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New book explores how zombie culture frames many contemporary issues

By BERT GAMBINI

Published March 4, 2016

“Consider that Jesus died, came back to life and had an explosion of followers. What could be more zombie-like than that?”
David Castillo, professor
Department of Romance Languages and Literatures

Zombies don’t have much to say, but there’s a lot to say about them. And two UB researchers are among those doing the talking in a new book about zombies.

David Castillo, professor of Romance languages and literatures, and David Schmid, associate professor of English, join Niagara University political science professor David Reilly and John Edgar Browning, a postdoctoral fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology who received his PhD in American studies at UB, as co-authors of “Zombie Talk: Culture, History, Politics,” a collection of essays that explores the various aspects of the zombie phenomenon.

The book is a critique and an appreciation of zombie culture and the things that inspire it.

“Collectively these essays try to take people beyond the familiar by introducing them to things and encouraging them to take a step back from what they consume and enjoy and start to think about their broader meaning,” says Schmid. “We want readers to be more aware and more self-critical of why zombies are so popular.”

“Zombie Talk” seems an unlikely title given the taciturn nature it of its subject. Deepening the irony is the fact that the book’s origins are found in a conversation that started last year.

Castillo organized the initial gathering of the four scholars as an interdisciplinary mini-symposium at UB.

At the time, no one at the meeting expected it would develop into anything more than a conversation, over a few sandwiches, with people working on the topic of zombies or similar issues.

“But John [Edgar Browning] has this unbelievable energy,” says Castillo. “He didn’t stop there and he soon convinced us that the topic could make it to print.”

And it did.

Palgrave Macmillan published “Zombie Talk” in December. Less than two months later, the book’s first printing had sold out, providing yet another index of zombie popularity that has seen the archetype go from a fringe fictional figure to a pop culture icon in the past 10 to 12 years.

“Zombies had been around for a long time and since George Romero’s [1968 film] ‘Night of the Living Dead’ they’ve been a staple in American culture,” says Schmid. “Then all of a sudden they exploded.”

Romero made an unexpected splash with his B-movie and followed it with films that revisited the theme of humans creating something that eventually haunts humanity, establishing and reinforcing foundational ideas about zombies, according to Castillo.

That makes a zombie as much a walking consequence as it is a walking corpse.

“The basic picture is this notion of an impending apocalypse,” he says. “That lines up well with the current perception that we’re on a train heading for an abyss and we can’t find a way to stop it.

“Philosopher Slavoj Zizek said that in today’s day and age we have a harder time imagining the end of global capitalism than the end of the world,” Castillo says. “It may be a failure of the political imagination, but we just can’t imagine an alternative to global capitalism, yet at the same time we are coming around to the realization that global capitalism, if left unchecked, cannot end well for us.”

Politically, economically or psychologically, zombies can dramatize many things — from mindless destructiveness to wanton consumption and conformity. The authors say zombies can get people thinking about larger issues in the world today.

That elasticity helps account for zombie popularity, according to Schmid, who says zombies satisfy a number of desires and a number of different consumers simultaneously.

“By definition, if they appeal to a niche audience they wouldn’t have staying power.”

In addition to their enduring popularity, these lifeless characters have curiously infused life in otherwise unwanted material. Castillo mentions a novel published in Spain that encountered years of publisher rejections only to be accepted after the author inserted zombies into the manuscript.

That zombie pastiche is found in other re-imaginations: a Quixote zombie; a Lazarillo zombie, adapted from the first picaresque novel ever written; the Black Death with zombies; and a reconfiguration of Christian history with Jesus as the first zombie.

“Consider that Jesus died, came back to life and had an explosion of followers,” says Castillo. “What could be more zombie-like than that?”

In the past two years, about 20 films with zombies have been released. Television has “The Walking Dead,” “iZombie” and “Fear of the Walking Dead.”

“Walker Stalker,” a conference for zombie lovers, opened this year in London, with nine different U.S. cities scheduled to host the event between March and December.

Searching for the term “zombie” at most major online retailers returns thousands of hits, everything from zombie video games to zombie action figures to comfy plush zombie slippers.

There’s even zombie food (brain-shaped cookies), zombie clothing (creating the illusion of rotting flesh) and zombie shower gel (which, despite its gruesome appearance, is said to be fresh-smelling).

All this brings zombies close to a possible saturation point, according to Schmid.

“If zombies are to avoid becoming the thing they need to criticize we should see more zombie narratives that are satirical and comedic, that poke fun at these conventions,” says Schmid. “At least that way we maintain the ability to use this figure in interesting ways a little bit longer.”

The recently released film “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” is one example.

Yet zombies were noticeably absent from this year’s slate of Super Bowl advertising, an always relevant barometer of popularity and trends.

Though not featured in any commercials, Castillo points out that zombies were still part of the game.

“We had Peyton Manning on the field instead,” he says.