Sunday, September 28, 2014

On Cannibalism

Okay, so this post is going to be a little light on the type of pictures I planned on having because doing a Google Image Search for "cannibalism" was kind of dumb. Overall, it's probably not as bad as you'd expect, but there are a few pics that I would very gladly unsee if I could. But that gets right to the question that this post planned on addressing anyway: "What is it about cannibalism that weirds us out so much?" Much of the discussion of zombies and what makes them so unsettling, even frightening, centers around their display of cannibalism. Well, “cannibalism,” at least.

I tend to agree with Dr. Millard Rausch (eye patch guy), from Dawn of the Dead, who declares that zombies are not cannibals: “Cannibalism, in the true sense of the word, implies an intra-species activity. These creatures cannot be considered human. They prey on humans. They do not prey on each other. That’s the difference. They attack and they feed only on warm human flesh.” Right. So, “cannibalism,” got it? Anyway, the idea is that seeing human-like creatures feeding on humans is unsettling for audiences (remember our discussion on uncanny dread on the zombie meatloaf face post?) because we are not used to seeing ourselves rendered food, to seeing our bodies disembodied.

Here’s where the post gets messy. Initially, my plan for this post was to contend that we are more disturbed by the concept of eating human flesh - by seeing ourselves as viscerally carnivorous, as gluttonous consumers of flesh - than we are by the idea of being consumed. But then I saw  a picture of several human body parts being… prepared(?) and a can’t-possibly-fucking-be-real (but-really-seems-to-be) picture of a Papua New Guinea man walking around munching his baby (I’m not linking it, you shouldn’t search for it, consider yourselves warned), and now I don’t know what the hell I think. Other than my McNuggets aren’t sitting so well anymore.

Wait, let’s Tarantino this post a bit and jump back before all the stuff I just said. The inspiration for this post showed up in the comment section of And Now I Want To Eat A Zombie’s Face. Stage Fright posted a link to a Facebook
article, “‘Human Flesh’ Burger Will Let You Indulge Your DarkestCuriosity.” Yeah. What the eff? For you non-link-clickers, apparently a couple of British chefs consulted the firsthand accounts of several cannibals (including W.B. Seabrook, for any zombie super-nerds out there), to create a burger that mimics the flavor and texture of human flesh to celebrate the premier of season 5 of The Walking Dead. Because, you know, all the cool zombies are doing it…

After reading the article, I brought it up at school and work (Brick Oven Bistro) and the general consensus was, “Why would anybody... yeah, no. No.”

A confession: I would totally eat people. If we were stranded somewhere, starving, and you passed before I did, you are lunch. Straight up. And I’ll go a step further. If I was on an expedition somewhere and we happened across some cannibalistic peoples and they invited us to a feast, and the main fare was the flesh of their enemies or some poor
I just don't need these kinds of problems
ceremonial dead person, I would seriously consider it. In fact, I’d probably do it. And only partly because I would be afraid of offending the people that eat people (not wanting to be dinner tomorrow is a pretty decent excuse, I think). I’d do it because, like W.B. Seabrook, I like telling good stories. And that would be a bad ass one to have in reserve. “Oh, you tried balut? That’s fascinating, did I ever tell you about the time I tried person?” Who beats that food story? No one. Ever. BUT, in either case, whether extreme exigency or minding my jungle manners, I would eat human flesh with many many misgivings. ALL the misgivings. I would do it, but I don’t want to do it. At all. It seriously freaks me right out. Just like it freaks most people out.

Back to the burger. The idea of a faux flesh burger is unsettling to me. There are a couple of things noteworthy about that feeling. First, it affects me in a way not dissimilar to the way watching the biker get eaten in Dawn of the Dead does. Obviously, trying the burger wouldn't be actual cannibalism but, like watching a movie, it offers a facsimile not only of the human meat itself, but also of the horror or dread one might feel if it was real. 

The other thing I notice, is that my unease at the idea of eating human, real or pretend, is palpably different from the discomfort I would feel about eating cat or dog. Or even monkey. It’s wrong in its own very unique way. Watch. Read Seabrook’s description of the people meat he tried (he convinced a medical intern to give him a chunk!). This is all completely familiar food talk. And yet…

It was like good, fully developed veal, not young, but not yet beef. It was very definitely like that, and it was not like any other meat I had ever tasted. It was so nearly like good, fully developed veal that I think no person with a palate of ordinary, normal sensitiveness could distinguish it from veal. It was mild, good meat with no other sharply defined or highly characteristic taste such as for instance, goat, high game, and pork have. The steak was slightly tougher than prime veal, a little stringy, but not too tough or stringy to be agreeably edible. The roast, from which I cut and ate a central slice, was tender, and in color, texture, smell as well as taste, strengthened my certainty that of all the meats we habitually know, veal is the one meat to which this meat is accurately comparable
(excerpt from Jungle Ways, taken from Wikipedia).

Where did it creep you out? It was the first “stringy” wasn't it? That’s what bugged me. The idea of human flesh pulling apart in strips makes my skin crawl. That doesn't happen when I think about eating any other animal, no matter how exotic or human-like. I mean, monkey meat feels really weird and wrong, but it's a different kind of weird and wrong, isn't it? (not you, vegetarians) Similarly, the idea or sight of a person eaten or torn apart by an animal doesn't seem to give me the same heebie jeebies as the idea or sight of a person being torn apart and eaten by a person. Or even a semi-person, or how ever we decide to categorize a zombie. 

So what the hell is going on?

