Zombie Love: Chewing on the Entrails of Genre

Contemporary Zombie Narrative Meets Horror
by Mark Williams

Our culture is littered with corpses, splattered with innocent blood, and relentlessly pursued by the revenants of its own tortured past…

I want to explore the way we bring the darker corners into the light. I want to consider contemporary Horror through the seemingly vacant, unblinking eyes of one particular subspecies: Zombie narratives. I’m talking primarily about Horror films and the differentiation and continuity between contemporary Horror and the Gothic tradition, and secondarily about contemporary Horror literatures. Since The Gothic and Horror are both simultaneously generic modes and rhetorical devices to be used for other social purposes, I’m also inevitably talking about culture in general. But do these things still carry their historical meanings when we see them now compared to previous decades?

…the mud-caked feet of the undead trudge towards us…

…their jaws work relentlessly in blank-eyed, impossibly patient yet endlessly eager anticipation of the inevitable moment when we tire…

Zombies are everywhere. They were apparently the reason a young man crashed a stolen truck in California in April; he lost control of the vehicle he’d stolen because he was trying to shake them off; we’re all getting overrun by zombies, they’re everywhere. So what do zombies actually mean as a concept and a narrative trope? Does the presence of Zombies within a narrative convey particular and specific meanings, meanings which are in-themselves complete or understood to the audience- or are their meanings contingent and context-dependent, like the skin colour and gender of a narrator or lead character in a detective novel or fantasy TV series? (I am aware that throwaway comparison deserves much more space. Bear with me, there is method in my maddeningness.)

I recently read an article on Alternet by Leslie Savan, originally published by The Nation, which asked what cultural politics we can take from watching The Walking Dead depending on whether we view the central Novum of the story (Suvin), its extended metaphor, as representing the logical result of left or right wing ideology (possibly ‘gone mad’). The article raised the central problem of interpreting cultural politics in a way which reminded me of the online disputes over political ambivalence in Christopher Nolan’s Batman films—it appears largely to reside more with audience projection on the qualities of the basic form than it does on the form’s relationship to its conceptual content. I can’t add to the Walking Dead debate yet as I haven’t seen the series or read the comic book series it’s based on, but I mention my own current distance from the series to forward the central point: without knowing the specific details, does a given Horror trope, such as the Zombie Apocalypse, actually forward a specific set of readings in-itself. (ie, if you’ve seen one Zombie Apocalypse have you ‘seen them all’?)

Extending this to the common and repetitive structures of Horror narratives in general, can we say that the enactment of similar scenarios is actually conveying repeated meanings, or is the central ‘Horror plot’, the repeated novum, actually secondary to the meaning of Horror fictions?

greyed flesh, ingrained with the dust of unknown roads, split by deep gouges which never run clear, half-clogged with tainted blood…

…hands with torn fingernails, ripped palms and broken digits that still grasp and clutch and grab and grip and hold on and pull you down…

The Horror, The Horror. The Gothic as a mode has been persuasively analysed in terms of both its subversive or radical conceptual content and, simultaneously, the essentially reactionary and conservative meanings which Gothic plots impose upon that content (see José Monleon’s A Specter is Haunting Europe: A Sociohistorical Approach to the Fantastic, which examines the fantastic and Gothic as a genre of the Enlightenment; also David Punter The Literature of Terror, pt 1: The Gothic Tradition; and Vic Sage and Allan Lloyd-Smith on ‘Postmodern Gothic’ in Modern Gothic: A Reader). I am sympathetic to the directions of both readings because I enjoy the ambiguity of Gothic narratives which don’t fully respond to either radical or reactionary readings but tease out elements of both. I now want to use the Zombie Apocalypse as a conceptual frame for understanding contemporary Horror, and the Zombie as a structuring metaphor for the transformation of ‘Horror’.

Horror is a genre which engenders specific expectations in its readership: something disruptive occurs within a Horror narrative which upsets the established order of the world. Sometimes this has already happened before the story begins, although then it is often a signal things are going to get even worse or perhaps there will be flashbacks to show glimpses of the traumatic transition. A Horror narrative can also broadly fall into either Science Fiction or Fantasy categories — I’m here following the distinctions drawn by Farah Mendlesohn in Rhetorics of Fantasy (2008) and her introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, where she explains the structural and stylistic characteristics of SF and Fantasy as modes, not genres.

