Friday, October 31, 2014

Just Ad Zombies...

It should probably come as no surprise, given the pervasiveness of their popularity across virtually every other form of media, that zombies have become an increasingly popular subject for advertisers as well. For decades (or longer), advertisers have been jumping on every bandwagon or trend that comes along in an effort to associate their product with the next big thing (sure, there are plenty of companies who consistently attempt to create the next big thing themselves, but to me they are a distinct minority). For zombie enthusiasts and theorists, this appropriation of zombies by the mainstream media apparatus offers a clear affirmation of the cultural capital of the zombie figure.  However, to those of us who see in zombies something more than the sum of their dismembered parts, these commercials can also seem like an outright bastardization of the form. While both sides are worth discussing, it is this last part that interests me most. If zombies operate as floating allegories (and I think they do) that can be made to represent virtually anything, how is it that so many ad agencies still seem to get them so utterly, and often ridiculously, wrong? And what are we to make of the fact that a figure that has so long been considered a commentary on consumer culture should then be employed as a marketing tool to elicit the same urges it is critiquing (although, to be sure, this same question could be asked of big budget zombie blockbusters - I'm looking at you World War Z - as well). 

I'm going to take a moment to acknowledge that I have no rights to any of the commercials I am about to share on this blog, nor have I procured permission to reproduce them. I think I'll be in the clear though (Fair Use, what!). First, I am in no way profiting from them monetarily. Two, I am reproducing these ads for the purposes of criticism, comment, research, and scholarship of sorts. Third, and probably most importantly, I'm likely safe because, even though I'm going to talk shit about many of these ads, the companies that paid to create them all want their ads to be seen by as many eyes as possible. That is, their presence on my blog should in no way effect the potential value and market of the copyrighted work. Indeed, though I may be highly critical of their efforts, I'm still very much helping them transmit their message (alas, we are all just cogs...). With that being said, in the unlikely event that you are one of these companies - corporations are people now - and you'd like me to take your commercial down, I will. 

Now, for the most part, zombie ads seem to fail because they don't make any sense whatsoever. When I was trying to recall commercials for this entry, one of the first that came to mind was a funny(ish) ad for Starburst that featured a talking zombie on a bus. What I remembered most about it, even more than the product it was supposed to be selling, was how utterly unnecessary the zombie was for what the ad was trying to accomplish. Take a look. 

Absolute nonsense. And I don't think Starburst is particularly likely to take any offense to me labeling their ad nonsense because that was its whole point. Otherwise they probably wouldn't have decided on the kilted Scotch-Korean spokesman. Beyond that, my problem here is that the zombie is entirely gratuitous, and only barely a zombie at that. Of all the traits that define a zombie, Bored Douche zombie only really fulfills the living dead part. There's no indication that he consumes flesh or that his condition is transmittable, and he clearly isn't mindless. The contradiction that he would seem to embody is shared by a great many other horrific figures. Vampires, ghosts, revenants, golems, mummies, etc. are all living dead constructs that could have served just as capably. Really, some might have even been a little more apt for this particular ad because, you know, they're actually supposed to talk. Similar to many of the other ads that I will be discussing, this zombie is not in any way materially necessary to the "narrative" of the commercial. Its presence is predicated solely on the zombie's present popularity. And, for the life of me, I can't figure how this is possibly supposed to sell any candy. In fact, it seems to gesture in the exact opposite direction. The ad is really two ads in one: one that continues the Scotch-Korean "contradiction" angle (being Scotch-Korean is not a contradiction, for the record) and another that mocks and belittles the existing Starburst marketing gimmick. Starburst put out a commercial making fun of the primary slogan of most (at that time) recent Starburst commercials. And not in a self-aware, ironic kind of way. How's that for a contradiction?