Well, a lot. The more I think about it, the more I let it bother me, the more I poke and probe and prod at how it bothers me, what I come up with is the answer that I least wanted: all of the above. Both sides of it - the idea of eating a person and of being eaten, the thought of rending flesh and of being dismembered - strike a chord deep within most members of our culture (not this guy) that this act is just awful and wrong on a very basic level. This is not something that people are supposed to do to one another. It is just not. It is something animals do, sure. And monsters, of course. But that any person thinks this is okay to do to another is incomprehensible. 

And that's really the problem isn't it? As much as we don't like the idea of being eaten or torn apart, what really nags at us is the idea that people exist who think this is okay. Indeed, who enjoy it. And we - well, I at least, and hopefully you too - simply cannot make sense of them. And because we cannot account for them, we fear them and their awful appetites. They exceed our abilities to comfortably classify their behavior, so we resort to myth, folklore, and outright fiction to help us categorize them as ogres, werewolves, ghouls, and zombies, to help us see them not as people, but as monsters. There's something even worse than believing that cannibals are horrific monsters, though: believing that they aren't. 

Ultimately, I think what got under my skin the most about the picture of the Papua New Guinea cannibal was that he, despite the thousands of miles between us, the even larger gulf between our cultures and worldviews, and the fact that he was eating an infant, was the fact that he was a man, a person, a human, and therefore maybe not that different from me. While there are plenty of real world cannibals who are intentionally malevolent in their appetites, there are as many, if not more, who just unaccountably flip their shit and start eating people. If they can just lose their minds and begin devouring friends, neighbors, and strangers, what's to say that the same thing couldn't happen to me? The staggering banality of this particular evil is so unsettling because it prevents our non-cannibal Self from completely distancing itself from the cannibal Other half of an Other-Self binary. The vacant, blood-smeared stare of an infant-eater is most horrifying because it subtly, almost imperceptibly, gestures to the possibility that it could one day be my own; that I could lose my mind and my self so thoroughly, and become a mindless me who's not me that craves human flesh. Sound familiar? On this level, the cannibal question and the zombie question seem inextricably linked.

What do you think? Does the idea of cannibalism gross you out? Why do you think that is?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Surviving the Blog

One of the things that has struck me as I've embarked on this project is just how many really fun and interesting zombie blogs are no longer active. Sooner or later this will result in a post on the decayed state of blogging. For now, though, I want to focus on my favorite active blog, Surviving the Dead.

This blog is everything a zombie blog should be: movie reviews, survival strategies, and cool shit, updated regularly. Launched in September 2012, by educational designer (children's book author and pretty sweet cartoonist) Mike Kloran, Surviving the Dead offers its followers a perfect little microcosm of all that matters most to zombie fanatics everywhere. In the last month alone, Surviving the Dead gave you the chance to vote on your favorite zombie hunter (I picked Peter from Dawn of the Dead, in a true zombie hipster moment, when Tallahassee from Zombieland is probably the far better answer), reviewed movies ranging from Fulci’s Zombi 2 (Worm Eye!) to the far less impressive Zone of the Dead, and completely ruined your
appetite (oh, and you thought the Zombie Meatloaf Face was gross). Thanks for that, Mike; you have me picking through my spaghetti looking for eyes and teeth. Nothing to see here, Olive Garden. Dissecting my pasta is toooootally normal…

What made me finally decide to do a write up on Surviving the Dead, though, was the most recent post: Too hot for zombies. Basic rundown, though by all means follow the link to check it out, is that Kloran calls into question the widely held zombie survival strategy of heading north. Although Mike

certainly raises some interesting points (in a real zombie apocalypse, the realities of putrification and decay would come into play, right?), I am more interested in the practice in which he is engaging than I am in the particularities of his argument - I’m from Buffalo, so he had me at “sun” and "warm weather." Lake effect snow AND zombies? Oh God, just bite me already and get it over with! 

Although… if you set enough zombies on fire, they might make nice walking bonfires...
Is it just me, or do these marshmallows taste funny?
Where was I? Umm, oh yeah, like I was saying yesterday, a large part of the allure of zombie narratives is their unique ability to draw audiences into a first person understanding of the “realities” these fictions represent. They put you there in ways that other types of storytelling can only aspire to. So much so, that fans of the genre (a very debatable term, here) find time to consider the conventions of the genre separate from any specific story or text. When Mike expands on the pros and cons of various climates in a zombie apocalypse, he isn’t explicitly engaging the sun scorched zombies of The Dead or the thawing Nazis of Dead Snow (aside: Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead looks friggin’ awesome. Watch the trailer because I said so);

instead, he is engaging the genre more generally in a way that audiences just don’t seem to for, say, Westerns, Mafia films, or World War 2 movies. Even within the context of horror, we spend more time considering particular incidents of a vampirism (Dracula) or a supernatural serial killers (Michael Myers), than we do the traditions of their form. It is always about this vampire, this monster - localized, specific – as opposed to the indefinite and thus global reach of the possibility of a zombie outbreak.

There are two very important things at play here. First, zombies are not particular. It is never about THE zombie, no matter how interesting or cool Bub or Big Daddy or Fido are. Even these very singular zombie “characters” operate more as manifestations of the realities of their zombie apocalypse than they do as individuated personalities. Indeed, as pointed out by Victor Infante while discussing the zombie’s openness to metaphor, “A zombie by definition has no personality.” 
As such, it is the situation in which we find Bub or Fido, more than Bub or Fido themselves, that interests us. Because we can extrapolate that reality and map it onto our own. In a way, then, our consideration of the zombie figure is both not localized to a particular narrative, but also hyper-localized to our own actualities. Our own settings, our own skillsets, our own loved ones shape our considerations of any given zombie plague, perhaps more so than those provided by the zombie stories we can’t get enough of.