Let’s speculate. It may be suggested that contemporary Zombie narratives are a particular case in the development of Horror which have made a transition from connoting a quite peculiar set of cultural expectations and prejudices to being received as a more generalised expression of postmodernity. I’ll address the dubious origins of the Horror zombie in a moment and focus for now on the contemporary Zombie Apocalypse in its full g(l)ory.

eyes barely visible in the ruins of faces animated by intense hunger…

…half-broken teeth gnashing and tearing at anything still living, passing the meat down to digestive tracts exposed to the horrified eyes of their victims…

The Hungry Void. In the Zombie Apocalypse, zombies are a walking, collective void into which we can project meaning based on whatever we make of their dominant characteristics: if we fear their uniformity of behaviour, they are a symbol of nightmarish conformity (which might be Left or Right); if we fear their transgression of relationship norms, a family member suddenly hungry for familial flesh, then they are a subversion of ‘The Family’, a perversion of ‘Natural’ ties (which also might be tinged with the rhetoric of either Left or Right); if we fear their presence in inner cities then they might be a symbol of class and race conflict (which might ((both)) be Left or Right, depending on how it’s presented-or-perceived)…
And so on. (For a stronger reading of the politics of The Walking Dead see Salon, but I would emphasise that this is a reading about the characters of the series and their representational quality in expressing dubious cultural politics; in this article, Zombies are supplementary to the reading of skin colour and gender and remain, in-themselves, still largely empty). As we know Joss Whedon made a memorable contribution to the politicisation of Zombies during the last US election, but the metaphorical Zombie invoked remains a (threatening) absence of meaning.
We might argue that the contrary potential interpretations placed on the phenomenon of ‘Zombie Apocalypse’ are necessitated by the brute emptiness of the central trope: Zombies do not express social purpose, so, although we can count eating brains|flesh|people as a purpose, in terms of meaning, their meaning (their expressiveness) is that they embody social purpose-less-ness and the aggressive breaking down of social purpose. In a way they are representatives of a malignant conception of entropy; they exist as decaying, broken things whose every effort seems to be to break you down into fodder for themselves. They conceptually crossbreed the roles of bacteria and humans in life-cycle diagrams; their predation makes dead prey into a combined disease-vector and top carnivore.

Perhaps contingency and emptiness are the essential qualities of the Zombie Apocalypse. In that context, I’m particularly intrigued by the mash-up novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Graeme-Smith. Jacob Murphy has written an article on the novel for the journal Alluvium comparing it, and the subsequent sequels and spin-offs published by Quirk Books, to remix culture and postmodernist parody and pastiche. In an article on the mashup video form, Paul J. Booth suggests we consider the remixing of visual content as a mobilisation of multiple time frames or chronotopes; we can certainly suggest that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies meets this criterion. Centrally, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a really interesting experiment in verbal temporality, where the appearance of the zombies, and the appearance of Seth Graeme-Smith’s pulp-prose describing their incursion, are twin intrusions into the world (and prose) of Jane Austen.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies stages a classically postmodernist and Literary Theoretical confrontation between ‘low’ contemporary culture-as-Pulp, versus ‘high’ culture-as-Literature, suggesting obvious readings which link the zombies directly to Marxian or psychoanalytic readings — they can be the return of workers repressed from Austen’s original novel or the representatives of contemporary consumer culture besieging a cultural ‘Classic’ from within. (I also think the book should have a preface saying ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies would have included “and Ninjas” in the title but the essence of ninja lies in stealth’.)

The main mash-up going on in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is that of style and content; it works as a mobilisation of the principles of key postmodernist theories such as intertextuality, deconstruction and appropriation, and to that extent seems to invite further contribution and further experiment. The novel also plays on the idea that a Zombie Apocalypse has a narratively specific but aesthetically neutral (and historically non-specific) politico-cultural meaning which can simply be ‘mashed’ into any other fictional world to reproduce itself. Like the bite of the zombie, any classic out-of-copyright text might next find itself being infected and becoming similarly zombified: in a way it seems to be saying that postmodernist Literary logic is the mad scientist trope which makes zombie-novels…and that this is part of the fun.

In terms of its experiment, in producing a new reading of ‘classic’ texts the alternation of bourgeois marriage rites and fending off the zombie apocalypse seems to provide a perfectly appropriate juxtaposition of elements and styles in a way that one of Quirk Books’ follow-up texts, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, for me seemed to fall a little short. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is Austen spiced with a zombie sub-plot which seems to directly offset a specific aspect of Austen’s writing: decorum and class; conversely Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters would, I think, have done better to include less Austen and a lot more of the Hodgson-Lovecraft inspired monsters, rather than attempting to balance them out. The nature of mash-ups is that they are an experiment with specific ingredients, and I think the success of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is due partly to the relative flexibility (and popularity) of Zombies as a plot device.

