Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Read or Undead: John Sutherland on the Coming of the Zombie Apocalypse

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Read or Undead: John Sutherland on the Coming of the Zombie Apocalypse

Article excerpt

If Haiti could take a patent out on the zombie concept (as George Lucas has on Ewoks), that sad island's economic woes would be solved at a stroke. Zombies are one of the big horror/Gothic franchises. And they're biggest in the US. The term is from the Kimbundu "nzumbe", transported by slaves from Africa to the Caribbean and given currency thereafter by the Haitian cult of voodoo--and by Hollywood.

The reasons for America's love affair with the zombie are complicated. First, Haiti is (as refugee-rafts testify) nearer than Transylvania. Second, the zombie is, quintessentially, black--hence, for example, the title of Bela Lugosi's classic 1932 film, White Zombie. It brings into play a whole range of buried feelings ("horrors") about the black underclass.

Third, religion. The problem with Dracula is that he and his damned vampire kind are a Christian nightmare. Hence all that stuff with crosses. Anne Rice, the dean of American vampire fiction, has, with her latest books, spun off into straight Christology. Zombies don't carry problematic religious baggage. With them, as in the constitution, there's a convenient separation between church and horror.

Finally, supporting the whole "undead" genre is the fact that America is deeply superstitious, scarcely less so than Haiti itself. A Gallup poll last year revealed that more than 20 per cent of Americans believe in witches.

On the screen, George Romero rules zombiedom. On the printed page, Max Brooks owns the genre. …

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