The Zombie Rights Campaign Blog

io9 Misinforms About the History of Zombies in America

It’s truly tragic that this article detailing the ‘history’ of Zombies in America is a cut above the average; sad, in that such a shallow and defamatory, not to mention dubiously ahistorical piece is still so much better than most.

What the io9 piece gets right, and almost everybody else misses, is that the history of the media’s treatment of Zombies here in America didn’t start with George Romero. Shocking as it seems to those of us in the Zombie Rights movement, most Americans are blissfully unaware of the entire existence of the Voodoo (or perhaps Vodoun) Zombie/Zombi, both in terms of their real world existences and their depiction on the silver screen. Amazingly enough, your average American has completely forgotten all about the Zombies they feared and defamed pre-Romero, having become fixated on Romero’s nasty vision.

Unfortunately, most of the rest of the io9 post is awful, simply dreadful. First, they attempt to create one unified history of the Zombie phenomenon in America, acting as if the Romero treatment of the Differently Animated was naturally derived from the earlier Hollywood Zombie movies like White Zombie or Revolt of the Zombies.

Theres just one little hitch with this theory; it’s not true, at least, not if you believe George Romero:

Q: So here you are again with the zombies.

A: Isn’t it weird?

Q: Can you account for your lifelong interest in them?

A: No. I’ve sort of been stuck with them in a weird way. I love it. I grew up on the DC comic books before they were censored. And I never thought of the things as zombies when we made Night of the Living Dead. Never called them zombies. They were ghouls, flesh-eaters. I thought I was coming up with some kind of new creature: neighbours. Dead neighbour walking.

Q: That’s a scary thought.

A: Neighbours are scary enough. When people started to write about the film, they called them zombies. I used the word only in Dawn of the Dead. Haven’t used it since. They call them Stenches in Land of the Dead. In this film they call them Deadheads. I just don’t like the sound of it. I can’t get my head out of the idea that zombies are rainbow boys down in the Caribbean. I don’t know what these creatures are. They’re neighbours. They’re dead neighbours.

Granted it’s an odd position for the ZRC to take, but we’re willing, barring evidence to the contrary, to accept Mr. Romero’s statement that, in fact, his defamatory vision of Zombies does not flow from the Carribean Zombie but from his own, twisted imagination.

Perhaps more unsettling is the re-presentation of io9 ‘research’ attempting to tie the bashing of Zombies on screen to specific social tragedies (as if social unrest is in any way a justification for such treatment):

Of course no fantasy icon as popular as the zombie can ever be boiled down neatly into an allegory about any single issue. Race and class conflicts are one part of zombie tales, as are fears about famine, disease and war. A few years ago, we at io9 even did a massive analysis of times in history when the most zombie movies came out, trying to discern a pattern. What we found was quite remarkable: Periods of social unrest and war were almost always followed by big spikes in zombie movie production.

If anything, what all these zombie movies have in common is a shared origin in mass historical trauma. When millions of people go through something horrific together – whether that’s slavery, war, or plague – they seem to hunger for stories about zombies.

They present a chart alongside this, allegedly tying spikes in Zombie movie production to the various historical events, derived from an earlier piece i09 did some time ago.There are at least three enormous problems with this methodology:

1) It assumes all Zombie bashing is derived from the same source, and are created in reflection of the same basic fears, despite the radically different origins of our various cinematic concepts of the Zombie. This ignores both the very different origins of domestic Anti-Zombie myth, as mentioned above, as well as the international contributions to our cinema of hate; clearly, the Italian Anti-Zombie tradition has far less to do with the African-Carribean experience, and the same can probably be said for the Spanish, British and Australian/New Zealand Zombie film genres. While it’s true that this is an article about Zombies in America, it’s also undeniable that filmmakers like Fulci, Argento, Bava, Boyle and Peter Jackson have had profound influences on American Zombie films. (If you click through to the original article, you’ll find that they do include some foreign Zombie movies in their sampling.)

2) It fails to properly account for differences in the number of movies made, and their status as indies vs studio pictures.
Yes, the original piece mentions the enormous increase in the number of films being made as the cost of independent filmmaking plunges due to better technology, as well as new methods of seeing and distributing such films emerge. However, it doesn’t attempt to actually quantify this in any meaningful way; what *percentage* of, say, major studio movies in 1930 vs. 2000 were Zombie-bashing? How about indies? Instead we get a handwave that, oh, gee, it obviously accounts for some of it.

3) The historical event analysis is shallow and flawed. Take a look at this:

Still, even correcting for the fact that there are more movies being made today, you can see that there are distinctive spikes in zombie popularity – and they always seem to fall slightly after a huge political or social event has caused mass fear, chaos, or suffering. That’s why World War II, Vietnam, and the current Iraq War are all followed by a zombie rush at theaters. Obviously, if you’re going to look at these historical correlations, you have to consider that movies inspired by a real-life event aren’t going to show up in theaters for at least six months to a year, so we’ve accounted for that.

Do you see the obvious problem? They are attempting to prove that historical traumas, as perceived by the United States, caused these ‘spikes’ in Zombie bashing on screen – while including non-US films in their samples!

Somehow I doubt that, say, the Vietnam war caused the same level of social unrest in Europe that it did here. Likewise, the current Iraq War’s social effects are doubtless very different in the US than in Europe or around the rest of the globe.

So in conclusion, i09 is still doing a terrible job informing the general public about Anti-Zombie films. As further insult, at no point is the enormous harm caused by these spikes in brutal hate-flicks against the Differently Animated mentioned. The suffering and social ostracism of the American Zombie is ignored in pursuit of some grand theory to explain their media popularity; it’s callous in the extreme.

And then, to top it all off, the author tries to assert her own theory that Zombies exist somehow to remind Living people of their own repressed memories and trauma. Zombies aren’t people too, says i09 writer Annalee Newitz, they’re just psychotherapy props for anxious Living individuals. I suppose Ms. Newitz would rather fight Zombies with therapy sessions than shotguns, but otherwise, she’s right up there with the Romeros and Russos of the world, pushing the ‘Zombies are a disease’ trope, only hers is psychological rather than physiological.

Shame on you for writing this, Ms. Newitz, and shame on i09 for publishing it.


About The Author

The role of 'Administrator' will be played tonight by John Sears, currently serving as President of The Zombie Rights Campaign.

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