By Tim Posada
Kee, Chera. Not Your Average Zombie: Rehumanizing the Undead from Voodoo to Zombie Walks. University of Texas Press, 2017.
In a 2010 essay on AMC’s The Walking Dead (2010–) series premiere, columnist Chuck Klosterman calls the zombie a monolithic creation. “You can’t add much depth to a creature who can’t talk, doesn’t think and whose only motive is the consumption of flesh,” he writes. “You can’t humanize a zombie, unless you make it less zombie-esque” (AR1). Chera Kee’s Not Your Average Zombie contests the notion that zombies lack depth, even that they always rose from the dead or dined on brains (4). She cites examples across popular culture of slave-style zombies stories that peppered early film history dating back to the1930s and cannibal-style zombie stories that grew in popularity once George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) featured the first flesh-eating undead. She makes distinctions between popularized zombies, the “zombis” of Vodou religion, and voodoo, defined as the “sensationalized depiction of Vodou in American media” (177n1). This work analyzes the “push and pull between slavery and agency” in Vodou belief and subsequent American adaptations that seemed to settle for “a brand-new bogeymen for audiences” (7). Rather than conclude that the zombie genre is static, she highlights extraordinary examples of the zombies, zombification, and zombie culture that hint at human agency amongst those often deemed brainless pawns or dehumanized bodies.
Chapterone traces the zombie to its origin in Haiti, connecting its colonial history and American representations of the country and its citizens. Ironically, the original zombies of film history did not eat human flesh, but these creatures did “spring from a supposedly cannibalistic culture” (47). Kee provides a unique reason why Vodou became a topic of interest for Westerners. As the first Latin American nation to declare independence and “self-rule,” Haiti “stood in defiance of colonial thinking of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries” (26). And when zombie films began to arrive on screen in the 1930s––near the end of the United States’ occupation of Haiti that began in 1915––American films set in the country provided white audiences with affirmation of colonialism by depicting a savage land in need of white rulers. As these stories moved away from “Haitian origins,” they began to feature common characters like a zombie master—almost always man portrayed as “a mad scientist, an alien, or even a communist”—who casts a spell to enslave people and forces them to do his will (8). Rather than infection by biting or scratching, these zombies lose their free will thanks to spells that must be undone by white saviors. As Kee says, “Not just anyone could defeat zombie masters. It had to be an American” (45).
The zombie as Other is built into the framework of both slave-style and cannibal-style zombie stories. In slave-style zombie stories, a normally white master enslaves people, while cannibal-style ones emphasize infection, “which carries connotations of uncleanliness” (53). Once a zombie, the blood is no longer pure, hence any victim, regardless of race, enters this Othered space. Connections between zombies and black bodies can be found in Romero’s Dead trilogy and Land of the Dead (2005), featuring Big Daddy, a more “humanized” zombie and Romero’s first black character to find a community where “he truly belongs” (66). An extraordinary zombie who learns how to shoot a gun and lead a horde, he creates “true social change” by leveling a colony that replicates the social injustices of the old world. In so doing, he finally allows his people and the surviving humans to escape the old world completely (67). Understood this way, infection-based zombie stories serve as a form of wish fulfillment, a way to bring down society quickly without the necessary steps to create a lasting utopia.
While zombies are often designed to be terrifying unstoppable forces of nature, as well as foes, Kee emphasizes how they create lasting change in the world, especially in zombie stories that feature infection. To start chapter two, she explores how humans are bound to social and economic systems, like capitalism, that seem unavoidable, inescapable. But zombies “offer a radically different way of existing” beyond those forces (50). Zombies restart society more effectively than other advocates of social change. This leads to another major theme that Kee employs throughout: the zombie is always already a figure of marginalization, outside the confines of civilized (white) society. An example of this occurs in a subsequent chapter that references zombie-comedy My Boyfriend’s Back (1993), which invokes racial Othering when a white townsperson tells a zombie, “We don’t like your kind” (91).
Chapter three builds on the premise of the previous one by considering the role of white women in zombie films. Drawing upon an episode ofSupernatural (2005–2020) in which Sam and Dean Winchester become “the ultimate arbiters of who should live and who should die” (72), Kee defines how humans establish dominion over zombies. They decide who is sentient and brain dead, good and evil. This appears straightforward enough based on the narrative logic of most zombie media, but Kee’s point from chapter two creates a hiccup, one further complicated by chapter three: just as becoming a zombie in slave-style zombie stories means becoming a racial Other, it also results in a kind of feminization for white male characters, who become submissive under the control of a master. Kee quickly problematizes her own use of “feminine,” instead claiming “zombification destabilizes apparently clear gender categorizations,” along with other categories as well: “the zombie state is Other to all that white patriarchal heteronormativity says is rational and normal” (79). Like Linda Williams’ complex interpretation of women’s melodramas of the 1940s and 1950s, Kee highlights “extraordinary zombies” through white women who as zombies become powerful, even if such characters eventually die, hindering their subversive sting.
