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Sociology Compass (2013): 7, 547560, 10.1111/soc4.12053

Locating Zombies in the Sociology of Popular Culture

Todd K. Platts *

University of Missouri Department of Sociology


In this essay, focusing primarily on the cinema of the walking corpse, I provide an overview of zombie studies and suggest potential avenues for sociological inquiry into zombie phenomena. I argue that zombie lms, comic books, novels, video games, and the like can be seen as signi cant cultural objects that re ect and reveal the cultural and material circumstances of their creation. Despite emanating from complex culture-producing institutions and (arguably) capturing extant social anxieties, sociology has remained quiet on zombie phenomena. Issues of signicance, history, and denition are discussed. I then locate three avenues of inquiry ideally suited to the sociological toolkit: symptomatic analysis of content, production, and audience response and interaction. I conclude by calling for a multipronged sociological analysis into zombie culture.


In this essay, primarily emphasizing zombie lms, I provide an overview of the literature on the emerging eld of zombie studies and suggest potential avenues for sociological inquiry into zombie phenomena. In addition to delineating sociological contributions to zombie studies, I also describe what zombie studies may add to topics of perennial sociological interest (e.g., the meaning of culture, production, consumption, and reception). For purposes of clarity, I place analytic focus on the zombies gestated from North American popular culture (Bishop 2006; Richardson 2010, 121-136) as opposed to diverse folkloric traditions of the dead rising from their graves (Ackermann and Gauthier 1991, Koven 2007, 37-50). Commonly understood as corpses raised from the dead and imbued with a ravenous instinct to devour the living, zombies address fears that are both inherent to the human condition and speci c to the time of their resurrection. From an evolutionary perspective, zombies engender terror because of ingrai ned phobia of infectious contagion, loss of personal autonomy, and death (Clasen 2010). From a cultural view, zombies represent a monstrous tabula rasa whose construction registers extant social anxieties (Bishop 2009, 2010; Dendle 2007; McIntosh 2008; Muntean and Payne 2009). In their modern form, zombie narratives commonly present apocalypt ic parables of societies in the state collapse (or have already collapsed) wherein a handful of survivors receive claustrophobic refuge from undead hordes. The survivors temporary rampart disintegrates not because of the zombies but because of the survivors inability to cooperate despite their differences. Zombie narratives often rely on images of communal desolation, infected others, piles of untended human corpses, and roving gangs of vigilantes. That such stories should witness a resurgence in popularity after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the anthrax and SARS scares, and Hurricane Katrina is s een as no coincidence (Bishop 2009, Newitz 2009). As Robert Wuthnow (1989, 3) argues, if cultural products do not articulate closely enough with their social settings, they are likely to be regarded as irrelevant, unrealistic, arti cial, and overly abstract, or worse, their producers will be unlikely to receive the support necessary to carry on their work. Along these lines, Kyle Bishop (2009, 18)

© 2013 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

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observes, Because the aftereffects of war, terrorism, and natural disasters so closely resemble

[they have] all the more power to shock and terrify a

population that has become otherwise jaded by more traditional horror lms. The zombie renaissance is not limited solely to the realm of cinema; it has transferred to a host of other popular culture forms including video games (e.g., Resident Evil , House of the Dead , Dead Rising, and Plants vs. Zombies ), comic books (e.g., The Walking Dead and Marvel Zombies ), novels (e.g., The Zombie Survival Guide (Brooks 2003), World War Z (Brooks 2006), and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Grahame-Smith 2009)), and even a successful television series (e.g., The Walking Dead ) to name a few. What can sociology learn from examining zombie culture? What can sociology add to current debates in zombie studies? Unfortunately, sociology in method and theory has not been applied to the examination of zombie culture. Escalations in scholarship investigating the living dead have occurred largely outside the analytic purview of the discipline (Drezner 2011, 1-3). The remainder of this essay, then, suggests that zombies, the industrial production of their culture, and its consumption can serve as fecund research sites for answering sociologically pertinent questions. I proceed by rst detailing the broader signicance of zombies, eshing out their xenophobic past and ambivalent present, and discuss problems of classi cation and denition. I then highlight three intersecting modes of inquiry ideally suited for the sociological study of zombie popular culture: analysis of textual content, production, and audience reception and interaction. I conclude by calling for a multipronged sociological analysis into zombie culture.

the scenarios of zombie cinema

Why do zombies matter?

