefully hoarded horde, she not only searched her library for any book, article, or DVD featuring the least mention of zombies or zombie-like creatures, but seems to have scavenged homes, an electronics store, toy store, and a couple obscure used-book stores in the area—also, judging by the tags on the spines of some of the books, the library in the next town over—until her zombie collection was, if not complete, then at least as complete as anyone could reasonably expect of a small-town librarian who, let us assume, was working with limited resources and under siege at all times by illiterate mobs.
I’ve often thought this accumulation of books, comics, films, videogames, music, and other zombie-related ephemera is horde-like in its way, so that, if you blur your eyes, the main experience is chiefly of a shocking multitude; however, as with zombies themselves, “All Things Zombie” is more imposing en masse than when any individual “zombie” is pulled from the shelves and examined in isolation. It’s a little empowering to realize just how frail, how vulnerable any one of these zombies can be once extracted from its horde, secured on a table as in a morgue, cracked open like the sternum of a cadaver, guts neatly snipped away from the moist cavity walls, placed carefully into trays, labeled. What’s a zombie, when viewed this way? Nothing so terrifying in the end. Nothing so mysterious. Just a predictable collection of bones and organs. But I have also noticed the paradoxical situation: as soon as I have turned a number of them inside-out and shined my light inside them, as soon as I try to extrapolate that knowledge toward understanding the horde and glimpsing whatever archetype informs all the individuals of a gutsack collective, the immaterial form seems to flee my light like a parasitic worm, its last white segments retreating only deeper into the dark, membranous folds of this awful, awful mess I’ve made.
Various versions of Gilgamesh were written in cuneiform on clay tablets in Mesopotamia about 4,000 years ago, making it the world’s oldest surviving “book.” The epic poem follows the adventures of the eponymous hero and includes such awesome scenes as when he races the Sun through the tunnel it disappears into at night. The book is funny, exciting, and endearing in equal parts, but its single reference to zombies is what I’m interested in. Here, Gilgamesh scorns the goddess Ishtar, who demands that her father send the Bull of Heaven to destroy that irresistible son of a bitch—or else:
If you say no, I will smash the gates
of the underworld, and a million famished
ghouls will ascend to devour the living,
and the living will be outnumbered by the dead. 
These ghouls never actually materialize in the book. But there is something ponderous in their merest mention in the humanity’s first book; let me stress that: not merely the first suggestion of a supernatural origin, not only the first mention of the animated human corpse, but the very first book. Indeed, the zombie looms over the entire history of literature as a thing to be reckoned with. If writing literature is one of the most human things humans do—and I believe it is—then it is no coincidence that eons of slow human evolution would conclude at precisely the moment when literature, a relatively new spur in that evolution, sees its oldest, darkest threat materialized in the real world.
That said, the depiction of the zombies leaves an awful lot to be desired. Some people might praise the fact that, unlike a lot of zombie fiction, there’s nothing gratuitous or particularly errant in the book’s lone ghoulic description, but that’s the very heart of the problem I see: this is non-committal to the extreme. Nothing is risked and nothing earned. Don’t get me wrong. There is plenty to praise in this book. I just don’t believe the author(s) offered enough detail to keep the zombie fanboys sufficiently on pins and needles for four millennia. Which is why most people who read it probably didn’t even recall the zombies at all, whereas they might remember the more meticulously described Bull of Heaven or the monster Humbaba.
~500 B.C.E. (Zechariah), ~100 C.E. (John)
Consider this quasi-zombic vision from Zechariah 14:
12 And this shall be the plague wherewith the LORD will smite all the people that have fought against Jerusalem; Their flesh shall consume away while they stand upon their feet, and their eyes shall consume away in their holes, and their tongue shall consume away in their mouth.
13 And it shall come to pass in that day that a great tumult from the LORD shall be among them; and they shall lay hold every one on the hand of his neighbour, and his hand shall rise up against the hand of his neighbour.
Or this from John 11:
41 Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead was laid. And Jesus lifted up his eyes, and said, Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me.
43 And when he thus had spoken, he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth.
44 And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus saith unto them, Loose him, and let him go.
Or this from Matthew 27:
46 And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
47 Some of them that stood there, when they heard that, said, This man calleth for Elias.
48 And straightway one of them ran, and took a sponge, and filled it with vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave him to drink.
49 The rest said, Let be, let us see whether Elias will come to save him.
50 Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost.
51 And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent;
52 And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose,
53 And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.
Or this from the Book of Revelation:
9:6 And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them.
9:7 … the locusts … their faces were as the faces of men.
Then, there were always those who claimed Jesus was himself a kind of zombie. He was dead and then he rose from the dead—“nuff said,” as these types used to say—but that was always a ridiculously loose interpretation by people who didn’t know the difference between reanimation and resurrection. Lazarus is ever the more convincing example, as many apocalyptic sermons will attest.
Eyrbyggja Saga (a.k.a., Saga of the Ere-Dwellers)
The Icelandic Sagas, among the oldest of European books, include a number of zombic depictions. Take, for instance, Chapter 51, in which it rains blood. A Christian farmer lady named Thorgunna gets sick and dies. As the corpse-bearers are taking her to her far-off grave, they stop at a house to stay the night, but their hosts don’t offer them any food. The latter are awakened when they hear noises coming from the kitchen. What they find is a corpse:
…a tall woman, naked, with nothing on her, busied at bringing out victuals. So when they saw her, they were so afeard they durst go nowhere anigh. But when the corpse-bearers knew thereof they went there, and saw what was toward, that thither was Thorgunna come, and good it seemed to all not to meddle with her. 
I suppose it is possible that there might be a type of draugr (Scandinavian term for a kind of zombie), particularly of an artistic persuasion, (see "Artist Type" in Appendix A: Zombology 101), who might go through the motions of making a dinner, but I doubt one could be lucid enough to do so in response to a lack of hospitality. Sure, some zombies make elegant artistic gestures, but reason has never been a prerequisite of art.
However, while the depictions of zombies may be absurd on their face, I do love the understatement of “good it seemed to all not to meddle with her.” That’s top-notch deadpan, perfect gallows humor, and chiefly why this rather strange work transcends not only space and time but the Sagas’ numerous problems of basic zombo verisimilitude.
Dam-pa'i chos rin-po-che 'phags-pa'i yul-du ji-ltar dar-ba'i tshul-gsal-bar ston-pa dgos-'dod
(a.k.a., Tarantha’s History of Buddhism in India)
In one section of this historical text, we learn about the Tibetan zombie: ro-langs. Here, a heretical yogi gets a new apprentice to help him achieve a new power, or dngos-grub, which would allow him to control the bodies of the dead. He tells the apprentice the zombie will stick its tongue out and waggle it. If they catch the tongue on the first try, the yogi will get the best power; if on the second try, a lesser power; but if they fail to catch the tongue on the third try, the ro-langs “will devour us both, and then the countryside will be brought to desolation.”
The apprentice misses the first two times. The stakes are too high now, so he places his mouth over the zombie’s mouth and this time, when the tongue sticks out, he bites it. The tongue turns into a magical sword and the corpse to gold.
While I have seen zombies waggle their tongues, I’ve seen so many fail to waggle their tongues that I can say with 99% confidence that tongue-waggling is not something you could count on a zombie to do. I also doubt a person would put their mouth on a zombie’s mouth or bite their tongue, no matter what the possible payout. That’s fucking gross.
And yet, for all this, I find a certain metaphorical truth in the legend. Maybe you don’t literally get a gold corpse if you catch the zombie tongue, but isn’t there something to the idea that the zombie waggles its tongue but says nothing, that somehow capturing that embodied (or at least emtongued) absence of fundamental humanity provides us with a certain power over our own destiny? and doesn’t the gold corpse seem somehow emblematic of DeComp capitalizing on the proliferation of our own ro-langs?
Maybe, after all, this bizarre and somewhat nauseating tale carries more truth than the seemingly more realistic depictions by western writers.
“Ligeia” & “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”
Edgar Allan Poe
The granddaddy of American gothic, Edgar Allan Poe, wrote a couple doozies.
In “Ligeia,” Poe’s narrator spends several pages obsessively describing his obsession with his pale, raven-haired wife Ligeia—who then dies. He’s despondent but soon remarries, though he continually holds his new wife up against Ligeia’s memory. Eventually, his second wife gets sick and really paranoid that something evil is lurking behind the tapestries. But is it paranoia? Some stealthy shade drops something in her drink and she dies as well. In the bedchamber that night, the narrator sees signs that the corpse might be reanimating, but then it settles further into death, then reanimates again, withers even further into death, so on and so forth, bit by bit, until, finally, the corpse stands, all her hair falls out and … a zombified Ligeia totters before him! Experience tells us zombies don’t work this way—if every two dead spouses morphed into one body, this apocalypse would have been half the trouble—and yet there is a dark and subtle beauty in the corpse’s slow turn. Also, I don’t know through what alchemy Poe makes it evident, because he’s much too decent to say it or even strongly imply such a thing, but somehow it becomes clear to me that this particular narrator—this obsessive accountant of every sensuous detail—is nothing short of a zombiefucker.
