How to Navigate the Undead Apocalypse

Stacey Abbott discusses the role that vampires and zombies play in 21st century culture
Stacey Abbott, Undead Apocalypse: Vampires and Zombies in the 21st century (EUP, 2016)

Recent decades have brought an increasing preoccupation with the gothic figure of the vampire and the apocalyptic zombie. Rather than reading them in opposition to each other, Stacey Abbott traces the similar places they hold our collective imagination. Through a series of engaging and incisive readings encompassing film, television, literature, and pop culture of the 20th and early 21st century, Abbott examines our fascination with these monstrous creatures and the cultural anxieties that they reveal. Undead Apocalypse delineates a contemporary canon of vampire and zombie texts to shed new light on our present historical moment, and the ‘culture of apocalypse’ that surrounds us.

I caught up with Stacey Abbott to discuss her book, published by Edinburgh University Press in September 2016. She shares her personal interest in vampire and zombie texts; what she considers the classics of the genre; and her thoughts on the proliferation of apocalyptic narratives across graphic novels, video games, and cosplay. With critical precision and a fan’s enthusiasm for the subject, Abbott offers a guide to navigating the impending undead apocalypse.

What led you to write Undead Apocalypse?

My first book, Celluloid Vampires, was a study of how vampire mythology from folklore and literature had evolved through its adoption into the cinema in the 20th Century. The book covered films up until about 2002. After I finished the book, there was an explosion of interest in the vampire across literature, film and television, largely through the phenomenal success of the Twilight franchise but also television series such as True Blood and The Vampire Diaries. Vampires had become blockbuster material with more people engaging with vampires then I had ever seen before. But despite their popularity (or perhaps because of it), I was repeatedly confronted by students and colleagues who would say that vampires weren’t scary anymore; that they had been robbed of what made them mysterious, frightening, or meaningful by being rendered safe and romantic. They had effectively been neutered. This didn’t sit well with my experience of watching vampire films such as Daybreakers, 30 Days of Night, Stakeland, or Let the Right One In. I began thinking that there was something else going on within the vampire film that no-one was talking about as vampires seemed to be becoming increasingly monstrous in some texts; at times even apocalyptic.

“So there seemed to be a renewed interest in the apocalypse and these were increasingly linked to notions of the undead.”

At the same time, the zombie was undergoing its own renaissance on film with the huge success of the Resident Evil franchise, 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead and George Romero’s return to the genre with Land of the Dead. So there seemed to be a renewed interest in the apocalypse and these were increasingly linked to notions of the undead. Also many fans and scholars feel very strongly that these monsters are unrelated, often oppositional, but I could see so many connections, particularly with the rise of the sympathetic zombie in texts such as Warm Bodies and In the Flesh, who seemed to be modelled on the sympathetic vampire. I felt I had to explore these connections. So the idea for the book started with challenging the notion that vampires weren’t scary anymore but also exploring the increasingly complex narratives that were emerging under the banner of the zombie.

Is there a difference between a zombie and a vampire?

There are a lot of differences and similarities between zombies and vampires and a lot of variation, depending upon the source material.  Their origins are of course quite different, with vampires emerging out of European folklore and Victorian literature like Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla (1872) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), while zombies are generally viewed as a monster of the Americas, appearing in folklore primarily coming out of Haiti in the 19th and early 20th Century, and later reinvented in the cinema through the work of George Romero.  But generally, zombies and vampires are both the reanimated dead and they feed off the living; the zombie eats flesh while the vampire drinks blood.  The zombie as we know it, however, is usually depicted as a corpse, showing all the signs of how it died (scars, missing limbs, even autopsy incisions) and it also often shows the signs of decomposition. The zombie confronts us with the horrors of death. They are also usually presented as mindless and lacking of individual identity, travelling in hordes and driven by hunger.

A vampire, however, is depicted as more supernatural. They are the dead returned to a seemingly living state but without evidence of their death. They do not embody the fear of death as much as the allure of a corporeal afterlife at the expense of the soul. They embody the promise of immortality; a corporeal existence in which they have lost all of their human imperfections, and are, usually, more beautiful or sexually attractive than ever before. But this immortality comes at a price; their soul…and the fact that they must feed off the living to maintain their immortality and beauty.  Of course, these distinctions aren’t always so clear cut and many films in recent years have deliberately blurred the lines between the two figures. So vampires in Daybreakers lose their individual identities and their attractive appearance while they regress to a more primitive state when they are starved of blood.  In Warm Bodies, the zombie R is the narrator of the film and his narration allows him to stand apart from the hordes of zombies and reflect upon his undead existence.

Do you consider any films, books, or TV shows as “classic” or “canonical” texts of the genre?

I would say that the most canonical text in relation to the films that I am writing about would be Richard Matheson’s novella I Am Legend. This book, published in 1954, was a post-apocalyptic narrative about the potential extinction of humanity when a virus spreads across the globe that transforms all of humanity, except for one man, into vampires. This book deconstructs vampirism through the language of science and transforms the threat of the vampire from one Dracula-like creature infiltrating human society into to a global viral threat. In this manner, humanity is not at risk of infiltration but rather the novel explores the possibility of the end of humanity and the replacement of human society by a new society – that of the vampire.