It may be tempting to brush zombies aside as irrelevant pop culture ephemera. Zombie in ected popular culture, however, now contributes an estimated $5 billion to the world economy per annum (Ogg 2011). In addition to movies, comics, books, and video games, individuals routinely don complex homemade zombie costumes to march in zombie walks and/or engage in role-playing games like Humans vs. Zombies. This is not to mention zombie-related merchandise (e.g., t-shirts, coffee mugs, mouse pads, toys, and bumper stickers), music (e.g., The Zombies and Evenings in Quarantine: The Zombie Opera), and fan sites (e.g., and zm Though not covered in this essay, zombies have also become a metaphor for insolvent banks reliant on the government dole (Onaran and Bair 2012) and the failed, but still living, ideas of neoliberalism (Giroux 2010; Quiggin 2010). Similarly, philosophers a rgue over the possibility of zombies to discuss phenomenal consciousness (for a review and crit ique, see Kirk (2005). It seems that nearly all aspects of (popular) culture have been subsumed by the zombie mob (Flint 2009). Clearly, they are telling socially relevant stories for the people who consume or employ their likeness. Since zombie cultural forms (e.g., lms, video games, and comics, novels) resonate with large swaths of consumers and result from complex social relations involving producers, receivers, and the social world, they constitute signi cant culture objects (Alexander 2003;

Griswold 1987a, 2008). As cultural objects, zombie cultural forms reect and reveal the social context of their creation as ltered through the milieus in which they are created, distributed, evaluated, taught, and preserved (Peterson and Anand 2004, 311). Because zombies are typically invoked in horror texts, they are one of the few sties where individuals are

[and] consider, momentarily, the unthinkably

encouraged to suspend reality and belief

dark side of life (Cerulo 2006: 70). As part of an extended family of horri c antagonists, zombies have offered bureaucratically managed representations of cultural anxiety for more

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than 80 years. To ignore these mass-mediated cu ltural representations of fear and terror is to ignore one of the largest and most enduring cult ural sites in which thought and discussion of and about fear and terror occurs. Sociology as a discipline designed to unearth the inuences of economic, political, institutional, and social forces is ideally equipped to unsheathe the broader signicance of zombie culture and, thus, add to debates in zombie studies (cf. Dowd 1999, Sutherland and Feltey 2012, Tudor 2000).

A brief history of zombies and problems of de nition

Before discussing the sociological purchase of understanding zombie popular culture, it is important to understand the history of the American zombie as opposed to the Haitian zonbi. Though some popular accounts of the creature date its presence back to the epic of Gilgamesh (e.g., Walz (2010)), most scholars track our modern understanding of the zombie to US misappropriations of Haitian spiritual ontologies (Bishop 2006; 2008; 2010, 37-63; Dendle 2001, 4-7; 2007, 45-48; Kawin 2012, 118-120; McAlister 2012; McIntosh 2008, 1-6; Moreman 2010, 264-268; Pulliam 2007, 724-730; Richardson 2010, 121-128; Russell 2006, 9-17), but some go further back to the New Testament Book of Daniel (e.g., Mulligan (2009, 350) and Toppe (2011)). Contra other monstrous antagonists, zombies, Peter Dendle (2001, 3) points out, pass[ed] directly from folklore to screen, without rst having an established literary tradition. Zombies entered the US popular cultural imagination as a result of its military occupation of Haiti (1915-1934). In the occupation s latter phases, a series of sensationalist travelogs emerged to sate the xenophobically welled curiosities of North Americans. William Seabrook s The Magic Island ([1929] 1989) would prove to be the most germane for the zombie s popular cultural development (Bishop 2006). By 1932, White Zombie became the rst feature-length motion picture to spotlight the monster. Cultural entrepreneurs exploiting Haitian folklife, however, have shown little interest in anthropologically rigorous approaches to Haitian culture or Religion. They have taken the concept of the zombie, the mindless walking dead, and run with it (Kawin 2012, 118). Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, zombies headlined a handful of lms including Revolt of the Zombies (1936), King of the Zombies (1941), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), Revenge of the Zombies (1943), and Valley of the Zombies (1946). Intoned with hyperbolic (mis)representations of Voudou, these lms were more inclined to exploit rather than explore the topic (Senn 1998, 11). Because zombies lacked a literary, heritage producers took liberties with the legend, displaying an irreverence that would have been unthinkable towards respected contemporary properties such as Dracula or Frankenstein (Russell 2006, 27) enabling zombies to appear in numerous radio serials, comics, novels, and short stories during the 1930s (Hand 2011, Pulliam 2007, Vials 2011) where they were capable of speech and complex thought. Peter Dendle (2001, 4) posits, The 50s and early 60s represent a strange transitional time for the screen zombie, as though the concept were ready to move beyond its stagnant, two- decade-old paradigm, but experienced some confusion in exactly which direction to go. Zombies remained popular in comic books and crime and pulp ction circles where they enjoyed increased production runs after superhero comics lost favor (Pulliam 2007, 732). It is in the pages of Entertaining Comics Vault of Horror , Crypt of Terror , Haunt of Fear , and Tales from the Crypt that the zombie began to take on the look of a putrid and decaying corpse (Pulliam 2007, 733). Cinematically, zombies became subsumed in a style of pictures known as weirdies, an inexact nomenclature for an offbeat science ction, fantasy, monster, zombie, or shock lm, usually of marginal nancing, fantastic content, and ridiculous title (Doherty 2002, 119) which included lms like Creature with the Atom Brain (1955), Unearthly

