UNTIL RECENTLY, the zombie’s place in Western popular culture was marginal, if not laughable. From cheap voodoosploitation and B-movie shockers to the goriest of comic books, the zombie genre seemed almost to define itself by abjectness. Most of it, especially during its peak in the 1970s and ’80s, was conceived with a subversive intent and devotion to bloodshed, which ensured that it occupied territory (much like the zombies themselves) well beyond the chain-link fence surrounding polite society. In the all-time pantheon of monsters, the zombie was not much more than a low-grade shuffler with a negligible literary pedigree.

Recently, however, the undead have been enjoying a new life in the mainstream. They’re almost impossible to avoid. The Walking Dead, an unreconstructed “zombie apocalypse” fantasy soon to air for its seventh season, has become the most popular cable TV show in American history, and it’s only one example of a broad genre that was resuscitated by 28 Days Later, Danny Boyle’s 2002 nightmare about a viral epidemic in Britain, and appears to be in ever ruder health with each new game, movie, television series, and comic. Moreover, in what might be the surest sign of its domestication, the zombie has been adopted by the world outside orthodox entertainment. In London, you can pay to be trapped in a room with a zombie on a chain while you figure a way out; in New York, you can join a “zombie survival camp”; and in any given major city of the Western world, you can dress up and join thousands of others in an annual zombie parade.

The zombie wave has been trailed by a growing number of books and articles unpacking its significance to contemporary culture. We’ve come a long way from 2001, when Peter Dendle, in The Zombie Movie Encyclopedia, lamented, “There are almost no serious studies of TV and movie zombies, as there are for vampires in abundance.” Roger Luckhurst’s slim but dense Zombies: A Cultural History, a thorough account of the zombie’s rise in Western culture, from William Seabrook’s The Magic Island in 1929 to the most recent installment of the Resident Evil franchise, is the latest of several attempts to make just such a serious study.

In his introduction, Luckhurst offers a convincing explanation of why the zombie has become the monster for our times:

The zombies do not do the cultural work of monstrous others, silly tentacular aliens or ancient cephalopodic gods raised from the deep. Instead, they are simply us reflected back, depersonalized […] They are the pressing problem of the modern world’s sheer number of people, the population explosion, bodies crammed into super-cities and suburban sprawls, demanding satiation beyond any plan for sustainable living.

The other side to this reading is that there is something almost Dionysian about the zombie multitudes, with their limb-tearing frenzies and their contagious, 24-hour moshing. This might help to explain the success of those zombie parades: today’s zombie masses embody not just a fear of unchecked humanity but also a fantasy of it. The zombie has been freed, by definition, from the constraints of everyday human interaction; the result is not so much Night of the Living Dead as Night of the Living Id. In yet another reading, the zombie apocalypse reflects the increasing fragility of the Western world since 9/11 and the perceived threat from mass migration. Or is the zombie “the symbolic figure for contemporary capitalism,” as Luckhurst also says? In fact the zombie’s metaphoric potential begins to seem limitless once you start dwelling on it, which is probably a very good reason for the creature’s proliferation.

As Luckhurst takes pains to point out, the definition of a zombie has never been stable, from its origins as a Haitian folk legend rooted in the history of slavery to the intestine-eating crowd-lover we know today. For Luckhurst, the zombie “emerged from within the nexus of the transatlantic slave trade and colonial occupation”; being thus formed “in transit,” it is “always susceptible to rapid reworking.” In short, there is more than one way to skin a zombie. A professor of modern literature at Birkbeck in London who specializes in books on popular culture (he has written volumes on Alien and The Shining), Luckhurst is well qualified to take us through the creature’s complex history.

The word zombie has its etymological roots in various parts of Central and West Africa, where it tended to denote either a corpse or a spirit that could be stolen or bottled after death. From Africa, it traveled westward with the slave trade, accruing a variety of folk meanings across the Caribbean and the Americas often associated with slavery. In Haiti (or Saint-Domingue, as it was known before independence), conditions for slaves on the French-owned plantations were virtually unbearable. The superstition that one could die, only to be brought back to life and put to work again by a witch doctor, this time without even a will of one’s own, gained widespread currency in the provincial imagination. There is a suggestion that slave drivers, many of whom were witch doctors themselves, encouraged this superstition to keep the slaves from committing suicide (a common form of escape). Such zombies could be bought and sold, but they weren’t to be given salt, because that would wake them from their stupor, whereupon they would realize they were “dead” and rush back to their graves.