Which brings me to my other point: the zombie audience appears to play an extensive role in shaping the conventions that inform the narratives. For example, Romero never called them zombies in Night of the Living Dead. He called them all kinds of stuff, “ghouls” most prominently, “murder happy characters” my personal favorite, but the name “zombies” seems to have been attributed by fans (unless I’m wrong and no one called them zombies until Peter did in Dawn, but that doesn’t seem to be the case; I'll get back to you on this). Similarly, though Romero’s zombies typically have some semblance of consciousness, that trait has largely been culled from the zombie canon because audiences don’t respond as well to it as they do to mindless eat-machines (I won’t get into it too much here, but my thesis will articulate this trend in terms of the work of Franco Moretti, particularly “The Slaughterhouse of Literature,” which contends that the market, i.e. readers, shapes what literature lasts and becomes canonical).

Which brings me back to Mike Kloran’s decision to head south (it does if I say it does!). Mike is explicitly contradicting a “convention” of the zombie apocalypse that seems to have been entirely manufactured by its “what would you do?” playing audience. Though Max Brooks compellingly illustrates the drive to head north, and its horrific consequences, in World War Z, he is just working off of a scheme that had already been established in hypothetical conversations around the world. As Kloran points out, "Everyone has thought of this." However, where Brooks merely destabilizes the idea – the zombies will freeze, but you might have to eat people to get by – Kloran takes the idea and shoots it in the face, exposing it for what it always was, a malformed corpse of a plan that would never in a million years work. Cold will preserve the zombies.
Any cold cold enough to freeze the zombies will freeze me first because I need my blood to circulate in a way that they (apparently) don’t. The fire I use to keep my blood from forming ice crystals will attract the well-preserved zombies I am trying to avoid. Starving and freezing to death are not exactly conducive to keep me at my zombie fighting and fleeing best. Going north would suck. Sorry if that was your plan. Now, the real question is, if enough people discuss these critiques of heading, and accept their logic, will the Head South strategy gain enough traction to become a new convention that will inform zombie fictions that have yet to be written?

You tell me…

**Cartoons by Mike Kloran

Sunday, September 21, 2014

What Would Ben Do?

A few posts ago I mentioned a Spanish zombie game, Survival Zombie, that offers participants the opportunity to survive an overnight outbreak. I want to take a moment to talk a little bit more about it, because I think it gestures towards something important. Already on its 9th edition, the game is attracting the attention of global news outlets, such as BBC News and Guardian Liberty Voice, for its ability to attract large numbers of players to gather together to enact the zombie themed games. Part RPG (role playing game), part flash mob, part audience-participation theater, the increasing popularity of the games around Spain shows no signs of abating any time soon: according to the BBC blurb, game organizer Diego de la Concepcion says he is booked up through 2015, and has already begun booking for 2016. Unlike a simple zombie walk – where everyone dresses up in their zombie best to stumble around and moan together – the Survival Zombie games ask participants to make it through the night without getting infected (i.e. touched by one of the zombies that populate the game, and turned into a zombie themselves), while costumed actors enact a full-scale military response to the outbreak. 
I know, right?
These games, in a way that video games can only vaguely approximate, give players a chance to find out how they would fare in a zombie apocalypse. Are they fast enough? Are they smart enough? Can they endure? One of the most subtle, but I would argue most persistent, explanations for the popularity of zombie fictions is that they offer their readers/viewers/players an opportunity to ask these probing questions of themselves. Of course, this is true of most fiction. No matter what someone reads or watches, at some level, they are asking how they would fare in that given situation. What would I do if my little dog and I were swept away by a tornado and dropped in a land of ornately dressed little people?

Oz Life!
Dance, Munchkins. Dance!

Would I round up the weirdest damned posse ever and go kill me a(nother) witch? Or would I rule over these tiny dancers with an iron fist and some fancy new shoes?

Okay, it occurs to me that most people might not ask the same questions of themselves that I would. But whatever. Fiction, at its best, doesn’t only present a different world, or time, or life to be observed by an audience; it lets people imagine themselves in those worlds, making those decisions, living those lives. Zombie fictions, however, in a way that is palpably different from other fictions (and even from other types of horror), push their fans to ask those “what ifs?” of themselves more urgently. I would argue that the reasons for this urgency are plain: zombies, in all of their gruesome, gory glory, represent any and every worst case scenario that could befall our culture. 

War, famine, pestilence, and death are all obviously accounted for, but so are extreme weather, political and scientific malfeasance, calamity from space (aliens, asteroids, solar wind, etc), financial crisis, and on and on and on. If the popularity of zombies points to anything about our culture, it is the pervasive sense that ours is a society on the brink. Of what, precisely, isn't relevant - it could be any one of the concerns listed above, a combination, all of them, or even some unforeseen cataclysm. More to the point, rather, is the unconscious (mostly) anxiety that the social order we have constructed will not be able to sustain itself under a catastrophe.

Starting with Night of the Living Dead, zombie narratives have haunted audiences by making them ask what they would do, as individuals, if the scientists didn’t know the answers; if the church told us we all had it coming; if the government collapsed or went into hiding; if the police and military weren’t coming. What would you do? Lead or follow? Survive or dissolve? Run, hide, or fight? The zombie outbreak, as an allegory for societal rupture, allows us to explore how we would react in the event that the thin veneer of “civilization” that supports our system were to crack, disintegrate, and fall. Games like Survival Zombie are just an extension of these self-inquiries, taken to well-orchestrated and well-organized extremes. Everyone these days has a zombie survival plan, even the Pentagon and CDC. Books and movies let you think about your plan; Survival Zombie (and other games like it) lets you put yours to the test.

