Podcast Episode 151: Teaching Zombies
The Doctor of the Dead uses the undead to inspire critical thinking
Welcome back to another edition of listener supported KPBS cinema Junkie podcast I'm Beth Accomando. Today we're having what is usually an annual checkup with the doctor of the dead. One of my favorite people Arnold Blumberg and there's a reason specifically to talk to him today because he has a new book out and I just want to say that just like with zombie films every time a new one comes out I always think like are they going to be able to find something new and fresh so that when I go see this film it's going to make me feel like it was worth going to. And when you said you another book on the zombies and the undead I was thinking like wow you've already written quite a few bucks. How is he going to find something new to cover. And you did. So this was really fun for people who may not be familiar with stuff tell us the books you've written before and what your new one is. Well first of all thank you so much. It's always a joy to talk with you again. So and I love hearing that. I'm glad that worked for you. Going back to the beginning of it all what started the whole Dr. the debt journey was the fact that I started teaching a course in zombies in popular media at the University of Baltimore. First time is back in 2010 and that was because I had coauthored one of the very first guidebooks to zombie cinema in 2006 and that was called Zombie mania. It was actually called Zombie mania 80 movies to die for. But we cataloged like about 570 movies in their analysis find that when I do the full title Everybody thinks the book only had 80 movies. So I just say zombie mania but I did that I contribute to a lot of other books and chapters are several other books. And between that and the course just started building this public persona as like one of the so-called zombie scholars and experts out there that would talk about it in a variety of different media venues and it just seemed to grow. I eventually did a podcast which I'm still doing the doctor that did podcasts. You can find on iTunes and Stitcher all kinds of places. And now it's led me to writing this book which to me is very much the culmination of everything I've been working on since the first one back in 2006 before we started talking about the book. I wanted to talk a little bit about your teaching of zombies. You also use Marvel Universe to teach classes. But talk a little bit about the fact that it's not really a class on zombies in the sense of you're teaching about zombies it's you're using zombies to kind of get to students to get their brains to kind of be firing off a little more. And describe what that kind of like what the impetus was for you to turn to zombies for this. Well first of all you describe that exactly right. I mean that's that's it. The whole idea is there are a lot of people out there including a lot of people you're never going to be able to convince because their minds are already closed. That this idea that somehow using pop culture and entertainment in an academic setting is somehow wasting their time or wasting students time or a horrible thing to do when really the whole point is everything I've done my whole academic career is about media literacy and critical thinking. And it's this idea that every piece of media all the entertainment we surround ourselves with often very passively sit in a room and leave the TV on it's background noise. All of this stuff contains messages very often specifically shaped messages with an agenda and they're conveyed through metaphor and through allegory and symbolism and even if you're one of those people thinks well I don't it's just the thing. It's just escapism. You're getting the meaning whether you realize it or not. The goal is to get kids and unfortunately in this country we don't start soon enough. But to get kids to realize that if they want to enjoy something they can but they can also look at something and derive meaning from it and see how all these things we enjoy are also part of an ongoing cultural conversation about who we are as people. So yes you zombies use Marvel Cinematic Universe which I did of course and I taught a comic book literature course for about 15 years. And the goal is that's just the framework you're using something that gets students a bit more excited and engaged and maybe the kind of stuff you would normally hand them in a class. But then you can you can get them to start talking about race gender economic divisions the ecology and the environment. Every deep and important meaningful conversation that can be had about our culture. You can get to that point with students through pop culture and the zombie is particularly good for that and my start was I had always seemed to gravitate toward academics in one way or another. I started teaching almost 20 years ago now and the first stuff I taught was of course I created in comic book literature when my alma mater said We'd like to have it come back and teach an English department. What would you like to teach. And I said I don't want to just teach survey courses that seems boring I'd like to create something. And at the time weren't many courses in comics that weren't just in an art department that looked at it as literature. So I did that and then over the years I saw that grow to many of the universities and really being treated more seriously. And then I branched out into many of the other things I loved and that eventually led to me pitching the University of Baltimore on the idea of a semester in zombies and using that as the metaphor we would explore. And it took about 20 minutes of convincing the department head and then he saw it and he was like yeah I get it. He said This sounds like a good idea. And off we went and what do you think it is about zombies that makes them particularly good for this particular kind of class. Well the simplest answer is the old cliche about the modern zombie movie which is we are them and they are us. It's just that when it comes right down to sort of the whole pantheon of fantasy creatures you can pick out the zombie is the closest to us that you can get. There are a carnival mirror reflection of us. They are us. Sometimes you can do zombie stories from the point of view of the zombie or from the point of view somebody who is transforming their family their friends. And so since they are in essence a monster and yet simultaneously a victim and also us they are this perfect humanoid form to poor in any meaning that you want and particularly anything we're afraid of at any given point in history. The zombie can serve as a reflection of that. And so even if you just look at movies going back to the 30s and up to the present you can map the state of American culture and the mindset through what is happening in a zombie movie. And like I said the point for this is get students in a room that might be reticent to really start talking about important things like the fact that our country still struggles with race and gender issues and hasn't learned a lot about any of this. And instead of giving them a heavy text or something much more on point you go out from the side you give them the zombie story that symbolizes all that and then soon enough you have a