Talking Zombie Lore: An Interview with Dr. Chera Kee
Not Your Average Zombie: Rehumanizing the Undead from Voodoo to Zombie Walks is a fascinating book that looks at zombies in popular culture, including movies, video games, and zombie walks. I sat down with the book's author, Dr. Chera Kee, to have a chat about zombies and her new book.
Tristan Shaw: First off, what’s your favorite zombie movie and why?
Chera Kee: That’s always a hard one. There’s a tie. Sugar Hill (1974) is a blaxploitation zombie film that is awesome because it’s a voodoo-style zombie film in an era where Romero-style cannibal zombies are starting to take over. It’s also got a strong female protagonist who basically gets revenge on the mob—who killed her boyfriend—by raising zombies. It’s got a good soundtrack and it’s fun.
TS: And your other favorite one?
CK: My other favorite is Revenge of the Zombies (1943). I tend to like kind of feminist zombie films—I mean, I’m also a huge fan of Dawn of the Dead (1978) and things like that—but those two stick out to me because they’ve got strong female leads. And, that’s actually something I like about the zombie genre as a whole, you have a lot of strong female characters.
TS: Were those the movies that first interested you in zombies?
CK: My first semester, I was unpacking at USC and my dad was helping me. We went to go see Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004). At the end of the movie, I turned to my dad and asked “Well, whatever happened to the old zombies that didn’t try to eat people and just shambled around?” He had no idea, and I was later talking to one of my professors, and he said, “That’s your research project this semester, go find out.” So, I went into the archives, watched a bunch of old films, and started reading up on zombies. They were just fascinating! This was around the time zombies started to get hot, around 2004.
TS: So what made you interested in writing your book then?
CK: The book came out of my dissertation project, so this is research I’ve been doing since 2004. But, one of the nice surprises about the book is that it went in a different direction from my dissertation. I started realizing that the more zombie films I watched, and the more games I played, and the more comic books I read, I kept finding all of these zombies that really didn’t fit our expectations. They could talk, they could fall in love, they could lead political protests. They were still zombies, but not really. I was like, did that happen from the beginning? Why does that happen? Well, my book is about why that happens, and what these zombies tell us. It’s about the zombies that aren’t really zombies; I call them “extra-ordinary zombies.” They’re zombies that exceed their zombiness.
TS: What are some things that readers of the book might be surprised to learn about the history of zombies?
CK: They come from Haiti. I think most people know that—I don’t know, maybe they don’t. And, I think another thing that surprises people are the zombies that talk, have boyfriends and girlfriends, and things. People say, “Oh yeah! Like in that movie and this video game.” People start to realize that our perception of zombies and the zombies we actually engage with in film and TV are very different sometimes. I mean, there are the ones you just shoot in games, like House of the Dead or something like that. But, there’s also lots of cute, cuddly zombies too. I think that surprises people.
TS: Touching on the origins, I’ve always wondered how zombies evolved from voodoo-controlled monsters to these cannibal, ghoul-like things?
CK: The zombie is a kind of thoroughly American monster. We take the folklore from Haiti, and we reimagine it. Frankenstein’s creature is taken from a book, and Dracula is based on folklore and a book. But, the zombie really wasn’t, so a lot of filmmakers and people writing radio dramas and short stories felt free to change things up. The very first zombie movies take place in Haiti, but the next one takes place in Cambodia. Then we get them in Africa and Louisiana.
Very quickly, filmmakers were asking, what could we do with this? So from the 1930s into the 1960s, filmmakers and people who were doing zombie stories felt free to experiment. Some zombies were created with potions, some were created with machines, some were made with hypnosis, and some were alien-controlled. Then George Romero comes onto the scene in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead. And, what’s interesting is, he was borrowing heavily from a novella by Richard Matheson, I Am Legend. And, what’s actually in the book, technically, is vampires.
TS: Romero was influenced by vampires?