Good luck.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Canon Update 9/19/14

Whenever I make additions to the zombie canon (hopefully once a week), I will post them directly on the canon page itself. However, I will also highlight the additions by giving them their own post as well.

The Walking Deaddeveloped by Frank Darabont, based on the work of Robert Kirkman

I really wish this wasn't so easily and obviously the only real entry under TV. Oh, I'm sure there are probably episodes from The Twilight ZoneTales from the Dark Side, and Tales from the Crypt, but there is clearly nothing even close to The Walking Dead when it comes to its contribution to the zombie zeitgeist (which sucks; Zombieland was conceived for TV and would have been awesome, with the zombie kill of the week intended to be a weekly gag; and World War Z would have been infinitely more compelling had it been stretched into a TV series instead of smushed into a movie - it could've been our M.A.S.H.). 

If only based on its staggering popularity, the AMC ratings monster would demand a spot on this list. But it's actually really, really good. And bright in a way that I'm not sure even most of its most ardent fans give it credit for. The questions it asks of our society as we know it, and the remnants of it that would carry on, are disturbing to say the least. Plus, [semi-spoiler alert] the twist when the barn is opened in season 2, is one of the single most affecting moments in the nearly 50 year history of flesh-eating-swarm zombie fiction. Typing about it gives me goosebumps. 

Video Games:
Resident Evil (the series), created by Shinjin Makami

Resident Evil doesn’t get the credit it deserves. That’s unfortunate. Although the video games from the series, as well as the films, have all been commercially successful, they aren’t typically regarded with the same type of critical affection as their more literate zombie kin, 28 Days LaterShaun of the Dead, or even Fido. However, there is almost no chance that the zombie renaissance as we know it (there’s nothing else to call it), to say nothing of the survival horror video game genre, would have occurred if millions of us hadn’t taken that first unpleasant trip to Raccoon City. Resident Evil did a lot more than prove that video games could be scary, though; it also helped reshape the way that we conceive of narrative. By offering players multiple endings based on choices they made while playing, Resident Evil helped usher in the age of video games that operated more as non-linear, interactive fictions than simple stories that players followed from start to finish. And they did it while making zombies scary (and cool) again.

My memories of playing Resident Evil in 1996 aren’t as clear as I’d like them to be, but I distinctly recall Resident Evil 2 scaring the shit out of me, even as a “macho” high school football player. These games, with their dicey controls and sometimes hilariously cheesy dialogue, were frightening in a way that zombie narratives hadn’t been in a very long time. Zombies had been fun in the 80s, and kitschy cult cool, but they probably hadn’t been really terrifying since Dawn of the Dead. As part of this project, I’m going to revisit these games, to try to pinpoint what made them such the perfect vehicle to remind us how awful the walking dead can truly be. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Zombies in the News

I don't know that zombies will show up in the news enough for this to become a sustainable feature, but I noticed a couple blurbs this week that I felt were worth commenting on. Before I get to that though, remember when that naked guy ate that homeless guy's face?

This all comes back to the damn meatloaf zombie face (I'm gonna make one). You talk about face-eating and bath salts on a zombie blog, and you have to bring up the "Miami Zombie" attack. Quick question, when you first heard about this story in 2012, what was the first thing that crossed your mind? Zombies? It was, wasn't it. Not cannibal. Zombies. Which, kind of highlights our cultural obsession with flesh eating dead people. My instinct was to argue that at any other time in history, this would have only been referred to as a cannibal attack (and to be fair, the attacker was also referred to as the Causeway Cannibal in the rush to brand this story), but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that depending on when in history it happened, the attack could have, and probably would have, been framed in terms of any number of "monsters": vampires, werewolves, ogres, demons, and so on. However, because the zombie is our current
bogeyman par excellence, that was how most of us made sense of it. Well, that and the fact that it took four bullets to put the attacker down. But I would argue that even those of us that only thought of the attack as cannibalism and not the first step of the end of the world, had been conditioned to think of it that way, not by the dictionary definition of cannibalism but by the most well-known flesh-eating monster before the zombie renaissance, Hannibal Lecter (and probably not, interestingly enough, real-life cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer). 
Of course, this is hardly the first time that people have turned to their horror stories (though they were usually considered fairy tales or folklore then) in an effort to make sense of seemingly inexplicable real-world atrocities. In 1582, an otherwise normal and respected widower, Peter Stubbe, terrorized the women and children of his village with a string of cannibalistic murders as staggeringly brutal and horrific as anything you've ever heard or read or thought about. They did not call him a cannibal, though, and they certainly didn't call him a zombie: they called him the Werewolf of Bedburg. Fair warning on that link, from the page itself: The extreme cruelty of the crimes in this case, detailed [within], are highly disturbing and not for the squeamish, faint-of-heart, or young children. 

Not only does horror reflect the uncertainties and anxieties felt within any culture, then, it would seem that tales of monsters and bogeymen also serve to shape our understanding of those events that exceed the parameters we have set on reality. Which makes sense; when something happens that can't be explained away by anything you know or expect of the world, how else would you account for it but by turning fiction (whether that means taking meaning from existing stories, or creating new ones)? 

Oh, right. We were here for zombie news. The day after the
Poppo has refused further reconstructive surgery
zombie meatloaf face, I got real curious about whatever happened to Ronald Poppo, the homeless victim of Rudy Eugene's unprovoked and savage attack in Miami. I am happy to report that he seems to be doing surprisingly well. Although left blind and badly scarred, Poppo has put on 50 lbs since the attack and, with the help of an occupational therapist, has learned how to shave, shower, and dress himself. He spends most of his time playing his guitar and listening to Miami Heat games on the radio. 

