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Zombies change to keep up with the times, professor writes

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

LAWRENCE – A University of Kansas researcher is writing a book on the proliferation of zombie TV shows, scheduled to come out in 2022 in publisher McFarland’s Contributions to Zombie Studies series.

“We deal with our fears by having it on screen,” said Paul Scott, associate professor of French. 

Earlier this year, Scott published the article “From Contagion to Cogitation: The Evolving Television Zombie” in the journal Science Fiction Studies. In it, he deals with four recent TV series: the British “In the Flesh” (2013- 2014); the French “The Returned” [“Les Revenants”] (2012-2015); the Australian “Glitch” (2015-2019) and the American “Resurrection” (2014-2015).

For the book, he will also consider the series “iZombie” (2015-19) and “Santa Clarita Diet” (2017-19).

“The zombie apocalypse is usually brought about by some cataclysmic event,” Scott said. “In the shows I deal with for the book, it’s usually a medical or metaphysical event that causes the outbreak.”

As opposed to the brainless, brain-eating, slow-moving monsters of George Romero’s classic film “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) or the American TV series “The Walking Dead” (2010-present), Scott wrote that the new dramas portray the undead sympathetically — as sentient, if confused, damaged or changed, human beings.

These shows “depict the struggle of the undead to reinsert themselves back into their former lives, families and localities,” Scott wrote. “An essential element of this conflict is the degree of acceptance or antagonism they receive from their former hometowns.”

Scott said he began to think “something is going on here” a couple of years ago when, while teaching a first-year interdisciplinary seminar focused on science fiction, many student groups wanted to write about zombie shows. He noted both the popularity of the shows and their recurring themes.

Because their undead are sympathetic characters, the new shows lack the gratuitous gore of the old ones. Scott wrote: “...the violence is generally psychological. Moreover, this violence reverses generic expectations, for it is invariably humans who commit the most ferocious acts.”

Whereas old-style zombies can be seen as critiques of mindless consumerism and, in a larger sense, capitalism itself, Scott wrote that the new zombie plays “critique the failings of neoliberalism in Western democracies, pointing to the inadequacy of this dominant paradigm to address the material and cultural effects of contemporary mass migration and multiculturalism.” Or to put it another way, “these series have the motifs of integration and alienation at their core."

Zombie dramas, which Scott traces back to The Epic of Gilgamesh,” will continue to change with current events.

“Pop culture rises to the challenge of its times, because it is of its times,” Scott said. “We have seen how things can change so quickly. So I think that media that deal with apocalyptic events will change and become more nuanced. The what-if scenarios will become more complex.

“That’s what I like about science fiction. It helps us to flesh out a lot of things. It generally asks the next question: What if? What about? Where is this going?”

If there is any comfort to be found in previous imaginings about apocalyptic scenarios, Scott said, it is their message that kindness and empathy are protective qualities.

“When everything has gone to the dogs,” he said, “it’s invariably the dogs that perish, rather than the humans.”

Photo: Zombies in the 1968 movie “Night of the Living Dead.” Credit: Direction and cinematography by George A. Romero. Public Domain.


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