In “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” Poe comes at it from another angle. Here, he basically asks, “What happens when you hypnotize a guy right when he’s dying?” Zombie. Here, M. Valdemar’s body stays dead but animated for some time until, one night, the mesmerist wakes him up and the body putrefies in an instant. Now, this story is stupid for a couple reasons: 1) M. Valdemar agrees to let the weird mesmerist from down the street hypnotize him at his moment of death, which no one would ever agree to do; and 2) the zombie keeps telling the mesmerist “I am dead” and, worse, this is only said so Poe can confirm for stupid readers that M. Valdemar is, in fact, dead. And yet, damn me, I can’t help but like this story anyway. I don’t know what it is exactly, and I don’t really care to understand the minutia of it; all I know is it has something to do with the strange juxtaposition of a totally idiotic conceit combined with extremely dutiful artistry, such as in Poe’s description of the undead man:
The eyes rolled slowly open, the pupils disappearing upwardly; the skin generally assumed a cadaverous hue, resembling not so much parchment as white paper; and the circular hectic spots which, hitherto, had been strongly defined in the centre of each cheek, went out at once…. the suddenness of the departure put me in mind of nothing so much as the extinguishment of a candle by a puff of breath.
William Seabrook’s The Magic Island is often credited for introducing Americans to the Haitian concept of a zombie . Besides exploring, in a romantic and somewhat swashbuckling style, the broader voodoo culture during his time in Haiti, he gives us a chapter titled “…Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields.” Here, the author claims to have met some of these enslaved zombies working in a field. “The eyes were the worst,” he claims. “They were in truth like the eyes of a dead man, not blind, but staring, unfocused, unseeing. The whole face … was vacant, as if there was nothing behind it.” I’m not sure to what degree these enslaved zombies are like the “worker” variety of zombies I have seen or hear about, but there is an uncanny similarity between the way people responded to those zombies and how we responded to ours: once free will and consciousness are removed (or at least once we’ve decided they’re no longer present), there always just happens to be some powerful person waiting nearby who just happens to have a readymade plan and that plan always just happens to involve exploiting and destroying any remaining bodies for profit. No wonder zombies hate us.
Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica
Zora Neale Hurston
Hurston’s Tell My Horse is similar to William Seabrook’s The Magic Island in that an American writer visits Haiti, trains outsider eyes on voodoo, and dedicates a whole chapter to zombies. What strikes me most here is Hurston’s restraint. Hurston, who was black, seems to have enjoyed greater access to ceremonies and rituals than Seabrook, who was white, and doesn’t wrap the whole story around herself as if this is all part of some exotic island adventure, only relays what she learns in a pared-down language that has the effect of normalizing the exotic features rather than amplifying them.
As for the zombies, Hurston relays some of the local lore, anecdotes of various people having been turned to work as slaves and pickpockets. She also describes personally meeting one alleged zombie at a hospital, a woman named Felicia Felix-Mentor.
She hovered against the fence in a sort of defensive position. The moment that she sensed our approach, she broke off a limb of a shrub and began to use it to dust and clean the ground and the fence and the table which bore her food. She huddled the cloth about her head more closely and showed every sign of fear and expectation of abuse and violence…. Finally the doctor forcibly uncovered her and held her so that I could take [a picture of] her face. And the sight was dreadful. That blank face with the dead eyes. The eyelids were white all around the eyes as if they had been burned with acid.
On first read, I was a bit incredulous. Felix-Mentor seems to be acting less like a zombie and more like a shell-shocked abuse victim with some sort of cognitive impairment. However, in not directly addressing the possibility that the woman could be other than a zombie, Hurston seems to pose a philosophical question: does it really matter what we call this woman—zombie or catatonic abuse victim—so long as she’s being treated well? Hurston was an anthropologist and she bore witness. Maybe it’s not particularly nice to let it go unchallenged when people call such a woman a zombie, but there is more to be gained by reporting it as the locals see it rather than telling them they’re being stupid and alienating them.
Still, I think it goes beyond that. Hurston recounts a number of stories that suggest something more to consider. In one, a man gives up his loved ones as zombies one at a time for prosperity. In another, a son is turned into a zombie and as he walks by his family’s house, he cries out, “Mama! Mama! Sauvez moi!” (Save me!). But no one goes outside to help rescue him because they are too scared. Even in the cases when someone tries to intervene—say, surrounding a house where a zombie is supposedly present—it seems they fail to actually do so.
There is something to such depictions that rings true. Hurston never suggests anything like this, but it makes sense that such poor creatures—these wretched weak of the earth, the lost, the forsaken, and sold-out—might start out pathetic, but someday turn to something all the more vengeful because of it.
This book seems to build the foundation for something that rings true all these years later even as certain particulars have changed. I have, after all, seen the eyes of zombies, and know how much more horrible it can be when the thing that is trying to kill you also seems sad, desperate beyond despair.
The Day of the Triffids
The Day of the Triffids is a shitty zombie novel in the sense that there are no zombies, only a bunch of killer plants. There is a meteor shower one night and everyone who watches the brilliant display goes blind. A bunch of stinging, meat-eating, walking plants—the evolutionarily advanced triffids—take advantage of the mass disability and start wiping people out. However, ignore any whiff of the plants vs. zombies phenomenon, and you realize the novel's atmosphere is zombish to the nth degree, the characters’ choices and actions much more reasonably depicted than in most books that actually include zombies. In fact, it wouldn’t be going too far to say this book is a blueprint for all the zombie narratives yet to come. Consider the following:
Death is just the shocking end of animation; it is dissolution that is final.
I like the plain way he states this truth. That moment when our bodies must finally come apart and become indistinguishable from the things surrounding it is a moment most of us never thought about before the zombies, something that suggests Wyndham was indeed really trying to inhabit the mindset of a person struggling to make meaning in the wake of civilization. Consider also:
Our suggestions that surviving Americans would be likely to have their hands more than full at home was received as so much wet-blanketry. The Americans, they assured us, would never have allowed such a thing to happen in their country.
Here again, Wyndham seems almost prophetic. The irony suggests he knew the correct score: America wasn’t going to be able to save anybody when shit really hit the fan—not even America. There’s also this:
From my reading of history, the thing you have to have to use knowledge is leisure…. The thinking has to be done largely by people who are not directly productive—by people who appear to be living almost entirely on the work of others, but are, in fact, a long-term investment.
The character who says this is partly right: if everyone is toiling in fields, a society will never advance beyond the fields, so a culture that wants to do so must allow space and time for that kind of intellectual work to take place. But Wyndham takes it as a given than this is what we want: to look beyond the field. I used to think it was important to do so. But I no longer do. I think we should even move further back along our own evolutionary track and even give up on permanent agricultural projects. Late agrarian, industrial, and post-industrial techno societies plagued the earth, brought entire species and any number of interlinked ecosystems to the brink of destruction.
But returning to and limiting ourselves to small bands of hunter-gatherers wouldn’t necessarily reduce us to some mindless barbarism just this side of zombism. Even very primitive hunter-gatherers had spiritual rituals and made cave paintings and artifacts that persist until this day—these imaginative works are the epitome of what sets humans apart from other creatures. If humanity should continue, it is these kinds of intellectuals we need above all else, shamans and artists and some scientists with strong backgrounds in ecology, rather than the sorts of intellectuals who sit around figuring out how to game the earth and then absolve themselves of all responsibility when others use their technologies to destroy it.
I Am Legend
This is one of my favorite zombie books, which is weird because it’s about vampires. But the experience, particularly the deeply woven sense of loneliness, is so true to form that I have to include it here. The protagonist, Robert Neville, busies himself with administrative tasks all day—making to-do lists, rounding up supplies, dumping vampire corpses in the burning pit of vampire corpses on the edge of town—and then hunkering inside his fortified home at night when they are near. The sieges and fights and chases are very realistic and tense, but what strikes me most are Neville’s rather mundane internal struggles. His thoughts are just so familiar that they send chills down my spine. Consider the following two passages. No further comment will be necessary.
He brushed his teeth carefully and used dental floss. He tried to take good care of his teeth because he was his own dentist now. Some things could go to pot, but not his health, he thought. Then why don’t you stop pouring alcohol into yourself? he thought. Why don’t you shut the hell up? he thought.