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(1957), Invisible Invaders (1959), Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1964), Horror of Party Beach (1964), and Orgy of the Dead (1965). These pictures largely eschewed elements such as voodoo, racism, colonialism, and outright xenophobia, replacing them with fears of invasion, social homogenization, apocalypse, and just plain weirdness, paving the way for George Romero s landmark Night of the Living Dead (1968) (Heffernan 2002; McIntosh 2008, 7; Russell 2006, 47). Night of the Living Dead was a game changer for lms concerning the living dead. It helped inaugurate zombies as we know them today. Its success partly popularized the civilization ending zombie narrative described at the beginning of this essay (Bishop 2010, 94-128; Dendle 2001, 7-8; 2007, 50-52; Kawin 2012, 120-125; McIntosh 2008, 8-10; Moreman 2010, 270-273; Mulligan 2009, 358-361; Muntean and Payne 2009, 245-246; Paffenroth 2006, 2-7; Pull iam 2007, 734-739, Richardson 2010, 121-136; Russell 2006, 64-70), but Dawn of the Dead (1978) institutionalized the model (Thrower 2007, 17-18). Despite Dawn of the Dead s impressive worldwide ticket sales (Gagne 1987: 100-101), zombies remained a low-key monster in mainstream cinema and culture (Bishop 2009; Dendle 2007, 53). After Revenge of the Living Dead (1985) and Day of the Dead s (1985) disappointments at the box of ce ( Variety 1986), the zombie survived in other mediums, most notably video games (e.g., the Resident Evil franchise). Dendle (2001) and Russell (2006) docume nt that low-end independent producers created backyard zombie epics into the e arly 1990s, but by the end of the decade, zombie cinema slowed to a veritable trickle leaving horror analyst Allan Bryce (1999, 7) to lament, sadly the poor old zombie seems destined to stay dead for a little longer while the horror genre remains obsessed with Scream -type horror comedies. Thus, when the 2000s proved a watershed period for zombies, Peter Dendle (2012, 1) proclaimed the resurrection of the zombie on screen in the 2000s came as a surprise to everyone. The major difference between new zombies and Romero-zombies, Kyle Bishop (2009, 24) argues, is that most twenty- rst-century zombies are faster, more deadly, and symbolically more transparent (see also Muntean and Payne 2009). Whereas Romero-in uenced zombie texts are often read progressively insofar as the problems presented therein cannot fold back into the dominant ideology (see Becker 2006, Wood 2004), Muntean and Payne (2009) show contemporary zombie lms to be more ambivalent (more on this later). As this admittedly brief historiography of zombies attests, a welter of contradictory creatures has carried the label. Thus, one of the biggest problems associated with zombie studies has been determin- ing the contours of the zombie itself. De ning the nature of the creature remains problematic, in part, due to its lack of anchoring literary tradition (Bishop 2006) and the capricious brandishing of the term with few purists to police the monster s appro- priate boundaries (Dendle 2001, McIntosh 2008, Russell 2006) until recently (Dendle 2012). As a result, no de nitional consensus exists. According to Dendle (2001, 13), the substantial overlap among the various movie monsters precludes the possibility of an all-encompassing de nition of a zombie. What nearly all understandings and depictions of popular culture zombies have in common is a exible creature designed to evoke our macabre fascination and whose li keness adapts to contemporaneous tumult, concerns about manmade and natural disasters, con icts and wars, and crime and violence. This does not solve the problem of de nition, but it is along this logic that the diachronic and synchronic evocation of zombies should be comprehended (cf. Muntean and Payne 2009).