Barely zombies simply for zombies' sake appears to be a fairly common approach for many advertisers. Instead of crafting a coherent campaign around the accepted conventions of the zombie trope, a lot of these ads only require the zombie to show up and look the part. No carnage. No contagion. Just a walking corpse that says his (spokeszombies are almost exclusively male; still a little squeamish about the idea of female corpses, are we?) lines in a remarkably human way without threatening or harming anyone. There is a Sprint spot that, like the Starburst ad, is fairly amusing but that, also like the Starburst commercial, would quite probably have been just as amusing had the zombie been replaced by almost literally anyone or thing. A talking cactus, or hat, or mop head would have been as relevant to the Sprint ad as the Slightly Suave zombie. More troubling however, to me at least, is that unlike the Starburst spot, the Sprint ad seems to ask customers to align themselves with the zombie. Humans and zombies necessarily operate as opposed binaries (though this binary is quite often unsettled and problematized). Here, though, the zombie is positioned not as the Other, but as the Self. Zombies want unlimited minutes. I want unlimited minutes. I am a zombie. Not a great plan, Sprint. Whenever possible, your product should avoid making me associate myself with a mindless, flesh-eating corpse.

To be continued...

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Canon Update (10/21/14)


World War Z, by 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.

The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead, by 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 Later, The 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. 

Death Poetry Slam

A couple weeks ago, one of my students came into my office and asked if I knew of any zombie poetry collections. As it happened, I did not. While working on my thesis, and this blog, there had always been a nagging awareness that I had left a conspicuous gap in my knowledge of zombie literature. Either zombie poetry did not exist in any serious way (which would be a bit of a chink in my cultural ubiquity claims and need to be addressed), or I was simply overlooking what might be a fun and important manifestation of the zombie craze. For whatever reason, I had never pursued an answer to this question and instead was quite comfortable focusing my energy on novels, short stories, blogs, etc. Thankfully, someone came along and gave me the nudge I apparently needed to finally seek out zombie poetry. I was very pleasantly surprised.

Disclaimer: I’m not a very avid poetry reader. Don’t get me wrong, I like poetry. I was completely comfortable dissecting Shakespeare’s Sonnets for a summer course or memorizing “Ozymandias” for another (“Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair” - that poem kicks ass), and I like analyzing wordplay and meter when I have to, but poetry is not something that I get into too much in my free time. This, more than anything I’m sure, is why it took me so long to find out that not only is there zombie poetry out there, but that some of it is actually quite good.

Photo: Rachel Green (I think)
Which brings me to “Isabella” by Adam Huber. This poem hit me, man. I’m not going to reprint it here, because I don’t think that would be very fair to Huber, but the poem can be found in the unfortunately titled Vicious Verses and Reanimated Rhymes: Zany Zombie Poetry for the Undead Head (I can only assume that Don’t Take These Poems Seriously was already taken as a title; perhaps unsurprisingly, collection editor A.P. Fuchs is also the author of Getting Down and Digital: How to Self-Publish Your Book - A Step-By-Step, No-Nonsense, No-Hype Guide to Successfully Publishing Your Book Yourself,  and founder of the Just Keep Throwing Words at It Until You Run Out of Space School of Book Naming –  ok, I made that last part up). Awful, goofy title aside, the collection is actually quite good and can (and should) be purchased here. “Isabella” is one of three poems included on the Amazon “Look Inside” preview of the book, and the first poem in the collection overall. Although I won’t go so far as to call the poem technically brilliant, there is a beautiful horror to it that is both affective emotionally, as well as terribly effective at conveying everything that makes the zombie figure so dreadful: the uncertainty of its origin, an utter loss of self, the awful familiarity of a monster that used to be someone you loved, and the sheer terror of a world whose rules have all inexplicably changed forever.

The second stanza of the poem, which explains the relationship between the crying “I” and bile dripping “she” of the slightly disorienting opening stanza, serves to highlight these last two fears with particular severity. Although “she,” Isabella, used to be someone else “before it all started,” most notably her father’s daughter, their relationship has changed forever from parent-child to hunter-prey. The horror, here, is almost immediately located in the troublesome gap between what was and what is. As terrifying as it would be to have any zombie hovering above the speaker with its jaws agape, this zombie is terrifying precisely because of who she was before she was trying to eat her father’s face. Repeatedly, the poem refers back to that time before – a fever from a bout with the chicken pox, a swing set built for her sixth birthday – recalling the girl the speaker knew and loved before she became the hungry “beast” on top of him. His memories of then, when family still only meant “everything,” make it impossible for the speaker to accept the realities of now; it is his familiarity that paralyzes him, keeps him from fighting back, prevents him from trying even if he “should.” A monster who behaves nothing like his daughter, who doesn’t love or even recognize her father, whose “empty” eyes see nothing beyond rage and hunger, but who still looks so much like the girl she once was, freezes the speaker. Incapacitates him. And ultimately gets him killed… for now.

