The birth of the zombie in U.S. mass culture begins with White Zombie, the 1932 movie featuring Bela Lugosi.  Lugosi plays a zombifier named “Murder Legendre” (a moniker full of grammatological possibilities).  By 1932, American cinema had begun a serious romance with the monster movie: Dracula with Lon Chaney, Sr.,  had appeared in 1930; Boris Karloff would feature as Frankenstein’s monster in 1931; and, a year after, White Zombie, King Kong would swing on the Empire State Building,  Manhattan’s most famous avatar of the now-imploded Art Deco 1920s.  The monster movie’s popularity in the early 1930s – – one of the most chaotic and anxious moments in the nation’s history – – parallels the rise of the gangster movie and, in another medium, the emergence of the proletarian novel, each engrossed with the power and violence of social difference.

The genealogy of the zombie in American mass culture extends, however, a tad bit beyond 1932.  The concept of the “zombie” – – a malevolently resurrected corpse – – traveled across the Atlantic with enslaved Africans. ‘Though relatively obscure in the U.S., the zombie became a common folkloric motif across the Caribbean.

The etymology of “zombie” is confused: it derives either from African languages or, as Elsie Clews Parsons, an American feminist and anthropologist, conjectured in 1928, from a pidginization of “les ombres,” French for “the shadows.”  In either case, like its referent, the word bears testament to a long history of linguistic and cultural creolization.

Parsons’ article, appearing in a French journal of American Studies, marks also the first appearance of the “zombie” in the official discourse of folklore and anthropology.  What Parsons notes, most interestingly, is the notion of the zombie as a nightmarish recurrence of slavery:  “Stories in my note books tell what happens when you appeal to the ganga to kill somebody in order to enslave his spirit to you or make him a zombi (“fai” zombi) to work for you. . . In one story the zombi becomes a gardener. Night and day he works for his master, and he catches pilferers.”

In Haitian folklore, the zombie is a human reduced to pure labor.  Recall, also, that the first actual zombies we see in White Zombie are workers in Legendre’s sugar mill – – shuffling silently forward to dump baskets of cane into the mill’s grindstone.  Amidst the strikes, evictions, marches, and riots of the early 1930s, it’s not too far-fetched to see the movie’s zombies as part of an emerging, national-populist drama: the zombie master who reduces humans to abject bodies and labor is a capitalist, evil and european-accented to boot!  From the factory-owner’s perspective, zombies are the perfect workers; they labor without protest, without food, without rest.  The message to proletarian viewers is slightly different, if no less true: capitalism wants to kill us!

Labor, enslavement, exploitation: these are some key of the contexts for the folkloric zombie.

But, the arrival of the zombie in anthropology and cinema depends on one other central context.  In 1915, United States troops invaded and occupied Haiti.  The American government commandeered Haiti’s central bank and customs houses, diverting close to half of the national income to American and French interests.  Resistance to American occupation was, for several years, fierce and widespread: 2,000 Haitians were killed in one general uprising in 1918.  In response, the American military built concentration camps and rebuilt Haiti’s roads to improve military communication and transport.  The occupation lasted until 1934, when the newly-elected F.D.R. pulled out the last U.S. Marine.

For 20 years, however, American soldiers, civilians, businessmen, and other factotums of the occupation came into direct and indirect contract with Haitian culture.  The occupation opened up a cultural conduit between white America and black Caribbean folk culture – – an exchange exhaustively riffed in Ishmael Reed’s 1972 novel, Mumbo Jumbo.  One of Reed’s characters lies in the bathtub reading and reflecting on the day’s New York Sun:  “What was this about doughboy zombies?  The tabs were becoming outrageous . . . Recently 1 of the reports had sneaked into a big house chamber and emerged with a picture of a woman undergoing execution – – ghastly but fun.  The picture showed a zombie Marine surrounded by men in white coats.”  Voudou, houngans, loas, and zombies – – all of these forces, unleashed by the U.S. occupation, feed the “Jes Grew” virus, Reed’s metaphor for the black expressivity, incarnated in the novel as jazz,  that threatens to over-run white America and its repressed, protestant culture.

Reed’s novelistic imagining of the afro-diasporic role in U.S. mass culture is not just fictional.  A bit of data mining reveals that “zombie” (or its variant – – “zombi”) only starts appearing in U.S. books around 1920, shortly after the U.S. occupation.  “Zombie” really starts taking off in the early 1930s – – probably thanks in part to White Zombie and its several 1930s and 40s Hollywood successors.

Thus, the U.S. occupation of Haiti adds another important context to the popular cultural birth of the zombie: imperialism and the attendant cultural flows (and racialized anxieties) set in motion by the violent engagement between the U.S. and Haiti.

In a decade, the 1930s, of wide and deep struggle against American capitalism (from the general strikes that rocked  San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Toledo in 1934 to birth of the United Auto Workers and beyond),  the zombie joined an army of monsters (ranging from Kong to Dillinger) that fascinated Americans, each serving as a figure of fear and fascination, each embodying an unstable amalgam of rage and desire.  In the 1930s, Legendre’s slaves were on the march . . . their shouts filled the streets of Detroit, Union Square in New York City, and the fields of California’s Central Valley.

How to explain, then, the resurgence of enslaved, mindless bodies on today’s movie, television, and computer screens?  Our two historical contexts – – labor and imperialism – – should prove crucial to understanding our current fascination with the zombie.  One major shift in the zombie genre – – the figure of the zombie master and his enchanted slaves giving way to the terror of swarming and endlessly multiplying, out-of-control zombies – – underscores the genealogy of zombies and capitalism even as it disrupts and complicates this relation.  The “many-headed Hydra” of zombie power re-emerges under new conditions and within new struggles . . . .