(Sense and Sensibility and Sword and Sorcery anyone? — It could be ‘a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Novel of Social Etiquette and Ogres’.)

As if to underline the centrality of meaning-less-ness to Zombie apocalypse plots Graeme-Smith seems to stick firmly to the George A. Romero line on the putative causes of the outbreak: characters speculate on the puzzle of what could have caused it.

The comic book Marvel Zombies, written by Robert Kirkman, but a spin off from Mark Millar’s Ultimate Fantastic Four, is another form of mash-up text (see also Marvel wikia). This time the zombie scenario completely subverts the moral imperatives and character relationships of the superheroes who have become Zombies, but, crucially, only while they are hungry (for human flesh), resulting in a juxtaposition of their raging zombie drives with established characterisation of them. In this comic book, Zombie Apocalypse functions as an exchange with the formal demands of superhero continuity to establish a kind of counter-continuity of its own in tension with the expectations and demands of the superhero narrative form. Somewhat after the fashion of the New Weird the tension is ultimately resolved by the plot in an inevitable bloodbath which results in the creation of a synthesis when the zombies confront and eat the Silver Surfer, and using the powers this gives them, confront and eat Galactus as well. In a development which we might term Zombie Continuity, the ‘surviving’ Marvel Zombies who have eaten Galactus then take on his powers collectively and go out into the universe to devour other worlds. This also fulfils the necessary narrative pressures of the superhero form and the Zombie Apocalypse in their drive to self-iterate and create space for spin-offs, sequels and further narrative exchanges.

A novel which I think forms an interesting precursor and comparison for both Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Marvel Zombies is 1980s pulp Horror novel Assassin (1988) by Shaun Hutson. Assassin is related to these as mash-up texts in that it throws together incongruous plot elements, but is distinguished in that it is not attempting ironic commentary or pastiche of these elements, but uses them straightforwardly to convey a pulp narrative fusing them. Assassin is the story of a group of gun-toting zombie gangsters who spark a full blown gang war across London, coincidentally at a time when a Manson-Family-type anarchist group are murdering wealthy Londoners. Hutson blends explicit sex and extreme violence with fast paced car chases and technically meticulous descriptions of firearms wielded by both living and undead killers.

Hutson’s zombies are different from the Romero-zombie mould which defines the other mash-up texts in that there is an explicitly supernatural plot device — appearing momentarily in a very brief prologue — which causes them to be reanimated. Presumably because of this they exhibit no hunger for living flesh but instead indulge in violence and sadism, stealing faces to wear in public as they hunt down the gangland leader who killed them. Hutson’s is a Horror narrative played for shocking violence and grotesquerie. What strikes me as interesting is the point at which the pulp narrative fusion of Hutson’s technique overlaps with the postmodernist pastiche practice of combining zombie tropes to create incongruity and tension.

At a particular point in both the non-ironic narrative of Assassin and the more postmodernist ones of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Marvel Zombies, each narrative must achieve a balance or drive which will encourage the reader to invest more time. To that extent, the incongruity of the mash-up and its critical content must become secondary to generating something new from the synthesis of elements, just like the central impetus of Hutson’s pulp prose; the interaction of the concepts must itself become a relationship, even though that relationship must constantly be breaking down in the reader’s awareness of the separation of forms.

To briefly borrow from Mark Bould’s analysis of China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, Zombie narratives are the intrusion of one set of audience expectations into another, contrary one, which produces a point of crisis. That allusion needs a little explanation; here goes: In Perdido Street Station, Miéville uses the simultaneous equations (x+yz)(x+y=z) to explain a theory of crisis regarding the distinction between a wholly alien mind, a spider creature call the Weaver (x), with no rational ‘consciousness’; a synthetic or robotic mind,the collective AI called the Construct Council (y), which has no ‘unconscious’; and a human mind (z) which, by implication, possesses the ‘missing’ qualities of the other two—the crisis emerges because none of the minds is incomplete, the equations (x+yz)(x+y=z) cannot be resolved and, from a mysterious device called a crisis engine, energy is produced. Mark Bould takes this scene to explain a key aspect of Fantasy Theory. He argues that the tension between these equations (and forms of subjectivity) can represent the central tension of form which determines the reading or reception of Fantasy fictions: fantasy objects, creations, and peoples are accepted as if they were real while simultaneously being accepted as utterly impossible (x+yz)(x+y=z)—reading Fantasy emulates a crisis in representation.