dynamic conversation in class about all those things. All right. I totally agree with you in terms of zombies being this great blank slate. But to play devil's advocate a bit because people do still ask me like why are people so obsessed with zombies why is this something that continues to hold people's interest so vampires are also dead different kind of dead why are they like why don't they capture our imagination in the same way that the zombies do. It's an excellent question. I get the feeling that they're probably vampire scholars out there who might be slightly more steeped in that side of things that provide a healthy debate about it with me. But I mean obviously like everyone else that grew up loving vampire stories like all the others. So I mean I guess if I ever had to try to quantify that I would say there are certain things about the way the vampire is usually used in storytelling that limits the ability of that creature to be as useful or as universal as the zombie. And that's because the more specific you start to get about the traits and the physicality and the factors involved in that particular creature the more you start to limit the possibilities. And that's not to say that there aren't a wide range of vampire stories everything from stories where the creatures are the kind of loathsome like disgusting monsters that go back to folklore to of course the romantic ideal that we've really crafted in the modern era. There are a lot of possibilities but I would still say that vampires often into certain basic categories are an exploration of sexuality and an exploration of disease. There are certain things that I just feel narrow that scope. And there's also that sense of universality that I said before that zombie represents us. Vampires can come across in a certain respect as more alien as they are more a creature unto themselves. It's often less about the fact that it's a human being has become one as it is about the vampire versus humanity. And again there are stories that explore many different ways of doing that. But I still feel that ultimately vampires are a little more limited and the zombie is just this perfect generic vessel that can represent everything from disease to death itself to any given sphere. And there's a lot to be said for the fact that many of the creatures I classify as zombies though many other people would look at and say well those are really vampires and that's because there are a lot of characters and some of these movies the kind of straddle that line and there they're hybrids they're this umpires of the genre well your new book takes kind of a historic approach to zombies kind of putting them into a context not just giving us a list of films or suggesting which ones are the best ones to watch but it kind of gives us this history of them and one of the things I love is that you begin with the voodoo zombie which I think tends to get forgotten because George Romero so brilliantly reinvented in the 1960s for his night of the Living Dead. But before that in literature and in film we had these voodoo zombies so tell us what a voodoo zombie is and how kind of those origins first you know made their cinematic appearances because they go back to the silent films. Yeah. One of the things that I did well first of all again thanks for I'm so glad you enjoyed it. In zombie mania. When my co-author Annie Hershberger Nizami me did zombie mania. Our goal was to do the kind of guidebook that we both love to leave on a coffee table and that you could delve into any time saw favorite film and look up that film and find out everything about it including our take on it. And this was a very different thing. This was instead meant to be as you say a sort of putting this all into context in a variety of ways culturally historically and looking at this timeline and it does go back to a silent film. There's some prototypical figures in early horror cinema that are not zombies per se but given all the permutations that come later we can now look back and realize Well there were elements that were in play but as you pointed out correctly the zombie is a pop culture figure derives largely from the cultural appropriation of the zombie tradition the tradition from Haiti into West Indies and all that began at least pop culturally anyway all that began with people like for instance one of the key names is William Seabrooke who was the sort of all around Indiana Jones anthropologists and sociologists and potentially lunatic as well who went to the West Indies and came back and wrote this book The Magic islands in 1929 and it was all about his journey there and all the strange and primitive things he discovered. And of course you're looking at this culture through the lens of you know someone from a very different backgrounds and in 12 pages in that book he details meeting a zombie and learning about the tradition of zombies in which according to their cultural tradition a zombie is potentially a dead person who's come back to life or a person who is infused with the spirits of the dead or even channeling the spirit of God. And there are a wide variety of different aspects of this. There's also the idea that Bombay is often referred to as the captured spirit of a dead person and a vessel which can also be like a jar. And there are different versions of the word from a variety of different languages but all of this was quickly appropriated by the Western White entertainment machine. When people started reading stuff from people like Seabrooke or Zora Neale Hurston and a variety of people saying gee did you realize there are all these strange primitive people down there who were practicing this weird hybrid of their own traditions and Catholicism. Because missionaries that had visited them and the result was now we see this idea that somewhere there are these dark mysterious figures these priests who are speaking horrific rites and either enslaving living beings and turning them into hypnotized automatons or actually raising the dead. And Hollywood immediately was like well we've got to get into that. And the result was the first pop culture zombies were a seriously distorted interpretation of these very real Haitian traditions which are very deeply embedded in their culture and part of these voodoo zombies part of what infuse them with their meaning was these were cultures Haiti and also some that comes from Africa is this notion of slavery and this sense of no longer being in control of your own body and your own being and and that that really gave a lot of kind of weight and symbolism to those kind of voodoo zombies in early literature and film. Absolutely. And in fact it's like you know I think today we we're having so many more conversations sometimes they're pretty fraught because of the I think extreme rise in toxicity as people who are on the other side of the equation feel even more emboldened to express their hatred. But we're having we're open conversations about just how much our culture has fed off set appropriately enough for zombies other cultures and other histories and there's a there's a tragic quality to the pop culture zombie in that the original conception of that yes does reflect sort of a culture's understanding of its own inherent loss of agency and the scourge