As for Eugene, toxicology reports found only traces of marijuana in his system (no bath salts!), and no explanation has been identified for his apparent psychotic break. 

In other zombie news: It's all fun and games until you get shot in the face. This crazy person was arrested in Oregon earlier this week for "breaking into a house, pushing a woman down the stairs, pulling her hair, biting her on the face, and saying that she was playing 'the zombie game.'

I just don't get it, people. I started this blog with the question, and I still have no answer: Why does everyone want to be the zombie? Zombies break into houses (yay, fun!), zombies bite people (...), then zombies get shot and re-killed (see above). Awesome. Sign me up? I get that some of the zombie survivalists are, umm, pretty interesting individuals, but is biting strangers that much more enjoyable than stockpiling weapons and non-perishables? 

If you are going to play a "zombie game" why not play one where you start out uninfected? From the Reasons Spain is Awesome file, 2,000 people descend on Collada Villalba to play a much cooler game, called Survivor Zombie, by World Real Games. Check out this video of an earlier "edicion" of the game from last March 

A game where the goal is NOT to become a zombie? Sweet, sounds like good practice. I'm packed, when do we leave?

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Always Late to the Party

So, in my travels across the online zombieverse, I recently came across the pretty hilarious video below while browsing The Zed Word Zombie Blog and it reminded me of a question I've been worrying around for quite some time. But first, enjoy a Bad Lip Reading of AMC's The Walking Dead (from the folks over at BLR).

So much genius and hilarity and amazingness in such a short video. But I don’t really want to talk about the clip. We can get into what makes zombies so open to parody and the weird dynamic between horror and comedy when I talk about Evil Dead: The Musical tomorrow. What I’m more interested in right now is the fact that this clip was first published a year and a half ago (!). I thoroughly enjoy Bad Lip Reading, I clearly have a borderline unhealthy fascination with zombies, and I’m a big fan of The Walking Dead, and yet, somehow, this little clip of wonderful didn’t make it across my path until late last night. Now, I can explain that away fairly easily by pointing out my almost complete lack of a presence on social media (I miss out on some viral stuff) and a general avoidance of Youtube as a recovering addict (one click leads to… all the clicks). That’s easy. What I find less easy to account for, however, and thus more interesting to consider, is the similar belatedness that seems to define literary studies. Even within a cultural studies approach, in which the field of inquiry is opened to regard nearly everything a culture produces as a readable, interpretable texts, there seems to be an overall inability to engage the new. But is it an inability or an unwillingness?

While there is no question that zombies are finally getting the critical attention they deserve, and I don’t think it can quite be said that the zombie wave has crested (it’s close, but not quite there yet), I can’t help but feel that academia might have shambled up to the farmhouse a little late on this. Not too late, by any means, but late enough to matter. This sweet new blog, for example. I’ve always been interested in the progression of academically sanctioned forms of
This is what the "academic establishment"
looks like in my brain

“literature,” and wanted to use this platform to explore that issue a bit. Take novels: initially, they were very much frowned upon by the academic establishment, deemed low entertainment for idle minds. Eventually, though, novels gained such widespread acceptance, even prominence, that they now dominate the (mostly theoretical) Western canon. There was a similar trajectory for film, though it has yet to quite attain the novel’s revered status, and television (the best of it) and comic books (call them graphic novels, if you want to; they’re comic books, and that’s okay) are not far behind. My assumption, is that video games too will one day make this leap. No matter how much they kick and scream about it, sooner or later, serious scholars will have to acknowledge that video games are an increasingly important aspect of how our culture tells itself stories. And then, sometime in the future, after video games start having their choice-driven, non-linear, narrative structures analyzed and parsed in college classrooms, maybe, blogs might start being treated as though they have lasting cultural and artistic merit. Of course, maybe I’m wrong and someone like Gregory Cowles is correct when he says that even the best blogs are “too topical and too fleeting to count as literature.” 

I mean, I'm not wrong. But maybe... 

Nah, blogs will be literature one day. The same way the Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals are considered literature now (they sound kind of bloggish to me). Though, to be clear, I don’t mean to imply that all blogs have artistic merit. Or all TV shows, comic books, films, or novels either, for that matter. There’s quite a lot of rubbish out there. But that’s always been true. We don’t read or teach every shitty sonnet that was written at the turn of the 17th century; we focus on Shakepeare and Spenser, because they wrote the good ones.

I’m not so much worried about whether or not the academy will start paying critical attention to blogs and video games. It’ll happen. It has to. But to return to my original point (kinda), why do we, as a discipline, have to wait? As I’ve been looking for interesting zombie blogs to explore and/or analyze as part of my own project, I’ve noticed that many, though not all, of the most intriguing zombie blogs are no longer being maintained. I can still read their posts, of course, and provide commentary on them, but I’ve missed the opportunity to observe them and interact with them while they were active. Which is comforting in a way, because it's what I'm used to. But it's also a lot less fun, don't you think? Is there something about literary studies that makes it tend more towards archaeology than anthropology? Why are we so much more interested in poking the skeletal remains than the dynamic body? Thoughts?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Canon of the Dead (updated 11/17/14)

The Canon of the Dead
A couple of posts ago, I put out a call for a zombie canon - an attempt to separate the best and most relevant zombie texts from the rest of the hoard (Zombies vs. Strippers, for example... probably not gonna make the cut). This post, persistently updated, is where that list will reside. I've separated it by format for ease of reference, but that could change.