The Zombie Apocalypse and zombie tropes already do this as fantasy forms but my consideration here is whether zombie mashups then also add a layer of their own distinctive and unique meta-fantasy to this regarding what the Zombie means in-itself. The textual constructs emphasise their pre-existing status as conventions as if they could simply be played off against one another, seemingly deadening the pressure of authorship, yet at the same time they emphasise authorship to an almost absurd extent, making every aspect of the text about the interaction of author and reader.

So, although we already know that the Zombie Apocalypse is a rhetorical trope which can carry all sorts of content, its usage is so highly charged and specific as to necessarily provoke an overburdening of meaning in the audience: the Zombie has become so pervasively used and useful for rendering the Horror of meaninglessness in the world that this has become a meta-reference for the meaninglessness of Horror. This is perhaps because the primary quality of the central Thing, the threatening thing-ness of the Zombie, is that it is basically any and/or all of us stripped of living meaning and invested with hunger and movement. If we think of Shaun of the Dead versus Zombieland what tends to stand out is that their comedic and parodic qualities sit around the essential void which the zombies open up buit the void remains there afterwards… And yet the form will reproduce around that void-making core.

The Oatmeal has a comic on Zombie Apocalypses that presents the repetitive and cyclical nature of the narrative as a joke, which incidentally might be extended to the logic of many other contemporary Horror narratives, shutting down the potential of the form. It’s worth noting that this narrative is also the general outline for Mad Scientist Horror plots, so it’s actually opening up another strand as well. Yet Horror films (and Zombie narratives) are still made — and we need to remember that using the Zombie Apocalypse trope for postmodernist pastiche only serves to revive it and send its still-rotting corpse after us with renewed vigour: see David J. Schow’s Zombie Jam which collects some of his excellent zombie stories with a touch of self-reflexivity.

Now it’s necessary to examine where this self-replicating, endlessly re-iterated meaninglessness we call the Zombie Apocalypse has actually come from to become such a seemingly natural expression of postmodernity.

…from everywhere and nowhere, their numbers seem to grow from one to infinite, exceeding the living population of the planet, limited only by the unknown qualities of the mysterious forces that animate them, their numbers expand constantly to fill the space we leave as we run for our lives…

…emptying out the spaces of our lives leaves them with more spaces to fill, more hiding places…

History as Living-Dead. There is something of a disconnect between the usage of zombies described above and the history and evolution of the term, and its connection with The Gothic. Zombie is a term which draws together a series of linkages formed by what Paul Gilroy terms the Black Atlantic, the cultural exchanges which accompanied the trade in commodities like sugar, cotton and slaves, which form the history of displacement and interactions of peoples and traditions from Africa to the Caribbean.

This aspect is evident from the title alone of White Zombie, the film generally credited with bringing the term into the popular Western consciousness, which is based on William Buehler Seabrook’s book The Magic Island (1929). (In Seabrook’s life we see the same story of trauma and retreat from Western European cultural practices following the violence of the ‘Great War’ which characterised certain members of the Dada and Surrealist groups like Jarry and Artaud, and the same turn toward the Occult which interested Modernists like Yeats, which, we might infer, strongly affected his perspective on the other cultures he wrote about.) As Zombies make transition from folklore into popular culture in the 1930s they are still very much a racialised Horror trope, however, since the reanimation of the Zombie Film as the Zombie Apocalypse we have seen the appearance of the concept of Zombie Capitalism (Chris Harman), Zombie Romance (Warm Bodies), and the emergence of Zombie Culture and Zombie Ethics as metaphors.

Against the background of ubiquitous zombies, stumbling towards me from the shadows of every conceivable cultural niche, I want to speculate on the extent that we can say that Horror is now a Zombie Genre. Similar critical observations have been made about other tropes which have made the transition from The Gothic to Postmodernism by increasing stylization and self-reflexivity, so it should perhaps be surprising that popular pastiches should serve to reinvigorate and re-popularise (un)dead narrative forms. Let’s consider the affects that a selection of contemporary postmodernist Horror fictions depend on for their success.