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Toward a sociology of zombie popular culture

As discussed below, many analyses of zombie culture entertain sociological themes. Although much has been studied, there are important areas that have been neglected and ways that sociology could lend unique and critical insight into current zombie research. I use the remainder of this essay to highlight three such avenues of inquiry. These points of departure acknowledge three important insights in the sociological study of popular culture. First, cultural productions reveal something about the societies that created them, and patterns emerging from the content of cultural productions partly unsheathe underlying structural patterns of those societies (Barthes 1972, Bergesen 2006, Goffman 1979, Hughey 2012, Schatz 1981, Wright 1977). Second, productive milieu in terms of technology, law and regulation, industry structure, organization structure, occupational careers, and market matters in the composition of content (DiMaggio 2000, Lena , Peterson and Anand 2004, Ryan 2007). Third, audiences interpret culture actively often in ways not intended by its creators (Hall 1996, Shively 1992, Vidmar and Rokeach 1974) and routinely construct symbolic boundaries around consumption (Bryson 1996, Force 2009, Gans 1999).

Zombies as symptoms of social anxiety

Most zombie studies implicitly employ ritual approaches to understand zombie culture. Developed by Will Wright (1977) and Thomas Schatz (1981), ritual approaches view cultural objects as collective expressions that serve as conduits of and for the exploration of societal ideals, values, ideas, and ideological contradictions. According to this analytic orien- tation, each popular culture genre (e.g., rap music, romance novels, and crime lms) grapples with its own set of issues and develops a distinctive character in the process. Zombie studies scholars suggest the monster can be read as tracking a wide range of cultural, political, and economic anxieties of American society (Dendle 2007, 45). Kyle Bishop (2009, 18) similarly notes zombie cinema represents a stylized reaction to cultural consciousness and particularly to social and political injustices. Likewise, Muntean and Payne (2009, 240) add The zombie s basic ctional composition is determined by extant social horrors during its time of production. Scholars within this tradition argue that zombies not only textually respond to prescient social strife but numerically as well. That is, as Annalee Newitz (2009, 16) puts it, war and social upheaval cause spikes in zombie movie production. Playing off of cultural fears is not unique to zombies or even horror texts. Zombie studies scholars generally fail to specically pinpoint why the zombie is especially useful as a barometer of cultural anxiety(Dendle 2007, 45). It is suggested the zombies lack of clearly dened boundaries allows for the endogenous absorption of contemporaneous disquietude into the monsters texts (cf. Kaufman 2004). Zombies, therefore, provide indexes of how we collectively grappled with past (and present) social issues (e.g., Bishop (2009, 2010), Dendle (2007), and Russell (2006)). Researchers deploying these diachronic assertions tend to supply synchronic analyses of the monsters various phases of development as evidence. For instance, scholars responding to early voodoo-themed zombie lms reveal the creature as a complex monstrous canvass imbued with various messages ranging from Orientalist (re) imaginings of Caribbean (particularly Haitian) cultures for Anglo-American cinemagoing audiences (Aizenberg 1999; Bishop 2008; 2010, 37-93; Moreman 2010; Richardson 2010, 131-136; Russell 2006: 9-17) to observations of the diffuse despair felt by working-class Americans living in the depths of the Great Depression (Dendle 2007, 46-48; Matthews 2009: 60-68; Russell 2006: 20-27, Skal 2001: 168-169). Continuing this tradition, researchers note that zombie lms of the 1950s and 1960s came to represent fears associated with a loss of identity (Dendle 2001, 4-5; 2007, 49-50; McIntosh 2008, 7; Pulliam 2007,