CK: Well, it’s a vampire-plague that takes over humanity. George Romero borrowed from I Am Legend, and Mexican cinema, which had a little zombie tradition. He wanted to make ghouls and figured, what if they ate people? It was a hit with audiences. And, it’s funny, Romero called them ghouls for a long time before he switched to calling them zombies.
TS: Is there any exact old movie then, like maybe in the 1970s, that used the word “zombie” like we do now?
CK: Most people go ahead and still claim that Night of the Living Dead has zombies. In the 1970s, you’ve got movies like Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things (1972) and Deathdream (1974). I can’t remember, in Deathdream, whether they say zombie. A lot of these films, up until the 1980s—I don’t think they refer to the zombies as zombies. They use “They,” “Them,” or “The Undead.”
TS: So, is the 1980s where we get a lot of our ideas about the modern zombie?
CK: Yeah, the idea that zombies eat brains is from the 1980s. That’s from Return of the Living Dead (1985), which is a comedy. I feel like, if you look at the zombies from Night of the Living Dead and even Dawn of the Dead—Romero’s Dawn of the Dead—they’re not quite as gruesome. When you get into the 1980s, which was the era of Rick Baker and great special effects makeup, you start to see really gruesome, decomposing zombies. Return of the Living Dead is an important movie in that aspect, because that’s when you start to get skeletal zombies, and zombies with things falling off.
TS: Horror movies are said to reflect social fears. Do you think this is true, and if it is, what does it say about society’s obsession with zombies right now?
CK: Zombies came back right after 9/11, and I think there is something in the post-9/11 fear of virus and terrorists. Honestly, most zombie movies to me, whether they’re voodoo-style or cannibal-style, are about the fear of being out of control. Whether that’s your own body that’s out of control, your community, or your nation. When you look at most of these films, it’s that the government has failed. The police can’t help us. Everything that we would normally count on is no longer available. It’s that kind of situation where I’ve got to suddenly take care of myself. The world is out of control.
Zombies have remained popular since the 1930s, but they’ve definitely had their low points. I think the highest points tend to be in eras where the economy is not doing so great and when there’s conflict. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Night of the Living Dead comes out during Vietnam, and that Dawn of the Dead comes out right after Vietnam. Looking at the 1980s, zombie films, most of them, are really campy. They’re comedies, played more for laughs than horror. So you can see, you get the more serious stuff when something serious is going on, and you get more playful zombies when people are feeling pretty good about the world.
TS: What movies would you recommend for somebody who wants to get more into zombies? Some essential ones?
CK: You need to see White Zombie (1932) because that’s the first. I would also recommend I Walked with a Zombie (1943); it’s just a masterpiece of cinema. Artistically-speaking, it’s the best zombie film ever made. You have to see Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978), and Return of the Living Dead (1985)—which I think is an important film for people to see. Personally, I would also suggest that people see Sugar Hill (1974).
An interesting, lesser-known film worth checking out—though not necessarily essential—is American Zombie (2007) by a filmmaker named Grace Lee. It’s a mock documentary following zombies as they live their ordinary lives in Los Angeles. It’s a metaphor for zombies as immigrants or marginalized people fighting for rights. I feel like that’s a movie most people haven’t seen, haven’t really heard of, that they’re really shocked by in a good way.
TS: I’ll have to check that one out. So what do you think your next project will be? Will it involve zombies?
CK: It will! I’ve got two projects; one of them has nothing to do with zombies, so I’ll tell you about the one that does. I’m working on, hopefully a book, about zombies and comic books. I’m exploring them from the very beginning of horror comics to the present day.
As part of the Zombies on Third Street event, Dr. Chera Kee will be giving a lecture titled "They are Not Men...They are Dead Bodies" on October 16. Tickets for the event are $10 and can be purchased through Cinema Detroit, while her book "Not Your Average Zombie: Rehumanizing the Undead from Voodoo to Zombie Walks" can be purchased in advance of the event through Amazon or the University of Texas Press. Dr. Kee will be available at the event to sign books and take pictures.