I stumbled onto Alden Bell’s The Reapers Are the Angels by accident while browsing my local bookstore. The cover promised apocalypse, zombies, and a 16 year-old girl, but the copies of Bell’s book were stacked suspiciously close to a truckload of Twilight novels.  I can happily report that, in this case, folksonomy is coincidental: The Reapers Are the Angels is a great read and definitely not a zombie version of Bella’s dramas.

Bell’s (a.k.a. Joshua Gaylord) book is an absorbing read for many reasons.  But, for me, the most compelling is the manic mashup energy that Bell unleashes to construct his narrative of young Temple’s journey through a zombie-infested, post-apocalyptic Dixie.  As Temple, who was born P.Z. (post-zombie) and hence knows nothing but a world defined by creepers and diminishing humanity, travels through the Southland – – first in search of company and then on a mission to reunite another orphan with his family – – Bell’s narrative draws on a whole library of journey narratives.  In the background, obviously, are The Odyssey, Dante’s Inferno, Heart of Darkness, The Wizard of Oz, etc.  In the foreground, are more particular versions of the narrative – – Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and the recent Zombieland, for instance.  And, given Bell’s geography some even more local, chicken-fried versions of the Journey: Faulkner’s Light in August,  the Coen brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou, and of course Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.

The bustling roundabout for these inter-texts is Temple’s distinctive, yet familiar narrative voice. “God is a slick god,” Temple tells the reader in the novel’s opening lines.  “She knows because of all the crackerjack miracles still to be seen on this ruined globe.”  And, almost immediately, we’re dunked, zombies and all, into that rich vein of Southern speech that writers south of the Mason Dixon line have been mining since Augustus Baldwin Longstreet published his Georgia Scenes in 1835.  As Temple narrates, we hear a voice of twangy, adolescent innocence and experience soaked, steeped, and filtered through Twain’s Huck, Faulkner’s Sarty Snopes,  Harper Lee’s Scout Finch, Capote’s Joel Harrison Knox, Padgett Powell’s Simons Manigault, Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro, and countless other avatars of gritty, low-down, “free bird” authenticity.

It’s Bell’s powerful ability to dwell within this matrix of voices that makes The Reapers Are the Angels (to understand the title: check out Matthew 13:36-42) more than  just Huckleberry Finn with Zombies.  Bell brings a cherished, culturally canonized voice and narrative into contact with one of the ugliest, dirtiest, bloodiest, goriest, drive-in movie denizens of our time: the zombie flick.  This is the real mashup: a Ree Dolly who wades through the pop cultural detritus (literally and figuratively) of Romero, Lucio Fulci, Dead Snow, Planet Terror, 28 Days Later, Resident Evil, and The Walking Dead. And, amazingly, The Reapers Are the Angels works – – as both a zombie narrative and a significant contribution to contemporary fiction.

No surprise here, perhaps.  As the Russian Yoda of culture, Mikhail Bakhtin reminded us in Rabelais and His World, what we know now as “literature” started in the bawdy parodies, drinking songs, and scatological  jokes of the Medieval carnival, a place where popular and canonical voices collided, mingled, and inter-married.  The laughter of the carnival reflected a world in historical transition, and the forms and figures generated by carnival embodied and cultivated an emerging secular consciousness.  A continent away, the American Yoda of culture, Kenneth Burke, described the Great Depression as the age of “gargoyles,” an era where social confusion and conflict generate “planned incongruity” and birth grotesque forms like Super-Realism and proletarian literature.

The mashup is the preferred cultural genre of historical shift and transformation.  The mashup, like the carnival, the gargoyle, and the monster, is “the harbinger of category crisis.”  The mashup violates cultural  norms and boundaries, producing monstrous texts that swarm with semiotic excess and so evade and trouble our sense of cultural propriety.  The mashup underscores – – with laughter, groans, and gasps – the insufficiency of old ways of doing cultural business and offers glimpses of new cultural orders and commerce.  And, as Bakhtin reminds us, the mashup is as old as modernity itself.

Thanks to YouTube, GarageBand, Facebook, WordPress, and others,  the mashup – – musical, visual, textual, syndicated – – is the chief, if not supreme genre of our contemporary “convergence culture.”  I’d also venture that the mashup is one of our most important literary genres today.  Writers like Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Richard Kadrey, and a host of others, are reinventing serious fictional narrative by jamming together discordant literary and non-literary genres.  Hard-boiled Chandler narrative meets steampunk alternative history meets contemporary geo-politics – – shazam! – – you’ve got  a membership card for The Yiddish Policemen’s Union!

And so, to return to the zombie.  Some might say that the zombie narrative simply reflects a kind of popular resignation where “it is easier to think of the total annihilation of humanity than to imagine a change in the organization of a manifestly unjust and destructive society.”  There’s some truth (and pleasure) in that.  But, the power and popularity of the zombie today might also reside in the zombie’s inherent mashup: neither living nor dead, the zombie inhabits a world between worlds, a place of terrifying ambivalence and confusion.  The zombie landscape – – deserted buildings, empty highways, dark cubicles that shelter flesh-eating mouths and blank eyes – – is our hometown, but mashed up now with danger, despair, and paranoia.  The zombie defamiliarizes everything and everyone, including our familiar cultural genres.  And, in mashing up Huck and George (Romero), writers like Alden Bell are following through on that original, literary zombie manifesto of the mashup – – T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land.  They’re coming to terms with the quicksand of our contemporary reality by fashioning “unreal cities” of prose and narrative out of “heaps of broken images.”   Eliot’s zombie poem grimly eulogized the past even as it “modernized” contemporary poetry; today’s mashup gleefully mocks the present even as it invites us to play with the future.