The thought dredged up again the endless enigma of why he went on…. life was still a barren, cheerless trial. Despite everything he had or might have (except, of course, another human being), life gave no promise of improvement or even of change. The way things shaped up, he would live out his life with no more than he already had. And how many years was that? Thirty, maybe forty if he didn’t drink himself to death…. Why think, why reason? There was no answer. His continuance was an accident and an attendant bovinity. He was just too dumb to end it all, and that was about the size of it.
This is the (more or less) true story about an ethnobotanist seeking the chemical formula that creates Haitian zombis. By going to Haiti and exploring the real-life case of a Haitian man-turned-zombie named Clairvius Narcisse, Davis comes away believing the zombifying agent is a mix of puffer-fish tetrodotoxin and a deep cultural belief that one can, in fact, be turned into a zombi. Here’s an important passage:
The metamorphosis of Clairvius Narcisse from human to zombi was a very special instance of voodoo death. A sorcerer’s spell initiated a long process that exploited the victim’s greatest fears, mobilized the reinforcing beliefs of the community, and finally led to actual death. To the Haitian peasants Narcisse really did die, and what was magically taken from the ground was no longer a human being. Like many sorcerers around the world, the bokor that spun his death had a prop—in this case an ingenious poison that served as a template upon which the victim’s worst fears might be amplified ten thousand times. Still, in the end, it was not the powder that sealed Narcisse’s fate, it was his own mind.
While the vast majority of zombies I have encountered are violent, self-replicating beasts and therefore very unlike the zombis Davis describes, I very much appreciate the author’s open-minded but skeptical attitude. Having patience for a non-materialist, traditional worldview proves rational, after all. The proliferation of zombies proves the Haitians at least partially right. Beyond that, I believe this book opens up some interesting explanatory possibilities. We can’t, for instance, close ourselves off to the possibility that our apocalypse owes to a material combination of psychotropic agents, a long-abiding cultural belief that an apocalypse was coming, and a macabre obsession with zombies—that is, a kind of collective substance-induced self-fulfilling prophecy.
Joyce Carol Oates
This book is not really about zombies, but a plodding psychopath named Q__ P__ who wants to make a zombie, as he says, “for my own purposes.” This Jeffrey Dahmer cipher really wants to bone another dude, but their “AWAKE EYES” make his dick go limp. So he is ever on the lookout for the right person to zombify: “A safer specimen for ZOMBIE would be somebody from out of town. A hitch-hiker or a drifter or a junkie … or from the black projects downtown. Somebody nobody gives a shit for.” Of course, he is the one who most closely resembles a zombie, his thoughts fragmenting ever toward nothingness, his humanity withering to naught. But every person who ever fantasized about zombie scenarios—and that was obviously a popular pastime—were doing as Q__ P__: reducing everyone around them to mere playthings. It’s every bit as unsettling as a stinking, rotting horde—just in a different way: even when you thought life was wonderful and you were safest, “good” people were only a few steps away, imagining you as a zombie, running you over, blowing your head off, setting you on fire, violating you, just as Q__ P__ did, in ways that may have once seemed inconceivable.
George R.R. Martin
These are epic fantasy books. The zombies appearing herein are called wights and are controlled by an evil race of ice warrior-magicians called the White Walkers. The wights are similar to actual zombies in that they present with varying degrees of decomposition, but what is altogether preposterous here is that they are predominantly cold-weather creatures: an army of the dead raised by the White Walkers and looking on the world of men through icy blue eyes. I like the books—well, the first three—but feel like it would be irresponsible not to remind survivors this is all fantasy. There are, for instance, dragons in the books, and zombies do not all have bright blue eyes to identify them and they become sluggish in the cold and even freeze solid, as any person would at certain temperatures. Such an army, in other words, would be quite sluggish and ineffective indeed.
In the Canadian town of Pontypool, people are losing the ability to communicate, getting stuck on repetitions of phrases and words until they are spewing nothing but incoherent gibberish and finally even failing at that. This is very frustrating for them, so they lash out and kill those who can still communicate by biting their mouths, jerking so hard that the entangled parties’ necks are both snapped. The book is full of confusing passages and narrative leaps too big to follow. You constantly want to shout at the writer: “You’re alienating me!” But you can’t. Why? Because this is a book. And you can’t communicate with a book except through another book. It’s so frustrating at times that, if Burgess suddenly walked into the room, you might lash out and bite his mouth off—or at least his writing fingers. And there you have it: the novel’s conceit is reinforced as the reader experiences more and more of his own semiotic frustration (i.e., the reader is zombified). All I can really say is that it was probably an interesting enough artistic experiment for someone living in times of plenty. However, to anyone who has ever seen an actual zombie, it would seem that the loss of a foot is infinitely more frustrating for them than the loss of language. In fact, that’s part of what makes them so terrible—that they don’t even care that they can’t communicate. The book’s big idea just doesn’t hold up.
The Walking Dead (comic series)
Robert Kirkman et al.
The Walking Dead was a popular comic series later made into a wildly popular TV show (see below) and several videogames (also see below). It was a very important work of the pre-Collapse canon, particularly in the latter years before the end there. I read it all in one burst after the fact, here in my bibliobunker, but I imagine readers who followed it in its time must have gotten a real dose of the zombic experience in the slow trickle of the issues, 20 pages of a few things happening followed by a whole month of nothing but the passage of time. It must have mirrored their own slow accretion of knowledge about the ever-changing world, as they aged almost in real time with the characters. Indeed, younger readers would have grown up with the boy, Carl, knowing as much about his future as they did their own. The writers used this medium to commendable effect.
But TWD did get certain elements wrong and regularly featured scenes that prove the pre-Collapse culture was wildly out of touch with the way things would actually turn out to be. Consider, for example, the following dialogue between two of the longstanding main characters:
Rick: We never knew how good we had it. Never knew how close we were to losing it. If only I’d known. I’d have watched so much TV.
Maggie: No you wouldn’t have. You wouldn’t have watched any.
Rick: You’re right.
This is the sort of reflection the writers regularly resolved just a little too easily. Lots of people engaged in similar conversations early on, but the difference is that even the really dumb ones would have immediately realized Rick wasn’t just making a throwaway joke about how he should have better appreciated R&R, but that he was acting like that was all he was doing while he was actually posturing as someone who had emerged from naiveté into some new enlightenment, thereby trying to retroactively absolve Younger Rick—and by proxy his whole culture—of a ubiquitous and very prominent sin. This is how that conversation would have gone in an actual zombie world:
Rick: We never knew how good we had it. Never knew how close we were to losing it. If I’d only known—
Maggie: Come on, Rick. You knew. We all did. And we still squandered what we had.
Rick: You’re right. I don’t know why I was saying all that.
Maggie: Because it’s easier than the truth.
I don’t really fault the writers for not anticipating the full depth of our regrets, for being well-adjusted members of a civilization yet on the eve of annihilation. But I think it is important for someone in my position to point out the small ways we tended to make slightly rosier assessments of ourselves than were strictly warranted. We were all involved in a continuous act of myth-making. A big part of that was allowing ourselves to believe in our own ignorance and innocence. But the truth is that we were aware of most of the things we were doing to make the world a worse place—like obsessing over celebrity scandals or football statistics while allowing political players were busy fragmenting our communities, for instance—eventually came back to haunt us during The Collapse.
Culture, like TWD, was not simply reflecting the truth; culture was complicit in its realization.
This is set up as a journal. A Navy officer survives the zombie apocalypse, recounting all that happens, as the title says, day by day. It’s good in the sense that the writer is clearly working through the ins and outs of resource accumulation, community building, battle tactics, etc. But there are some significant problems. Besides the clunky expositional devices shoehorned into so many of the journal passages, there is a breakdown between zombies and … radioactive super-zombies. I could entertain the possibility that zombies might be irradiated. For instance, I recently found a newspaper article that says, after the Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown in Japan, radioactive wild boars proliferated in the prefecture. But these pigs weren’t reconstituted into super-pigs, just as humans wouldn’t be reconstituted into super-humans. The poor boars probably just felt shitty most of the time and were too dangerous to eat. But this radioactive super-zombie phenomenon exposes the main problem not only of this book but of much zombie literature in general: so many of the writers can’t inhabit their own chosen metaphor for very long without either getting bored by it or giving into that childish inner voice (alternately, the guiding voice of the publishing industry itself) that thinks stories always need newer, glitzier, more pyrotechnic external complications in order for the story to advance. But that’s exactly it. Life, at least in this world, does not usually advance toward any kind of catharsis but only advances. Sometimes it starts out seeming like maybe the zombies will become something more than zombies—radioactive super-zombies, or zombies2—but in the span of any one generation, they always turn out simply to be zombies. And, believe me, that is quite enough until this zombie problem is solved or resolved or dispatched or, more likely, every last one of us joins them or dies.