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733; Russell 2006, 51-54) and the anxieties associated with nuclear radiation and the possi- bility of an apocalyptic future (Bishop 2010, 100-103; Russell 2006, 47). Night of the Living Dead has been read as providing a window into race relations (Harper 2005), a chronicle of the fall of the nuclear family (Dillard 1987), a testimony against the Vietnam War (Higashi 1990), and a nihilistic turn in countercultural ideology (Becker 2006) to name a few. Dawn of the Dead with its quartet of survivors barricaded inside a palatial mall only to have it turn into a hell offers clear indictment of our consumer culture (Bishop 2010, 151-157; Dendle 2001, 42-44; 2007, 51; McIntosh 2008, 9; Pulliam 2007, 735-736; Russell 2006, 91-96). Additionally, the zombies in Dawn of the Dead are said represent us, a theme that runs through many zombie studies (see especially Moreman and Rushton (2011)). Until the current resurgence of zombie culture, most scholars argue the paradigm cemented by Romeros original trilogy (e.g., Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead (1985)) remained intact (Bishop 2009, 2010; Kawin 2012; Muntean and Payne 2009; Russell 2006) until the events of 9/11 recalibrated the genre (Bishop 2009, Muntean and Payne 2009). Muntean and Payne (2009), for instance, argue 28 Days Later (2002) exhibits reactionary conservative ideology by positioning the hetero-normative nuclear family as the natural, essential, yet potentially vulnerable core of civilization, which must be protected by oppressive state apparatuses such as the military(249) and attributing the zombie menace to a few bad apples and/or rogue provocateurs. By way of contrast, Dawn of the Dead (2004) offers a more leftist text insofar as the cause of the zombie outbreak remains shrouded in mystery, the survivors form a non-hierarchical communal system wherein decisions are made collectively, and the failure of existing social structures to persist in the face of the problem (Muntean and Payne 2009, 249-254). Peter Dendle (2012, 5-6) rightly points out that analyses like the ones discussed above, tend to focus mostly on a handful of the most high-pro le movies movies which are culturally important by dint of their popularity, but which are not always representative of the broader genre. Ritualistic zombie studies remain vulnerable to empirical scrutiny, namely their assumptions to select certain examples as representative and regarding others as not. Such analyses favor the sampling of lms commensurate with the author s quest to demonstrate the zombie as an analog to contemporaneous fears. As an example, Kyle Bishop (2010, 181) handles a thrush low-budget straight-to-video zombie lms thusly, most of the zombie fare from the 1980s and 90s is lackluster at best, attempting little to no cultural work and providing scholars with almost nothing of substance to analyze. Likewise, ritualistic studies too often attempt to construct essentialized zombie ideal types (e.g., voodoo- themed zombies from the 1930s and 1940s, Romero-styled zombies, and post-9/11 rage zombies), often missing the diffuse application of the idea in other (con)texts (Hand 2011, Platts , Vials 2011). Sociologists analyzing lms have tended to solve the de nitional and selection problem by carefully explicating a population of pictures to be studied and examining each of them or constructing a sample (e.g., Hughey (2009), King (1999), and Tudor (1989)). Moreover, sociological analysis can problematize how zombies re ect fear by asking ve questions suggested by Brym (2008) and Sutherland and Feltey (2012, 14). (i) How [do zombie texts] re ect the social context? (ii) How [do zombie texts] distort social reality? (iii) To what degree [do zombie texts] shed light on common or universal social and human problems? (iv) To what degree [do zombie texts] provide evidence for or against sociological theory and research?and (v) To what degree [do zombie texts] connect biography, social structure, and history?In applying these questions, sociologists can provide enhanced perspective regard- ing whatzombie texts treat as social problems. Sociologists can ask what problems are addressed and what problems are not. Moreover, sociologists can also ask under what conditions

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certain problems are aired (e.g., LGBT-themed zombie lms are only released by low-budget, straight-to-video distributors). In providing context to text, sociologists can, likewise, unpack the signicance of the fact that the majority of zombie fare is produced by relatively privileged White men and what limits this entails on zombiesitinerary of terror. Although zombies are ctional, they comment and respond to the real (Muntean and Payne 2009). Sociologists examining seemingly racially progressive lms argue these supposedly viewer-friendly depictions of racial cooperation stem from deeply entrenched racial logics of contented Black servitude and White racial paternalism (Hughey 2012, 752). Popular culture tells us something about society; we can learn much about a culture by understanding how it scares itself and the zombie s blank slate is perfect for this endeavor. As one of the few places where we confront the dark side of human existence, zombies merit sociological investigation. The sociological lessons to be learned from the monsters our culture creates remain a disciplinary lacunae (but see Tudor (1989)); thus, it is one of the fruits to be gained from a sociology of zombies.

