I am a shameless zombie lover. Zombie books, zombie movies, zombie pub crawls, puppies dressed as zombies, zombies dressed as babies, whatever. I don’t get sick of anything related to the zombie genre. I’ve seriously tried. When I worked at my local video store (RIP Westside Video), I rented every single zombie movie in the store just to see if the formula ever changed. It didn’t, but neither did my love of all things room temperature and hungry. Hell, I’m even writing an epic, nine hour long zombie movie trilogy that five people will probably like. I spend lots and lots of my spare time thinking about zombies and new and innovative ways to make them not only scary, but a credible filmic threat, as well. Zombies! An Illustrated History of the Undead was written and compiled for people like me; people who know a shitty zombie movie when they see it, but (most of the time) still find at least one thing to love anyway.
I knew I was in good hands after reading the introduction by the book’s author, Jovanka Vuckovic when she (correctly) calls out Jesus as being the most popular zombie in the western world after his resurrection by the Easter Bunny or however that story goes (that was in Aesop’s Fables, right?). She has a good sense of humor and a very obvious and heartfelt adoration for the genre and never stoops to thinly veiled cynicism or ridicule when delving into the subject matter. It honestly reminded me of Outlaw Vern’s book Seagology, where he takes a truly ludicrous subject like Steven Seagal and gives a very in depth analysis of the themes of his entire body of work. Both books make you laugh your ass off, but also take the subject seriously enough to actually teach you a few things about them.
The book is structured perfectly with the first chapter dedicated to the Haitian origins of the zombie and how the legend of it grew into the zombie genre that George Romero (who also wrote the foreward) eventually created the rules for. I had never heard of the author Patrick Hearn, whose 1889 essay “Country of the Comers-Back” was the first recorded study of the zombie and it’s habits. I’ve ordered some of his work from my neighborhood socialist information gathering station (library) and am looking forward to delving into the life of this man who went to Martinique to write books about the local culture, only to become enraptured by the local tales of of the “corps cadavers” who walked the Earth. Since he had no first hand encounters, Hearn left Martinique frustrated and unsure of the existence of zombies, and it wasn’t until William Buehler Seabrook’s arrival in Haiti in 1928 (and his subsequent novel The Magic Island) that zombies became part of the cultural lexicon. The only reason I knew about Seabrook is because The Magic Island was eventually turned into the 1932 movie White Zombie, which was America’s first zombie film. I don’t consider it the world’s first zombie movie because I always felt The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1919) was at heart a zombie film without the undead aspect. That’s just me, though.
Zombies! then moves further and further into the future a decade at a time, examining the seminal works that came out of each era and sometimes dedicates several pages just to one film that was of historical importance to the genre (I love that I’m talking about historical importance and zombies in the same sentence right now). Naturally, there’s an entire chapter dedicated to the Romero Zombie and it’s relevance to the genre that’s still as important today. Look, I know the man has made some stinkers over the last few years, but you have to admire a man who dedicates almost his entire career to one genre, even if that genre likes human flesh. I’m pretending Bruiser didn’t exist but will admit Knightriders is kind of a miracle.
What I’ve failed to mention up until this point is the artwork and images of Zombies!. Who wants to read words about also other words? This book promises to be an illustrated history and it delivers on that promise a thousandfold. From Dr. Caligari all the way to [REC] 2, it covers original poster designs, iconic images and behind the scenes footage to tell the tale of the zombie through the years. It’s also interesting how the further into the book you get, the more gruesome and horrific the images are (or would be to someone who didn’t grow up on this shit). To see the stark and lovely black and white images of Bela Lugosi in White Zombie and then a few pages later stumbling across Robert (Motherfucking) Z’Dar as the titular Maniac Cop is kind of a wonderful feeling. Never has a genre provided such choices for our viewing pleasure.
Jovanka Vuckovic’s prose is clean and understated, without ever giving in to the temptation of getting flowery about her subject. She truly comes across as a horror expert (as the back cover reminds us) who loves the genre dearly and thinks it’s worth compiling into a 176 page love letter to all things zombie. In the introduction she tells us that the book is not meant to be an end all-be all encyclopedia of the undead, but she comes very close to succeeding in that regard. If there were a few more pages dedicated to Return of the Living Dead (my personal favorite), Dead Alive and Dellamorte Dellamore it would be close to perfect, but a large chunk of the 1990’s and 2000’s chapters of the book are given over to the resurrection of the genre with 28 Days Later and Resident Evil. I know it’s an important part of the zombie legacy and 28 Days Later is undoubtedly a classic, but with all the time given over to the revival, I felt like a small but terrific chunk of the history breezed by too fast. But that’s a fault of my own expectations and not of the book itself. I just really like zombie movies from the 80’s and 90’s.
Like I said up top, this book was written for people like me who are still obsessed with the genre and have a deep affection for even the worst that Hollywood shits out (although that remake of Day of the Dead with Ving Rhames and Forehead Suvari can fuck itself). If that sounds like you or someone you love then you should get all over this book like it was candy flavored brains or brains covered in candy. I don’t know which, I’m no expert. What I do know is that the undead will become popular again and when that time comes this book will make a perfect primer for the next generation of zombie nerds who get to watch films like Return of the Living Dead and Re-Animator for the first time. How lucky they are.
This book is available from St. Martin’s Griffen and can be purchased through Amazon here!