If you ever needed a reason to barricade yourself into your local bookstore with a plentiful supply of sandwiches and a cricket bat, here it is: on March 15, Zombies: An Illustrated History of the Undead, lurches onto shelves across North America. Featuring a foreword by quintessential zombie-flick director George A. Romero, the book is the latest project from the brrrrrraaaaain of writer, filmmaker, and genre expert Jovanka Vuckovic, who was recently voted one of the Thirteen Most Influential Women in Horror.
Vuckovic was approached by her publisher, St. Martin’s Press, to write the book over a year and a half ago. “Most authors usually have to do the pitching, and it often takes years to get the attention of a major publisher,” she says. “ I figured it was an opportunity I couldn’t resist.” She put together a sample book layout and design, signed the deal—and then got pregnant. “From there it was a mad dash to get the book researched and written in about three months,” she says. “I’m glad I did it but I’ll never research, write and source images for an entire book in my last trimester of pregnancy again.” And how did she get Romero to come on board to write the foreword? “That was the easiest part,” she says. “ I just asked him. He turned in a fun introduction that really suits the book. That guy cracks me up, man.”
The book covers the entire gamut of zombies in pop culture—books, movies, comics, video games, zombie walks and more—starting with the origins of the zombie myth, which was brought to Haiti by transported African slaves. “From there,” she says, “the zombie found its way into early literature—i.e. Poe, Lovecraft, Arabian Nights—via travelogues and eventually the pulps, and it was one of these early travelogues that actually served as the inspiration for a play called White Zombie, which was of course made into a film.” Vuckovic then covers a decade at a time, examining key milestones in zombie movie history (“That’s where the undead are most prolific,” she says) and then considers more recent infestations—including zombie porn. (Rule 34 is not so much alive and well, but undead and frisky, apparently.)
Most, if not all, monster myths reflect the insecurities and underlying fears of the society that produces them, and zombies are no exception. In fact, in the forty-odd years since Night of the Living Dead, zombies have been used to explore and speculate on a plethora of social ills and human-created disasters. “While writing this book it became really clear that the zombie is perhaps the most malleable movie monster in history,” says Vuckovic. “[The zombie] has symbolized so many different things—most often associated with socio-political anxieties of the decade in which it appeared. It has been a symbol of slavery, nuclear anxiety, alien invasion, brainwashing, environmental catastrophe, disease, war, loss of personal autonomy, and so on.”
“ In the case of Night of the Living Dead,” Vuckovic points out, “it’s chiefly a critique of American authority and its involvement in the Vietnam war. But if you are looking at a zombie movie from the 1930s, you’d likely see zombies that are deeply rooted in their Haitian origins. In the 50s, you see humans replaced by emotionless alien impostors in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In the 1980s, more people became zombies as a result of toxic spills than any other. As times change, so do the undead. They’re pretty hip that way.”
The first decade of the twenty-first century also saw an explosion of zombie comedies, although Vuckovic is quick to point out that the first zombie comedy was actually The Ghost Breakers from 1940, starring Bob Hope. But has the proliferation of zombie comedies in recent years made zombies less scary? “Zombies were their scariest in the 1970s before Dan O’Bannon gave them a voice in Return of the Living Dead,” says Vuckovic. “That was a turning point for the zombie. Not only did they start cracking jokes, they also earned their famous battle cry here: ‘Braaaaains!’ This made the creature more likeable and thereby, less scary. So I’d say yes, zombie comedies definitely make zombies less scary! No one’s afraid of the zombies in say, Fido or Zombieland, but I can tell you I have met people who’ve had nightmares about Lucio Fulci’s zombies for years.”
There’s an argument to be made that zombies are more prevalent in movies and comic books because their lack of interiority and ferocious, unwavering instinct to consume human flesh can work better in visual media than in print. But Vuckovic has listed over one hundred essential works of zomb-lit in the book, citing Max Brooks, David Wellington, and Brian Keene among the must-read authors. “I do think John Skipp and Craig Spector were responsible for paving the way with their anthology Book of the Dead,” she says. “Every zombie fan should have a copy of that book on their shelves… But personally, one of my favourite zombie tales has got to be The Damnation Game, by Clive Barker. It is a must-read.”
Vuckovic is definitely planning more books, both fiction and non-fiction—but for the time being, she’s focussing on her first horror fantasy film, The Captured Bird, which she describes as “inspired a bit by Lovecraft, a bit by Hans Christian Anderson and a bit by a paranormal phenomenon my twin brother experienced called The Shadow People.” The film has garnered buzz from horror luminaries such as Stuart Gordon, Mick Garris, and John Landis, and has been snapped up by several international film festivals—all before shooting, which is scheduled to take place in early summer this year. Fans can follow the progress of the movie at www.thecapturedbird.com. But Vuckovic has no plans to give up the written word any time soon. “I can’t stop writing,” she says. “It’s in my blood.”