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War
One thing that is common among zombie books is that they often get bogged down trying to inject a broader perspective into smaller personal narratives. Authors come up with annoying devices to make it make sense in the created world: a character says “so and so heard that ____,” or a radio broadcast explains all, or even more intrusively the writer just suddenly stops writing in the first person or third-person-subjective perspective and switches to a god-like omniscience. It’s annoying. So it’s nice that Max Brooks doesn’t do any of that. He just collects interviews with people all over the world who saw things unfold in their own space and time and, only through the accumulation of these stories, through patient accretion, do we piece together “what happened.” He took the idea from Studs Terkel’s monumental work on World War II—a perfect utilitarian form. The effect is very realistic, even though I’m sure some zombie fanboys would have rather he just laid it out in shitty exposition on the first page and then got on with the action—in other words, if he had written an entirely different book. That’s a rube’s perspective, however. The book is well done. The only problem I have with it is that Brooks apparently believed people would be able to work together to figure this zombie thing out and stop it. The book’s operating assumption that we would win is rooted in basic naiveté and unwarranted regard for the powers that (no longer) be. But even here I don’t fault the writer. I even find his optimism charmingly emblematic of what was going on in our culture before The Collapse. For instance, it was undoubtedly easier for the son of a very famous and wealthy writer/producer/actor—Mel Brooks was his father—to have a generally optimistic attitude about a system that, deserving as his father's fame may have been, had served his family fairly well.
Monster Island is set in Manhattan and the book features a conscious zombie qua zombie master (named Gary) and some mummy henchmen and it begs the question, “What kind of conscious mind might drive the hive mind?” The answer in short: “A petty one.” But zombies, as we have seen, are not spiteful or full of guile. Pettiness is a human trait, deriving from insecurity and protection of the ego in a hostile world, a way to pretend trivial feuds and rivalries matter in the grand scheme of things. In essence, we act like shits because acting like shits creates an illusion of primacy, allows us to divert our attention toward dumb shit that doesn’t matter so that we don’t have to face the stuff that does: like the twin specters of death and eternity. Zombies? They’re unburdened of this knowledge and, therefore, give zero fucks.
Dying to Live: A Novel of Life Among the Undead
Dying to Live reads the way its subtitle sounds: like a pulp zombie novel written by an academic who has studied the genre extensively. As such, it carefully employs all the common/cliché tropes, then adds the author’s own imprimatur or zombic twist— a twist being another of the genre’s tropes. Here, the story develops as almost every zombie novel develops—reluctant good guys survive scary zombie stuff, hesitantly settle into rebuilding a decent (albeit scaled-down and humbler) civilization, face other people who are even worse than zombies, etc.—followed by the imprimatur: the good-guy community has a burgeoning zombie puppetmaster. The book seems to me a kind of zombie-book's zombie-book—form propagating form.
There are no zombies in this book. But it is a post-apocalyptic novel of the first order, austere and realistic in its depiction of what it is like trying to survive a wasteland. It is an incredible achievement since it is so full of the kinds of things that lesser writers would quickly turn to pulp but McCarthy never does: warring factions, small bands of cannibals, endless fires on the horizons. The book is conversant with the very subconscious anxieties of a civilization that was on the brink of annihilation—that is, our own—and so it begins with a dream of a subterranean cavern in which a translucent humanoid creature comes to sip water from a pool. In a few thousand years, this may be what remains.
In Cell, there is an electronic pulse that goes out over the cellphone networks so that anyone with their phone to their ear is converted into a zombie. The opening scene is gripping and people’s reactions in the chaos during the collapse are realistic enough. Some survivors might be incredulous when they read about zombies wielding weapons like knives, but I’ve actually seen it. However, the American horror master’s vision breaks down in this book as soon as you find out zombies are congregating in large fields to act as big radio transmitters. Zombies congregate, but they are most assuredly not radios.
Edited by John Joseph Adams
The stories in this collection cover many conceptions of zombies, some reasonably serious, some fairly idiotic, and include works from a number of famous authors like Stephen King (see Cell above) and George R.R. Martin (see Game of Thrones above). But Sherman Alexie’s story strikes me most. “Ghost Dance” is about General George Armstrong Custer’s Seventh Cavalry rising from their shallow graves at Little Big Horn to kill a couple racist cops who murder two Indians on the site. The story is not Alexie’s best, but there is a strangely prophetic quality about it. As with a lot of his work, Alexie doesn’t waste time making apologies for absurdities—in short, stuff just is. Alexie jumps into the rather fantastical situation without any of the common literary feints, using the kind of matter-of-fact storytelling people associate with the indigenous oral tradition. I said it was prophetic and so it is on two levels: 1) the public, because Alexie was right that our sins would rise and kill us and 2) the private, because it so clearly echoes my own experience with the Plymouth convoy under our very own Captain Custer. Consider this:
They marched into the darkness. Edgar knew the soldiers would keep marching until they fell into a canyon or lake, or until they crossed an old road where a fast-moving logging truck might smash them into small pieces…. He knew all of these soldiers, all two hundred and fifty-six of them, would never quit, not until they had found whatever it was they were searching for.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
Jane Austin and Seth Grahame-Smith
I’m sure taking Austin’s public domain masterpiece and splicing in zombies made Grahame-Smith ungodly gobs of money as the book was very popular for a time and was soon adapted into a big-budget Hollywood movie. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a tongue-in-cheek mashup that employs zombies in a kind of literary joke. It’s a fine joke, too; though, if I'm permitted to play critic, the best parts of the joke are right there in the title and in the first line.
Here is a blurb from the back of the book: “the effluvia [is] rendered in a high southern gothic style as redolent of rotting magnolia as anything written by William Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy.” The claim goes a bit far in making these comparisons, but it is clear that Alden Bell aimed to render it so; indeed, The Reapers Are the Angels reads like a very self-conscious McCarthy impression. However, it’s forgivable—McCarthy deserved to be emulated, even if emulation is nigh on impossible and easily detectable—and here Bell employs it best when describing a setting and the rotting bodies that populate it. Then you meet … the hillbilly mutant cannibal clan. Unfortunately, the author gets impatient with the zombie metaphor and tries to gussy it up, but one can’t employ McCarthy homage in the writing of hillbilly mutant cannibals. I don’t mean shouldn’t. I mean can’t. This book is the proof.
Moody’s tome, The Four Fingers of Death, is what reviewers of old might have called a “wild … postmodern romp.” It’s about a writer distracting himself from the impending death of his wife by writing a loose novelization of a sci-fi movie from the 1960s called The Crawling Hand. The long set-up of the introduction is supposed to help justify the zany genre action to come, to make sure the intelligent reader understands that this book is supposed to be taken for high art, not mistaken for low art—and, in that way, it is quite annoying. Book One, however, is truly great. You see a Mars mission fall apart as its crew slowly succumbs to a zombifying bacterium. It’s fun and poignant, and the austerity of the Martian landscape is eerily evocative for someone who has struggled to survive in a hostile environment. Book Two? Not so good. This one loosely follows the plot of The Crawling Hand. The bacteria make it back to Earth and the severed hand of one of the astronauts ends up crawling around in the desert, killing people and giving handjobs. This is all patently absurd. Yet there is something I can’t quite shake here, some reason why the book speaks to me, though I’m still not sure what it is. Perhaps it’s just the story of the narrative's organic zombifying agent, M. thanatobacillus. A bacillus is a kind of bacterium that was often used in industrial applications and Thanatos is the ancient Greek personification for death, so maybe it just seems realistic in terms of its social commentary: of course the U.S. government and its puppetmasters would try to weaponize such a thing. Or perhaps it is something else entirely, something unrelated to the writing itself: you see, M. thanatobacillus reminds me of Poe’s M. Valdemar (see above: “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”). The rational part of my brain says it is nothing but a coincidence of the M. But there is a voice inside my head that keeps saying maybe it isn’t a coincidence at all, maybe it’s meaningful, a clue from the universe, maybe even the secret to the cure? I doubt it. I’m no cabalist, astrologist, or alchemist. But nothing is lost in pointing it out. If I’m right, maybe I will be a hero. If I am wrong, who will give a shit? There’s a good chance no one will ever read any of this anyway.
I read Zone One before The Collapse. I was already a fan of Colson Whitehead’s and remember telling several other avid readers about this book, how well it applied the tropes of zombie fiction in service of more literary aims, how organically the story and its metaphors developed page to page. I remember liking how Whitehead resisted the temptation, so common among zombie books, to front-load the material with explanations of everything. Why did they call zombie’s skels? what was a pheenie? how tenuous was the position in New York (a.k.a., Zone One)? what was the broader situation? and why did the narrator go by the name Mark Spitz? He lets you sit with this stuff. He explains only when it seems natural to do so, that is, as the narrator has occasion to think about it, that is, at appropriate times. And all this seemed somehow realer to me than clunky expositions, which were always one of the big problems of zombie books and genre literature in general.