“I would say that the most canonical text in relation to the films that I am writing about would be Richard Matheson’s novella I Am Legend

Another key text would be George Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, which Romero claims was influenced by I Am Legend, in which he re-imagines Matheson’s vampires as undead corpses risen from the grave who hunger for human flesh. This continues to be the model for the modern day zombie film, although there can be variation in terms of whether they move fast or shamble slowly. There is much debate by fans about this distinction. Finally, I would add Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, which is a significant text because it gave the vampire a voice, allowing him to tell his own story and rendering him more sympathetic. It wasn’t the first text to do this but it was very successful and therefore highly influential. The notion of the vampire, and now zombie, narrator draws extensively from Rice’s work, and so we see echoes of Rice within films and TV series such as Byzantium, In the Flesh, and Warm Bodies. 

Undead representations have moved beyond page and screen to graphic novels, video games, zombie walks and cosplay. What do you make of this proliferation?

It is amazing, isn’t it? Zombie walks or runs seems to happen everywhere these days; and there is a proliferation of zombie and vampire toys, jewellery and T-shirts.  When we talk about the undead, it is easy to focus on the notion of how they embody cultural anxieties, which I think that they do in many ways as I discuss in the book. But it is easy to forget that vampires and zombies are also fun. I saw a great T-shirt once that said, ‘the hardest part of the zombie apocalypse will be pretending I’m not excited’. I think that this expresses how a lot of fans feel. Now this doesn’t mean that fans have a death wish or an apocalypse-fetish. But there is something exhilarating about playacting as a survivor of the zombie apocalypse, fighting for your ‘life’ within a safe environment such as the immersive theatre production Generation of Z, zombie chase game 2.8 hours later or even the 28 Days Later Secret Cinema – all of which I have done. It is about confronting fears and coming out on top or perhaps being turned into a zombie which also has its own fun. Dressing up or acting out (through video games, zombie walks, vampire clubs, or zombie runs) as vampires and zombies, allows us to take control of these narratives by confronting fears of death; by, in effect, dressing up as death. It has also been used to acknowledge how modern society makes us feel like zombies some of the time. This has been a theme in the USA during many student protests against changes to education. It is a very useful metaphor.

What’s your take on the resurgence of the vampire in popular culture?

Vampires have always been popular. They embody our fears and desires. They are the ultimate embodiment of the factor that underpins so much gothic and horror literature, cinema and television, which is the attraction/repulsion duality. In recent years, however, it has become even more popular than ever, largely through the association with fictions of Dark Romance. On a practical level, I think that the huge popularity of this fiction, whether in written or film/televisual form, is that they are targeting an audience that is often ignored within popular media (until recently) which is young women. Part of their appeal is linked to how they have been used to explore women’s desires and sexuality in rather provocative, at times controversial, ways.  This popularity has also led to the cross-over appeal of the genre so vampires are now the subject of many art-house films such as Only Lovers Left Alive, Let the Right One In, Thirst, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night and What We Do In the Shadows – films from across the globe that offer fresh, psychologically complex, and unusual approaches to the genre. It is a very exciting time for the vampire.

Do you think we live in a ‘culture of apocalypse’?

I do. In the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer a character tells Buffy that since he met her, he has had to learn the plural of apocalypse and this sums up how I feel about the world we live in today. It isn’t that  there are more threats facing us today. I grew up in the 1980s under the threat of nuclear war and during the original AIDS crisis. Those were apocalyptic times as well.  Richard Matheson wrote I Am Legend in the 1950s, in the wake of the second world war and the Atomic bombings in Japan and in the early days of the Cold war…clearly apocalyptic.  What I think characterises contemporary culture is that it seems that we are being bombarded by a series of different global threats on a regular basis. The most obvious one is terrorism which looms large, but there is also the threat of disease such as the Zika virus most recently, but also Ebola, H1N1, and SARS. There is global warming, natural disasters, economic crises, wars in the Middle East. Even contemporary politics has an apocalyptic edge at the moment; the battles being fought are presented as if the status quo is hanging in the balance.  All of these global events are being reported on a 24hour news cycle by contemporary media which is intently focused upon the language of crisis. All of this has contributed to this apocalyptic culture.  I think that is why there is such a prevalence of apocalyptic narratives as they help us negotiate these anxieties as a form of catharsis; taking us as an audience to the edge of apocalypse or beyond to confront our fears.  But they also undermine this crisis culture by, perhaps, finding the fun in it.

What can undead narratives tell us about our anxieties surrounding science and technology?