This hapless automaton is the version of the zombie that migrated to North America in 1929 thanks to William Seabrook’s The Magic Island, a gaudily readable account of his search for authentic voodoo ritual in Haiti. Seabrook was a best-selling journalist and “primitivist” who specialized in reporting on remote places for a domestic audience hungry for lurid tales of native customs. In Haiti, he was told stories of men and women resuscitated in order to toil on the plantations, stories he dismissed as fanciful until he was taken to see three such zombies in the flesh. “They were plodding like brutes,” he wrote. “The eyes were the worst. It was not my imagination. They were in truth like the eyes of a dead man.”

Seabrook was not above fabrication: in 1931, he claimed in his book Jungle Ways to have tasted human flesh as part of a tribal ritual in West Africa, later in life admitting that his experience of cannibalism resulted from cooking part of a recent corpse taken from a hospital in Paris (and still you wonder). But whether the zombies were real or not (he later decided they were merely “ordinary demented human beings,” forced to labor on the fields), the superstition was too good to ignore. There was even an article in the Haitian penal code specifically addressing the matter, prohibiting the use of any substances upon a person that would induce a “lethargic coma.” If, the article went on, “after the administering of such substances, the person has been buried, the act shall be considered murder no matter what result follows.” In reality, the article was symptomatic of the complicated position of Vodou within Haiti — originally intended to cover simply the act of poisoning, it was amended in 1864 by a Catholic Haitian general who wished to eliminate old superstitions, which he considered obstructive to Haiti’s aspirations toward modern statehood. But for Seabrook’s audience at home, the light seasoning of documentary evidence provided by the article was just enough to give it the semblance of reality.

The Haitian zombie has proved an irresistible source of fascination ever since, beginning with what Luckhurst calls the “overheated fantasies of voodoo, black magic and cannibalism” that emerged from Haiti during American occupation of the country in the early 20th century. Where Seabrook went, others followed. The black novelist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston included a credulous chapter on zombies in Tell My Horse (1938), claiming to have met a real zombie in a mental hospital while researching voodoo in Haiti. In 1985, the ethnobotanist Wade Davis claimed not only to have met a real zombie but also to have identified the drug used to induce the catatonic state of zombification, locating its pharmaceutical origin in a toxin harvested from the puffer fish. His samples were unreliable, however, and his theories considered extreme by those with a more rounded view of Haitian culture (it didn’t help that Wes Craven used his first book, The Serpent and the Rainbow, as the inspiration for an awful film of the same name in 1988). Most people in Haiti who could be described as zombies are likely to have had severe or untreated mental illnesses, though that’s not to say that notions of witchcraft within the voodoo religion are not influential. In the words of Amy Wilentz, who has written extensively on the country, there may also be “immature and psychologically labile individuals whom a clever and manipulative priest within the darker side of the voodoo community might be able to persuade that they’ve become zombies.” More from Luckhurst on Haitian culture and voodoo for its own sake, rather than simply how it has been demonized elsewhere, would have been welcome.

The Magic Island proved influential in the United States, selling in great numbers, and Seabrook’s zombies made their first screen appearance soon after in White Zombie (1932). The film was based on a stage adaptation (now lost) of The Magic Island and borrowed several visual motifs from the woodcuts used to illustrate the book. Released the year after Frankenstein and Dracula, it made use of both Dracula’s star, Bela Lugosi, and even some of its scenery, recreating Haiti as nothing more than a kind of Caribbean Transylvania. It’s not a good film (zombie films rarely are; that’s part of their appeal). Lugosi plays the part of Murder Legendre, a cruel plantation owner and witch doctor who has zombified not only his slaves but also most of the country’s top brass. With its marginal setting and a plot that features reopened tombs, occult secrets beyond scientific reach, and elements of erotic power exchange, White Zombie is standard gothic fare, and it’s easy to see how the zombie legend slipped so frictionlessly into the horror output of the early 20th century. Although he’s alert to the way the film plays on American fears of the notorious “black republic,” Luckhurst might also have made something of its anti-Semitism: Legendre, with his non-specific Eastern European accent, devilishly effete facial hair, and spiderlike control over the regional economy, is nothing if not the classic demonic Jew; in Dracula, the anti-Semitism was even more explicit, with Lugosi, as the titular vampire, wearing the Star of David in a number of scenes.