Now? looking back on it? Well, now I see its artifice shining through. Not that I am saying artifice is bad. Not that I am saying artifice is avoidable. But what I can’t help but see now is an author trying to massage away all the common or even inherent kinks and troubling knots of the genre he chose as his guiding form and, in that very attempt—in its implied critique of the genre’s artifice—I see a deep insecurity exposed, not so much in the author as in literary writing itself, that is, in the kind of writing people used to consider “high art.” “Look how hokey that other shit is!” it seems to say. And rightly so. Most zombie bullshit was just that: hokey shit. The ideas were terrible, vapid, the wet dreams of douchebags who probably died ten seconds into the apocalypse. However, does that mean literary writing—in all its refinement, its attention to finer details, its singularity of vision, its appeals to something like deeper truths—somehow held the key to unlocking the intellectual and aesthetic potential of the zombie or anything else for that matter? No. But that seemed to be the conceit of literary writing: it established itself in opposition to, much the way tribes and nations established themselves in opposition to the Other, the Savages, the Barbarians at the gates—or, for that matter, zombies. The great insecurity of literary writing is that it might be mistaken for that other less exalted thing. It guards itself against this at all cost and, in that way, is very needful.
And yet: who ever said needfulness is a fault? I don’t think it is. We are people. We need others. Too much loneliness manifests as an illness. Banishment is death. So I see in Zone One a deeper beauty emerge from its very needfulness. Please like me, it seems to say, but for the right reasons. And what would constitute a “right reason”? Perhaps true recognition of shared humanity and frailty. This is something Whitehead captured well in the following passage about how people with Post Apocalyptic Stress Disorder (PASD) were all “marked”:
Everyone he saw walked around with a psychological limp, with a collapsed shoulder here or a disobedient, half-shut eyelid there, and that current favorite, the all-over crumpling, as if the soul were imploding or the mind sucking the extremities into itself. Mark Spitz sported this last manifestation from time to time, in maudlin moods, only unwrenching when the adrenaline straightened him out. Anyone with perfect posture was faking it, overcoming for entrenched trauma.
There is something here that reminds me so much of my Plymouth friends—and, yes, of myself. Whitehead seems to anticipate what has torn me up so many lonely nights, that one of the terrible things that happens when you are looking at a horde, whether it is coming at you, or lying massacred in a field (or, for that matter, being pulverized in the great bloody abattoir of DeComp), is to know that every one of those soul-sucked automatons once possessed the same kinds of frailties as yourself. We are all so secretly disappointed in ourselves. For so many, our final seconds seem to be the difference between heaven or hell, in that last accounting of selfhood telling you how far short of your own standards you fell. That’s why you can see it on the faces of the dead or zombies alike: if we aren’t screaming at the end, most of us are grimacing, crushed under mountains of guilt, shame, regret, duty unfulfilled. How few faces pass into the next realm or nothingness with a subtle smile, hearts open and light and free? Precious few, judging by the faces I’ve seen and all the death masks of old. Now consider the accumulation of all those final moments, those nations of disappointment and regret and loss, when you read the following passage, which describes the burning of zombie bodies accumulating against Zone One’s barricades:
Here, it burned bodies with uncanny efficiency, swallowing what the soldiers fed into it and converting it to smoke, fly ash, and a shovelful of hard material too stubborn to be entirely consumed. Hearts, mostly. That thick muscle.
Thomas S. Roche
The zombies in this book giggle and laugh maniacally. They also drive high-speed boats like pirates. This is all preposterous, of course. There is also the obnoxious braggart of a narrator who is just way too over the top in terms of his badassness. But, despite its obvious fallacies, there is something to this book. The writing isn’t weighted down with literary feints or forced passages of “meaning making.” Roche seems to be an adept writer well aware he isn’t making high art; indeed, he embraces the fact. Moreover, seeing the chaos and carnage through the eyes of his irritating man-child narrator rings somehow truer. It reminds me of so many stories I used to hear out in the wastes. Every third man used to puff himself up like this (no few among Plymouth’s crew). How’d so-and-so take out a whole horde with a single magazine of ammo and a pocket knife? Well, so-and-so didn’t, of course. But it didn’t matter: people like so-and-so sure told an exciting story that got your heart racing, one you wanted to know the end of, and those stories, wild and improbable as they were, always featured an underlying optimism about our chances; especially in times of despair, there’s something to be said for keeping these wild yarn-spinners around.
A Zombie’s History of the United States:
From the Massacre at Plymouth Rock to the CIA’s Secret War on the Undead
Dr. Worm Miller
This faux history book is (very) loosely based on Howard Zinn’s seminal A People’s History of the United States, but it amends U.S. history to include zombies at various junctures. The author makes a joke of zombies, which are most assuredly not a joke, but does manage, in homage to Zinn, to capture a particularly disturbing element of The Collapse that most of the other zombie-fiction writers didn’t even consider (or resisted because of a delusional patriotism that claimed there was no such thing as social class in America). Miller’s account of history seems like it was just cashing in on the popularity of World War Z (see above), but at least here he nails the obvious truth of the way things were always destined to play out: “In other words: the lower classes were zombie chow.”
I am going to gush a little here. This quiet little book is one of my favorites, and I suspect it didn’t receive enough attention before The Collapse; too many of us would have found it boring for a zombie novel and, in an age that valued movies more than books, too few would have thought: that would make an awesome movie!  But these are condemnations on our old culture, not the work in question.
Here, Sims’ narrator goes around with a friend looking for the friend’s undead father. In this world, zombies home in on the place where the person was happiest, so there is a terrible hope inside the living that the dead will return to places that factored into their lives together—they hope their undead loved ones were happiest with them. It’s a beautiful conception, perfectly handled, and I think any survivor could look at this and tear up a bit, wishing that the world had only come apart like this instead. The book may not have been conceived as wish-fulfillment for the heart-hurt damned, but that’s how it reads from this side of the divide.
I do find the book’s premise a bit too precious and convenient in that the zombie plague was so easy for the public to manage. As we know, it was impossible to manage. However, Sims probably realized that a chaotic plague would not be an ideal tableau for the kind of emotive and intellectual movements he plotted—in short: chaos naturally breeds schizoid thoughts and feelings—but I’m willing to forgive the plot device. Without it, we might never have gotten the wonderfully clear-eyed thinking on zombism, thoughts I wrangled with on many a night but could never myself quite articulate in coherent or linear way.
One of those things is that zombies and ghosts are “cleaved in twain, leaving both a spiritual remainder and a bodily remainder, and that these opposite supernatural energies, diverging from his death, went haunting in different directions: the one inside, the other out.”
How many times have I watched a horde pass and wondered where there spirits have gone off to or if they are simply there beyond sight, tethered by habit or a deep desire to know where it was their material selves had been trying to take them all those years.
Another of the great ideas, like many of the greatest ideas of the book, come in a footnote:
Since the outbreak, I have often reflected that the footnote is the typographic mark most emblematic of undeath. By opening up a subjacent space on the page, the footnote digs a grave in the text, an underworld in the text. The words that are banished there are like thoughts that the text has repressed, pushed down into its subconscious. But they go on disturbing it from beneath….
There is truth in that; however, it leads to truth greater yet: that the appendix is the zombiest textual element, the zombiest discursive space, the place where humanity’s proofs abide, avoided like the plague.
I’ll forgive Sims this oversight, however, primarily because I never would have even had this thought if it weren’t for his footnote about footnotes.
Fiend is about tweakers who survive the zombie plague because something in meth keeps them from turning. Thus, they will turn if they don’t get fucked-up on the regular.
When I first picked this up, I assumed it would never transcend its own gimmick, but I was wrong. This book transcends the shit out of its own gimmick. There is something about it that is very real. With everything filtered through the eyes of someone whose moods and perceptional abilities are constantly in flux, up and down, the scenes take on the quality of my own experiences. I’m not saying the book captures my experiences with meth—the only drugs I ever tried were weed, hash, mushrooms, ecstasy, cocaine, prescription opiates, and LSD—but that the frenetic descriptions do a pretty good job reflecting the mind’s basic inability to fully process horrible shit as it happens. It never slips far enough into an inner incoherence to be truly accurate, but it’s about as close as I’ve seen in the genre.
Just writing about it has got me thinking about what it was like, how you take things in, but also how so long as you keep moving, keep focusing on something else right up until you collapse, you don’t really have to deal with any of it; like if you can forestall the reckoning this way right up until the moment you die, you never have to deal with any of it. Everything is this multitude of fragmented, meaning-devoid sense impressions. You see someone get shot in the temple. He falls onto his shoulder, ear to the ground. The new divot in his skull fills with blood, bubbles up like a geothermal pool, spills over, down his cheek, down his neck. It happened, so you’re able to speak the words, but those words are emotionless, empty. Even if you say it over and over, the real reality of this shit just doesn’t catch up to you until you stop going and then, as soon as you do, the flashes of memory start to undo you. You feel like you’re a spaceship coming apart on reentry into the atmosphere. Everything is rattling apart. You can’t do anything about it. That’s how I felt when I finally found this library. Not before. But as soon as I was safe. I nearly came apart. I had to occupy myself not to. Had to keep churning. Which is probably why I turned toward reading and more reading and eventually writing all this down: just to bury that shit behind a wall of words. If you want a point, I guess that’s it. Just seems like the more I can keep going, the better.