The Works of George A. Romero:
Yes, he get's his own category. If it wasn't for him, there wouldn't even be a damned list. At some point, I will get around to complete entries for each of his films. For now, Beth Kelly's article will do. "Legacy of the Dead: George A. Romero's Contribution to the Zombie Canon"

Night of the Living Dead
          You know what, if you haven't seen it already, just watch it. Now.

Dawn of the Dead

Day of the Dead

Land of the Dead

Diary of the Dead

Survival of the Dead

Dead 28 Days Laterwritten by Alex Garland, directed by Danny Boyle

            Holy shit I love this movie. As important as the Resident Evil franchise was in re-introducing zombies to the popular consciousness, 28 Days Later stands alone as patient zero of the zombie renaissance. After a decade of Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer movies, Boyle reminded us that horror could be smart. And following years of camp and exploitation - think Dead Alive and The Dead Next Door - he sure as shit showed us that zombies movies could still be scary. 

Of course, Boyle certainly played with the form a bit to do so. For one thing, the film gives us our first look at fast zombies. I can almost hear the purists cringing, so let's get that out of the way. There is no shortage of people that don't consider 28 Days Later a zombie film - these "zombies" aren't dead or even undead (un-dead undead?), they don't seem to eat flesh, head-shots are not required to kill them, and they run for F's sake. All of that is perfectly true. And though I might find arguments against the zombie-ness of "the infected" compelling, this is without question a zombie movie. All of the hallmarks are there: contagion, ever increasing hordes of lethal beings, societal collapse, a band of survivors, even a weirdly well-lit shopping spree. Although the tweaks pull these creatures a little bit away from traditional zombie lore, these differences are instrumental in resituating the zombie as horrific to our current sensibilities. In the age of 24 hour news coverage and high-speed (hyper speed?) digital communication, slow, shambling zombies are a tougher sell as a terrifying force of (un)nature (one of the most impressive thing about The Walking Dead is that it manages to convincingly present the slow moving "walkers" as truly horrific). The now and right now generations need their zombies to move. Shifting the monster from risen dead to "the infected" reflects a growing skepticism of the supernatural. Following the real life horrors of 9-11, the world had less and less patience for ghouls and goblins. We wanted our monsters to be real. The Romero zombie scared us not by making us believe it, but by questioning if we could handle this type of calamity. The Boyle zombie takes it a step further: it horrifies us because it obeys the laws of the universe as we know them. This, or something like it, could actually happen. There is a horrible horrible plausibility here that allowed the zombie to re-take its place as our worst nightmare and preeminent monster.

Fidowritten by Robert Chomiak, Dennis Heaton, and Andrew Currie, directed by Andrew Currie

            Andrew Currie’s Fido presents a bit of a departure from the films that we have added to the Canon of the Dead so far (28 Days Later and the works of George A. Romero). Unlike the vast majority of zombie films (and zombie narratives, in general), Fido is not a horror film. However, what it lacks in scares and suspense, it more than makes up for with style and wit. This is a beautifully shot and extremely well-executed film, an almost point perfect parody of 195os TV series like LassieLeave It to Beaver, and Peyton Place. What makes Fido so interesting though, as a zombie text, is the way it manages to seamlessly integrate zombies into a pre-existing mode of filmic representation (I’m hesitant to refer to it as a genre; perhaps “era” is more appropriate). 

Without ever specifying that the time the story takes place actually IS the 50s - I mean, technically, the film could take place in a future shaped by ZomCom to reflect 1950s sensibilities, right? – Fido nonetheless makes us feel like we’re watching the 50s. But it also makes us wonder what the 50s were really like. If we believe the evidence left to us from Lassie and the Beave, the 50 certainly seem like a time when there was a car in every garage and a roast on every table and Dad had all the answers and Mom knew her role. By toying with the idea of appearances and surface structures, though, Fido pushes us to question the idealized notions of our past that have become so comfortable to us. As much as it acts as a parody, however, it is also clearly allegorical in its approach. It’s talking about the 50s, clearly, but it’s not just talking the 50s. Hell, it’s probably not even talking mostly about the 50s. 

Released in 2007, a time where the freedom vs. security debate surrounding the patriot act had not quite abated, and immigration was becoming more and more of a concern, Fido (a Canadian film) is a scathing critque of modern American life as well. Smart, hilarious, and more than a little twisted, Fido is everything you could ask for in a zombie film. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should.

The Walking Dead, developed by Frank Darabont, based on the work of Robert Kirkman

I really wish this wasn't so easily and obviously the only real entry under TV. Oh, I'm sure there are probably episodes from The Zone, Tales from the Dark Side, and Tales from the Crypt, there is clearly nothing even close to The Walking Dead when it comes to its contribution to the zombie zeitgeist. If only based on its staggering popularity alone, the AMC ratings monster would demand a spot on this list. But it's actually really, really good. And bright in a way that I'm not sure even most of its most ardent fans give it credit for. The questions it asks of our society as we know it, and the remnants of it that would carry on, are disturbing to say the least. Plus, [semi-spoiler alert] the twist when the barn is opened in season 2, is one of the single most affecting moments in the nearly 50 year history of flesh-eating-swarm zombie fiction. Typing about it gives me goosebumps. 

