Monday, September 8, 2014

Call for a Zombie Canon

Ghouls, Zombies, Revenants, lend me your ears!

As the zombie’s critical relevance inches closer and closer towards the levels of its enveloping cultural presence, it might be a good time to begin creating a definitive list of zombie “texts.” While I understand that canon making is an inherently problematic enterprise (there is an inescapable power dynamic involved in any effort to determine criteria for artistic merit or value), I do think that it could be a worthwhile and productive endeavor when it comes to zombie narratives. I also feel that, if handled properly – namely, openly and collaboratively (all the adverbs!) – it could potentially avoid many, if not all, of the problems that have plagued most attempts at creating a definitive literary canon. For one, we wouldn’t need to limit ourselves to “literature” at all.

While there is certainly a vast amount of fun and meaningful zombie literature out there (that is, written zombie works), it could be argued, and quite convincingly I think, that zombies are a fundamentally visual monster and that, as such, film is the truest form of zombie narrative. But I don’t want to leave anything out. A real zombie canon should include it all: novels, short stories, graphic novels, movies, tv, video games, and online or crowd-sourced fiction. Really, I would even make space for can’t miss blogs and message boards. A willingness to include every type of zombie text (did I miss any?) should not imply that all zombies are created equal, though.

At its heart, any attempt at canon-building is an appraisal, a matter of deciding quality. This is inescapable and our project is no different. What I hope to determine (and I want your help), is which are the most interesting, entertaining, and influential zombie texts. Although I readily acknowledge that even the best canon is nothing more than a set of "tentative judgments about what [has] importance and quality” and that those judgments are “always subject to revision, and in fact [are] constantly being revised," I also believe that there is critical value in separating the good from the … un-good (Searle). Especially given the sheer volume in zombie production over the last 10-12 years. At some point, it becomes necessary to cull the hoard and pick favorites.

This, of course, is going to lead to some pretty spirited debates. Which is not only healthy in this, or any, context, but also fun. The first battle-lines will probably be drawn over what, exactly, counts as a zombie. Though I certainly have my own opinion concerning what is or isn’t a zombie, I think it goes without saying that the edges of zombiedom are unmistakably ambiguous. In establishing which texts belong in the Canon of the Dead, we will inevitably be confronted with the problem of defining the zombie. Believe me, this will not go as easily as you think. For every trait there is that defines a zombie, there is a movie, book, or game that violates it. However, I also expect skirmishes – though hopefully no bloodshed – over what it is that we will value in these texts and what qualifies them as canonical.

What I am looking for, then, are texts that operate on multiple levels. It’s important that they are entertaining (whether scary, funny, or in between, what are zombies if not fun?), but I would probably place more value on an openness to meaningful interpretation than thrills. From the outset, zombies have operated as open allegories (a term I may have just made up to unnecessarily differentiate between basic allegories and allegories that can operate on multiple registers) capable of reflecting any number of social concerns. While I do not want to limit our list to those texts that act as social commentary, I do feel that the very best zombie texts are interesting precisely because they do. Toward that end, I would also prefer to focus our attention on works that display a degree of excellence in craft. Zombies have always been a little bit sloppy. And that’s okay. That’s part of the fun. Technical virtuosity is less important, here, than effectively evoking a desired response. Obviously this part is subjective as shit, but there’s no real way around that. I fully expect some push back even on these limited criteria, and I welcome that, but they are, if anything, a place to start.

Because this is a bit of a critical endeavor, I’m not looking to simply list the movies and stories that we think are great. I want to know why. Whether in the comments section below, or by linking back to your own blogs or message boards, candidates for the Canon of the Dead should come with a short (or long; whatever) entry defending their inclusion.

There is only one obvious place to start:
The Works of George A. Romero

Night of the Living Dead 
Dawn of the Dead
Day of the Dead
Land of the Dead
Diary of the Dead
Survival of the Dead 
(yes, even that one!)

I’m lazy, so I’m letting Beth Kelly’s article, "Legacy of the Dead: George A. Romero's Contribution to the Zombie Canon, defend George for me. Though, if you thought Romero needed defending, you should probably leave my blog right now. No, seriously

What else belongs in the Canon of the Dead?

Searl, John. “The Storm Over the University.” The New York Review of Books 37.19 (1990): 34+.
EBSCOhost EJS. Web. 6 Sept. 2014.

1 comment:

  1. So, in novels, I like the Austen Parodies, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Dawn of the Dreadfuls. In the Parodic mode they highlight 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 in tact (and Seth Grahame Smith is genius at matching tone). Lately though, I have been obsessed with the Manel Loureiro trilogy of Apocalypse Z novels. I like these for a lot of reasons. 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. Also everything by Max Brooks on the topic for perfectly obvious reasons.