of slavery that you know doesn't define them as people but horribly distorted their their lives and their their countries and the zombie in that early form is sort of this perfect embodiment as you say of a loss of free will of losses individuality a loss of control of your destiny. One of my favorite early scenes of early Somby movie EVER White Zombie in 1932 is this scene with no dialogue. Just like the crushing sound of the gears of this mill that all the zombies are working in and as the camera slowly pans across one of them falls into the workings of the mill and they all just keep marching and grinding on and it's just this perfect metaphor for the Western world this is just churning up and destroying these people and they have no regard for them as humans whatsoever. That's where this all starts from. How did your classes react when you bring up some of these early zombie films. Because I'm sure they're probably familiar with things like zombie land or walking dead but are they as familiar with these voodoo zombie films. No not at all. And usually it's gotten more and more. It's gotten more and more difficult as a fan as a pop culture fan to face the reality of getting older and having rooms of you know. By contrast in terms of the distance between us younger and younger group seem in the same age. But the distances is greater every year. Kids will openly tell me not like any sense of disappointment or sadness but just as the fact that they've never seen a black or white movie in their life and never had any reason to or desire to. So in many cases I'm the first person that's ever made them see anything. I mean in some cases pre 1970 certainly but anything black and white and I joke about it like for instance White Zombie Runs about 60 70 minutes and so one of my first jokes about it is I tell them you know this is only going to be an hour but it's going to feel like two and because they're not used to the pacing and even I feel the difference these days. How different are storytelling. Pacing has become. But I do often find that once they get past all the things that they find alien black and white the stilted sound and dialogue and acting all the things that granted are silly from a modern perspective. It's fascinating and it's very heartening how they still managed to get shocked by things or inspired to write about them and have a conversation. So it just shows it still works. Just got to give it to them in the proper context. Well thank God there are people like you still doing that then. I'll do my best. By the way I hit I hit a milestone this year. This is the first time this semester. Every year. Every semester now I've been using living dead and the writing classes I've been teaching and I always ask the kids before we get to the week when we watch it. Have you ever seen it before. And a few hands always go up in a room that 20 is the first time in my teaching career. I asked them if anybody's seen it before. No hands went out. Oh my God yeah. So this is my first time ever and teaching at least one section of one of my classes that had never encountered this movie before in their lives and it's a first. But I don't think I'll be the last time surely. But that's fine because like I said great in a way I almost appreciate that. Let them come to this fresh in the context of our class and then see what happens. Well I want to thank you because in your chapter on these early zombies you're what you called Prado's zombies. You have some images from a film called J'accuse which I have to admit I have never seen. Magnificent. I have to do this film. I don't like I don't know why I've missed it. Oh I'm so glad. I was really fascinated by that. It came about like after the first book Zombie mania after the class. I started building up what I could take as a traveling lecture of just the history of zombie cinema and I started adding things to the front of it to really set the historical basis with this idea of the prototypical zombies. Discovered Checky is one of the first things I found this was years ago when the first things I found was that picture in the book of the skull say World War One soldiers coming back and I saw everywhere I saw that picture I saw cute 1919. And I thought well it's very impressive. And I had been using that. And then it was only in the last couple of years that I did some more research in preparation for this book. And I saw that a lot more people out there had really started to fill in the gaps in the story of this film and works planning that no actually that picture was from a 1938 remake of the movie and that they don't appear that way in 1919. But it added another dimension to this whole thing and it just it just fascinated me to how things have changed so much in the last few years in terms of how much we know about even media that goes back nearly a century. There's so much more out there now than there was even a few years ago. But it also means you always have to be learning and checking because you never know your conception might be wrong. And I find the whole Zacchaeus thing a really interesting way to open it up. Well and in this chapter in produce zombies that you have you also mention a zombie who's not quite in any of those categories exactly which is the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Or yes these are Conrad right a lot of people might remember from Casablanca among other things but as a sleepwalker he represents a lot of the things that we will then come to accept visually and in some ways the Madagali as a zombie figure because he's a slave to a master. He does his bidding. He has no free will and he's stock you know stiff limbed and is basically a puppet. And so there are all these elements that are what we will one day call a zombie in certain contexts although there wasn't. That connection at that point that that was done but then it's also considered one of the greatest early horror movies ever made. So it demonstrates that naturally that idea was in people's heads as we move forward in time and start to develop this concept that figure is certainly a part of that history. I really like focusing on these early zombies and early zombie films because I think people are getting a lot of stuff about Romero especially since he passed away recently and there's been a focus on your work. So I really enjoy talking to you about some of these early films. Are there any other films in this proto zombie chapter that you'd like to highlight for us. One does come to mind and I've never seen a complete I think you can find the complete version of it on archive dead or. But I haven't gotten a chance to see the whole thing but it's it's the French film that sometimes called the crazy Ray. Danny Boyle spoke about that movie when talking about his inspirations for 28 days later and said that that was one of his direct inspirations visually for what eventually comes to be known on sort of one side of the zombie genre sort of in a larger apocalyptic genre as the empty city film and we see so many of those not just zombie movies but the road and so many apocalyptic films were part of the weird perverse joy that we get out of it is seeing what our civilization looks like when everybody's gone and the cities are empty or overgrown and this