Apocalypse Z (the trilogy), by Manel Loureiro

          I like the setting of Europe, rather than the US, but I also like that the protagonist is a character much like I am. He is a professional guy, struggling with private pains and disappointments. He holds on to symbolic things even at great costs. He makes his way using wit and common sense and a lot of trial and error. He is not a survivalist. He is not trained for this kind of thing (who is?); he is just a guy caught unaware by the end of the world as he knows it. [Lorna 9/10/14]

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Seth Graham-Smith and Jane Austen

           In the Parodic mode [it] highlight[s] the same kinds of social concerns that Austen raises--rigid class systems, gender roles, a society of manners gone awry--but add in zombie mayhem. While the result is an Elizabeth Bennet who can not only match Darcy in wits, but also in ninja like skills, the points raised by the Austen novel remain intact (and Seth Grahame Smith is genius at matching tone). [Lorna 9/10/14]
          I also think that Graham Smith deserves a great deal of credit for, to my knowledge, creating the first literary "remix." Certainly, a great many authors have spoofed, or re-told the stories of others, but I can't think of another example, before PP&Z, of a new story being fashioned around and between the words of extant piece of literature. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies not only raises interesting questions about intellectual property and art (how much do you have to change someone else's work to make it your own?), but also about the, let's say, cannibalistic nature of the zombie genre. If Pride and Prejudice can be infected with zombies, then nearly any text could be similarly afflicted. And indeed, a great many have. See: Alice in Zombieland, Robin Hood and Friar Tuck: Zombie Killers, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Zombie Jim, The Undead World of Oz, and on, and on. [Manny 9/10/14]

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls, by Steve Hockensmith*

          *This is a provisional listing. I don't want to reject entries like I have veto-power, not I'm not convinced that Hockensmith is as effective, or accomplishes as much, as Graham-Smith in this "prequel." I would welcome further input [Manny 9/10/14]

World War Zby Max Brooks

Although there are several films featuring zombies that I think have or will become considered part of the overall Western Canon – Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead are already part of the National Film Registry, while 28 Days Later and probably even Shaun of the Dead likely to end up on the list eventually (at some point I should probably seriously consider the fact that the two most well-regarded films of the Zombie Renaissance are both British films) – there are far fewer written zombie texts whose places are so secure. If I could only pick one zombie book or story to nominate for the Canon at large, it would be Max Brook’s World War Z. Though I’m hesitant to call it a novel (which I admit is probably splitting hairs), Brook’s mock-ethnography draws on the work of Studs Terkel to provide readers with a “look back” at the origins of a zombie outbreak in a time and reality not too distant from the ones they know. That’s actually selling Brooks short; his book reads horribly horribly true. Which is a bit surprising given its highly satirical approach (though it could be convincingly argued that the book is parody, allegory, pastiche, or even all of the above, as well). However you choose to categorize World War Z one thing is clear: the book is Max Brooks’s scathing critique of the world as he knows it. And it turns out, he knows it pretty well.
Traditionally, zombie narratives to be relatively local affairs. What would a zombie outbreak look like here, where “here” indicates some specific place and time (a rural farmhouse in the 1960s, millennial London, etc.)? While most of these texts at least imply that their particular iteration of the outbreak spans the globe (or will soon if it doesn’t already), World War Z is the first text that explicitly engages with the global nature of the pandemic. This serves two purposes. First, it allows Brooks to criticize everybody. Brooks is certainly extremely critical of late capitalism and the Western military-industrial complex, but these are hardly the only institutions to draw his withering gaze. Using a surprising breadth of knowledge regarding geo-politics and world culture, Brooks takes shots at, well, the whole world for what he regards as a universal inability to prevent or manage a cataclysm on this scale. Second, but along the same vein, situating his particular version of the zombie apocalypse as a global event allows Brooks to destabilize all of the imagined communities to which we so fervently cling. Zombies don’t respect borders, or faith, or class, or race, or politics, or gender, or sexual orientation, or any of the other ways we choose to group ourselves off from one another. By positing zombies as an Other for all of humanity, Brooks erases some of the lines between us, leaving a single, human Self. Of course, whether what’s left is worth saving is another question entirely.
Also, someone please make this into a series. Without meaning in any way to disparage or denigrate the wildly uninteresting, dumbed-down, and sterilized action blockbuster that shares its name, World War Z is simply not a story that is very well suited for film (even if the studio heads hadn’t decided to dip a good idea in glitter and deep fry it). However, a World War Z TV series, or even mini-series, told in flashbacks by an enthnographer and his or her interviewees (a similar structure has worked well in The Wonder Years and, more recently, How I Met Your Mother), would be pretty effing amazing. And I’m going to keep harping on it every chance I get until someone does the right thing and makes it happen.

Zombie, Ohio: A Tale of the Undeadby Scott Kenemore

          Zombie, Ohio is different. I’d even go so far as to say unique. Not in that the narrator of the story is a zombie – it’s rare, but it’s been done – and not in that it presents a zombie that can think and talk, because that has been done before too, but in the fact that its thinking, talking zombie narrator does so in violation of the rules of his own zombie apocalypse. Pete Mellor, or rather Pete Mellor’s zombie, is an apparent singularity within the fictional universe he inhabits. Unlike, say, Return of the Living Dead or the short story “A Zombie’s Lament,” where all zombies seem rather sentient and chatty, Zombie, Ohio presents Mellor, aka the Kernel, as an exception among the zombie horde, the rest of which are all of the mindless, moan and groan variety. Situated dead in its center, Mellor undermines the ostensible binary relationship between human and zombie in some very interesting ways. For the first time ever (I think), a zombie uses what humans think they know about zombies, the definitions and categorization that the humans have imposed, against them in his effort to eat their brains.

The novel also raises some surprisingly profound questions, however, about the notion of self. By creating a zombie who is mostly, though not entirely, amnesiac with regards to his former self, but who is also keenly aware of his current condition, Kenemore pushes his readers to interrogate what it means to be “me” (not me, me, but them, me; got it?). Is our sense of self determined solely by a collection of memories, or a continuity of consciousness, or is there something more to it than that? Am I still me if I don’t remember who I was? What if I profoundly change? Is me now the same me as me then? For as fun and gross and sometimes goofy as this book is, there is also a certain philosophical and psychological weight to it, if you are paying attention. This is high level zombie lit, from one of the growing stars of the field. 