Again building on what came before, chapter four explores theextraordinary role of women of color in zombie films. While zombie films generally either omit or silence black women, two blaxploitation films from 1974, Sugar Hill and The House on Skull Mountain, present voodoo as a source of power and celebrated cultural heritage. Conceptually, zombie films seem primed to invoked the history of slavery, but many tend to avoid such comparisons, Kee writes, with the exception of certain slave-style ones, specifically a sampling of Blaxploitation films, that “elevate voodoo to something beyond mere sideshow spectacle” (98). Sugar Hill, for example, depicts a black woman who becomes a zombie master to find the justice law enforcement cannot or will not provide. In chapter three, many remnants of subversive representation are softened by returns to the status quo come the credits (i.e., 1943’s Revenge of the Zombies), often in the form of reasserting white male authority through both undoing zombification and coupling (80). In Sugar Hill, conversely, the heroine remains a heroine, even though she uses zombies for vigilante justice. These examples support Kee’s claim that white women often remain passive in zombie stories, while black women serve a more active role in such stories, when they do actually receive attention as all.
Come chapter five, Kee moves away from cinema to discuss zombie video games. First, she reiterates an earlier point: Humans decide on what life has value. But human exceptionality takes on a different role in video games that encourage and often require players to dispatch digital projections of humanoids.“The nonhuman is the embodiment of something or someone existing in a state of exception,” she writes, “and killing the nonhuman, at its most basic, means going beyond the law for the sake of the greater good” (131). Zombie games condense moral choices into binary options, kill or die. In such games, distinctions between zombie types do not humanize them but merely allow players “to strategize against them” (136). The video game as medium determines how zombies are to be perceived. The moral dilemma, or lack of one, in video games is not always this simple. Games that allow for playable zombies transform what should be dehumanized, brainless figures into extraordinary zombies that function more like zombie masters (129). In World of Warcraft, for example, broad customization options allow players to create playable zombies that appear less like zombie masters and more like “zombies with personality” (142). What transpires here, and in other similar examples, is a reevaluation of good-evil binaries and the common use of “killing to win” (148).
In chapter six, which is substantially shorter than the rest, Kee explores the modern “zombie walk” trend, though she does note an early example of one as a promotional tool for the premiere of 1932’s White Zombie(152). Rather than culturally diagnose these performances, she employs a more journalistic methodology, considering myriad meanings why people would participate in them (151). To do otherwise would likely miss a central point at the core of her research: Zombies are stripped of agency by humans. If she, the human in this rhetorical scenario, speaks for these performative zombies, she falls prey to what she criticizes. For example, rather than overly stress the correlation between “9/11 anxieties” and the growing popularity of zombie walks, she notes that “most walkers aren’t making these links” (154). Instead, motivations can range from the more playful (i.e., Harry Potter or Disney zombie characters) to the political (i.e., Occupy Wall Street walkers). Kee does assert, however, that these “walks disrupt the normal expectations of the public spaces where they occur” (159) and possibly “[fulfill] the promise set forth by zombies in other media” of social change (162).
In place of a conclusion that summarizes her primary points, Kee broadens her scope by considering how zombies are used by disaster preparedness organizations, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and military training. In so doing, her work becomes relevant for more than film historians and cultural theorists. Rather than encourage belief in a zombie eventuality, one CDC campaign “taught people the relative value of some lives over others” (167), returning once more to the moral dilemma that peppers fictional zombie media. This challenge lead the CDC program and another from the Los Angeles Police Department to seek alternatives to killing zombies as an option, once more presenting an example of extraordinary zombie in unlikely places (172). The conclusion uniquely brings to life Kee’s central interest in extraordinary zombies who are “too human to be killed—or at least too human to be killed without some questions or remorse” (175).
In each chapter, Kee spends several pages establishing context before she focuses on her examples of extraordinary zombies. What results is robust coverage of every possible example. The book’s primary field is genre studies, understood through the lens of gender and critical race, though she does utilize some analytical tools specific to the language of film and even video games. Perhaps the only criticism of Not Your Average Zombie is that it largely ignores the zombie television boom of the 2010s, including series like Z Nation (2014–2018), iZombie (2015–2019), and The Walking Dead, both the comic books, television series, and its spinoffs. However, this is not an error. Instead, it reveals that the diversity of the zombie genre across eighty years continues to evolve in sometimes regressive and sometimes extraordinary ways.
Klosterman, Chuck. “My Zombie, Myself: Why Modern Life Feels Rather Undead.” The New York Times, 5 December 2010, p.AR1.