early 1920s French film is a weird little movie about a group of people who are left awake when a mad scientist basically puts everybody to sleep in Paris and they have the entire city to themselves but they also have to figure out a way to save everybody. It's one of the earliest possibly the earliest empty city movie to really establish that kind of idea that then becomes such a linchpin and certainly modern zombie films and it's easy enough to find online these days which is great fan out there really wants to fill in their historical knowledge more so than ever you can pop on YouTube or archived or and find a lot of these public domain old movies and see where everything started from. On one level I want to call your book scholarly but I know that that has such a bad kind of connotation to it scholar it's scholarly in a sense like you going to doubt it's well researched it's well detailed and I enjoy the fact that you end your chapters with these lovely food for thought with little zombies munching on brains questions. But what I also want to make sure people understand is that while it's scholarly in content your approach to it is very accessible and just loads of fun. Thank you so much. I have to say it was. It was. It wasn't easy. It was a very difficult thing. But it was a challenge I wanted a set where I wanted to make a book that on one level I could hand to other people in the world of education not just college but you know younger as well and say here's something you could conceivably use to bring this into your own classroom. And that's where the idea of ending the chapters with some of those call outs. That was the idea of well I could actually give you prompts for further discussion for even writing assignments something that could give you some context in a class because all these years I've gotten so many e-mails and phone calls from people saying well can I see your SO and can you tell me more about how you set this up and I'm teaching this next semester and I don't know what to do. And I thought well that would be one great thing is here's a book that you could use yourself or use in a classroom and bring this experience in. But then I thought to myself the kind of person I am I wouldn't want the book to be dry and boring is still one of zombies and to be able to pick it up and go This is great. It's a celebration of everything I've ever loved and I might even learn a thing or two even I didn't know. And so the tone was important. So it's it's it's very gratifying to know that that works at least for you see the balance there and I really appreciate it. Well I want to pose to you one of your food for thought questions just because it's one that although I've made the connection between zombies and Frankenstein's monster you pose a really nice question which is to look to the similarities and differences with the Seabrook's description of zombies and Mary Shelley's description of Frankenstein's monster. What did you point out about that. Well one of the things that comes up there's also a whole lot of footnotes in this book. One of the things I always loved about books with footnotes is that they can tend to be daunting and like you say scholarly in a bad way and you think oh no I don't want to go through this. But what I always liked is the idea that footnotes not only give you the opportunity to use them in a more academic way but they can also be a fun way to hide additional information throughout the book and say oh by the way there's a little gem here if you hop over to the back of say something a little extra about this. That's academic easter eggs. That's right. Actually right. So one of the parallels that did come up and that does come up in the book is the ideas that Shelley did something very similar in the novel to what Seabrooke does in Magic Island when he describes his actual meeting with the zombie. And in those cases Seabrook's meeting with a zombie and Dr. Frankenstein's first observation of his living monster or creature depending on how you look at both of them use descriptions that reflect the concept of the uncanny valley. This idea that we've had around for quite a long time now that human beings are sort of hardwired when confronted with a figure or an object that seems to mimic humanity and yet doesn't quite get all the way there. We tend to have a very visceral reaction of revulsion or alarm or fright to something that looks human but clearly isn't. Very often people describe for instance how when you see poorly done CGI characters they might look real but there's something dead in their eyes like we can't get the eyes and it ties neatly into the old poetry about the eyes being the windows to the soul. And of course that's getting better these days. But in both the description of the monster and description of zombies you often get these references to there's nothing in your eyes you can get a chill because you can't see anything in there that's alive. And so there's an interesting connection there. Well the other reason I ask is that I've had the opportunity to attend panels at Comic Con and wonder con by the legal geeks I don't know if you're familiar with them but yeah yeah. So they did one panel not guilty by reason of zombification and bumpin all on whether it was a hearing about whether or not Frankenstein's monster could be held responsible for the murder of little Maria and so both of these kind of courtroom cases deal with this idea of you know consciousness like the sentience qualities of these creatures are these beings. And with the trial of Frankenstein's monster it was just really interesting to hear the audience ask questions and the panel you know present questions and this sense of you know is Frankenstein as Dr. Frankenstein the one who's responsible for this creature because he created them and then how old is the creature as old as his body parts or is he as old as the amount of days he's been reanimated and like a lot of really interesting questions which I think kind of play into the whole zombie context too you know what are these creatures really responsible. What are they doing. Are they completely mindless. Do they have any consciousness of what it is that they're doing. That's part of what makes them so interesting. And I think it's interesting to have that kind of ties back to one of the times you and I have talked before were we really focused on the sentient beings something we both of you know paying a lot of attention to in recent years. That version of It's also interesting you bring that up because I think this is a perfect example of how the kind of prompts in the book it's like a first test case here that shows these really work well because I wouldn't have thought of that because you have experienced that panel and yet you bring up the question and it provided a connection to that memory and the things that you heard them talking about. And there's a perfect example of how even things like prom's I might have something in mind that I saw. Well here's a theme or an idea that we just discussed in that chapter that might provide additional conversation. But the beauty of it and the reason why classes using this kind of material work so well is you have a roomful of people that all have different backgrounds and different