This idea of a debilitating monstrous familiarity is far from new. Indeed, zombie enthusiasts should readily recognize it as a concern that has existed in zombie fiction as early as Night of the Living Dead, when Barbra wilts at the sight of zombie Johnny and Helen Cooper lays there helplessly as her zombie daughter Karen brutally murders her with a trowel. Obviously, by the time Dawn comes around we see characters like Peter,
who doesn’t hesitate to shoot his stricken friends in the face, but there has been no shortage of characters since then - whether in film, literature, or television – who have simply shut down at the sight of a loved one returned. What separates characters like Barbra and Helen or, more recently Andre (Mekhi Phifer) in the Dawn of the Dead remake from characters like Peter, Selena from 28 Days Later, and Rick Grimes from The Walking Dead, is the ability to adapt to an awful new reality and play by the new rules. 

The speaker in “Isabella,” a heartbroken husband and father, has clearly not adjusted to the world in which he finds himself, a world where family means nothing, where being her father means nothing, “not to her, not anymore,” and sentimentality is nothing more than an invitation for dull teeth to crush his windpipe. The world has changed as irrevocably as his Isabella, but the speaker doesn’t, and can’t, change with it. This clinging to the past, to old rules and relationships, is what ultimately costs the speaker the last thing he has left to lose: his Self.

Have a beautiful Tuesday.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

"Just Add Zombies" Part 2

Okay, so zombies are floating allegories. They might not be able to symbolize anything, but they aren’t very far off. Although they are most typically associated with death (say whaaaat?), zombies are also a ready stand in for most other conceivable calamities: disease, famine, war, overpopulation, global scarcity, financial crisis, problematic science, and any other threat (credible or not) to society as we know it. Zombie are perfectly suited as allegories for apocalypse and pandemic, and anything else that threatens to render humanity an endangered species. Indeed, the Center for Disease Control bases its whole Zombie Preparedness campaign around this allegorical openness. 
Clean fingernails are always the first thing to go...

Big Daddy as everything that frightens
Middle America

However, they are also capable of representing less overtly physically threatening concerns as well. Hints of racism, class strife, and geo-political and religious differences all show up repeatedly in zombie fiction, as the zombie itself seems to be an able embodiment of any (racial, ethnic, socioeconomic) Other. 

Although I am intrigued by the zombie’s ability to represent a variety of concerns, both at the societal as well as the personal level, from text to text – clearly, the zombies of Night of the Living Dead symbolize different anxieties than Day of the Dead, or even Dawn of the Dead – I am probably more interested in their ability to function differently from person to person within the same text. Sometimes even from diametrically opposed perspectives. 

Going back to Night, for example, it seems evident that audience members who align with Ben are likely to see (perhaps unconsciously, but that's a whole ‘nother discussion) the zombies as representative of one type of Other, while those who identify with Mr. Cooper (they are probably less common now than they were in 1968, but they undoubtedly still exist) are likely to read the zombies entirely differently. Although race might be the most obvious difference between the two men, they are also separated by class and age as well. So, where people that side with Ben might view the zombies, including the Cooper family, as representing people still clinging to the troublesome ideologies of the past, the pro-Cooper clan might see the hungry dead as a symbol of the teeming youth of the nation who refuse to do what they're supposed to.
Team Ben: score one for progress!
We see something similar at the beginning of 28 Days Later as well. A certain part of the population is going to see the outbreak as the fault of immoral researchers and bad science. Some viewers, though, are certainly likely to see the animal rights activists who won’t listen to reason as responsible for the Rage-fueled apocalypse. There is almost no chance that the “infected” operate the same way allegorically to both views.

But these are just two examples, predicated on extremes. There is a whole swarm of zombie texts that allow for, and indeed invite, a vast multitude of interpretations while constantly problematizing the boundaries of those interpretations. There is never one right reading (if there ever is of any text). Perhaps the perfect post-structural construct, zombies persistently undermine traditional black and white understandings and instead incessantly push everything towards some unsettled liminal space, reveling in the grey.