Anyway, all I was saying is Fiend is a fine zombie book as far as naïve, pre-Collapse zombie books go. Zombies may not chuckle as Stenson supposes, but whatever. No writer is perfect, but this one must have had some kind of fucked-up insight about what was to come—or else there are just some overlaps between certain aspects of tweaking and PTSD.
The book’s writing is smooth and mostly engaging and its take on zombism, that it is a fungus of the cordyceps genus (see "Fungi" in Appendix E: "On the Natural Origins of Zombism"), plausible enough (at least prior to its later, spore-producing manifestations, which are far too grandiose in scale). However, the main premise of The Girl with All the Gifts is that there is a little zombie girl who can think and talk, an evolutionary offshoot in the midst of a trial-and-error stage of the cordyceps development. I suppose this is possible. After all, I do periodically see zombies who don’t seem zombie-like at all (see “Fucked-Up People” in Appendix A: Zombology 101), those many actually take for people moving about with the hordes, but I think, by now, I would have noticed at least one of these talking zombie kids.
René Depestre (Author), Kaiama L. Glover (Translator)
Disclaimer: I have not read this book. Neither is to be found in “All Things Zombie.” However, in anticipation of the book’s release in English—I assume it was probably on order or backorder before everything started to fall apart—Rachel, the ex-librarian, printed and included in the collection a description from the book’s publisher, which reads as follows:
Hadriana in All My Dreams, winner of the prestigious Prix Renaudot, takes place primarily during Carnival in 1938 in the Haitian village of Jacmel. A beautiful young French woman, Hadriana, is about to marry a Haitian boy from a prominent family. But on the morning of the wedding, Hadriana drinks a mysterious potion and collapses at the altar. Transformed into a zombie, her wedding becomes her funeral. She is buried by the town, revived by an evil sorcerer, then disappears into popular legend.
Set against a backdrop of magic and eroticism, and recounted with delirious humor, the novel raises universal questions about race and sexuality. The reader comes away enchanted by the marvelous reality of Haiti’s Vodou culture and convinced of Depestre’s lusty claim that all beings—even the undead ones—have a right to happiness and true love.
Movies & TV Series
Besides the literature, Rachel included in “All Things Zombie” a fairly respectable selection of zombie movies and TV shows and even a TV/DVD cart for viewing. However, as important as zombie movies undoubtedly were to the evolution of fictional zombies in American culture, they won’t do me much good here. Why? Because iZhmael no longer has electricity. The best I can do is let you know a little about each movie in the collection, what I can glean from the few original DVD cases that haven’t been replaced with clear generic ones, and some notes about those movies I remember hearing about or, in some cases, seeing before The Collapse, though I admit my memory of such things is not quite what it used to be.
All I really remember about this film is that it is set in Haiti and isn’t very good. There is a white mesmerist who turns people into zombies and uses them on his plantation. However, one scene in particular sticks out in my memory: several black slaves are turning a grinding wheel around a deep shaft. One tips over the edge and falls in. He is indifferent to his own end, doesn’t try to stop himself, just gives into gravity. The others keep churning as if nothing has happened. To me, this foreshadows DeComp and the abattoir—that is, the commodification of the body. (I have also reflected a number of times on the title itself, the way it too seems to foreshadow our own white zombie and all that he came to represent for the crew of Plymouth.)
I think this Ed Wood film was at one point been voted the worst movie ever made, but I saw it once a long time ago and found it less “worst movie ever” and more “so bad it’s sublime.” I don’t remember much, except that an old-timey horror actor, Bella Lugosi (of White Zombie fame, see above), had to be spliced in because he was actually dead by the time Plan 9 was made, which makes his presence in the film somewhat zombish in its own right.
This George Romero movie was often credited as the movie that changed the American conception of zombies away from enslaved voodoo zombies and toward the cannibalistic, self-replicating living dead that later consumed American culture (literarily and literally). A white woman named Barbra and a black man named Ben hole up in an abandoned farm house, which comes under siege by ghouls. The other characters include a couple of young lovers, whose names I don’t remember, and a family of three: a belligerent asshole of a dad, a passive mom, and a little girl who has been bitten. The siege is realistic enough, though unbelievably sanitary and virtually bloodless. But, of course, those were different times: back when America was squeamish about blood in film even as it sent men to suffer and die and kill in Vietnam over nothing and allowed racist pieces of shit to terrorize African Americans in the south and blow the brains out of good men who stood up for racial justice. In the end, Ben is the only one left. When help arrives, it’s a posse of good ole boys—all white—so of course they shoot him in the forehead.
Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things
“A young man killed in Vietnam inexplicably returns home as a zombie.” I think I saw this in a college class about political movements and art. I remember the zombie being sentient but emptied of all feeling and compassion, and the ending being very chilling, with the zombie down in his own grave, a broken ex-soldier being reclaimed by the earth.
Romero’s sequel to Night of the Living Dead. Set in a mall. The characters run around collecting whatever they want in the mall—a fantasy of American consumerism—and they have a good time doing so until some bikers show up and prove themselves more dangerous than the zombies (a new trope that would find its way into virtually every subsequent zombic depiction). I remember the zombies looked very fake and green and that the story was presented as a somewhat dark satire—you were supposed to find it funny. However, the thing I find most interesting in retrospect is that the film was so iconic that, during The Collapse, people remembered it, missed the point, took it as instructive, and actually swarmed malls, hoping to secure them and loot. So things ended up just like in the movie. Many people died in malls.
I only remember that this was an Italian movie and, if it’s the one I’m thinking about, includes a scene in which a zombie fights a shark underwater.
Some teenagers hanging out in a remote cabin find a book and read an evil spell that allows evil spirits to enter into their world. This includes a zombie or zombies coming out of the ground. I don’t remember much else except that it was bloody and had a very earthy feel to it.
“Following an ever-growing epidemic of zombies that have risen from the dead, two Philadelphia S.W.A.T. team members, a traffic reporter, and his television executive girlfriend seek refuge in a secluded shopping mall.” This was another Romero film. I never saw it but remember a zombie named Bub (or Bud?) that may have been more lucid than the others.
I am sure I saw this one, but I don’t remember much, just that the zombies are made by some military chemical and that there is a line where one of the zombies, after eating some paramedics, gets on the dispatch radio and asks them to send more paramedics. The zombies also explain that they have to eat brains because it makes death hurt less. But I might be mixing up certain details with Return of the Living Dead, Part II, which isn’t here in this collection.
I saw it but don’t remember it.
I saw it but don’t remember anything about it except that it was the kind of movie that certain people, if you said you didn’t remember anything about it, would lose their fucking shit and scream, “What?! You haven’t seen The Evil Dead II?! It’s a classic!” That always bothered me. Fanboys just couldn’t conceive of someone who had not seen every film that particular fanboy had seen. Saying you had not seen or liked something on this list was like admitting to a literature professor that you had never read or didn’t like Hamlet.
This is based on a Stephen King book. It is about people bringing their dead pets back to life by burying them in some kind of magical pet cemetery. They come back but not so nice. I think a guy buries his dead kid in it and Presto—murderous little zombie!
A remake of the original Night of the Living Dead. I saw it and liked it. It was scary and the acting fairly good at times. However, I also remember they changed things so Barbra, rather than Ben, is the last one standing. I suppose someone might say this has feminist implications in the way the original had racial implications. But I don’t remember well enough to say for sure how it all played out in the end, just that Barbra was somehow triumphant.
“A young man's mother is bitten by a Sumatran rat-monkey. She gets sick and dies, at which time she comes back to life, killing and eating dogs, nurses, friends, and neighbors.” I saw this but all I remember is that it has a disgusting scene where the protagonist pulverizes a bunch of zombies with a lawnmower (unlikely in itself) and that a lot of people thought this was hilarious and were always talking about how the director used something like 100 gallons of fake blood to make the scene. I remember seeing it as a kid and thinking it was very unrealistic. But, looking back after all I’ve seen, particularly the blood and bone and viscera of DeComp abattoir, I’m not so sure.
This was based on a videogame (see below) and the female lead was cartoonishly badass.