life experiences and the whole point of media criticism media literacy is you bring yourself to all those experiences every time you watch something new. Something there is no way of knowing where that conversation may go. And one of the things I think I even say in the book is I learned a lot of things from my students that I would never have thought of independently but they brought their own perspectives to it. And suddenly I was now able to benefit from that and say well I never would have interpreted that way. But I can totally see where you get that from. And so you really have an enormous opportunity to expand your perspective on things when you start to have conversations like that. Well and I want to ask you just one more of your food for thought questions here because I really like to really like them they're great. So your other question is in voodoo. It takes the actions of a human to make another human any human. So what does that say about personal responsibility and othering someone that's such a great kind of promise. Well that one that one came about Natalie actually Natalie Laski is my wife and also she's. She pops up in the book club places. She actually suggested that particular question and it's very apropos to the current climate. I think we're talking about before we're at a pretty difficult and at times very troubling time where not only are we still struggling with many of the same issues that you could argue like the classic movie like night living dead was struggling with 50 years ago. But not only have we not made a lot of headway but it seems like the voices of the negative side has become louder and more emboldened. And this notion that we can so easily lack empathy for fellow human beings simply by color skin or difference in nationality is is so alarming and so the idea of looking at the zombie and particularly the early voodoo traditions who Zombi and the idea that one has to take responsibility for othering someone and for putting someone into a pre-determined category that denies them rights or that changes their life or that you know robs them of any individuality or free will is is hugely profound. And I think that like many of the questions there the goal is well you know could it is it could certainly spark a discussion about current events. You could tie it to something that's actually happening in the news and say Who do you think is responsible in the situation for what's happening here between these people and there it is right there in the early days of the zombie genre is something that gives us an opportunity to look through that lens of 2018 and talk about it in a meaningful way in going towards kind of the historical elements that you bring and you also point out this article 249 that not everyone may be familiar with but it's something in the Haitian criminal code about addressing the criminality of creating a zombie. That's right yeah. It's something that's referenced in Seabrook's book and it's called Article 249. Even though technically that's incorrect. I did not think to is that throughout the development of the book there were a few things that came up where I would hit like a subject and think it didn't really feel like it fit like within the ongoing narrative. And just as a book designer because the other thing too that may not come up very often is I also did all the design of this book. So it was a labor of love on many levels. The cover was done by Lauren Moran who's just a stunning artist. But I've been working on what I wanted the book to look like and how to structure it as much as writing it. And so the design of all of it was something I was very focused on and I've always loved sidebars. I've always loved the idea of a book where you dive in and there feels like so much that you can explore and that there are different directions you can go in and you can find your own path through a book. So there were a number of times where things didn't feel like they fit within the narratives. And I just give them the sidebar an article 249 is a perfect example of that and I threw in for instance an image that actually was used in the promotion for White Zombie in 1932 where they were encouraging theaters to put up large displays of the penal code from Haiti and show here is Article forty nine and it's actually Article 246 but it's actually on the book about the criminality of attempting to create a prolonged state of lethargy or cause the death of her zombified somebody and it is a legal situation is actually dealing with sort of the real world impact of that there. But it quickly grew into something far beyond that. Because it was used as a means of convincing people see this this horrible frightening thing is real and they even have to make a law about it. And to this day there are people that still refer to Article 49 which was the misidentified version of it. Before we leave these voodoo zombies I just want to mention what the film that's my absolute favorite of these which is I walked with a zombie which is so visually striking and there's even moments where you get this real sense of kind of the meaning of these zombies within that culture even though you know it's a film made in Hollywood you know. You know mostly white filmmakers and yet there's occasional scenes that kind of touch upon the roots of where this voodoo zombie ism comes from that were quite powerful. Yeah I think it's interesting. I mean there's there's stuff about that movie that's fascinating in that and this happens a lot. And any kind of media where you start to explore media that attempts to be mindful of something but is still of the time. It's like there's that weird paradox where there are elements of it that are very sort of aware of of the infantilization of the culture and the way in which the people the white people there clearly are not really understanding or appreciating the independence or the traditions of the locals. And yet at the same time the movie is also doing the same thing. So it's it's a bit of a paradox but it's such a beautiful movie it's so poetic. It has some of the truly great like dramatic and horrific moments just accomplished with light and shadow and of course producing and Jacques and or directing. And I think everybody points to things like seeing or Sir Lancelot singing the song and just kind of emerges out of the shadows that her you might not need Bronte to Monday. You know DIY falling down on the team on the mind indeed. Honestly might get the shame and sorrow for Molly but her eyes are empty and she cannot talk and a nurse has come to me. You brought me on the nurses young ones. I know you must see my song is song me shame I saw nobody. Miley was me. Shame on you money. But one of my favorite moments is Teresa Harris who is a black actress then who played throughout her career just played tons and tons of maids and servants and she's Almah in that and she has one of my favorite line readings in the movie where she tries to convince Betsy or lead character that may be the real medical solution is to go find better doctors at the home for it and you know consult voodoo priests and she's describing it to her. Like you know it's getting dark and mysterious and that she's clearly uncomfortable and at the end of it all and just