It may be a little too late for the Halloween season but if you’ve got a horror fan on your holiday gift list, Roger Luckhurst’s Zombies: A Cultural History (Reaktion Books, 2015) would make a perfect present! (Although you might want to ditch the atrocious dust jacket first.)
Luckhurst starts with the zombi as an element of Caribbean — more particularly, Haitian — folklore before the twentieth century, touching on the activities of American anthropologists including Zora Neale Hurston, and ends with a brief discussion of the current popularity of the zombie in productions like The Walking Dead and the Resident Evil film and game franchise. In between, Luckhurst discusses the rise of the zombie in the pulps of the ‘20s and ‘30s and the lasting influence of George Romero’s shoestring production The Night of the Living Dead. The text is liberally illustrated and Luckhurst’s notes should provide any interested reader with plenty of additional reading.
The first third of the book tracing the early years of the zombie outside of mainstream American culture may be the most interesting and least familiar to the majority of readers. Luckhurst starts with Lafcadio Hearn, a late nineteenth century Orientalist probably best known for his efforts popularizing Japanese culture in America. William Seabrook’s The Magic Island (1929) is also dealt with extensively. Luckhurst handles the difficulties of this early development of the zombie figure very well, tying together historical events and cultural interpretation without seeming to patronize his topic.
Luckhurst also has an interesting discussion of the interplay between the American zombie horror film and European film-makers like Mario Bava (Black Sunday, Kill, Baby, Kill), Dario Argento (Suspirio, Tenebrae), or Lucio Fulci (Zombi 2, The House by the Cemetary). While zombies were still a low-budget gig in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it was film-makers like these along with their American counterparts — and who else? Luckhurst’s geographical scope isn’t wide enough to explore the answer to this — who made the shambling dead a staple of the genre and worked to push the envelope not only in terms of gore but cultural representation: what could the zombie do? What could it be?
There is, of course, a lot left out and any zombie fan will wish the book were twice as long. Luckhurst doesn’t note the difference in gore levels between Romero’s work and, for example, Cannibal Holocaust nor does he discuss what that might mean for the zombie as a cultural marker — or, indeed, its significance for zombie horror as a genre. He also doesn’t go much beyond the United States and Western Europe; even the discussion of film-makers mentioned above is quite brief. Given recent Asian zombie films like Train to Busan (put out, of course, too recently for inclusion but indicative of a larger body of work), this is a bit of a shame. However, no work of this length can cover all aspects of a cultural meme so long-lasting and varied; Zombies is an excellent introduction to the subject for which Luckhurst’s references and notes are an excellent guide for further study.