The Thrill of It All

Michael Newton

  • Zombies: A Cultural History by Roger Luckhurst
    Reaktion, 224 pp, £16.00, August 2015, ISBN 978 1 78023 528 8

In Brussels in 2008 I stumbled on my first zombie apocalypse. I was with some friends when we came across a large assembly of the amateur undead lurching up the boulevard towards us. My friends’ toddler staggered towards the zombies; the zombies staggered towards him. Soon they were among us. Blood congealed around eye sockets; cuts slashed down cheeks; eyes whited out. One cadaverous Belgian lurched towards me, unfastening his jaws as if to take a mouthful. I wondered how far the play-acting would go. What if this man really thinks he’s a zombie? He snapped out a faux-bite, gnashed for a bit near my shoulder, and tottered off. We laughed nervously, while the toddler gazed wide-eyed at the retreating backs of the zombie herd, heading off to terrorise the Grand Place.

‘I Walked with a Zombie’
‘I Walked with a Zombie’

I’ve come across a couple of zombie invasions since then. There’s aggression in the ugliness, a confrontational indecorousness and it’s hard to know how to respond to it. Should bystanders laugh and enjoy the spectacle? Admire the effort put into the faked injuries and signs of death? Run for cover? Out on the street, the zombie is a baffling manifestation. Yet in another sense there’s nothing puzzling about this fashion for the zombie. They’re everywhere because, allegorically speaking, they stand in for almost anything. In his new cultural history of the zombie, Roger Luckhurst’s problem – and now it’s become mine – is that we always already believe we know what ‘zombie’ means. Zombies are a monster whose subtext is the text, and there’s seemingly little for the critic to disinter: they’re liminal characters; they’re slaves, they’re factory workers; they’re plague victims; they’re Nazis, they’re the ‘Muselmänner’ of Auschwitz; they’re Korean War era Chinese troops, they’re the brainwashed American prisoners of war those Chinese troops captured; they’re consumers, they’re manipulated citizens, they’re us. In mapping these connections, Luckhurst offers a mindful exploration of mindless violence. He is thoroughly well informed, and his writing proves lively and critically astute. It’s hard to imagine a significantly better book on the zombie phenomenon. More than that, however, he exposes just how much we don’t know about zombies, just how unstable and multifarious they are. Luckhurst convincingly demonstrates that, as with its spectral cousin and opposite, the ghost, the zombie exceeds the possibility of interpretation. Very likely both the ghost and the zombie are forces summoned up to allow us to explore something of the mystery of death. Both terrors hover either side of the boundary between fiction and actual belief. Both express the thought that at death some remnant of ourselves is left unaccounted for. In the case of the ghost, it’s something that might be thought to be the equivalent of the soul or the spirit, or simply the memory of the life that’s gone. With the more modish zombie, nothing remains but human remains.

Luckhurst shows that the contemporary zombie always implicitly returns us to the monster’s beginnings among the complex belief-systems of the populations of Haiti and the Antilles. There in ‘the zombi’ (the final ‘e’ was added in the transition to the USA), this creature finds its roots. Luckhurst suggests that its deep origin lies in the experience of slavery, and (in the early 20th century) the return in Haiti to a kind of enslavement signalled by renewed colonial control. From here, Luckhurst traces the path by which the zombi becomes a zombie, and then becomes the lurching cannibal-monster of whom we’re all supposed to be so fond. The original zombi is a necromantic property, the multivalent product of a syncretic religion. Controlled by others, Haitian zombis worked hard – in doing so, they resembled the slaves who once populated the island, experiencing an enchanted version of the compelled work that their ancestors had lived in reality. Zombie films from the 1930s and 1940s, among them Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943), the genre’s eerie, poetic masterpiece, readily display their indebtedness to these island origins.

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