Research Proposal                                                                                        Sviatlana Piatakova

Working Title: Postapocalyptic Zombie Dystopia: How Societal Fears of Apocalypse Shaped and Determined The Metaphor of the Living Dead

Research potency: Even though the phenomenon of zombie in film has been studied by various scholars, the tendency is to approach the subject from spheres of knowledge other than film in an interdisciplinary research, as if the zombie itself doesn’t deserve an academic space of its own.

The studies of zombie films can be subdivided into histories of the genre and interdisciplinary research of the zombie metaphor from the point of view of different schools of thought, sciences and ideologies. The history of the genre is covered by a number of encyclopaedias (Kay, Dendle, Branson-Trent, etc.). Interdisciplinary research of the zombie in film has been studied by scholars in connection with the philosophy of mind (Bailey), myth of resurrection (Curran), post-modernism (Fay), capitalism and postcolonialism (Comaroff), ideology (Gunn and Treat), Freud’s ‘uncanny’ (Bishop), pop culture (Flint), postmodern trauma (Evans), Marxism (Weed), folklore (Parsons) and so on.

Despite the unprecedented re-emergence of postapocalyptic zombie film in the theatres (one third of all zombie films appeared after 2000 (Scott)), academic research of zombies remains marginal and the current state of knowledge of the topic welcomes research of all (or any) aspects of the zombie cinema.

Research questions:

Are all zombie films (post)apocalyptic?

How should the postapocalyptic zombie dystopia be defined?

Why did zombies emerge from postcolonial dystopia?

Why did zombies evolve into the postapocalyptic?

What are the many meanings of the zombie metaphor in postapocalyptic film?

How does the zombie postapocalyptic film marry horror with humanist drama?

How do the three aspects of the zombie metaphor (slave-consumer-infected) correlate to different stages in popularity of postapocalyptic films and societal fears of a possible apocalypse?

Does the rise in zombie dystopias correspond to periods of social anxiety or does the audience project their most urgent fears on the metaphor?

What are the reasons for recent resurgence in zombie cinema?

Research methods: secondary research, case studies, comparative analysis

Thesis Structure:

Part I. The Postcolonial Premise of The Zombie Dystopia

The introduction will look at the early zombie films emerging from postcolonial dystopia. The origin of the zombie will be studied, both of Haitian voodoo cult as well as millennial the more generic fears of 999, fears of disease (the Black Plague and the like), past representations of evil, especially vampires and the tendency to blame death on the dead (Mulligan).

The first zombie type of tireless speechless slave in films like Das Kabinet des Doktor Caligari (1919), White Zombie (1932), Ouanga (1935) will be discussed, as well as its cultural meaning of the labouring zombie (Gunn and Treat), stolen consciousness in colonial subjects (Scott),  the terrors of the Great Depression and its listless, zombie-like victims (Dandle).

The sex-slave zombie as a commentary on the gender agendas of the time as well as capitalism’s threat to family (Scott) will be described in case studies of  Blonde Venus (1932), Revolt of the Zombie (1936), I Walked With a Zombie (1943) and Voodoo Man (1944).

The next part will look at how World War II introduced the new subgenre of Nazi zombie film. Early examples of King of Zombies (1941), Revenge of the Zombies (1943) as well as later Shock Waves (1977), Zombie Lake (1981), Oasis of the Zombies (1982), and most recently a Norwegian comedy Dead Snow (2009) will be briefly looked at. Important changes in the zombie (the source of zombification not supernatural but scientific) will be pointed out.

Preliminary conclusion: the early zombie and the proto-dystopian zombie film possesses the following features: the source of zombification is located outside the zombie; the zombie is a servant or active producer of material values; the source controlling the zombies is possible to extinguish and bring humans back to their natural states; the happy end is the genre cliché. Therefore, early zombie films cannot be considered postapocaliptic dystopias. Nevertheless, the evolution of the zombie from diligent servant via sex slave to menacing Nazi demonstrates how historical events influenced the zombie onsceen.

Part II. The Cannibal and The Emergence of The Postapocalyptic Zombie Dystopia

This chapter will look at how the Haitian slave turned cannibal in the 50s, 60s and 70s and how events like the traumatic end of World War II, paranoid fear of mutual nuclear destruction and the beginning of the arms race, and later social unrest, assassinations, ecological decline, etc. brought about apocalyptic fears in society and transformed the zombie onscreen. Major genre changes will be looked at from zombies becoming part and cause of the imminent apocalypse, the genre steering toward graphic horror, and the cannibal zombie emerging (I Eat Your Skin (1961), The Plague of Zombies (1965), The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1963), etc.).

The so-called ‘‘golden age of zombie films’’ (1968 – 1983) and the seminal The Night of the Living Dead (1968) will be the primary focus of the chapter. George Romero’s postapocalyptic source, the novel I Am Legend (1954), together with a plethora of postapocalyptic (non-zombie) dystopian films of the era (Last Man on Earth (1964), No Blade of Grass (1970), The Omega Man (1971), Logan’s Run (1976), A Boy And His Dog (1975), Escape From New York (1981), etc.) will be studied in detail. This part of the research will talk about how George Romero re-invented, transformed, elevated the zombie genre while breaking its conventions. George Romero’s reinvention of the zombie as a ghoul no longer controlled by an outside force but his own perverted appetites will be discussed in detail. The genre stereotypes (the cannibal zombie, the consumer zombie and the slow zombie) cemented by Romero will be explored.

