The zombie as “a remnant of an imperialistic and racist era”

Here’s a bold and interesting reading of the zombie as a monster that is at root “a remnant of an imperialistic and racist era”:

UA doctoral student Kyle W. Bishop argues that while the zombie has become a hugely popular cinematic device, the creature is a remnant of an imperialistic and racist era.

….Bishop, who has been hired as a lecturer at Southern Utah University while completing his dissertation on zombie narratives for his doctorate, makes the case that the zombie was “sired directly by the imperialist system.” The zombie, he said, is a postcolonial creature that cloaked the racist sentiments of the early 20th century, a time when Westerners who wanted the United States to become an imperial power were, at the same time, consumed with concern about black-white race relations.

….Bishop’s dissertation takes a look at the origins and evolution of the zombie beginning with Victor Halperin’s 1932 film “White Zombie.” He said the film influenced the trajectory of the zombie as a cinematic device and also warped voodoo into a horrifying practice in the mind of Westerners. Bishop said the film also served to diminish the importance of the religious tradition, which comes from Haiti, a country in the Caribbean that has a history of colonialism.

….He wrote: “For a Western white audience, the real threat and source of terror in these films are not the political vagaries of a postcolonial nation or the plights of the enslaved native zombies, but rather the risk that the white protagonists might become zombies themselves. In other words, the true horror in these movies lies in the prospect of a Westerner becoming dominated, subjugated, and effectively ‘colonized’ by a native pagan.”

…. “Part of my central thesis is that I think we wanted a monster of our own,” he said, noting that during the 1930s and 1940s, the United States had become an imperialist power and that its nationalistic character naturally extended into popular culture. Bishop’s research seeks to unmask “a lot of imperialist racism and lack of tolerance – the idea that when the Western culture encounters a different culture,” he said, “the immediate thing to do is to make that culture seem threatening or horrific.”

The Zombie: ‘A New Monster for a New World, UA News (University of Arizona), June 13, 2008

This is all so very fascinating. I have a two-part response.

First, the reading sounds like it primarily leans, at least in the proportions of the argument represented by this article, on the pre-1968, pre-Night of the Living Dead version of the zombie. I mean, yes, that’s obviously the point: to get at the origins of the zombie as a standard monstrous trope in American entertainment culture.

But today almost everybody thinks of the zombie almost exclusively in Romero-esque terms, as an undead ghoul and/or a demonically violent and rapacious fiend. This accounts for something like 99 percent of zombie fandom, not to mention generic zombie awareness in the culture at large. And Romero’s movie, as we know, was modeled explicitly, if loosely, on Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. His “zombies” really had little, if anything, to do with the poor mesmerized monsters depicted in previous zombie movies. But the identification of his anthropophagus reanimated humans with the word “zombie” resulted in a new monster that’s now so iconic and pervasive that it receives the ultimate validation of being parodied in movies like Shaun of the Dead.

(I think my own awakening to the fact that the zombie in this form had become a kind of generically known monster occurred way back in 1994 when I watched director Peter Jackson’s Brain Dead for the first time — in its retitled release as Dead Alive — and witnessed one character yelling immediately when grabbed by a reanimated corpse erupting from a grave, “It’s a zombie!” That’s when I knew that nobody needed to ask about or explain this monster anymore.)

So this is all to say that I find Bishop’s reading of zombie-dom, as sketched by that brief article, to be fascinating. But judging from what’s in the article, it sounds like it’ll be damned hard to make the reading account for the monster we see all around us today in movies, novels, comic books, and video games.

Second, none of this means that I won’t find his new book American Zombie Gothic: The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popular Culture (January 2010) to be compulsively readable. And a quick scan of, for instance, his 2006 paper “Raising the dead: unearthing the nonliterary origins of zombie cinema” (pdf) shows that he really has paid a considerable amount of attention to the aspect of the matter that I’m raising.

I suppose the upshot is the same as it’s been for the past several years: It’s an increasingly great time to be alive if you’re a horror fan, and particularly if you’re one with academic interests — as indicated by no less a publication than The Chronicle of Higher Education a few days ago: “Is it true that the horror movie, probably the most popular film genre of them all, is also the genre that generates the most academic writing? It appears so, judging by a bloodgush of publishing” (“Taking a Slash at Horror,” July 22).

About Matt Cardin

Teeming Brain founder and editor Matt Cardin is the author of DARK AWAKENINGS, DIVINATIONS OF THE DEEP, A COURSE IN DEMONIC CREATIVITY: A WRITER'S GUIDE TO THE INNER GENIUS, and the forthcoming TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN. He is also the editor of BORN TO FEAR: INTERVIEWS WITH THOMAS LIGOTTI and the academic encyclopedias MUMMIES AROUND THE WORLD, GHOSTS, SPIRITS, AND PSYCHICS: THE PARANORMAL FROM ALCHEMY TO ZOMBIES, and HORROR LITERATURE THROUGH HISTORY.

Posted on July 28, 2010, in Society & Culture and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Great article Matt.
    I feel as if the racism aspect of the quoted material, while probably applicable in the 30’s or 40’s is much less so now.
    Now, zombies seem to be more an expression of how we really feel about our own culture. The mindless dead, endless growth capitalism, mall shopping people that we see around us everyday and, perhaps are ourselves.
    I think also, that maybe, the zombie stories and movies speaks to something inside us all that wants that system to die.

    • Sounds like we’re inclined to see things very similarly, Pamela. Your linking of the zombie craze to a buried longing for systemic collapse is particularly interesting.

      I clicked to visit you blog and found your apocalyptic/doomer thoughts and work to be quite interesting, too. Good luck!

  2. An aside I often see not mentioned is how as far back as the middle ages and before in Europe and especially Britian, the fear of zombies as they are now called, but were more considered ‘ghouls’ rising from their graves if the deceased wasn’t really dead at burial, possesed, vampiric or all sorts of nonsense, and spouting devlish bile whose very miasma could turn others into creatures like it. There are numerous cases of exhumations followed by staking, and reburial at significant superstitious locations such as under a crossroads or across a river. The modern concept, though the name certaiy has roots in colonial eras dates backuch farther.

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