The best scene in this film is when the main character, Jim, wakes up from a coma and finds himself in an abandoned London. I remember wandering around at times early on, feeling every bit as alone and confused. He keeps looking for people until he finds some in a church. But they aren’t people. They are berserker zombies, infected with a virus called “Rage.” They run around all spasmodically, puking copious amounts of blood in people’s faces. I remember it being quite scary and tense even though the virus spread unbelievably quickly, so quickly it seemed unlikely that anyone could possibly survive.
No information but I think this one was based on a videogame.
“A quaint Australian fishing village is overcome by meteorites that turn its residents into the ravenous undead, leaving a small group of those unharmed to find a way out.”
Big budget remake of the 1978 Romero film. The zombies are all berserkers and fast. The mall thing didn’t work quite as well as in the original because the mall was, by then, no longer the right symbol for American materialism. In 2004, they should have used a Walmart, especially if they could have wrapped in Black Friday (the busiest—and deadliest—shopping day of the year, a kind of bacchanal or orgy of consumerist mayhem.)
This is a British comedy about an everyman named Shaun who is too unmotivated for his girlfriend’s tastes and his funny fat friend whose name I don’t remember. It seems like the characters were a little too nonchalant about the end of the world. No one acted that way when it actually happened. A lot of people died in the middle of panic attacks, unable to process what was happening, unable to run or even move. I understand it was a comedy, though, and it’s probably hard to make that kind of terror work for laughs.
“The living dead have taken over the world, and the last humans live in a walled city to protect themselves as they come to grips with the situation.” Another Romero movie. I don’t think I saw this one, but I do remember previews. The walled-in city is run by rich oligarchs while the huddled masses hunker below, doing their bidding, barely surviving. This seems, to me, like prescience. I imagine the men of Plymouth were busy risking their lives rounding up zombies, producing energy that was piped directly to some high-rise building like the one in the movie. It’s weird to me that so few works of zombie fiction realized this was the way things would go down. Of course that was the way it would happen! But then this particular kind of oversight, this inability or unwillingness to see how stratified our society actually was, was itself indicative of the deep problems we had as a country. To put a finer point on it: the fictions that dealt directly with the fall of our society tended to focus on strongmen and warlords and almost none of them seemed to realize that the truly terrible ones would be the same ones who had always been terrible, the powerful ones with the nice suits and million-dollar smiles.
“Timmy Robinson's best friend in the whole wide world is a six-foot tall rotting zombie named Fido. But when Fido eats the next-door neighbor, Mom and Dad hit the roof, and Timmy has to go to the ends of the earth to keep Fido a part of the family. A boy-and-his-dog movie for grown-ups, Fido will rip your heart out.”
“An experiment in genetic engineering turns harmless sheep into bloodthirsty killers that terrorize a sprawling New Zealand farm.”
“Six months after the rage virus was inflicted on the population of Great Britain [see 28 Days Later above], the US Army helps to secure a small area of London for the survivors to repopulate and start again. But not everything goes to plan.” I saw this one, too. Here, all the efforts of the people to reconstruct the lives they once had, lives of post-industrial abundance and luxury, fail miserably. The message was right: the people of the western world just couldn’t imagine living any other way and this paucity of imagination, this insane doubling down on the very lifestyle that had nearly wiped out humanity, was destined to kill them. Duh.
One of the sequels. There were several.
“A television reporter and cameraman follow emergency workers into a dark apartment building and are quickly locked inside with something terrifying.” This is a Spanish film.
I didn’t see Diary of the Dead, but it was another Romero movie, this one filmed from the first-person perspective with a handheld videocamera, so it probably toyed around with the idea of the camera as an objectifying and desensitizing mediating barrier between people and what was going on around them.
Based on the book (see above). I remember Robert Neville’s loneliness being fairly well drawn and that the creatures are less vampirish in the movie than in the book and more berserker-zombish, but altogether too cartoonish in their computer animated generation. This is one of the things I have come to realize: all those special effects we used to so highly value were stupid. We made all the monsters look like cartoons. I’m not afraid of a cartoon monster. I’m afraid of the one that has weight, the one that has actually been down in the dirt, that has a piece of a leaf stuck in the puncture wound on its cheek.
“After an experimental bio-weapon is released, turning thousands into zombie-like creatures, it's up to a rag-tag group of survivors to stop the infected and those behind its release.”
British TV series. “During a fictional series of Big Brother, a zombie outbreak occurs, but the house-mates are unaware of the impending doom outside of the Big Brother House.”
I remember reading that there was a good British zombie film from the perspective of the zombie that was made with a tiny budget, like hundreds of dollars—rather than millions or even thousands—and I think this might be it.
“Two high school boys discover an imprisoned woman in an abandoned mental asylum who cannot die.” I didn’t see this one, but I don’t like the sound of it. I suspect there is some quasi-moral investigation about the lines between rape and zombiefucking and all I can say is I hope that the filmmakers treated the subject seriously and did not, in normal Hollywood style, objectify this trapped undead girl while simultaneously feigning to do the opposite.
TV series, 2010—
Based on the comicbook series (see above). I saw some of these. I remember liking the show in some ways, but I also remember characters stabbing knives through zombie skulls with the greatest of ease. That doesn’t work very well. The eyehole? Sure. But not the forehead. Most people can’t even get enough pressure to get one through the ear and that’s if the damn thing is being still, which they almost never are. However, I do remember an episode in which a bad guy bashed a couple important characters’ heads in with a baseball bat and, in retrospect, how realistic the effects were, particularly the way one of them kept kneeling there, an eye bulging out of its socket, trying to say something but too late for coherence, the last firings of neurons seeking pathways already destroyed. It was haunting, nauseating, but very true to form.
No information. But I remember seeing it and thinking it was pretty funny. It had Woody Harrelson and Bill Murray in it and I loved both of them as actors. I also remember the characters referred to each other not by their names but by the name of the city they’d come from. In my experience, very few people kept their old names. It was just easier to let go of everything else when you let go of yourself first.
A Norwegian one in which zombie Nazis rise from the snow and kill a bunch of young people vacationing in a mountain cabin. I remember seeing it and finding it very disturbing, but now I think back and remember the zombies still respecting their military ranks after death, which is absurd. I’ve seen soldier zombies, but never so much as a whole platoon of them. They have always matriculated into the larger hordes. I think this is because most of them disregarded commands and went AWOL as soon as—or even before—they realized this couldn’t actually be contained.
“A group of slackers face an army of zombies. The Cuban government and media claim the living dead are dissidents revolting against the government.”
“Four friends travel to an abandoned cabin in the woods for an exciting and romantic getaway. They discover the book of NECRONOMICUM and unknowingly turn everyone into flesh possessing demons…. EVIL HEAD brings you talking taxidermy, chainsaws, demons, and a gangbang with possessed trees.” Rachel must have found this DVD in a nearby home or at a sex shop I haven’t come across in my own explorations of the area. That zombies were even found in porn says something about our culture and our affinity for the creatures.
“The personalities of two former baseball players clash as they traverse the rural back roads of a post-plague New England teeming with the undead.” I saw this one and found it innovative in its time. In retrospect, something about it seems very true to experience. I remember one scene in which the more sullen of the two, the pitcher, wakes up alone in a car to a young female zombie trying to reach him through the window. He begins to masturbate while looking at her t-shirted breasts pressing against the glass, but it’s not so much comical as it is sad and full of real loneliness of a kind that most zombie films missed.
Very loosely based on the novel (see above). I saw it and remember the zombies being way too fast and, not only that, mounding up on each other like ants to climb a high wall surrounding Jerusalem. Much of this looked very cartoonish. In reality, you want them to be cartoons, but they are anything but.
A sequel to the above movie about Nazi zombies in Norway.
“A talented mechanic prepares to battle his way through hordes of flesh-eating monsters after his sister is kidnapped on the eve of a zombie apocalypse.” I remember seeing a preview for this on a streaming film website and thinking it was interesting that the people used zombie methane to fuel their vehicles. No other filmmakers or writers that I knew of tapped into this idea of the zombie as a self-propelled packet of methane. In retrospect, given DeComp, it seems one of the most prescient films of the genre.
One of the major action stars of my time, Arnold Schwarzenegger, is a dad, and his daughter is slowly turning into a zombie and he decides to keep her alive and protect her until the end. I saw it and I remember thinking, even then, that some of it was done pretty well and realistically but that the very premise was somehow off the mark. Now I know what it was. We lived in a culture in which the middle class was actively fetishizing the raising of children. It went beyond simply looking at children as perpetuating our genes or simply loving our kids and to a whole other degree of creepiness. We treated kids as precious little jewels. I don’t know how many times a character in some shitty movie lost a child and said some version of, “The worst thing on earth is for a parent to lose a child.” I always disagreed. The worst thing on earth was for someone who felt that way to justify anything—killing other people’s kids, genocide, even the very destruction of the planet—in the name of shining that precious little jewel. Whole cottage industries had built up this idea and justified spending ungodly gobs of money on shining that precious little jewel. At any rate, all I am saying is Maggie may have tapped into that part of our culture, but the irony of what actually happened would have freaked all those people out and left them feeling quite empty indeed. While many did die trying to protect their kids, there were an awful lot of ex-parents who told stories about how hard they had tried to save their kids. “There was just nothing I could do” became a cliché. This was the truth of our culture. Americans told ourselves we were the best parents in the history of the world. But there are a lot of kidless parents out there. And a lot of zombie kids.