…the trappings of life recede leaving only the accusing stare of dead eyes…

Zombie-as-Transcendental-Signifier or Ultimate-Metaphor. Perhaps another reason why the zombie seems to work so well is its relationship with the networked society. As we become more enmeshed in automated networks we find ourselves confronted in more social spheres with electronic actors whose stumbling imitation of our own social network behaviour seems to meld perfectly with the zombie. Beyond Zombie Capital, Zombie Culture there is the persistent insidious phenomenon of Zombie Prose: comment spam—those electronic voices which append themselves relentlessly to everything we do, which borrow words from other sites to wear them as they approach us. Sometimes, as in the samples below, they wear the signs of their undead status openly like seeping, exposed entrails:

{I have|I’ve} been {surfing|browsing} online more than {three|3|2|4} hours today, yet I never found any interesting article like yours. {It’s|It is} pretty worth enough for
me. {In my opinion|Personally|In my view}, if all {webmasters|site owners|website owners|web owners} and bloggers made good content
as you did, the {internet|net|web} will be {much more|a lot more} useful than ever before.
I {couldn’t|could not} {resist|refrain from} commenting. {Very well|Perfectly|Well|Exceptionally well} written!|
{I will|I’ll} {right away|immediately} {take hold of|grab|clutch|grasp|seize|snatch} your {rss|rss feed} as I {can not|can’t} {in finding|find|to find} your {email|e-mail} subscription {link|hyperlink} or {newsletter|e-newsletter} service. Do {you have|you’ve} any?
{Please|Kindly} {allow|permit|let} me {realize|recognize|understand|recognise|know} {so that|in order that} I {may just|may|could} subscribe.

From Scoop Review of Books comments (2013/04/02)

The ultimate effects of these undead words are sometimes more occluded but they are always clear in their manifold zombie-ness: they are dead metaphors, clichés and platitudes mobilised and sent out en masse to infect the online social connections of living people:

{Hi|Hello}, Neat post. {There is|There’s} {a problem|an issue} {with your|together with your|along with your} {site|web site|website} in {internet|web} explorer, {may|might|could|would} {check|test} this? IE {still|nonetheless} is the {marketplace|market} {leader|chief} and {a large|a good|a big|a huge} {part of|section of|component to|portion of|component of|element of} {other folks|folks|other people|people} will {leave out|omit|miss|pass over} your {great|wonderful|fantastic|magnificent|excellent} writing {due to|because of} this problem.

From Werewolf comments (2013/04/23)

Words and meanings are shuffled constantly but the ultimate purposes of this zombie prose are always predatory: their friendly come-on, their over-familiar greetings, chirpy demeanor and sandwiches of prose are all coming out of a predatory maw of commodity. Like the tumbling, self-piling zombies of World War Z, they batter themselves against all our defences in untold masses so that eventually, a bite will take, and a vector of infection be formed.

…dead {eyes | teeth | hands | limbs} {{stare | tear} tirelessly {at | through}}| pull down | overwhelm} our worn {defences | flesh | protection}…

…{We | You | I} have {nowhere | nothing } left to {hide | run | live for} and the {{gripping | gnashing} {hands |teeth}} {pull us | bite} down …

Since we know that Zombie modes leave only replication into the undyingly (yet both dead and still) hungry void, can we suggest that the contemporary evolution of the Horror narrative, particularly the Horror film, has been increasingly enzombifying itself? Can we mashup contemporary zombies into any other Horror mode? Let’s consider werewolf-vampire-zombie interactions with alien-devil-serial-killer narratives, alongside a few of the more esoteric combinations.

Rise of the Genre Zombie
— Or, I Know What Happened That Year to The American Zombie Alien Vampire Psycho Family Rejects in the Lost Cabin In The Woods On The Left

Consider what happens when one particular set of expectations reaches a point of excess and then, stumbling but persisting, continues to move, beyond the point where it seemed to be a living genre, past the point where it seemed to be a dead genre…and is transformed into something else again.

1: Film, Filming and Found footage: I love found-footage as a device. It really allows an essential quality of ‘literary’ Horror to emerge on the big screen: the use of subjectivity. The problems and successes are all in the execution. It has to be limited in scope and narrative; the characters have to be few and the budget, in order to work, has to at least look small. I have suggested to friends that the filmic reflexivity of Horror subcategories relating to found footage or found filming reinstate the importance of the relationship between audience and narrative expression. So, for example, Ringu/The Ring are best viewed on VHS or at least some medium of rental video which comes in a VHS-sized package; contrastingly, My Little Eye should be watched on a computer, and so on. The point of the Horror becomes more intimately joined to its means of expression via the plot to such an extent that I tend to wonder if the immersion of a cinema actually detracts from that part of the effect to some extent. That’s not to suggest that this is the only way to watch it, simply that I think these narratives suggest their own ideal viewing circumstances to the viewer.