leans in and goes. Better doctors. And it's it's creepy. And yet not at the same time because she's clearly totally in awe of and respectful of what they can do. It's not meant to be frightening. She thinks it's wonderful but she just delivers. That was just the right mix of like joy and horror. And I just love that moment. In researching the book and putting it together did you uncover any films that really inspired you in the sense that you hadn't gotten to explore them completely before that popped out of nowhere or something. Now a lot of a lot of putting this book together was sort of a natural progression from working on zombie many years earlier and in many respects some of the most. Well it was twofold. Some of the most research I wound up having to do was largely about things that had happened since zombie mania and some of the more recent work that I hadn't delved into with the same degree of attention to details ahead everything that had come before. So that meant anything post 2005 or so I was really looking at I mean I've seen plenty of it but I was looking at it with fresh eyes and trying to look at it more from the context of OK what does this mean culturally historically how can we fit this into this narrative that's running through the whole book. But still there were things that came up whether it was release dates that were different than everyone used to think or occasional movies from different decades that were never really that prominent that did pop up that if I had one thing that I can think of that very different between zombie mania and this there was something that came up that I was very keen to get in there. It's Mexican mummy movies and there's this sort of side thread. There are so many things in the zombie genre that I'm very all inclusive as the book really argues throughout. I like to include a wide variety of creatures that have sort of fallen under the umbrella of the zombie including like you said before as umpires these creatures that very much are can often be interpreted as both. There's also an entire run of Chinese and Asian stories involving the hopping corpse characters which also are very vampiric but has sort of been adapted into the zombie family pop culturally. But after finishing zombie mania I discovered this one guy Keith Rainsville who had done a short run of a book called Zombie mexicano. And there was like a self published book. And there wasn't a lot of attention to it but I just happened upon it and he in his book presents as very passionate arguments that among all the different trends zombie movies over the years including all the Italian movies that we all know so well. One of the cultures that everyone seems to overlook was Mexico and that in the 1970s there was a run of Mexican mummy movies that were based on these historic Momi these mummies that were actually real and uncovered in these terms and they really aren't zombies. And the fact that many of us in the zombie community tend to like separate the mummy out. The point is that unlike the Egyptian mummy which is as carefully prepared emptied wrapt corpse the Mexican mummies are just desiccated corpses that were allowed to mummify on their own. In other words they're as close to really being a zombie as anything else we see in any of the other films. I looked at his book and I thought if there's one thing I've got to do one day when I do another book about the history zombies it's them their just due. Where they belong and the chronology set a couple of points in the book I made sure to incorporate some references and even a picture from one of these zombie movies and I definitely want to get in touch with Mr. Rainsville. So tell him that you know at least you read somebody with your argument and I think it's valid. I wanted to make sure it was in there. You said those were from the 70s I want to go back a little bit in time to your chapter from the 1950s with zombies from another world. So we tend to focus on Romero's zombies which we've gotten used to kind of seeing the social criticism that's embedded in those but these from the 50s have a slightly different spin to them and what makes them unique. Well one of the things about 50s and that actually is another thing that was I was very personally passionate about making this book is that I spent about 20 years in the comics industry before all this and was very steeped in comic history and I still am and still do to the extent that I can think about comics and superheroes and like you mentioned marvel and one of the things that I always loved was the story of the 1950s experience of American comics and the Senate subcommittee investigations and everything that grew out of DC Comics the horror books that sparked this massive wave of censorship and might have collapsed an entire industry. And what's interesting is that even I was guilty in the past of kind of skipping over just how important the comic book world played a role in the development of the pop culture zombie in the 50s because as we sit across from the Vudu era and get things ready for when Romeros is going to show up there's this period of time where zombies take a variety of different paths and comic books turn out to be where a lot of the more familiar elements of the modern zombie are developed. So in the 50s chapter you get a reprint actually of a piece that I had done for another book. It's split up in this book and a couple of places where it's relevant. That gives you the background on that. And then on top of that you've got the 50s obsession in this country with the awareness of our responsibility for and fear of atomic power the fear of potential communist invasion and infiltration of American culture and the very real attempts by American propagandists to convince people that suburban home life was this perfect paradise where everybody knew their roles and everybody sticks to them. And in that world you have a few very significant movies that incorporate the idea of corpses coming back as puppets. This time not by voodoo by alien intervention and some of these creatures are very familiar from the perspective of modern zombie fans but they're not quite there yet and it's sort of a fascinating decade to look at from that perspective. In the other film you mentioned in that chapter that I had never really thought of it within the zombie universe is the invasion of the body snatchers fight it. Once I saw that Menschel was going like ah you know it's just like more functional zombies so they can speak but they don't have they're not in control they no longer have their free will which is the terrifying thing for me about zombies. Yeah and it's one of the things I bring up in order to show that there are lines that I will. There are lines that I will definitely hold to for instance in terms of the body snatchers stuff. It's hugely important cinematically and it's probably one of the most potent movies of that era in terms of delving into all these things or just talking about. And yet I would say this is a line I draw where the pod people have body snatchers are not zombies they're not zombies. By any criteria that I would use to qualify them because for all the things that they have as similarities the point that I consider is key is that a Zombie ultimately has