The chapter will briefly look at how the decline in apocalyptic fears in society brought about a string of zombie comedies (Redneck Zombies (1986), Night of the Creeps (1986), etc.). The change in audience expectations (fast action, more gore, lively score (Scott)), arguably popularized by Michael Jackson’s Thriller video and a lighter attitude towards zombies because of the fall of the Soviet Union, will be researched. The chapter will explore Return of the Living Dead (1985) and Re-Animator (1985), The Evil Dead (1981) and Dead Alive (1992) as source of comedy and commentary on the fragmentation of post-modern existence, as well as the medical surgery advances of the time. Some of the reasons for the gap in the production of zombie films in the 90s will be looked at.

Preliminary conclusion: the emergence of the zombie postapocalyptic dystopia coincides with historical periods when apocalypse becomes tangible. The zombie postapocalyptic dystopian films become documents on the loss of stability, annihilation of society, community and subsequently humanity. Zombie cinema is also a great method of criticizing societal evils (racism, consumerism, militarism, etc.).

Part III. The Zombie Pandemic: Horror, Humanist Drama and Armageddon

Societal fears of the end of the 90s and the new millennium will be addressed in detail: fear of a global viral plague (HIV, SARS, West Nile virus, avian and swine flu), millennial fears (y2k, various ‘apocalyptic’ dates – 2000, 2012, etc.), fear of terrorism (9/11 and other terrorist attacks). How these fears are reflected in postapocalyptic cinema focusing on zombie dystopia will be the main focus of the chapter.

28 Days Later is the major case study of the chapter. Aspects of Boyle’s new zombie will be looked into: the zombie as the human infected by a man-made virus taking as its basis human rage at its extreme; zombies not depending on humans for food but consuming as much as possible without digesting anything; zombies meaningless in their Rage; fast zombies. The chapter will deal with factors influencing the creation of the fast zombie: the sped-up lifestyles, globalization, internet, the fast spread of viruses, computer games, etc. It will investigate how the film re-animated the genre, transformed it and became a universal postapocalyptic dystopia criticizing all aspects of civilization (science, religion, military, medicine, etc.). Means of creating fear (through suspense, lighting effects and digital video) instead of graphic horror as well as a change from B-movie quality to independent low-budget first class drama in a postapocalyptic setting (reminiscent of On the Beach (1959)) will be discussed.

The influence of 28 Days Later on modern postapocalyptic cinema will be looked at on the example of modern zombie and non-zombie dystopias. Romero and his fast zombie in Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2008), Survival of the Dead (2009) and reasons why Romero is making a new film every 3 years (instead of once a decade) will be deliberated upon. Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead (2004) and the fast zombie. 28 Weeks Later (2007) and I am Legend (2007) and the big budget zombie. Reasons why the film I am Legend (2007) turned vampires into zombies will be elaborated. The phenomenon of non-zombie Carriers (2009) viral postapocalypse marketed as a zombie film (also confused for and listed as a zombie film) will be discussed.

The chapter will try to answer the question why pandemic films like Outbreak (1995) or Cabin Fever (2002) turned viral postapocalyptic dystopias (12 Monkeys (1995), Jeremiah (2002 – 2004), The Tribe (1999–2003), Doomsday (2008), Carriers (2009), etc.), and whether there is correlation between the real threat of viruses together with the rise of zombie apocalypse onscreen with a wider popularity of viral doomsday cinema. How the real fears of the spread of viruses from animals to humans are reflected in zombie films (28 Days Later – monkeys,  Resident Evil – crows and dogs, House of the Dead – mosquitoes, Zombieland – cows, etc.) will be also deliberated upon in the chapter.

Preliminary conclusion: In the age of viral threats the zombie is no longer the lumbering undead, it is a human infected. It is fast, strong and starts to possess some intelligence (I Am Legend). The postapocalyptic setting invited directors to explore human behaviour under extreme circumstance – absence of society, government, law and the daily threat of zombie destruction. Drama is more important than literal gore and the films concentrate on the relationship between humans faced with impending death.

Chapter IV. New Beginnings and The Zombie Apocalypses: Myth or Reality?

 The chapter will very briefly discuss the possible future of zombie film and the most prominent directions such as the latest take-over of:

zombie comedy (Dance of the Dead (2008), Zombie Strippers (2008), Zombieland (2009), Doghouse (2009), Eat Me! (2009), Invasion of the Not Quite Dead (2009), The Revenant (2009), ZMD: Zombies of Mass Destruction (2009));

independent intellectual zombie cinema (The Zombie Diaries (2006), Dead  Air (2009),Pontypool (2009));

computer games zombie (Resident Evil and House of the Dead series).

The research will look at how Resident Evil and House of the Dead series and the corresponding computer games introduced a zombie as an individual killing machine no longer dependant on the mob for its strength. Whether this will be the next evolutionary stage of the zombie metaphor (the loner zombie) will be discussed.

The chapter will contend that the media and the film industry both cash in on viral apocalyptic fears of the public and contribute to the dissemination of those fears. Research will look at how the theme of apocalypse makes the general public lose sight of what is real and what is fictional: The Day After (1983) and the public’s reaction; marketing of 2012 through fictitious books, websites and radio broadcasts; the fandom of the ‘impending’ zombie apocalypse in pop culture.

The merge of fiction and reality will be discussed in terms of the fear of the zombie apocalypse and its many manifestations: Max Brooks‘ book The Zombie Survival Guide; the sale of zombie weapons online; epidemiological analysis of the zombie apocalypse (Carleton University and University of Ottawa, 2009); the popularity of the tag game Humans vs. Zombies and so on.

Overall Conclusion:

The conclusion will summarize the major points delineated in the research and state whether the research questions were answered or not and how the research contributes to the study of zombie film, dystopia and the postapocalyptic in general.


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