Coffin-Table Book Joy: A Review of Zombies! An Illustrated History of the Undead, by Jovanka Vuckovic

If you want to be prepared when World War Z finally kicks off—or if you’re wondering the best way to repurpose a lawnmower when your house is invaded by the living dead—then you need to make one new addition to your survival library: Zombies! An Illustrated History of the Undead, a comprehensive survey of the most active corpses in pop culture, by genre expert Jovanka Vuckovic.

Vuckovic begins with the fascinating cultural history of the zombie, detailing its appearances in African folktales and myth; its eventual transportation to Haiti and its significance in voodoo (or voudoun) practices; and its introduction to American culture—through travelogues, magazine articles, and works of fiction. This is an intriguing aspect of the subgenre that is largely absent from more recent (and arguably more familiar) depictions of the zombie apocalypse, but Vuckovic’s solid research (and recipe for zombie voodoo powder!) provides an interesting shuffling-off point for those wanting to know more.

The majority of the book, of course, details the more well-known manifestations of zombies in popular culture: on film, in books, in video games, in comics and graphic novels—even, disturbingly enough, in porn. As the author herself says in the introduction, it’s impossible, in a 178-page book, to cover every instance of the shuffling undead, but by gum, she has a jolly good crack at it. For example, in her survey of zombie movies (especially those that came B.R.—Before Romero), she reviews many flicks  that don’t contain the now-familiar apocalypse scenario, but do feature reanimated or revived corpses (from the 1933 Boris Karloff vehicle The Ghoul to Pakistani director Omar Khan’s 2007 Hell’s Ground, featuring villagers “zombified” by drinking tainted water). This broader focus occasionally feels a little loose, but does have the massive advantage of introducing readers to works they may not have come across before—and Vuckovic has definitely done zombie fans everywhere a favour by clearly identifying the dregs of the subgenre so they don’t end up suffering through them by mistake. (Uwe Boll’s House of the Dead, anyone?)

This book is, overall, a celebration, and the author’s expertise and love for the genre shine through in the writing (readers able finish her review of Bob Clark’s Deathdream without feeling the urge to watch/rewatch it may well be undead already)—and one of its strengths is the analysis of how the zombie myth has shifted over the years in order to reflect the most prevalent current fears in society—be they loss of individuality, disease, technology, or even, most simply and most frighteningly, other people. This enthusiastic and comprehensive book—which is also filled with hundreds of full-colour reproductions of stills, movie posters, and concept art—is a coffin-table book to be savoured, along with a nice cold pint, while you’re waiting for the zombie apocalypse to blow over.

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