to be a human being who is either a dead person risen by some means or a living person controlled by some means. And in the case of the body snatchers these are alien duplicates that have grown out of those alien plants to replace the original humans. They used the templates another word pod person technically is not that original person bonding. It's a duplicate. You see. This must be the way that my closet was formed. I don't know she just she knows it must go someplace on a planet probably somebody or something just to take place. When they finish what happens when that process completed. Probably the original destroyed or syndicalists now might be. But I took a dim view of watching my own destruction take place in any danger until it completely. We learned that last night your house your blinked and changed right away. Did you fall asleep. When the change does take place. Do you suppose there's any difference. It must be luminosity. Said. Jimmy. So did. My father. That these people who were in the cellar last night placing one of these. Fellows something was wrong. I thought it was me because I don't know why they have to be destroyed. It will be every one you. Have to search every building every house in town men women and children at the beach. We've got somebody to do. I'm going to stay right here where I can watch it. We don't care. We didn't find the body of a haystack. And so I draw that line like that. Yes. Given that I have to fight somebody about 20 days later. Like at least once every other week I'm willing I'm willing to leave the door open if anybody wants say pod people or zombies so it's like well no there's plenty of reason to say that that's true and I'm not going to I'm not going to stop them from feeling that way. The thing about it is just the fact that you mention them within the context of the zombie just made me look at it a little differently. And the thing that's most terrifying to me about zombies is this idea of loss of identity. And so to me the connection I see between the zombies and the pod people is that sense of loss of identity different. But like the thing that both of those honing in on the thing that scares me is that creepy sense of like being you but not being you Yeah and I mean the thing is even as we're talking about I'm thinking might have to rethink this at some point in the future because the other thing too is you could argue well when the duplicate comes out the other side and comes out of the pod and takes over the life of that human being. Has it actually brought any of that human consciousness over to that duplicate body with it. Because then you've got the same sort of philosophical dilemma that you have with some zombie stories where you could say is it possible that somewhere inside that seemingly empty vessel there is a consciousness that's trapped in a prison and that brings up all other questions about whether you can truly look at the zombie as a target or as an enemy. And I guess you could say the same thing about the pod people too it's like we don't know 100 percent. And so the question is is there a human trapped in there somewhere. I agree that it's like one of the creepiest aspects of the whole thing is the loss of identity the loss itself. Well now that you are discussing it in those terms it makes me think of also in get out the characters where they seem to be existing in this being where they're they don't seem to remember their past but then they have those flashes where yeah they suddenly link back to some real memory that they have. And again it's that sense of you know that loss of control loss of free will that is one of the most terrifying things that zombie movies bring up for me. That's one of the main reasons why. I mean not least because. Get out. One of the most significant events in the Harz around are the last you know 10 20 years that I included some of Jordan Peele zone. Commentary about Noble living dead in the book because he draws a direct line between night and get out and many other people are already picking up on that. And since knaidel living dead that status as such an important social commentary is so usually connected to the racial factor. It's fascinating to look at where we are 50 years later and here comes Jordan Peele with get out and many I've already seen so many places that are doing double features where they're screening Night of Living Dead and get out together as this wonderful Half-Century pair that the comments on race two different times in American history. Well to wrap up this conversation because I could talk to you for hours about zombies but to do it again some time to wrap this up I'm just wondering what are some of the upcoming are recent zombie films that are striking your fancy or that are signaling to you that maybe the genre is going in different directions or interesting trends. Well it's interesting I hate to say it. I mean it could change tomorrow. I haven't seen a lot of things pop up lately that I skulked are necessarily game changing or like. Like a few years ago when we started seeing all this stuff like we were talking about another time like warm bodies and in the flesh from the BBC and I Zombi know that you're talking about the rise of the sentient zombie. I haven't necessarily seen a lot of things lately either just out or coming that are and are changing the course of things. But I have certainly seen some things come out that show that there's a lot of vitality left in a genre that people still very often feel obliged to right click bait articles about how it's dying because that's how they get their visitors I guess. But everything from like cargo that came out last year with Martin Freeman which was an expansion of a short piece that was very effective. There's an upcoming movie that looks hard to say how good it will be and it looks very intriguing as far as the sentient zombie angle with Matt Smith and Stanley Tucci as a sort of sinkings zombie leader of a zombie revolution called patient zero. And I'm seeing things like that where it may not be that any thing right now is is a huge change. But I see people playing with variations on a theme and trying to find ways to do it that show that they're still ironically enough life in it. Another one that I've heard good things about that have not yet seen is Anna and the apocalypse which apparently did a very good run at festivals and it's finally starting to come out more widely this December and it's a Christmas zombie movie musical Oh I mean it looks delightful and I hope that it lives up to all the hype and the positivity because people are comparing it to Shaun of the dead and a number of other things. And I'm hoping that that'll be the case because that could certainly be something that would stand as one of our more unique examples of the genre in recent years. On one film I saw recently which is I think it ventures into the more the 28 Days Later infected people kind of thing is the girl with all the gifts. Oh yes absolutely. Which was really again it was one of those films I went into going like are they really going to be able to find something new because I saw the trailer and I thought OK it's these fast moving zombies and there's lots of legs CGI blood and that one totally engaged me based on a