Producing zombie culture

Within zombie studies, examinations of the impact of productive milieu on content remain decidedly underdeveloped. This is likely due to the fact that the bulk of zombie studies emanate from scholars within the arts and humanities who tend to study extraordinary texts rather than the ordinary events of their creation (Moretti 2005, 3-4). Sociology is ideally positioned to address this issue with the production-of-culture perspective. Developed primarily by Richard A. Peterson in the 1970s (DiMaggio 2000), the production- of-culture perspective examines how culture is shaped by its systems of production. According to John Ryan (2007, 222), it focuses on the ways in which human beings organize the production of symbols (e.g., art, literature, music, and video) and how that organization of production affects the nature and content of what is produced. As mentioned above, the approach is primarily concerned with the transformative impact of law and regulation, market, organization structure, industry structure, technology, and occupational careers on cultural productions (for overviews, see Peterson and Anand (2004), Ryan (2007), and Lena ). While many point to the events of 9/11 as an explanation for the rise of zombie popular culture, Peter Dendle (2012: 7-8) notices

Images of destruction, plague, and civil collapse are especially poignant in the post-9/11 world, and its tempting to think of the zombie movie resurgence in the 2000s as a response to that event. But 28 Days Later was mostly shot before the attacks on the Twin Towers, and Resident Evil had been in the works since 1999.

Dendle (2012), in his admittedly non-systematic analysis of nearly 300 zombie lms produced between 2000 and 2010, also observes that explicit references to 9/11 are rare. Downplaying direct links between 9/11 and the current ux of current zombie cinema, Dendle (2012, 8) quips, if a number of zombie movies started to appear in 2002 and 2003, that means that many of them had been in the works for quite a while. In any event none of those early movies deal explicitly with 9/11 anxieties. Many of the elements said to correspond to post-9/11 anxieties were already built into the genre (Bishop 2009, Dendle 2012, Muntean and Payne 2009, 243). Changes in the systems of production lie behind the zombie s newfound popularity (cf. Anderson 2008, Lobato and Ryan 2011, Ryan and Hughes 2006). Peter Dendle (2012, 1-2) writes the current rush of

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zombie popular culture would not receive wide-scale distribution: the titles would never be picked up by Net ix of Amazon Instant Video or retail DVD companies. But independent lm distributors leap on zombie movies in a heartbeat, because they know there s a ready market. Dendle (2012, 4) also posits, one of the hallmarks of the twenty- rst century zombie is the proliferation of diverse media and narrative formats. Just as John Ryan and Michael Hughes (2006) studied the inuence of digital technology on music (self)-produc- tion, so too could sociologists examine the in uence of cheap digital cameras, desktop publishing software, internet retail, and e-begging on the current profusion of zombie

cinema and related culture. Specically utilizing the production-of-culture perspective, Todd Platts () in a study of 1930s and 1940s zombie cinema argues the oligopolized studios eschewed the Caribbean boogeyman because their industrial structures, organizational structures, (distribution) markets, and contrac- tual occupational structures favored presold properties such as Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) as opposed to unproven monsters such as the zombie. When the major studios did produce zombie lms (e.g., The Ghost Breakers (1940), I Walked with a Zombie, and Zombies on Broadway (1945)), the creature simply provided exploitable dressing for the real meat of the lm (with the notable exception of I Walked with a Zombie). Poverty Row studios, production companies existing on the periphery of the lmmaking industries, produced a rush of zombie-centered zombie lms after 1940 (e.g., King of the Zombies (1941), Revenge of the Zombies (1943), Voodoo Man (1944), Face of Marble (1946), and Valley of the Zombies (1946)),

in part, because the major studios signed an antitrust decree limiting the power of block book-

ing (the practice of selling groups of lm on an all-or-nothing basis). Poverty Row studios also distributed their lms through smaller provincial distribution channels allowing them to target niche audiences and genres generally disregarded by the majors. This set of circumstances inuenced their pursuance of zombie-centric zombie lms, but post-war conditions caused the studios to chase higher-budgeted product as the market for B-lms temporarily dissipated. Brad O Brien (2008), though not speci cally employing the production-of-culture approach, published a study bearing its hallmarks. Ritual approaches often explain Italian zombie cinema as a reverse af rmation of the Catholic faith (cf. Jones 1999, Toppe 2011). Challenging this idea, O Brien (2008) demonstrates how interorganizational decision chains played a greater role in formulating the Italian zombie cycle than a morbid reection of the Catholic faith. Speci cally, O Brien (2008, 56-57) remarks the rst outright Italian zombie lm was conceived as a quick way to cash in on the success of George Romero s Dawn of the Dead, which opened in Italy in 1978 and grossed a million dollars in a month and a half.