The European film [Rec] (2007) is properly a footage-Horror first and an ‘outbreak’ narrative secondarily which implies a Zombie Apocalypse, based on a similar premise to that of 28 Days Later, happening outside the visual scope of the film, but its use of the ‘found-footage’ trope and a claustrophobic, enclosed single-building space heightens the tension between what might be happening to the world outside compared with the brutally unsettling microcosmic Horror in front of us. It creates an intense and complementary juxtaposition between the unpredictable microcosm and the unknown outside world (which is threatening because it refuses to allow the escape of the potentially affected, including the film crew).

2: Haunted Houses: From Ligea and The Fall of the House of Usher to Paranormal Activity. This is obviously related to the above mode. Paranormal Activity should have been a gift to fount footage but I found it oddly unsatisfying, spending too long on some details and not long enough on others.

3: Serial Killers: From Hannibal Lecter and john doe to their Satanic or Biblical protégés we get the problem of degree of sympathy for the devilish human. Formally, this ought to be one of the most endlessly entertaining subgenre formulations for the wide fascination aberrant psychology holds for popular media audiences, while narratively it ought be one of the most restrictive and limited. The tension between these two aspects is consistently intriguing in that we’re always left with the problem of how far to push fantasy and metaphorical expectation verses how much realism of ‘characterisation’. Serial killers are, almost by definition, not interesting characters if they are realistic, because real serial killers they are all brutally broken personalities covering and recovering the same already entrenched behavioural tracks—they are defined by their categorical failure as people. However, because they are so broken and so repetitive they are interesting symbols for wider social ills, so as non-realist characters, such as the Everyman figure of John Doe and the overdetermined Gothic Hannibal Lecter they are ideal for the estranged space of cinema and the estranged spaces of literary experiment {Perfume | Hannibal | Mr In Between}. Serial killers, their intermittent Hollywood fashionableness notwithstanding, remain within some of the most alienated and alienating understandings of subjectivity: the lust-murderer. (The category is a 19th century one and this is mostly fitting but I would argue Hannibal Lecter does not belong to this category.)

Lust-murderers are the tabloid bogeyman, the most vile and broken of human personalities that so many newspapers seem to love for the sensationalist fodder they offer. So, can lust-murderers be combined with the Zombie Apocalypse? This is perhaps a debatable juxtaposition; experimental writing like that of early Creation Press texts such as the anthology Red Stains (1992) have toyed with this combination of tropes, pushing the similarity of the Horror genre to the transgressions of the avant-garde. Creation stories have several times thrown the undead in with the lust-murderer but outside of such fringe fictions it seems both less common and less desirable.

4: Teen Horror: Final Destination versus I Know What You Did Last Summer — although the latter is a stalk-and-slash fiction its primary interests are with teen relationships and teen victims, so I’d distinguish it from Stalk-and-Slash. The only teen horror Zombie blends that spring immediately to mind are Warm Bodies, which I’ve only seen a trailer for so far (based on the novel), and the comic books iZombie which seem more interesting for introducing psychic consequences to the zombie trope of brain eating. The lead character is a teen girl who has to eat brains to prevent herself from degrading/decaying into a shambolic cinematic zombie; the consequence of this occasional habit, which she supplies by working as a grave-digger, are that she is haunted by the memories contained in the brains she has eaten for a while afterwards. This allows murder-mystery elements to be introduced skilfully into the narrative because the not-quite-blank canvas of the heroine’s mind is subject to other people’s flashbacks—it’s an interesting noir innovation I might follow further. As a device, the only instances of psyche-phagous characters I can think of come from either Warhammer 40,000 where the Adeptus Astartes (Space Marines) have that ability – see former “New Wave” SF writer Barrington J. Bayley’s Eye of Terror (1999) – and, from memory, I think it’s at least implied that the Soviet necromancer Dragosani in Brian Lumley’s Cold War psychic espionage thriller Necroscope does something similar (and there is also an army of the undead in that novel).

(Other than that, I am rather bored with Teen Horror at the moment, so will move swiftly on to…)

5: Stalk-and-Slash: Here the supernatural and the natural are already blurred by narrative inconsistency, so the meaningful lines between the slasher as a human in a mask and slasher as a monster are long eroded; Rob Zombie’s remakes of Halloween and Halloween 2 restage this tension to create an effective synthesis from a psychoanalytic framework which allows in a certain kind of supernaturalism under the markers of collective unconscious. Since stalk-and-slash killers tend to be desexualised, virtually indestructible versions of the serial killer it is perhaps, and for obvious reasons, trickier to place stalk-and-slash killers against a Zombie Apocalypse backdrop; they are too similar in certain important respects, but perhaps too different in others.

