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Zombies: A Cultural History

Zombies: A Cultural History by Roger Luckhurst (Reaktion Books, August 2015), 224 pages, 54 illustrations, ISBN 978-1780235288 (hardback), £16.00

About the reeviewer: Dr Emma Austin is a Senior Lecturer in Media Studies, specialising in horror media at the University of Portsmouth. After graduating with a Batchelor of Arts degree in Art History and Visual Culture in 2001 and Master’s degree in Art Design and Media in 2002 in from the University of Portsmouth, she completed a PhD in studying cultural representations, (focused on Zombie cinema and media forms) in 2010. She has taught at the University of Portsmouth since 2004 on a variety of units across Film and Media, as well as contributing to Learning Resources for A Level students. Dr Austin is currently working on a teaching aid for analysing horror films.

Zombies-cover-9781780235288Roger Luckhurst argues that we have reached a saturation point for cultural uses of the zombie in modern global culture. This book explores this contention through a structured cultural history, with a specific drive towards identifying the transferences articulated in the “circum-Atlantic world” (14) in instances of popular culture.

This is not the first academic study of zombie texts, but the book offers a more sustained exploration of colonial and post-colonial influences than previous authors. This is achieved through eight chapters that lay out different aspects of culture and the embodiments of the zombie that they offer, contextualising the historical trajectories of how the zombi becomes the zombie.

Chapter 1 starts with the folklore popularised by Lafcadio Hearn and William Seabrook, establishing the meaning of the zombie against their own lack of engagement with racial politics. These narratives are enlarged in the next chapter on the fictional construct of Haiti in the context of American control of the island: the dialogues of cannibalism, savagery and vodun influence many representations of the zombie up until the present day. These two chapters are particularly detailed, offering a solid contextualisation for the next two chapters which focus on translations of the zombie into American culture. Chapter 3 deals with how zombies emerged in the pulps, noting how dominant racial fantasies and fears were used as key signifiers of desire and death. Chapter 4 then extends the study of print media into film, to position the emerging use of the zombie in American horror films of the 30s and 40s.

Luckhurst is very careful to engage the reader with other instances of the Zombie, showing how representations both draw upon and deny earlier embodiments as the zombie moves further into the American popular consciousness. This is sidetracked briefly in Chapter 5, when a discussion of the Harlem renaissance of the 30s leads to a case study of the anthropological studies of Zora Neale Thurston. This is a fascinating topic, but the shortness of the chapter indicates that it may be slightly out of place in the overall argument of the book. Chapter 6 then introduces a shift in tone, as we approach the historical period when changes in the depiction of the zombie may refract wider social changes and unrest after WW2, including fears of colonial atrocities, the imagery of the holocaust and ‘massification’ in culture and the threat of mass death.

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