O Brien (2008, 59) furthers Italian studios are reluctant to fund genre lms unless they are

imitations of other genre lms whose success they can exploit and a successful genre lm

will inspire dozens of imitations until audiences get bored with the genre. Thus, it was the success of an American zombie lm, Dawn of the Dead , and industry gatekeepers response to it that spawned the Italian zombie lm, not simply a response to Catholic spiritual ontology. In addition to production-of-culture analyses, ethnographic studies akin to Gitlin (2000) and Grindstaff (2002) can provide us with a thickly descriptive assessment of the strategies and rationales behind the production of zombie-related culture. Robert Kapsis s (2009) sociological study of slasher lms, for example, details how Fear No Evil (1981) started out

as a love story and wound up a horror lm when Avco Embassy determined the lm could

sell better by injecting slasher-like elements into it. According to director Frank La Loggia,

Horror lms were doing very well and we were looking for a rst project that our money people could get behind, and so we developed an idea for a horror fantasy, approached them with that, and were able to raise about a million dollars (quoted in Kapsis 2009, 8).

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Such short-term economic logic lies behind numerous zombie efforts as well. Christine Parker director of Fistful of Brains (2009) revealed, I would like to do something other than zombie movies right now but our fans are demanding more zombie movies so well keep making them (quoted in Dead Harvey ). Similarly, recent trends that import the theoretical developments of the sociology of science and technology into the sociology of popular culture demonstrate how cultural productions serve as actants that mediate the collective relations of their production and transformation (see especially Strandvad (2012)). John Russo (1985), co-writer and actor in Night of the Living Dead , for example, divulges how the lm went through various iterations as the cast and crew responded to a welter of productive limitations and the emerging lm itself. Comparable studies on the production of zombie-themed video games would also provide invaluable insights. Production-based studies remind us of the fact that conventions dictate what iterations are deemed appropriate in various cultural expressions and the importance and in uence of interorganizational decision chains within companies in determining what expressions of culture reach a mainstream audience (Hirsch 1972, Bielby and Bielby 1994, Rossman 2012). A focus on production, thus, provides a more resolute picture of how zombies capture the reverberations of social ills. The application of the production-of-culture perspective in the study of lm and video games, in general, remains underdeveloped (Neale 2000, 254- 255; Nowell 2012). Looking at the production of zombie-themed movies and video games offers an opportunity to extend the approach beyond its traditional purview of music (Dowd 2004, Roy and Dowd 2010) and literature (Griswold 1993, Isaac 2009), and, thus, add new perspective to old debates (Platts ).

Consuming zombie culture

Given that products containing the zombie s likeness are produced as consumer goods, it is surprising to note that audience consumption and reception is the least developed area in zombie studies. While many academics read zombies as advancing leftist critiques of society writ large, sociologists note the way people view/perceive the world relies on background assumptions (Gouldner 1970) and arises from the intersection of the social groups in which they are embedded (Brekhus 2007, Zerubavel 1997). If we are to understand the signicance of zombie culture, understanding audience consumption and response is central because the meanings derived from culture and the means to which they are employed depend on consumers, not creators. This lack of audience information renders zombie studies incom- plete. Numerous social scienti c studies uncover counterintuitive responses from audiences. JoEllen Shively (1992), for instance, discovered that both Anglo-Americans and Native Americans enjoy westerns, but for different reasons. Native Americans identied with the cowboy way of life which they associated with freedom and independence and the setting of the lm. Anglos also enjoyed the scenery but identied the cowboy as a link to their own historical identity. Educated Native Americans rejected the lms for their stereo- typical portrayals of Native Americans. In their audience study of All in the Family , Neil Vidmar and Milton Rokeach (1974) found that viewers with less racial prejudices envisioned the show as satirizing Archie Bunker s reactionary understanding of the world (an interpre- tation shared by the show s producers), but audience members with high levels of prejudice regarded Archie as the hero and appreciated that he aired their sentiments on national television. In these and other studies, audiences (re)interpret texts to t their interests (Fiske 1989), and we can expect similar patterns in the consumption of zombie culture. Questions regarding the ultimate lessons of zombie narratives to their consumers remain unanswered. Most academics read them as leftist and subversive texts, but do viewers?

