Vampires retain their identity and werewolves can control themselves when the moon isn’t full, but when a loved one turns zombie, there’s just no talking to them anymore. That’s why they’re so scary. Judging from election season social media feeds, it appears about 98% of the country is afflicted. In some films, there’s a cure for the zombie virus, so maybe there’s still hope for us all. Yet, the surge of interest most represent some serious rising collective neuroses. At least that is the take offered by host Dr. Emily Zarka and her talking head experts in Exhumed: A History of Zombies, a special presentation of PBS Digital’s Monstrum, which premieres tomorrow on broadcast PBS stations.
Exhumed gives a full but ideologically charged history of zombies, starting with dubious early 20th Century pseudo-anthropologic studies and travelogues of Haiti through the early 21st Century zombie boom, fueled by The Walking Dead and its imitators. Appropriately, Zarka identifies Victor Helperin’s White Zombie as the touchstone film of the ostensibly Caribbean-influenced, overtly-voodoo zombie period and Romero’s Night of the Living Dead as the turn towards the zombie apocalypse era. (However, real fans might be disappointed Hammer’s Plague of Zombies does not get some credit as a transitional film.)
Zarka and company refract just about every facet of zombie history through a prism of race and colonialism, which is fair to a point, but it eventually becomes simplistic, reductive, and overtly political. Completely lost in their analysis is one of the most obvious sources of zombie fear: the loss of individuality to the collective, which is probably just as relevant to the current obsession with the walking undead as our inherited colonialist guilt. Nevertheless, Zarka tries to shoehorn Peele’s Get Out into the discussion. (It really isn’t even a horror movie, but rather a sci-fi thriller, despite reviews to the contrary, whereas Us is truly terrifying.)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers, because in both cases, you’re loved ones may no longer be your loved ones. Instead, they have joined a hive-like collective. Surprisingly (given our current locked-down state), Exhumed also overlooks a potent strain of revisionist zombie films, like Sabu’s Miss Zombie and Maggie, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, wherein human compassion is challenged and measured by characters’ responses to zombie infection.
Of course, it is always fun to see clips from classic zombie movies. Exhumed also gives viewers some local flavor from New Orleans and provides insightful context regarding the true practice of voodoo and vodun. However, the one-note cultural analysis is distractingly problematic. You are probably better just watching most of the films under discussion. Somewhat disappointing, Exhumed airs tomorrow (10/30) on most PBS outlets.