Waller, Gregory. The Living and the Undead: Slaying Vampires, Exterminating Zombies. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2010. 408 pp. Paperback. ISBN 978-0-252-07772-2. $25.00.
As the title promises, Gregory Waller's The Living and the Undead examines the ways that living communities respond to the presence of the undead in their midst. However, the subtitle to this new edition of his 1986 book may cause some confusion. Despite a new preface, Waller's book remains unchanged, focusing on vampire narratives through the 1970s, addressing only the first two of George A. Romero's canonical zombie films and stopping short of the vampire mania of the 1980s. Buffy Summers, in any of her incarnations, does not grace these pages, and only two of the nine chapters address the horror of the undead swarm so pervasive in recent popular culture, with only one of those resolutely devoted to zombies. Waller's achievement in this work, however, remains as vital today as it was over two decades ago when the book was first published.
What makes The Living and the Undead an important contribution to the field is Waller's method, which considers not the nature of the undead threat, but the nature of the living community that must resist it. Each of the texts examined is subjected to the same line of questioning: who comprises the survivor community and how is it structured, what resources are available (including both knowledge and weapons) and, more broadly, what sorts of resistance are effective? Perhaps the most interesting question pursued in this line is how does the community of survivors understand its obligation toward the undead-what Stoker, through Van Helsing, called the "wild work" of slaying (249, 355, 370)? Waller develops this inquiry through sustained consideration of shifting understandings of what work must be done, who must do it, the importance of violence inherent in such work, and how to determine whether or not the work is successful. Through these questions, Waller is able to argue that even Romero's zombie films are a continuation of the Dracula tradition. Focusing on the survivors allows Waller to forge an otherwise tenuous link between the many texts that feature the Dracula character as the charismatic king vampire who represents a threat to a small and private community and narratives of impersonal undead swarms that threaten to eliminate all of human kind, such as Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend (1954) and Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978).
The Living and the Undead totals nine chapters, including the introduction, a conclusion and four thematic parts, each of which contains between one and three chapters. Part 1, "The Moral Community and the King-Vampire," discusses Stoker's Dracula (1897) and why this king vampire is such an important means for articulating the distribution of power at the time of emergent British capitalism. Part 2, "Dracula Retold," deals with a range of Dracula retellings as the story migrated from text to stage play to film. Condensed into three chapters, this second part is a prime example of the book's limitations because it attempts to cover a play, six distinct films, plus the collection of eight Dracula films from Hammer Studios. Despite Waller's fascinating exploration of changes in the structures of knowledge, authority, and violence from the 1930s to the 1970s, this ends up being simply too much material. The second half of the book becomes stronger as Waller concentrates on more detailed analyses of specific texts. In part 3, "The Sacrifice of the Pure-Hearted Seer," he isolates the Nosferatu films of F. W. Murnau (1922) and Werner Herzog (1979). Part 4, "Legions of the Undead," turns from the conflict between the survivor community and a vampire antagonist to the swarm of undead monsters found in various manifestations in Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot (1975), Matheson's I Am Legend, and the Romero zombie cycle. The conclusion is, cleverly, specifically about conclusions, as Waller shifts his focus from the survival of the characters to that of the audience and what lessons each retelling of the conflict between the living and the undead leaves us with. …