For the next 30 years the portrayal of zombies followed largely the same formula: they were a group of individuals enslaved by a single master. There were variations: in the 1950s, during the B-movie sci-fi boom, zombification was often the result of a radiation leak, reflecting the nuclear anxiety of the time. Often the zombies still bore traces of their Haitian roots, even if the uncomfortable issue of slavery was jettisoned in favor of a nebulous pop Voodoo. The Plague of the Zombies, for instance, a Hammer horror production released in 1966, features a dastardly English squire who, having studied Voodoo abroad, has now returned to zombify the local villagers. While the bloody make-up work on the film was influential, The Plague of the Zombies now seems obsolete in comparison to Night of the Living Dead, released just two years later.

Technically, George Romero’s first film doesn’t feature zombies. Heavily influenced by the apocalyptic premise of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend, Romero and his friends conceived a simple story about an anonymous mass of cannibalistic ghouls rising from the dead and terrorizing the squabbling inhabitants of a farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania. The film was as damning to the dysfunctions of American society as it was shocking to audiences at the time, and the two aspects of the film act in tandem, which is why it remains one of the great horror films. Luckhurst provides ample background for this exemplary piece of zombiana, noting the history of its production and the context in which it was released: the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the dismantling of local industry in Pittsburgh. Romero maintains that the lead role of Ben was given to Duane Jones, a black man, simply because he happened to be the best actor among them. But most audiences — especially those in inner-city theaters, where the film was sometimes played in a double bill with Slaves, a film about an 1850s slave revolt — would have been alive to the potency of the film’s final, terrible scenes, a series of still images in which Ben, the last survivor of the nighttime attack, is mistaken by marauding police for one of the undead and then shot, dragged out of the farmhouse, and burned.

Most of today’s zombie output bears obvious traces of Romero’s vision in one way or another, from the cannibalism and swarming anonymity of the zombies to the narrative template in which a few survivors hole out in some “last redoubt,” fighting among themselves. For Luckhurst, the larger question is about the cultural changes that made Night of the Living Dead so seminal. “How did the zombie move from a rare and elusive oddity to become one of the exemplary allegorical figures of the modern mass?” he asks. His answer is to work through a huge variety of “contexts and media ecologies” which, after 1945 and the end of World War II, allowed the zombie to “massify.” These include the collective memory of the Holocaust and the dropping of the atom bombs in Japan, the process of Western decolonization, the Korean War, Red Scare paranoia, and the growth of mass popular culture. He draws on the way the Chinese military’s use of the “human wave” during the Korean War provided an insidious image of massified human invaders, while rumors of brainwashing in the Far East intensified a more general anticommunist, Cold War paranoia. Films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962) played on typical fears of foreign possession and the annihilation of individualism in the face of an overwhelming conformism.

This paranoia was also prone to being turned inward. The American postwar consensus became seen as an insidious force; fears of brainwashing began to focus on the effects of advertising and consumerism as much as anything else. This would later be satirized by Romero in Dawn of the Dead (1978), with its famous scenes of zombies invading a shopping mall. Luckhurst is curiously dismissive of Dawn of the Dead, claiming that it “flatters the exceptionalism of the audience” and calling it “problematically smug.” It might just as easily be said to challenge its audience’s lack of exceptionalism. In an impressive review of the boom in increasingly gory comics after the war, Luckhurst makes a nice point about how “the thematic content of the zombie mass, that resonant image of mindless shuffling hordes, was also one of the strongest reflections on the abjected form of mass culture.”

