Review by Nadim Bakhshov
Roger Luckhurst, Zombies: A Cultural History (Reaktion Books, 2015) pp. 196.
The Zombie, according to Roger Luckhurst, is a ‘syncretic object’ – built from images of a body severed from a soul, an undead manifesting, lumbering, consuming monster that gives us – more than any other popular imaginary object – a crude and, at times, too obvious signifier for late capitalist life.
My daughter asked me a question the other morning while I was sitting reading Luckhurst’s book. The conversation went like this:
“Dad, was Jesus a Zombie?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well,” she continued in a slightly irreverent tone,” Jesus died and came back to life. Doesn’t that make him a Zombie?”
Well, actually no. According to Luckhurst, Jesus could not have been a Zombie as Zombies, like non-Western immigrants, came from outside the European land mass. But I didn’t tell her that. She’s only nine.
Having said that, in Dante’s Inferno there is an interesting echo of this ghostly, Zombie-like figure. Near the entrance to Hell we encounter the ‘pusillanimous’ crowds of once living humans, mindlessly chasing after a banner when in life they followed nothing, held no convictions and committed to neither good nor bad. Like the dead who, in our age, become the Zombie hordes, this Dantean crowd is also shunned by Heaven and refused entry into Hell.
For Luckhurst, the ‘Zombi’ (original spelling) existed at the threshold of Western fantasy and desire. Somewhere at the edge of the colonies, in liminal cultures barely registered by fading bureaucracies, there existed primitive worlds. (Luckhurst points out that Lovecraft, too, fell under the same spell.) Once considered degenerate, these primitive worlds were now deemed legitimate sources of renewal. There was a catch – you had to navigate past the ghostly and partially embodied beings populating these sublime imaginaries. Or, you had to enter into the atavistic rituals that released these the forces and, in some cases, capture and domesticate these partial beings.
The ‘Zombi’, as one embodiment of this energy, became a victim of cultural appropriation. It was caught and dragged across the threshold of the liminal, and in compensation for coming out of its primitive world, was given new colorful clothes and an identity that could provide material for new cocktail drinks as well as inspiration for lyrics by Cole Porter. Luckhurst tells this brilliant story of the appropriation of the Zombie as a vessel for endless entertainment, include real people identifying themselves as ‘Zombies’.
This transformed imaginary being, now spelt ‘Zombie’, with all of its gory and comical permutations, found a new role in the degenerate (Lovecraft) West, alongside the charred remains of metaphysical skeletons housed in museum of thoughts and a culture industry desperate for more objects to consume. For us, it is normal when neuroscientists talk of brains, not minds, when chemists and biochemists speak of ‘life’ emerging out of ‘non-life’, the organic from the inorganic. This became the new ontological home of the Zombie, now a partially rationalized object, moving with a flow of bioelectrical impulses through a physical structure not dissimilar to that of Karel Capek’s ‘Robot’.
Back to Luckhurst’s pre-history. Western Man (and it is usually men we mean), bored with the stifling rational bourgeois institutions of advanced civilization, sought to recover Rousseau’s ‘Natural Man’. That is what drove so many of them to elevate the ‘primitive’. They desired the release of those long sought after raw libidinal forces of savage authenticity, a way out of the dead-end which would culminate in a series of devastating world wars. For Freud, the re-ified order was rotten. The repression of basic drives had reached a tipping point and discontent was growing in our advanced civilization. (One night, Robert Louis Stevenson dreamt a monster and wrote it out the next day. It was a sensation. In reality, Mr. Hyde left Edinburgh in the form of a professional dilettante and became a seeker of the exotic.)
And, in reality, Luckhurst tells us his name was William Seabrook. He is a key figure in the narrative. It was the fantasies and desires of Seabrook that brought us the ‘Zombie’. And close in its shadow a disturbing desire for powers born of the consumption of human flesh. (Seabrook did indeed know Aleister Crowley.)
Given all this, we are told Seabrook travelled much like a tourist. And like a latter day tourist remained largely outside of the cultures he encountered. Nevertheless, he documented and mythologized what he saw, what he wanted to be part of. As Picasso was drawn to African Primitivism and Stravinsky to neo-pagan rites, Seabrook was drawn to the same sources. But, unlike his peers, he went in a different and more disturbing direction: cannibalism.
He failed to obtain human flesh from the natives. (You do wonder what they thought of him.) But he found what he wanted in London. Consuming this meat gave him the buzz he craved, the hallucinatory buzz of raw power. It is to Seabrook we owe one of the first Zombie films: the 1932 film ‘White Zombie’ and it is to Seabrook we owe the linkage between cannibalism and Zombies.
Zombies then infiltrated the West, quietly and unannounced they seeped into the spaces vacated by superstition, the growing entertainment industry and new twists on science fiction. Then came the first reboot, the first breakthrough – 1968, with George Romero’s independently made ‘Night of the Living Dead’. Like its predecessors it dispensed with the supernatural baggage of the ‘Zombi’, and proceeded to narrate stories using realistic modes of expression. The Zombie, for all its supernatural origins in archaic non-Western cultures, became the apotheosis, like the serial killer, of the purely material.
A brother and sister visit a family grave and get caught in a very familial argument. In the background we notice a lumbering, thin figure – much like a drunkard wandering the cemetery. Without prompting this figure approaches them, a blank expression on its face and begins to attack. The brother is killed. The sister escapes. This is very real. Perhaps an attack by a malign drunkard or a mentally disturbed violent youth? These unintelligible actions of the Zombie reconfigured the horror genre. Luckhurst rightly includes ‘The Crazies’. I would add the murderous psychopath of Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’.
Ten years later, in ‘Dawn of The Dead’, Romero took the Zombie and put it in a shopping mall and wove in elements of satire on the formal emptiness of consumer logics. Mindless zombies wander amongst the shiny walkways, trying on clothes, window-shopping and look truly stupid as they seek to possess products that can have no meaning for them. Luckhurst is not too impressed by the cultural theorists who have latched on to this. (Perhaps he has the subtle and sophisticated insights of Walter Benjamin’s writing by his side on the birth of the Paris Arcades.)
Finally, it might be that the Zombie, in keeping with its materialist transformation, is the perfect vehicle upon which to project fears of a global virus (World War Z) or the perfect ingredient in the literary mash-up of the literary canon (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies).
A short review cannot do full justice to this book. I urge you to read it and, for those who have never read Roger Luckhurst before, seek out many of his other writings. What he does brilliantly is weave culture, politics and history into a singular tapestry that leaves scope for thought and discussion. The history of Zombies is, in his hands, demonstrably worthy of our attention and time.
Nadim Bakhshov is author of Against Capitalist Education (Zero Books) and the creator of Shovian Thought, a Symbolic Art lying at the intersection of post-conceptual art, mathematics and philosophy. He is perennially fascinated by science fiction and the gothic and spends many hours composing generative musics.