book. And it seems like a lot of a lot of things now not zombies but a lot of stuff that seems like a lot of some of the best storytelling is growing out of Y books. And that entire sub genre of modern literature we're actually just throwing out so many interesting character studies and character driven stories and girl with all the just sounds like a really really inventive flick with the usual expectations. So is there one film you're most looking forward to. Well I guess I guess the apocalypse right now is what I'm most looking for. I've been hearing about that for so long and I finally like it online. And those are the two stories not even the most young. Anna was nestled all snug in her bed not knowing tomorrow. She'd. Be on death. How would you survive. What this season would bring. Will that simple. Sheet stout she'd slap. And she'd say. Just being a zombie and I'm really hoping that we have something that shows that when done well which is a very tricky prospect you can blame comedy and ineffective way rather than one in which one has to suffer you know to the detriment of the other. And sometimes I feel that way about our comedies and sometimes only one of those can really work well and the other half suffer. But Shaun Of The Dead is a great example of that balance being just perfect. Yes. And I'm hoping that this one is too well and you also briefly noted in the flesh which is one of my favorite incarnations recently and that never finished really right because they never finished the series. Yeah it ended on a cliffhanger. And Dominic Mitchell created it is still occasionally made some noise but you know they would come they'd like to do a wrap up movie or something but unlike here maybe on Netflix or that that happened it seems like as the years gone by that's become less and less likely. And it's a real shame. I still that's one of the things where I still I tell people that it ends on a cliffhanger I warn them in advance. But I don't recommend it to everybody because the journey is so worth it no matter what. Well and you mentioned that balance of comedy and horror and that show was so brilliant at having absolutely ridiculous silly scenes and then the next moment something that was really horrifying and horrifying in a very kind of real world way. Oh absolutely. And some just beautiful stark imagery. I mean the idea of being in that like Distin Welsh village and everything is just slate grey and brainwashed washed and it was just it was the perfect environment to tell the story of a whole group of alienated people who are trying to find their way and it was beautifully done design wise acting. It was a real gem and I think it was one of the most unfairly overlooked shows in quite a long time and I wish you would be given a chance to end on its own terms but you know it could still happen just like even just one episode to get together. That's still like so many of the British shows do do this and in the flesh Christmas special after all there you go. I highly urge people to check this out. It's about zombies in a world where they find a cure and are able to reintegrate them and it brings up so many different issues in terms of them not being accepted. And then some of those like rehabilitated zombies think that they're God's chosen ones and form a cult. And then there's all this prejudice against them there's just so much going on. And yeah I recommend that to anyone. Oh and by the way since we're bringing that up and you were asking me about things I recommended things I want to see. There's a movie that came out last year that I haven't seen yet. That's an Ellen Page movie called The cured and I had only seen a trailer for it. I still haven't seen the film but it's you know new zombie movie. But what I found a bit disturbing about it was it looked like basically a complete rip off as in the flesh and I'm very intrigued to see it because I want to see just how much it really is just a remake or if somehow the trailer misrepresents what that movie winds up being. I did get it. I did get to see it and it's not nearly as interesting or as layered in the flesh and it has it does not have any of the sense of humor or satire kind of to it. It's got some like a couple of interesting elements but not it doesn't pan out nearly as well as flash. Well I want to thank you very much for talking with me. And where can people find your book. Well right now journey of the Living Dead is available online through TV publishing dotcom and you can order it direct from TV publishing. We are going to be doing a physical launch of the book Monster mania in Hunter Valley Maryland at the end of September the weekend the September 20th the 30th. So if you're in that area and you want to meet Robert Anglin then Kane Hodder who is Jason and some other people and then also see me around there we'll have books there. But otherwise you can find it online and people can also find me on Twitter at Doctor the desk where I'll certainly keep people posted on any other availability or events that we're doing. Well thanks a lot. It's always so much fun to talk to you about raising the debt and having our annual check up measure. I love our annual Halloween check up. With Dr. of the dead Arnold Blumberg. I always enjoy speaking to them about zombies and if you enjoyed this conversation then check out our earlier discussions. There's episode 59 all about the self-aware zombie er episode 96 about zombies for humanity a cinema Junkie podcast comes out every other Friday. If you enjoy the show please tell a friend till our next film fix on Betha Comando your residence in a McJunkin.
The Doctor of the Dead, Arnold T. Blumberg uses zombies to teach media literacy and critical thinking. He has also just written a geeky, well-researched history of the zombie, "Journey of the Living Dead."
It's time for our annual checkup with the Doctor of the Dead to take the pulse of zombies today. Blumberg talks about zombie films to look forward to — such as the Christmas zombie musical "Anna and the Apocalypse" — as well as about his new book, "Journey of the Living Dead: A Tribute to 50 Years of Flesh Eaters."
I hesitate to call the book scholarly only because that word often carries with it a connotation of being dull and dense. But Blumberg has created a book that is well-researched, in-depth and insightful, but simultaneously fun, accessible and wildly engaging. He has tackled the undead before in both his book "Zombiemania" and in his classes at the University of Baltimore, where he has used zombies to teach media literacy and critical thinking.
Most people are familiar with George A. Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" and its various sequels, but Blumberg goes beyond just the familiar to focus on this modern American zombie.
His book looks to the roots of the zombie in Haitian Voodoo and in films going back to the silents. He explores various incarnations of zombies ranging from voodoo zombies controlled by others, to the somnambulist Cesare in "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," to how EC Comics used the undead in the 1950s, to drawing a direct line from "Night of the Living Dead" to "Get Out."
You can also hear feedback from some students at San Diego State University about their zombie class.