Luckhurst’s grasp of the period is enviably thorough — at times too thorough. He crams in so many secondary references that his cultural history occasionally has the feel of a word search. He sifts the writings of a number of concentration camp survivors for phrases suggestive of zombification, with uneasy results. Primo Levi described the “Musulman,” Auschwitz slang for those who had resigned themselves to death but were still alive in a condition of abject despair, as “an anonymous mass, continually renewed and always identical.” Is this more than an unhappy linguistic coincidence? It’s not inconceivable that a connection between the concentration camps and the zombies of popular culture exists at some level of our collective unconscious, but apart from a few comics from the 1950s and what he calls our “continued cultural obsession with Nazi zombies” (if you could even call it that), Luckhurst has very few examples at hand to prove his point.

While the conditions of postwar society clearly bled into the zombie genre, it’s too neat to use World War II as a marker, not least because it ignores everything that came before — including World War I, when large-scale mechanized slaughter first became a reality. For an early example of the massification of the undead in cinema, we could go back to Abel Gance’s J’accuse (1919). In a remarkable scene at the end of the film, the shell-shocked war veteran Jean returns to his village, having fought in the War. We are shown, as he recounts the event, his memory of swathes of dead soldiers rising up where they lie. They subsequently swarm the country roads on their way back home.

And why not go further back — to Frankenstein, say? It’s surprising that Mary Shelley’s book gets no mention here. Her eponymous scientist meddled with natural laws, reanimating dead matter collected from the “dissecting rooms and the slaughter-house” to create something recognizably zombielike, an unstoppable monster that wreaks violence on civilized society. As Luckhurst notes, the zombie is often seen as the opposite of the ghost: the latter has a soul but no body, and the former a body with no soul. In this light, it’s a quick step to see the zombie as the defining monster of the secularized society, playing on anxieties about the soul in the scientific era. Yet this is a canard in some ways. Many of today’s zombie apocalypse narratives prosper, banally, by shoring up our fears about the sanctity of body and soul. In an episode in the first season of The Walking Dead, the survivors make a point of giving their recently deceased friends a proper Christian burial, whereas the zombies must be burned. But zombies were humans once, too. Explanations about the scientific causes of zombification in The Walking Dead are essentially MacGuffins to facilitate a survivalist tale that clearly plays on Christian eschatological fantasies about the blessed and the damned.

Further chapters take in, among other things, Italian cinema’s gory appropriation of the zombie narrative and the rise of zombie computer games. Luckhurst mentions the fascinating fact that in 1997 the controversial video game Carmageddon, which involved running over pedestrians for points, was deemed too violent to be given a rating in Britain. Only after the game’s designers changed the pedestrians to zombies did the game become acceptable to the censors. One wonders if the zombie’s rise has less to do with its metaphoric versatility and more to do with its convenient function as a punching bag for the screen age. For a being that’s already dead, it’s remarkable — if not all that surprising — how much we like to kill it all over again.

Luckhurst’s writing is articulate and contains many insights, but it’s frequently marred by the kind of Latinate pile-ups and enragingly modish delivery one finds in much academic prose. On the issue of Nazis and zombies, Luckhurst cites Hannah Arendt’s suggestion that totalitarianism answered a longing for “self-abandonment into the mass,” then adds: “Zombification becomes a post-war metaphor for this willed abandonment of the will under the Mesmeric gaze of a Führer who commands the Volk to ever more exorbitant acts of violence.” This is the sort of verbal origami that is as unconvincing as it is laborious to unfold. Another related problem is the overabundance of secondary quotations, sometimes two or three per paragraph. This might be described as the Wikipedia method of authorship, in which external reference becomes tantamount to evidence.

All of this means that Luckhurst’s book is best read for its many jumping-off points, not for pleasure. Indeed, Luckhurst does not actually seem to enjoy many zombie movies. Occasionally one longs for the simpler enthusiasms of such zombie encyclopedias as Dendle’s (2001) or Glenn Kay’s (2012). For another serious study of the zombie, the chapter on zombies in Marina Warner’s Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds (2002) contains much food for thought. Nonetheless, Roger Luckhurst’s breadth is immense and he has managed to corral a huge subject into a very helpful primer for anyone interested in the latest monster on the block.

¤

Tom Fleming is deputy editor of Literary Review in London.