Following on from Richard Matheson’s work, the contemporary undead, vampire and zombie, is increasingly represented as the product of either a viral outbreak (often human-made) or genetic engineering. At a basic level they remind us of the degree to which the global community is connected and offer a cautionary tale as to what could happen if such a virus were allowed to spiral out of control.  Where realist films such as Contagion, can only take this narrative so far, the undead apocalypse can take us over and into the abyss. Furthermore, it can remind us of the risks of scientific experiments that might change us irrevocably. Zombies are often the product of scientific experimentation as in 28 Days Later or the merging of science and capitalism, along with the military, as in Resident Evil.  These narratives are overtly pre-occupied by what it means to be human as we and the world around us change incessantly. These are important questions to keep asking.

I’m interested in your concept of the ‘Hybrid Hero’. Could you say a little more about that?

The Hybrid Hero is the corollary to the way in which the genre explores fears of science by actually celebrating the potential within science to spark leaps within human evolution, changing humanity potentially for the better. In writing the book, I began to notice that the heroes of many vampire and zombie films and TV series, were often presented as a hybrid of human and vampire or zombie. From Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who discovers that the Slayer line grew out of the merging of a human girl with a demon, to Blade in the Blade franchise, who is half-human/half-vampire, or even Alice in the Resident Evil films who is infected with same virus that created the zombies. In each of these cases, the fusion of human with elements of the undead, made them strong, powerful and the potential saviour – or even future – of humanity. They embody what is often described as the post-human or trans-human, in that they are more than human and this is the source of their strength. They are also often presented as cyborgs, not dependent on technology in such a way as to diminish their humanity, but rather as a creative fusion of human and machine, in which physical existence is enhanced by the use of technology.  These texts are, therefore, ambivalent about the potential of science and technology to change humanity and society. It can be good and it can be a danger so it needs to be managed.

I think that the Hybrid Hero also opens up these texts to discussions about race and outmoded notions of ‘racial purity’. Franchises like the Blade and Underworld films seem to celebrate hybridity over purity as a source of strength, with only the outmoded vampire elders holding onto notions around the purity of the vampire blood. I think these are important debates in a world that seems increasingly pre-occupied with boundaries rather than with cultural fusion.

What kind of challenges do you think researchers face when analysing or appraising popular and contemporary culture?

One of the challenges of appraising contemporary culture is having sufficient distance to position the texts within contexts that impact upon their cultural meaning. It is hard to see the big picture, if you are standing in the middle of it. You have to work hard to get a bit of distance. It is also challenging to avoid becoming so focused upon one cultural interpretation, such as reading the undead apocalypse through the prism of 9/11, that you don’t think about other factors that might also be influential.

“I find popular culture speaks to who we are at any  given time and that is why it is so important.”

There are a lot of prejudices against studying popular culture and it can be challenging to get people to take the work seriously. People are always interested in my research but they can think it is a little strange…macabre even, given my taste for studying horror.  But I find popular culture speaks to who we are at any  given time and that is why it is so important.

Did you come across any shocks or surprises during the course of preparing the book?

When I began researching the book, I thought I would grow tired of zombie films as I presumed that they would all be the same. But I was so surprised by the creativity and diversity of the zombie films, TV series and books I examined. From Max Brooks’ World War Z and Darren Shan’s Zom-B series to the wonderfully provocative and daring British television series In the Flesh to the recent film The Girl With all of the GiftsThe Girl With all of the Gifts – zombie texts are creative and insightful explorations of what it means to be human.  I’ve always loved vampire texts but I was delighted about what I found when researching zombies.

“[…] when I was researching Matheson’s I Am Legend and proposed plans to adapt the novel into a film at Hammer Studios in the 1950s, I was surprised by the cultural and institutional prejudices against the horror genre as expressed by critics and censors in this period”

Also, when I was researching Matheson’s I Am Legend and proposed plans to adapt the novel into a film at Hammer Studios in the 1950s, I was surprised by the cultural and institutional prejudices against the horror genre as expressed by critics and censors in this period. While I was not surprised that there was some resistance to the genre becoming more graphic and ‘realistic’, I was shocked by the manner in which the genre was perceived as vulgar, exploitative and the entertainment of the disenfranchised and the sadistic.  I shouldn’t have been surprised because many people today still consider the genre to be frivolous and meaningless. But to me horror is quite the opposite. It is a very significant genre that can be insightful, provocative and transgressive. It constantly surprises me.

What’s next for you?

Well I am still really interested in the horror genre across film and television and I think my next project will be focused around the television series Hannibal. I am fascinated by how Bryan Fuller – whose work I love – approached adapting the Thomas Harris novels and the subsequent films to television through this series. It took a very innovative – near avant-garde –  approach to the horror genre for television.  I also feel like I have only scratched the surface of the zombie on television and hope to come back to this subject and write about shows such as iZombie and The Walking Dead as it continues to unfold.  There is so much more to talk about.

Undead Apocalypse: Vampires and Zombies in the 21st Century is published by Edinburgh University Press.

About the Author

Stacey Abbott is a film and television scholar at the University of Roehampton. Her research focuses on the horror genre and the gothic in film and television, with a particular specialism in both vampires and zombies.

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