Zombies: A Cultural History, by Roger Luckhurst

One thing can definitely be said about this new biography of one of horror’s most scary phenomena: it does what it says on the tin. Luckhurst showcases his epic amount of research, compiling zombie knowledge that spans well over a century. Starting by revealing the origins of the word (originally zombi), the book moves through intriguing areas such as the strong connections of zombies to voodoo, zombies as a metaphor for black people under imperial rule, and even cases of ‘real life’ zombies. Luckhurst also takes a close look at everything fictional zombies have been involved in. This includes the wild array of pulp fiction from the 20s and 30s, the first zombie flick (The White Zombie from 1932) and many, many more films that followed, and even the ridiculous number of video games that feature this stumbling menace. All in all, the book covers the evolution of a creature that started as a synonym for a Haitian ghost, and has ended up as the brain-eating member of the undead that we know (and love) today.

Luckhurst’s book succeeds in the first and the most interesting few anecdotes of each chapter. Unfortunately, the writing gives legions of examples of the same thing, over and over again. If the book were on trial, the crime would certainly be the vast amount of name-dropping, as Luckhurst jumps wildly from person to person, explaining how each and every one had at least some tiny contribution to this history. While some might see this as a compliment, congratulating the writer on the attention to detail, it in fact makes for a dull and repetitive read. It is not something that is easy to sink your teeth into, a cynical view being that the book is no more than a large pile of zombie trivia cards held together with sellotape.

The overarching flaw with this book is the fact that the zombie field is a rather limited one. Zombies suffer the same fate as mummies, Frankenstein’s monster, and werewolves, in that what they are is extremely well defined. There is little or no room for improvisation in fiction. Yes, the writer can alter the location, the situation, or even the speed the zombies attack, but the fundamentals never change. This separates the monster from other creatures such as vampires or ghosts, where there is quite a lot that can be amended to make them more interesting. Just think of the ridiculous number of vampire movies and novels out there, covering everything from gory horror to forbidden love, and even existential reflection. Zombie fiction, on the other hand, seems to stick almost exclusively to the realm of survival thrillers. It is because of this that Luckhurst’s book gets bogged down with examples that all seem to sound the same after a while.

An interesting topic, but Luckhurst doesn’t make it easy for his readers. Instead, he gives us a 200 page book that could have been remarkably shorter, the gist which could be gleamed from just a few pages of each chapter.


Dan Sareen


Featured image from New York Post. 

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