6: Vampires: A trope which has undergone fascinating transformations in its own right but which remains, categorically more desired and desirable than Zombies. Zombies can function as side-kicks for vampires but outside of something like I Am Legend (the Will Smith film I mean, not Richard Matheson’s great novel; it would have been much more interesting if the Will Smith film had taken a similar narrative turn) zombie and vampire narratives appear to mostly be held distinct as categories. Fright Night (the 1985 film—not the unimpressive 2011 remake), casts a zombie as the manservant of imperious Yuppie vampire Jerry Dandridge (played by Chris Sarandon). As an interesting aside, I’d also suggest that the disco scene in Fright Night is a direct inspiration for the disco scene in Basic Instinct, which just adds a whole new level of self-referential movie cheesiness: Basic Instinct as teen (vampire) movie.
Most recently, I saw Romanian vampire film Strigoi (2009), set in rural Romania, where young medical-student dropout, Vlad, has recently returned to his home village after a miserable experience in Italy. A great Horror-comedy about small town life, Strigoi uses all the traditional folk stories of how people become strigoi/vampires, and the important distinctions between living strigoi and dead strigoi, and how un-‘infected’ people become strigoi—and why some strigoi are more like zombies and others more like what we more popularly associate with vampires from Hollywood and literary tradition. And, of course, most importantly, what to do when confronting a strigoi and how to survive when a strigoi repeatedly visits you in the night. (It’s also just generally a great film.)

7: Werewolves: which have also appeared in crossovers and formal mashups from Abbot and Costello to Judge Dredd and Dog Soldiers (2002), through the Twilight Saga, and in more interesting variations from Wolf (1994) to Ginger Snaps (2000). The best meeting of the undead and werewolves — not technically a zombie flick, but a Horror-comedy blend which is surely one of the most effective and best-loved of its kind — is John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London (1981). When the newly transformed David is haunted by his best friend Jack as an increasingly decaying ghost there is more than a hint of Night of the Living Dead about Jack’s odd stare and the ghoulish humour displayed as he introduces David to the similarly rotting ghosts of his own growing army of victims. Landis’ concept that each werewolf is tortured by their own unique army of the living dead, resembling a personal zombie apocalypse, is one of the most interesting explanations for how werewolves fit into the schema of the folkloric undead.

8: The Devil: in all the intriguing relational narratives which draw on Satan as a supernatural rather than psychological device from Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, through The Amityville Horror and more contemporary takes such as The Ninth Gate. If the undead might broadly be considered intrinsically demonic in a theological sense, being, at least from many religious perspectives, associated with the devil, the prime combination which occurred to me was John Carpenter’s Prince Of Darkness where the zombie servants of the mysterious satanic force are led by the iconic Alice Cooper. For my money, this film is using a rather different definition of the satanic (unlike, say, Dennis Wheatley) which actually bleeds into the more ambiguous and Lovecraftian end of the Horror spectrum, where the Weird can be found. The Schwarzenegger vehicle End of Days (1999) probably deserves consideration for its army of the homeless, lost and damned who are zombies of a sort (and more generally because Gabriel Byrne’s presence always adds something to a film, and this one forms an interesting binary pair with his oppositional role in Stigmata (1999)).
A Biblical-apocalyptic formal set-up is one justification for having the dead rise, but even on that score the most intriguing use of Zombies in a Biblical context is probably the low-budget classic The Prophecy (1995). The Prophecy stars Eric Stoltz, Elias Koteas, Virginia Madsen, with Christopher Walken as a wonderfully chilling Archangel Gabriel seeking the soul of a retired Vietnam veteran who was the Colonel Kurtz of his day to help him win a new war in heaven. Gabriel chooses recent suicides to follow him as assistants and helpers because he can’t drive and we see them caught in their depression and undergoing a slow traumatic living-death as partial zombies. (Legion (2010), for all its bigger budget and larger scope is a pale and bloodless imitation of The Prophecy.)

