They’re the target of zombie hordes and, as of recently, also local University of the Fraser Valley (UFV) instructor Darren Blakeborough.
But while the walking dead want to eat your grey matter, Blakeborough wants to expand the stuff between your ears.
His latest course, Zombies on the Brain: Popular Culture & the Living Dead, is the latest in a growing list of topics that allows the UFV instructor to use cultural objects that he enjoys to open up “the same theories by the same dead old white guys.”
Blakeborough sees the true value of this approach in the way that it makes those otherwise drier concepts more accessible to students.
Compared against zombie representations, ideas like race, gender, identity, war, capitalism, and immigration become engaging.
“I started talking at the beginning of class asking a couple of questions, ‘Did anyone watch Fear the Walking Dead on the weekend?’ and the next thing I knew and it was two hours later,” says Blakeborough on the UFV Abbotsford campus. “And I looked behind me and I hadn’t even looked at my lecture but I had the notes on the board because they’d ask something and I’d say, ‘Oh that’s the colonial gaze…’”
Because it’s not just talking about students’ favourite TV shows, movies and graphic novels.
The reading list for the class is three pages of serious academic analysis with titles like, The Zombie Manifesto: The Marxist Revolutions in George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead and The sub-subaltern monster: imperialist hegemony and the cinematic voodoo zombie.
And the course outpaces the limping resurrected corpses it uses to peel away pop cultural flesh to gain insight into our present culture.
That modern lens doesn’t just foster interest, but more accurately reflects what goes on today—something you can’t do as well by studying old things in museums.
“It’s everywhere around us and it’s the culture that we take for granted and ignore,” says Blakeborough. “And that’s why I want to unpack it.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, the course is popular. In early October, Blakeborough’s classroom was full, the digital projector filling a screen with the shopping mall that was the setting for most of George Romero’s original Dawn of the Dead.
Students watched the ‘70s film then had an animated discussion about Marxism and consumerism and other topics the movie touched on.
“That course has the most participation and these really great in-depth discussions between everybody,” says Jayme Brown, a third year UFV student who studies graphic design and media and communications.
The Walking Dead was her gateway into the genre, but now that she’s had a more extensive sampling of zombie films, Brown finds herself browsing for other movies about the undead.
She says she bores her boyfriend with zombie analysis and has even gotten her parents into the AMC Walking Dead TV show.
“You can discuss more about what they’re trying to say and I think that adds an element to a TV show or movie that you’re watching,” Brown says. “It’s not just for the gore or action, you’re looking for those other things as well and that makes it more enjoyable, being able to relate it to society now.”
One of the aspects that most intrigued Brown was the origin of the zombie narrative in Haitian voodoo roots.
Most recently though the genre has seen a massive revival, generating approximately $6 billion in 2011.
Blakeborough points to 9/11 for the impetus for that resurgence.
“Because the zombie narrative in and of itself deals with all of those subjects: the foreign invader, the ‘other’ to our ‘us’ and the idea of the war that ensues because of that,” he says. “And we have to kill them before they kill us.”
The hybrid genre that combines horror and science-fiction also takes a more global perspective than earlier predecessors.
“You add on top of that ebola, SARS, the bird flu,” Blakeborough says. “We have this thing about the pandemic in the back of our heads. You watch the news and it’s all about that.”
World War Z, 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later and other movies are not actually about the walking “dead” but the walking “infected”—though they still emerge from the old zombie narrative.
But whether you think the world will end by an unexplainable (or unrealistic) reanimation of the dead, or a virus that turns our race into a rabid, blood-thirsty version of itself, it doesn’t matter.
Because if there’s one important thing Blakeborough’s zombie course teaches eager UFV students, it’s that we already are zombies. The viewers are the subjects, either as mass consumers or refugees or victims of colonialism.
“It’s not about being infected and that’s our horrible future,” he says. “We’re there now, we just don’t know it.
“The zombie doesn’t know they’re a zombie.”