- No More Room in Hell:Reanimation, Consumption, and Undead Media
This special issue emerged from the 2018 Film and Media Studies Graduate Student Conference held in late September at the University of Pittsburgh, where participants were asked to address the legacy and evolution of the zombie, the undead, and the living dead since 1968. This year is especially poignant for aficionados of horror and the fantastic; George A. Romero, known widely as the "father" of the modern zombie film, passed away just one year before the semicentennial anniversary of Night of the Living Dead (1968), his first and most influential film. Throughout his life Romero, whose film-making career began and flourished in Pittsburgh, continued to adapt and rethink the shuffling "ghouls" of his first film, and alongside him, so have countless writers, critics, filmmakers, scholars, and fans, some might say, especially in the new millennium. Caetlin Benson-Allott marks the zombie "boom" as beginning in 2002 and suggests that it was driven by video games and shifting media consumption platforms. Films such as 28 Days Later (2002), Benson-Allott argues, "reward a different kind of spectator; rather than assuming a cinematic subject entrenched in the history of horror movies, they imagine a video game player accustomed to navigating game maps, 'survival horror' scenarios, and highly mobile, location-based fiends" (80).
Despite the thirty-four years between Night and the twenty-first century zombiemania, Romero remains an enduring influence on today's various manifestations of the zombie. But as scholar Sarah Juliet Lauro reminds us, Night of the Living Dead was not the first to transform the zombie figure from its origins in Haiti and the struggle that led to the Haitian revolution; nor was it the first to appropriate it, effectively "whitewashing" these roots for mass consumption.1 As Lauro writes in her monograph on the subject, "The living dead zombie is essentially a metaphor that was commandeered by Europeans [End Page 1] and Americans and is put to service to represent their own concerns" (Transatlantic 9). At the same time, Lauro argues that the zombie's "journey simultaneously demonstrates the Afro-Caribbean culture's power" (11) in not altogether negative ways.
Therefore, although the conference—and, in turn, the articles featured in this special issue—considered the zombie's evolution and function between 1968 and 2018, it is impossible to ignore the roots and legacies on which the myriad narratives, media, and genres addressed herein depend. As evidenced by Lauro and others, the zombie's roots in Afro-Caribbean folklore have enjoyed (or suffered) a relentless fascination at the hands of Westerners, and in the ensuing decades the conflation of oral history and documentation by racist, colonialist European observers has ultimately spawned, in popular culture, a "global mythology . . . a kind of icon of disempowerment" (Transatlantic 9). At the same time, "the zombie's ambivalence as living and dead is paralleled in its simultaneity as a figuration of both slavery and rebellion" (Transatlantic 10). Zombies are liminal figures, and frequently the brutal politics of the active, living humans around them are less appealing than death or living death, to the extent that "we spectators would rather identify with the zombie and its savage, unthinkable cannibalism than avow our resemblance to the violent but rational humans and the institutions they represent" (Fay 82). The act of displacing—to use Fay's term—the focus away from the zombie and stripping it from its cultural and political roots enables a different, ever-evolving, ever-expanding, and equally fascinating zombie "universe" with its own historical legacies within spectatorship, genre, technology, and beyond. This is demonstrated by the diverse creative work of filmmakers, artists, and writers around the world who adapt the zombie, living dead, and undead for various purposes.
To demonstrate this work, the conference in Pittsburgh also featured a visiting filmmaker, Monika Estrella Negra, and a short film block inspired by Romero's broad oeuvre, including films such as Dawn of the Deaf (2016, UK, dir. Rob Savage) and The Apocalypse Will Be Automated (2017, Australia, dir. Melanie Killingsworth). These two films in particular demonstrate the variety of ways in which film-makers continue to re-engage with...