“A Walking Dead spin-off, set in Los Angeles, following two families who must band together to survive the undead apocalypse.”
“While a zombie virus breaks out in South Korea, passengers struggle to survive on the train from Seoul to Busan.” I saw this one at $5-movie-and-beer night at a theater pub not too long before The Collapse. It was very tense, but the whole time I was sitting there, I was mainly wondering if Korea was experiencing similar existential crises as we were and to what extent that was tied to the North or if it was something more fundamental, something in the experience of late stage-capitalism and materialism. Honestly, I remember thinking the movie was pretty good, but I got pretty drunk, and came away mainly believing that, when things finally came apart for our advanced technological societies, they would probably come apart this quickly. It’s true. They did.
Based on a novel (see above). I didn’t even know it was made into a movie until I saw it here with the other DVDs, but I’m not surprised as the book was written in such a way that suggests its author was trying to make it an easy adaptation for film.
I am glad Rachel collected some videogames here as it was a rapidly expanding narrative form that shouldn’t be overlooked, one that offered at least the potential for a new kind of immersive interactivity. Most titles failed to fully exploit this aspect, choosing rather to force players into rigid and predictable constructs in which each level ended with a boss and each boss more difficult than the previous, but the medium was clearly powerful. Unfortunately, as with movies, I have been unable to play the games collected here, but, while I wasn’t what you would call an avid gamer, I did play a couple of them before The Collapse or at least remember the titles and a bit about them.
This is one of the games found on a videogame bundle disc. I played this as a kid and remember that it was very frustrating because the character could only get hit a couple times before he died (which is actually far more realistic than most games). I don’t remember much else except that there were a number of other monsters and the main character was a knight in armor who liked to hurdle things.
Rachel left a note saying she found this massive collection of games at a nearby house, in the bedroom of a kid who apparently had quite a collection going. It includes a total of 26 Resident Evil titles for a number of different gaming systems dating all the way back to 1996. I played the first of these games as a child and remember the atmosphere was quite scary and that I constantly found myself outnumbered and surrounded by zombies. However, I lost interest as soon as other types of less believable monsters appeared (i.e., some kind of tongue-lashing devil) and never finished the first game nor bothered to play any of the others nor to watch the movies (see above).
Based on a popular World War II game. We zombified everything, even history that was already plenty bloody and horrific.
Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare
Based on the TV show (see above), which was based on the comicbooks (see above).
This was the only videogame I ever played in my thirties. A friend let me borrow his game system because he said it was very artful. He was right about that. It’s about a guy escorting a girl through zombie and road agent territories because she is immune and might represent a cure to the plague.
The zombies were unrealistic in that some of them used echolocation, which is flat-out stupid because people can’t become infected and suddenly inherit an entirely different sensory apparatus. But there was a magic to the game. I remember a moment in which, after many trials and tribulations, the characters arrive in an abandoned building. At one point, the girl runs ahead. You have catch up to her because you are supposed to be protecting her and you know there are bad things out there. So you race after her and when you find her she is on a balcony, looking out at the ruins of an abandoned courtyard as the golden sunlight filters through trees. She is mesmerized, watching a family of giraffes walk through. Where did they come from? You never know. Maybe they escaped from a zoo. But here they are. The most artful thing about the scene, however, the thing that really takes advantage of the videogame medium, is that the girl will just stand there watching as long as you let her. There is a sense that you can relax here, settle into the peace. But it is in your nature, as a gamer, to get bored with nice little subtleties and move on. So you break the spell. It just reminds me of so many times in life when I had a moment I could have better inhabited, idle moments I should have settled into and appreciated more. Now it is all gone and, rather than beautiful, sublime things, all I can seem to think about are zombies.
Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare
No information other than the picture that appears on the disc. The zombies don’t seem realistic but, then, neither do the plants.
I remember playing one of the games in this series one night with a friend a long time ago. If I’m not mistaken, it was very easy to get surrounded and fairly realistic. I also seem to remember beating zombies to death with a giant dildo. But I could be conflating this with a different game. I think using a dildo as a weapon was an almost cliché joke in our time. I’m not sure what that says about us as a culture.
The Walking Dead: A New Frontier
A follow-up to other videogames (see above) based on the TV show (see above) based on the comicbook series (see above). The Walking Dead seems to be a self-replicating zombie of its own sort.
Rachel also included a small sampling of zombie-themed music as well as a small portable radio, an ample supply of batteries, and a nice pair of headphones. Here is the complete list:
None of the songs are about zombies, just the band name.
The Evil One, 1981
“I Walked with a Zombie,” “Creature with the Atom Brain”
Rock prodigy Roky Erickson was a horror-movie fiend, which is why these two songs are named after early zombie movies. The only lyrics in “I Walked with a Zombie” are “I walked with a zombie, I walked with a zombie, I walked with a zombie, last night.”
I’m so glad Rachel had a copy of this. This is the first album I ever owned and I can still remember the backup dancers behind Michael Jackson in the music video, their faces heavily made up as if decomposing, their clothes tattered and torn, all of them defying the stiffness of rigor mortis, all of them getting down. Even as I transcribe these lyrics, I can’t help but sing them aloud, and as soon as I hear the words coming from my own mouth, I feel myself transported back to my youth, a time before adulthood, a time before the horrors of this world:
It's close to midnight
And something evil's lurking in the dark
Under the moonlight
You see a sight that almost stops your heart
You try to scream
But terror takes the sound before you make it
You start to freeze
As horror looks you right between the eyes
Gore Obsessed, 2002
I tried to listen to this thrash (?) metal song, but the vocalist is guttural and basically incomprehensible. I think he might very well be saying “pit of zombies” during what might very well be the chorus, but I didn’t listen to the song long enough to verify.
Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, 2008
“Die, Zombie, Die,” “I, Zombie”
This collects several older White Zombie albums into one. It’s important to note that the band name was taken from the film White Zombie (see above), and the album title is taken from a 1974 zombie movie, and two song titles include the word zombie. So it is definitely zombie-heavy music. But there is nothing to be learned in the lyrics. I don’t mean nothing about zombies. I mean nothing about anything. For instance:
I, zombie, duplicating
I, zombie, eliminating
I, zombie, fucking you
I, zombie, never through
Kanye West (feat. Bon Iver, Rick Ross, Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj)
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, 2010
This song, like the album itself, is way more complex than a lot of people may have realized. It evokes all kinds of monsters but at the heart of every verse is that more human monstrosity, the uncontrolled id—as if to say all these monsters may be scary as hell but people? People are out of fucking control. As Jay-Z says:
Sasquatch, Godzilla, King Kong, Loch Ness
Goblin, ghoul, a zombie with no conscience
Question: what do these things all have in common?
Everybody knows I'm a motherfucking monster
The Best of Cranberries: 20th Century Masters (Millennium Collection), 2010
If my memory serves me correctly, this popular song originally from the mid-90s was inspired by an Irish Republican Army bombing in London that led to the deaths of a couple kids. It seems to condemn partisan murder as a zombish lack of conscience. This to me is absurd because “their tanks and their bombs and their bombs and their guns” are all uniquely human. For all their faults, zombies at least have the decency to kill children right up close, with their own hands and teeth, rather than from a safe distance, deluding themselves into believing that acts of violence and war can somehow be bloodless.
 Translation by Steven Mitchell, 2004.
 Translation by William Morris & Eirikr Magnusson, 1892.
 Translation by Turrell Wylie in “Ro-Langs: The Tibetan Zombie,” 1964.
 One suspects black Americans with ties to Haiti had probably already introduced the concept, just not to the elite circles of publishers and readers that white Americans “counted” as being capable of valid introductions. Strange how this seems a sort of zombification, disregarding not only of the validity but the existence of a whole people’s wealth of experience and knowledge, casually erasing or wiping clean these mental properties that make up so much of what most people consider “humanity.”
 Before The Collapse, novels were more and more often praised for being “cinematic,” which meant they were written in such a way that would translate easily to screen. This always bothered me. If the loftiest praise a book could get was that it would be perfect for a completely different format, it seems to me dead on arrival. I hated the cinematic books, always yearning for books that did what only books could do—all media should be this way, indelibly their own. Some would say I was simply out of touch with my own culture. True. I always was. But I would like to remind my reader of an inconvenient truth: that same culture is now dead.