     Graphic Novels-
     Short Fiction-
Dead Inside Do Not Enter: Notes From the Zombie Apocalypse, by Lost Zombies

            Realistically, this could have just as easily gone under an “Other” heading as “Short Fiction.” It certainly isn’t a short story in the way we typically think of them. In fact, it’s barely a story at all. Unless you count all of the blanks that you are asked to fill in on your own. What it is, however, is amazing. And unsettling. And heart-breaking. And terrifying.

I was tempted to label this book an epistolary novella, but I felt like that would really have been stretching each term towards its breaking point. It’s probably more like a scrapbook than anything. When the world is ending, what type of messages would we send? What would our last words look like as our culture failed? Instead of letters, the book is made up of a series of notes, written on all manner of scraps and fragments – notebook paper, birthday cards, lotto tickets, matchbooks, torn cardboard, whatever – that were ostensibly “discovered in a backpack […] in Northern California” following a zombie outbreak (Editor’s Notes). This collection of found correspondence is so pitch-perfect authentic in its depiction of the pettiness, humor, ignorance, and panic that would define our final moments that it hurts. The notes don't seem to be linked or arranged in any discernible way, and there is no real indication that the writers of any of them ever knew or met one another. However, what it lacks in narrative structure, Dead Inside more than makes up for in gut-punch effectiveness. Some of the letters are just close-the-book-and-sit-there-until-you-get-over-it awful. And almost never in a gruesome or gory way. This is horror at its most cerebral, because it makes you do most of the work. You have to buy this book (paperback, there are apparently formatting issues with the Kindle version).

Zombies: Encounters with the Hungry Dead, edited and with commentary by John Skipp

          While there is no shortage of zombie anthologies on the market, the latest from Skipp (following Book of the Dead, Still Dead: Book of the Dead 2, and Mondo Zombie) stands apart for a few reasons. First, it picks better stories. This is obviously a wildly subjective claim and I am completely okay with that. Other anthology compilers often seem more intent on cashing in on a hot trend than providing a coherent and relevant group of zombie and zombie-related stories. Skipp's real affinity for zombie fiction is palpable and it makes all the difference. Beyond that, the relative newness of Zombies means that it includes several stories that were written post-2002 (which, I would argue marks the advent of the Zombie Renaissance). Moreover, as Skipp's most recent effort, Zombies: Encounters with the Hungry Dead, is able to act as a best-of anthology, of sorts, containing multiple entries from Skipp's previous compilations. As such, its "hit" percentage is markedly higher [Manny 9/11/14]

The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Deadby Max Brooks

            I really don’t know what the hell to call The Zombie Survival Guide, as far as literature goes. I mean, it’s very clearly a parody, and a high level one at that, but how do you categorize a fictional field manual? Well, whatever you call it, it’s great, and its impact on 21st century zombie lit. is undeniable. Continuing the trend that began with the Resident Evil series, and spread to film with Resident Evil and 28 Days LaterThe Zombie Survival Guide showed that zombie books could be both interesting and financially successful (working its way onto The New York Times Best Seller’s list). It also helped pull zombies out of what had become a fairly goofy horror/gore niche. Although it deals, often quite explicitly, with horrific material and even some gore, The Zombie Survival Guide is not a horror book. Rather, it uses horror as a tool (along with parody) to poke fun at how wildly unprepared our pampered society is for any high level disaster. We don’t even have basic preparedness, let alone “protection from the living dead.” But Max Brooks is really bright and rarely operates on only one register. So, while he is clearly parodying survival manual with pitch-perfect tone and satirizing Western privilege, he also uses his “Recorded Attacks” vignettes (gestured to throughout the book, and then expanded upon in an appendix at the end) to raise some really clever epistemological concerns over the certainty we tend to ascribe to history and how readily we believe the things we are told by the people we hold as experts. By mixing completely fictionalized accounts of history with other legitimate but inexplicable historical events (the chronicles of Hanno the Navigator or the disappearance of Roanoke Colony, for example), Brooks forces his readers – well, the ones who are paying attention – to question not only what they “know” but how they know it. 

Video Games:
Resident Evil (the series), created by Shinjin Makami

Resident Evil doesn’t get the credit it deserves. That’s unfortunate. Although the video games from the series, as well as the films, have all been commercially successful, they aren’t typically regarded with the same type of critical affection as their more literate zombie kin, 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, or even Fido. However, there is almost no chance that the zombie renaissance as we know it (there’s nothing else to call it), to say nothing of the survival horror video game genre, would have occurred if millions of us hadn’t taken that first unpleasant trip to Raccoon City. Resident Evil did a lot more than prove that video games could be scary, though; it also helped reshape the way that we conceive of narrative. By offering players multiple endings based on choices they made while playing, Resident Evil helped usher in the age of video games that operated more as non-linear, interactive fictions than simple stories that players followed from start to finish. And they did it while making zombies scary (and cool) again.

My memories of playing Resident Evil in 1996 aren’t as clear as I’d like them to be, but I distinctly recall Resident Evil 2 scaring the shit out of me, even as a “macho” high school football player. These games, with their dicey controls and sometimes hilariously cheesy dialogue, were frightening in a way that zombie narratives hadn’t been in a very long time. Zombies had been fun in the 80s, and kitschy cult cool, but they probably hadn’t been really terrifying since Dawn of the Dead. As part of this project, I’m going to revisit these games, to try to pinpoint what made them such the perfect vehicle to remind us how awful the walking dead can truly be.

Digital Media: