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BRAAAINS! The Current State of Zombie Research

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For swooning teen girls, there are the hairless-chested vampires of Twilight. For college English students, the wizardry of Hogwarts Academy is prime. The nerdsters have robots. The hipsters have the beats.

But for a certain group of researchers, nothing can be more alluring than the tasty study of that great, brain-chomping, ankle-biting, blood-spewing, walking dead device — the zombie.

* * *

He reads an article in The New York Times science section, and he wonders: How does this relate to my research? He wants to know how the decomposition of human bodies works. His Twitter account whirls a constant stream of scientific discovery: Reuters updates, Science Daily blurbs, The National Science Foundation announcements. He wonders what happens to the eye if a person never blinks, so he calls the head of the American Academy of Optometry.

He reads an article from the BBC News on bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease), and it gets him thinking about viruses, incubation periods, the effects on the brain, so he calls the Scripps Research Institute. When he calls another researcher, he introduces himself.

His name is Matt Mogk, and he is the founder of the Zombie Research Society.

* * *

A Zombie reaches through books.
A zombie attempts to make contact. Photo by M. Doxtad

Mogk is not alone.

Around the world in small swarms of discovery, men and women passionately probe the character of the zombie. They dissect the literature. They hypothesize the biology. They speak and write with fervor about the monster.

At the University of Ottawa, a group of academics released “When Zombies Attack!: Mathematical Modelling of an Outbreak of Zombie Infection.” At Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., professor Kim Paffenroth gathered his writings about zombie auteur George Romero and published them in Gospel of the Living Dead. There is a compendium of zombie writings, Zombie Culture: Autopsies of the Living Dead, with essays that swing from the history of the zombie in literature to the onset of the zombie video game. A Harvard Medical professor gave a lecture on the neurobiology of the zombie brain in April 2009.

Ten men sit on the advisory board of the Zombie Research Society. One of them is Brendan Riley, an English professor at Columbia College in Chicago.

* * *

Night of the Living Dead
Film still from George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.

For one month of the year students at Columbia College immerse themselves in the study of zombies. Riley will lead them. They will start at the beginning: Haiti, voodoo, pufferfish poisoning, William Seabrook’s 1929 book, The Magic Island. They will read philosophy. They will trace the role of the zombie though culture. They will meet each day for two hours and then they will watch films afterward. It will be intense, Riley says, a full semester’s work in three weeks. “I built it around a model of pedagogy I call the crucible effect where you sort of dive into the subject really intensely for a short time,” Riley says. “By the end you’ve come out with a lot of knowledge.”

Once a year or so, Riley discovers his class, Zombies in Popular Culture, included in lists of odd classes turned out by the conservative blogosphere. He has even set a Google Alert, so he can go into the blogs and make comments about the class.

“There is this conception among non-academics that the study of popular culture is automatically not rigorous,” Riley says. Sometimes when he tells people what he does, he says, people smile and say, “Oh zombies, huh? That must be nice.” He understands that reaction, but he is quick to defend the study.

“The reason I study popular culture is because I want to know what we’re doing, and popular culture is a way as a society we talk about things,” he says. “I think that debate about central issues, ethics, happens as much in cinema and modern television as it does on the floor of congress or in churches. I don’t think people debate about ethics in churches. I think you go to church to be told what your ethics are. I think the place that people debate about ethics is when they see a powerful movie that leads them to ask questions. And I think zombie movies are really good at doing that because zombie movies are about ordinary people put in extraordinary circumstances and having to make hard choices.”

* * *

Mogk started the Zombie Research Society in 2007. The advisory board is made up of authors, enthusiasts, and scholars. Mogk calls the zombie the “perfect postmodern monster.” He points to the science.

“Zombies, in my mind, have always been completely scientifically explainable,” he says. “We don’t know the answers of how they function, but we know the answer is out there.” It is these questions that led Mogk to found the ZRS. Unlike with most monsters, an ancient canon of literature does not accompany the zombie. There is no clear origin story. Vampires? Werewolves? Just a product of superstition and mysticism. How would you explain a vampire turning into a bat? he asks. Impossible. Zombies exist outside of romance. They are new and fresh. The modern zombie was born in 1968 in Philadelphia. Its father was George A. Romero.

* * *

Zombie auteur George A. Romero. Photo by Joshn Jensen.

Kendall Phillips points to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead as a turning point in the horror genre. In 2005, Phillips published Projected Fears: Horror Films and American Culture. A chapter from the book is dedicated to Night of the Living Dead. Syracuse University has just named him associate dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts. His office is tucked into the corner of an ivy-covered building. His assistant is turning away the students and faculty who drop in to see him. He’s in a meeting, the assistant says.

Phillips, a communication and rhetorical studies professor, is drawn to horror films because of their strange reverse-escapism. People watch comedies because they enjoy humor. They see romances because they enjoy being in love. But zombie films?

“Whatever’s happening in your life,” Phillips says, “let’s hope it’s better than, you know, people eating your flesh.”

Phillips begins with Dracula and Frankenstein, 1931. Abbott and Costello kill this genre. Nothing too familiar can be frightening, Phillips says. He moves on to aliens and Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World. And then it’s Roger Corman and his “Styrofoam-headed creatures bobbing with zippers showing” flickering on American movie screens. In 1960, Hitchcock levels the competition with Psycho. And then in ’68, it is Romero and his crew who bask in the attention as Night of the Living Dead shuffles into the theaters and into the minds of American movie-goers.

Phillips cites previous monsters — Caligari’s Cesare, voodoo zombies, working class monsters just following orders — as precursors. But Romero’s cannibal zombie is a new breed, he says. Phillips hits his stride, his words building in short plateaus to a thesis.

“So you know, ’68 is sort of a bizarre year in American history. King has been assassinated. Bobby Kennedy has been assassinated. The whole flower power anti-Vietnam, racial equality, all those turn to be violent and you know, in Chicago, Mayor Daley unleashes the dogs on a bunch of hippies. Bomb threats. Black Panther Parties. And race riots in the city,” Phillips says. Everything is going wrong and in comes Romero, and all across America people see Night of the Living Dead and “a lot of people said, ‘Yeah, that makes sense to me. That works for me.’”

This is the power of the zombie genre, Phillips says. The zombies aren’t the problem; it’s the people. The characters in Night of the Living Dead fight over status and race. The zombies, Phillips says, are Romero’s way of showing a society deteriorating, “consuming itself.” Romero moves to Reagan and rampant consumerism with Dawn of the Dead. He makes his post-9/11 zombie film, Land of the Dead in 2005, and now the zombies are only a minor villain in the story.

Romero’s films, Phillips says, are mirror reflections of society, a way to see what we don’t like about ourselves.

Phillips takes a break from speaking. It has been 17 and ¾ minutes. He smiles.

“What’s your first question?”

* * *

Film still from 28 Days Later.
Film still from Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later.

Matt Mogk thinks the possibilities of the zombie genre are limitless. He says his wife was sure he would run out of things to study about zombies, but it has been three years now, and he sees no end in sight. When Mogk speaks he asks, “Right?” often, seeking reassurance.

“So once they were diagnosed they were put in leper colonies. They were literally declared dead. Right?”

“You know the people in 28 Days Later weren’t actually dead. Right?”

“Anybody with a bucket of blood and $5 in their pockets and a couple of friends who are willing to limp around can make a zombie movie. Right?”

Mogk divided the ZRS into three focuses of study: survival, science, and the arts. Mogk details how to plan for zombie survival, and as he speaks, it is clear the zombie has stopped being fictional. Planning for a zombie outbreak is no different than preparing for a natural disaster: food, clean water, protection for your family. A person must understand how the roads work, how police systems work. Survival isn’t just, “Oh I’m going to buy a shotgun and five bullets,” he says.

He speaks about the earthquake in Chile. Hurricane Katrina. A large-scale nuclear attack in New York City.

“Legitimate zombie survival,” he says, “if you are preparing legitimately for zombie survival you are essentially preparing for anything. I mean, if somebody brought a dirty bomb to the Port of Los Angeles and blew it up and all of Los Angeles became a lawless, radioactive environment, which is very,” he pauses, “completely possible to happen today. It could happen right now. If you are legitimately prepared for a zombie outbreak, you are also prepared for that. Right?”

* * *

Film still from Re-animator.
Film still from Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator.

John Craddock’s office is 200 yards from Kendall Phillips’ on the Syracuse University campus. The building is styled in unfinished concrete. Paint fumes linger through the halls. Craddock’s office teems with media: books, posters, DVDs.

Craddock speaks about the beginnings of his love of zombie films. He watched Return of the Living Dead in 1986. He was hooked with Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator. He tries to remember the name of the sequel to Return of the Living Dead, but he draws a blank. He gets up from his desk and wanders to a short shelf near the door.

“This is all zombie movies,” Craddock says, before examining the films on the shelf. He turns his head sideways to read the titles. “Oh, it was Return of the Living Dead Part II,” he laughs.

Craddock is a professor in the department of transmedia. During the summer of 2009 he directed a zombie film, Germ, that is currently in post-production. Craddock says this genre offers creators something many genre films do not: freedom.

Zombie films exist outside genre conventions. Their creators are not immobilized by the rules of most horror films and action movies. This freedom allows creators to imbue the films with subtext and cultural critiques.

Zombie movies have multiple levels of meaning, Craddock says. “I mean, obviously not all of them do. Zombie Campout, for example, over there on my zombie shelf, is just, there’s no subtext to that movie. It’s just terrible. But for some of the Fulci movies, like the ’70s Italian horror movies and obviously the Romero stuff, those are films that, you know, they have substantial meaning.”

* * *

Film still from Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

At Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England, Dr. Patricia MacCormack mashes French post-modern theory with the Italian zombie films of Lucio Fulci. She is the author of Cinesexuality. A chapter in the book, “Zombies Without Organs,” is dedicated to the study of the zombie. She speaks philosophically about zombies in Deleuzean terms of potentialities, strata, and intensities.

The zombie must be experienced, MacCormack says. The zombie cannot be read like a regular character. They open new paths for narration. She compares zombies to abstract, expressionistic paintings. She has an affinity for German expressionism. She speaks about zombies in terms of a “multiple within the singular, the singular within the multiple.” She says connections could be made to political activism.

MacCormack talks about a virtual virus and Facebook.

“We are in a negotiative state between becoming capitalist zombies and being obsessed with creating who we are.” We have a million friends on Facebook, and we can create a perfect online identity, MacCormack says, but we are becoming zombies. The idea is similar to one Brendan Riley expressed. The fear is not only in dying. It is also in being divorced from our bodies. The fear is that you are “buried somewhere in the zombie architecture.”

* * *

Outside of the ZRS, Mogk works for an online research agency in Los Angeles. He researches serious diseases: HIV, diabetes, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis. He has a degree in film from New York University. He doubts that this — the ZRS, his job, his education — is a coincidence.

He tells an anecdote about a conversation he had with a physician at the World Health Organization. The physician found Romero’s zombies, slumbering in the ground for years before rising from the dead, to be more realistic than modern, fast, quickly-turning zombies. The problem for the physician? Incubation periods. Even the common cold has an incubation period of a week, Mogk says. Rabies has an incubation period of up to seven years. Mad cow disease: 20 years.

“So the idea that I can get a little drop of blood in my eye and literally 15 seconds later I turn into a zombie, or even the representation that I can get bitten by a zombie and then I get sick in 45 minutes and then I’m a zombie, you know,” Mogk says, “was actually harder for this doctor to believe than the notion that a dead body would stand up and start walking around and biting people. Right? So if you start thinking about that, OK, well wait, it’s essentially an incubation period for zombies. Essentially, the entire world, or half the population of the world, could be infected, and we don’t even know it. Right?”


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