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Zombies - A Living History Review

DVD Review: Zombies - A Living History / Director: David V. Nicholson / Writer: Andre Abramowitz / Starring: Peter Outerbridge (Narrator), Josh Ford, Rachael Platt / Release date: July 23rd

Since the launch of Military History in 1999, The History Channel (or History as it is now known) has no longer been able to fill its schedules with endless documentaries on the Second World War. While some of us might think it reasonable to believe that this still leaves rather a lot of history to fill your airtime, History has taken the somewhat unconventional view that what the armchair historian really wants to see are programmes about aliens and similarly non-historical subjects. History make more money than me so they must know what they’re doing and playing so fast and loose with the word ‘history’ does at least throw some of their output into the domain of a Starburst review.

So, with this in mind, we review the DVD release of Zombies: A Living History, a ninety minute cultural history of the zombie (and you can stop sniggering at the back there). If you’re wondering quite how you fill ninety minutes when the only movie clips you have are from the out of copyright Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Der Golem (1920), then watch and learn; this is low-brow documentary making at its most questionably creative. The main screen-filler is, of course, History’s very own dramatisation of a zombie apocalypse. There is no ‘this is a dramatisation’ tag on screen but, unless I missed a pretty big news story recently, it’s safe to assume that’s what we’re watching and, to be fair, it’s quite well done. But the real skill of this kind of thing is finding just how many angles you can get on such a one-trick pony; much like zombie filmmakers and novelists have been doing for the last ten years or so. After the inevitable intro that tells us why zombies are so scary (well, duh) we are given a brief history of the zombie, going right back to the dubious revelation that they first appear in The Epic of Gilgamesh (tenuous, to say the least) and an international parade of the undead, none of which are actually zombies as we understand them. In fact, if I’m going to be pedantic (and I am), in Arabic culture, ghouls are not even the undead; just to prove the point, some were converted to Islam in one of the tales from One Thousand and One Nights (thank you, Wikipedia). Mind you, I was amused by William of Newburgh (who chronicled revenants in the 12th century) being described as history’s first zombie hunter as if this is now a respected occupation. Zombies even manages to flirt with the genuinely interesting when it gets onto customs and beliefs concerning the afterlife from around the world and how we generally like to make sure the dead don’t come back. But the section on the social mores of cannibalism brings it all right back to the depths as we are told that eating people is not only a ‘deal-breaker’ but (quote of the documentary) ‘cannibalism cannot be tolerated; especially when it comes to members of your own family’. Well, quite. They even manage to contradict this by telling us how, in some cultures, there could sometimes be no better way of honouring friends and enemies than by eating them.

We then have an inexplicable World War II interlude where we are told that the Eastern Front was more like a zombie war than the Western Front. No, really. But at least they got some Nazis in and this just wouldn’t be History without Nazis. Oh, and the Mongol hoard was not like a zombie apocalypse. I don’t care who they ate. I’m just saying.

But having dispensed with bothersome history and acknowledging that the modern zombie was invented by George Romero in 1968 (assuming that you entirely forget about Hammer’s inconveniently still-in-copyright Plague of Zombies two years earlier), Zombies gets stuck in with interviews with the experts and what we’d do in the event of a real zombie apocalypse. The ‘experts’ are an odd lot with Daniel Drezner (author of the semi-humorous Theories of International Politics and Zombies) adopting a tone that leaves us in doubt as to whether he thinks he should be taking this documentary seriously at all; while acknowledging that a zombie apocalypse is incredibly unlikely, we should still ‘prepare for the inevitable’, he tells us with a fairly straight face. Meanwhile, survivalist and zombie novelist J L Bourne offers some rather counter-intuitive advice that makes me think he’d be the last person you’d want around in the unlikely event of the real thing. Bourne even believes that the military would adopt an evasion strategy rather than engage the zombies directly. Far be it for me to argue strategy and tactics in the face of an undead hoard (not having the relevant experience), I can’t help but think he’s been playing too many computer games. No wonder the living get so frequently boned by the dead in his novels. Far more helpful are the regular appearances of The Zombie Combat Manual author, Roger Ma, who definitely isn’t taking this seriously. He gives us useful tips on the implements best suited for braining a zombie with handy pointers like ‘a spear needs a precise thrust which may be difficult when facing the undead’. That’s far more like it; J L Bourne, take note.

And what about that actual outbreak? Mathematical models produced by people who really ought to have something better to do apparently tell us that zombies would have the run of things pretty quickly. Well I don’t want to ruin anyone’s fun here but a disease that is spread by biting and where it is OK to shoot its slow moving host is extremely unlikely to take hold even without the intervention of the military. In fact, just to make it clear that zombies would have no chance in certain parts of the world, there is a section on ‘four firearms you could use in a zombie apocalypse’. The M41A comes highly recommended, although you may have a problem concealing it. Quite why this would be a problem is left unexplained.

But this touches on what Zombies should have been about: Why are zombies so popular right now? The best they could come up with was the fact that we all think the world is about to end. The problem with that thesis is that throughout history, people have always thought the world is about to end; it’s just the method of our demise that changes. But those firearm tips should provide the clue; it’s the ultimate empowerment fantasy. The government have let you down and now it’s up to you to save yourself by scoring as many headshots as you can. The rise of the PC game in the last twenty years is no coincidence. Zombies are the shoot ‘em up enemy of choice, appearing in limitless numbers with easy to program AI routines. A zombie apocalypse just means you can carry on playing your games while getting some fresh air. All this is missed in Zombies, despite the programme’s experts claiming that such events would give rise to ‘charismatic leaders’. Somewhat worryingly, they even manage to make that particular part of the empowerment fantasy sound like a good thing.

In the end, Zombies: A Living History doesn’t really know what it is other than another piece of TV fodder to appeal to anyone with an interest in zombies and access to cable. It certainly can’t be described as quality history programming but I’m not sure it wants to be. Ultimately, it’s difficult to tell how far its slobbering tongue is thrust into its decaying cheek. Fun? Possibly. Informative? Not really. History? You’ve got to be kidding...

John Knott has a BA in History from the University of Bristol.

He has no recognised qualifications in the field of zombies or other undead.


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