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Viewers may enjoy the gore effects and little else. Likewise, how do audiences understand the apparent collapse of society in zombie texts? As a call for rugged individualism and an echoing of the Reaganite sentiment that the government is the problem? Or an indict- ment of our social institutions that construct and perpetuate hierarchies of (dis)privilege? Peter Dendle (2012, 9) nds prima facie evidence for right-wing reactionary readings of zombie lms, the gun fetishism in survivalist message boards on zombie forums is striking, with users posting jpegs of their personal arsenals, and discussing in highly technical detail the advantages of different weapons for different scenarios. Likewise, Ned Vizzini (2011) distils an Ayn Randian objectivist reading of Rick Grimes, the primary protagonist for The Walking Dead comic book series and television series. As consumers come to texts, they carry the baggage of their demographic prole (nationality, ethnicity, gender, age, race, sexuality, etc.) and the signicance their society tells them those socially constructed categories have, social networks, and personal idiosyncrasies which form interpretative communities (Zerubavel 1997) and horizons of expectations (Fish 1980). These communities provide the tools for interacting with texts that elicit or enhance certain readings of them. Survey and interview methods would allow for an understanding of how audiences interpret zombie popular culture and the ways in which they relate them to their own experi- ence(s). Unfortunately, zombie studies largely ignore viewers and their associated experiences and motives, but sociology can provide a remedy for this neglect. With many zombie texts released internationally, it would be interesting to analyze cross-national reviews of them to distil collectivized nationalistic differences in reading the texts as discovered by Griswold (1987b) and van Venrooij (2011). In similar studies, Liebes and Katz (1993) found cross- national differences in viewers of Dallas, while Michelle et al. (2012) discovered likewise for readings of Avatar (2009), do such differences exist in zombie culture? In addition to gauging responses to texts, sociologists should also assess enactments of the living dead as seen in zombie protest walks or games such as Humans vs. Zombies. Zombie walks, in particular, are important social movements that help spread awareness of local and global issues; the major theme at Zombie Walk Detroit 2012 was Walk Against Hunger. Sociological inquiry into these large events and the logics of their organizers can uncover the (f)utility and ironies of employing zombies in such causes.


The overview of zombie popular culture discussed in this essay only scratches the surface. Other nodal points untouched in this essay include the broader relation of the zonbi to Haitian culture which would be of interest to Caribbean sociology or sociologists specializing in globalization; the Centers for Disease Control and Developments description of Zombie Preparednesswhich may interest scholars in the sociology of health or disasters, and the history of zombie comic books which might pique sociologists of culture. Either way, sociology can contribute

a great deal to zombie studies and vice versa. Analyses of production and consumer interaction

with the resulting culture can extend and build upon existing literature. Sociologists can provide

important perspective regarding how zombie culture reects, challenges, and perpetuates existing inequalities, particularly in respect to race, class, gender, and sexuality. A critical under- standing of the impact of social structure on popular culture would add another dimension to the study of zombie culture, continuing traditions on culture that demonstrate how cultural objects have much to tell about social life, values, and ideologies. The issues covered in this review encompass a wide array of sociological traditions, meaning a sociology of zombie culture has the potential to integrate disparate sociological elds in unique and exciting ways; it requires

a multipronged sociological toolkit to unpack.

Locating Zombies 557

Short Biography

Todd K. Platts is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Missouri. His research interests include media sociology, the sociology of popular culture, cultural sociology, and the sociology of race. His forthcoming publication The Undead of Hollywood and Poverty Row: The In uence of Studio Era Industrial Patterns on Zombie Film Production, 1932 1946 which will appear in The Merchants of Menace : The Business of Cinema investigates the industrial genesis and development of zombie cinema. He has also published in Sociology Compass .


* Correspondence address: Todd K. Platts, Department of Soc iology, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO, 2512 Manor Road, York, PA 17408. E-mail:


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