9: Lovecraftian: In lieu of fully emulating the overweening paranoia of being human in a universe occupied by Beings so far beyond our abilities to comprehend that our only sane response is insanity, I’ll settle for fictions which employ reference to Lovecraft’s concepts and pantheon from the ‘Yog-Sothoth Cycle of Myth’ or ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ in an interesting way.
Properly Lovecraftian adaptations such as Dagon and Guillermo Del Toro’s promised At The Mountains of Madness are always a favourite of mine, and films like John Carpenter’s The Thing have more than a whiff of the Lovecraftian heritage about them. Even the 1970s adaptation of The Dunwich Horror starring Dean Stockwell, which is otherwise much more like a Dennis Wheatley narrative than a Lovecraft one is interesting. I would, however, add to this and suggest that most of the classic stalk-and-slash franchises have been treading an uncertain line of Lovecraftian influence in offering contrary (irrational) rationalisations for the powers of their endlessly returning slashers. I am thinking particularly of oddities like Friday 13th part 9 (also a crossover, setting up Freddy vs Jason) and The Creeper from Jeepers Creepers which imply that stalkers possess diabolic and/or otherworldly powers and/or are in some way alien and/or have been possessed by entities which are (both) demonic and alien.

10: Aliens: Alright, I admit I’m struggling a bit here (allow me a little leeway) but the first film that stood out to me is the Aussie movie Undead (2003), which is probably in the same sub-tradition as Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste. Undead plays the relationship between zombification and alien invasion fairly straight: Aliens do it for their own (possibly playful or sadistic) reasons within a limited, isolated space, and for a limited time (even putting ((most)) things back afterwards)—so it’s not quite the Zombie Apocalypse.
There is a brief turn towards a vampiric Zombie Apocalypse in Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce (1985), based on Colin Wilson’s novel The Space Vampires (1976). In Lifeforce, ancient alien vampire creatures are discovered, apparently dead, by a joint Anglo-American space mission hidden by the tail of Haley’s Comet. After three specimens are returned to earth chaos ensues and eventually London is gripped by an outbreak that, retrospectively, looks more like 28 Days Later than Night of the Living Dead (there’s also a brief but fascinating turn from Patrick Stewart as the head of a psychiatric institution) The novel, The Space Vampires, is similar to Wilson’s more overtly Lovecraftian The Mind Parasites (1967) in its relationship between his more philosophical texts and the central horror trope of vampirism-parasitism; I find The Mind Parasites the more interesting novel for its distinctively Wilsonian exposition on negative personality types.

11: Any and/or All Of The Above In Combination: Obviously, Joss Whedon’s Cabin In The Woods (2011) has to be noted here. I loved the film; it matched my interest in form and convention, plus the experience of watching it at the Embassy in Wellington amidst a massive crowd of fellow Horror movie fans and Whedonistas during the NZ Film Festival was a great addition to the atmosphere. Cabin in the Woods‘ self-reflexivity served all the demands of Horror-geek enthusiasm while making commentary on the prevalence of cliché in specific forms of Horror movie (effectively getting away with the same clichés by arguing that they are artificially produced by the force of audience expectation in the process). I liked the way Whedon’s film argued that the audience for Horror is both intrinsically demonic and anti-humanist but also respects specific (human) conventions purely because humans use them to create meaning. In essence then, Whedon’s distinction between zombies and ‘Zombie Redneck Torture Family’ can stand for the problem of complexity in genre as a whole: the difference is emergent from the narrative combination. Synthesis creates new sets of expectations out of old expectations in the process of parodying or deconstructing them.
I suggest that what the most excessively stylised and most minimalist Horror fictions all share is the fear of the void, that contemporary Horror still rests at the point where meaning breaks down and events, monstrous in their enormity, simply happen beyond our ability to assimilate them to any pre-existing social system. The more we synthesise and mashup modes the more that synthesis comes to resemble the central crises of our moment. Perhaps the more we treat Horror as a form with a known direction and set of expectations which can be pastiched, shuffled and played with, the less we defuse it and the more we reanimate and enzombify it.

…the zombie {prose | idea | fiction} continues to stumble forwards, {analyses | paradigms | similies} spilling out in a mess of gory ropes, its {critical | conceptual | metaphorical} teeth still gnashing with now-impossible hunger…

…the {essay | philosophy | story} falters but the Zombie eats its own {references | episteme | narrative} and keeps on walking…

…walking towards you…


Punter, David, The Literature of Terror, vol. 1: The Gothic Tradition and The Literature of Terror, vol. 2: The Modern Gothic (London and New York: Longman, 1996).

Smith, Allan Lloyd, and Sage, Victor (eds), Modern Gothic (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1996).

Suvin, Darko, ‘SF, Metaphor, Parable, and Chronotope’ (pp. 160 – 81), Actes Du Premier Colloque International De Science Fiction de Nice Metaphores No. 9-10 (1983).
—, Positions and Presuppositions in Science Fiction (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1988).
—, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979).

Mark P. Williams | Research Profile: http://independent.academia.edu/MarkPWilliams