Grey Like Me

Tomorrow: monstrous plurality 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

"Just Add Zombies" Part 1

One of the things that jumped out at me when reading Dead Inside: Do Not Enter, is that there doesn't really seem to be a genre or form of literature, or even art generally, that zombies cannot make their own. Clearly, as a horrific figure, even THE horrific figure of the 21st century, the zombie is most perfectly suited for, well, horror (surprise!). 
Unsurprisingly, given their typically post-apocalyptic (or just outright apocalyptic) settings, and the pervasive dread and uncertainty of their tales, our favorite dead things are quite at home in suspense, science fiction, and fantasy narratives as well.  As it turns out, however, zombies have been able to make a place for themselves pretty much everywhere. 


Romantic comedy?

Romance sans chuckles?
 You effin' betcha.

Historical fiction? 
Why not. 


The same can be said for literary forms. Although I would contend that zombies are first and foremost a visual monster and thus best situated for film and/or TV (why aren’t there more zombie TV shows? World War Z the series! Are you telling me people wouldn’t watch that? I want it now! Let’s get a Kickstarter goin’ and put that shit on HBO), they have been able to spread across
literary forms as seamlessly as they have genres. Comic books were pretty much a given (another visual medium), but there is no shortage of really good zombie novels, short stories, and even poetry. That’s right, really good zombie poetry. Don’t scoff at me. I’ll have a post up on “Isabelle” by the end of the week. Beyond just chronicling how awesome zombies are, though, or pointing out their inexorable march across pretty much any and every form of art, I’m wondering if there isn’t something about zombies in particular that allows for this level of omnipresence (I feel like I might use the word ubiquity too much, so I tried something new; I don’t like it; I’m going back to ubiquity from now on).

I’m still not sure where I sit on all this, so this might get a little stream-of-conscious-y as I work through some stuff.

Okay, before we go too much further, part of what I’d like to do is to attempt to categorize the zombie itself. I don’t mean define it. Well, not yet at least (Romero explicitly defines zombies, even without using that word, in Night and Dawn; the fact that nobody, Romero included, strictly abides by that definition makes it worth discussing – later). Instead, I’d like to identify its place as a literary device. Frequently, when discussing zombies, people (like me) will throw around the word "monster." And a zombie is definitely that: a monster. But it is never just about a zombie, is it? I mean that in two ways. 

First, much of the horror of the zombie figure is situated in its plurality – its teeming, swarming, ever-growing, overwhelming plurality. This doesn’t make it less of a monster, but it makes it its own kind of monster. I’d like to explore that a little bit. 

However, I was also gesturing to the fact that zombies are rarely just zombies, no matter where or in what form we encounter them. Zombies are almost always figurative representations of… stuff. And that’s where I run into trouble. Zombies operate like allegories (most zombie narratives are clearly allegorical, whether it’s intentional or imposed by the viewer/reader), but to categorize zombies as allegories, to me, seems to imply a stable underlying meaning. See, when I try to say “Zombies are allegories,” I can’t help but think that I am inviting the problematic reply: “Of what?” What do you call a figure that almost always operates with an underlying meaning but whose underlying meaning is never set? If we look at allegories as extended metaphors, then zombies are vehicles with tenors that are constantly shifting. Not just from text to text, but from reader to reader. In many ways, they behave like floating signifiers, a concept introduced by Claude Levi-Strauss to denote (and this is a gross, almost offensive, oversimplification) terms that have no meaning, or rather that have no agreed upon meaning, and thus are able to mean anything (actually, as far as oversimplifications go, that’s pretty solid; take that semiotics!). 

Is a floating allegory a thing? It should be. Zombies are floating allegories. Done.

I have a lot more to say on this, but I need sleep (Levi-Strauss and I.A. Richards in a zombie blog? I've earned a nap). We’ll get further into why zombies are so open to allegory and multiple meanings and discuss the whole horde monster thing tomorrow. Err... later today.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Canon Update (10/2/14)


    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).

Dead 28 Days Later, written 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 again. 

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 things 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

Similarly, shifting the monster from risen dead to "the infected" reflects what I believe is 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. Where Romero scared us with the zombie not by making us believe it, but by depicting realistic reactions to inconceivable, indeed impossible, events, the Boyle zombie 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 has allowed the zombie to re-take its place as our worst nightmare and preeminent monster.