Weekly Features


IU professor edits new book on zombies

Sept. 10, 2014

IU Bloomington English professor Ed Comentale's new book, "The Year's Work at the Zombie Research Center," makes the undead come to life.

Not literally, of course. But each chapter uses the zombie as a lens to examine larger trends and ideas in contemporary culture -- there's even one focused on "Zombie Cocktails," complete with recipes. The book is part of a series published by IU Press dedicated to the theory, analysis and interpretation of recent and contemporary fan cultural phenomena.

Ed Comentale


Enter to win

Current IU faculty and staff using a valid IU email address can enter to win Comentale's book, “The Year's Work at the Zombie Research Center," a $26 value, from IU Press. The contest opens Sept. 10 and closes 4 p.m. Monday, Sept. 15, 2014.

Comentale, who also has a Tumblr and an IU Press podcast focused on the topic, recently shared some of his thoughts on the book:

Q: You've said the idea for this book came from one of the College of Arts and Sciences' Courses in Critical Approaches classes. Talk about what the germination process looked like.

A: CAPPS courses are meant to introduce students to a range of disciplines in the College of Arts and Sciences, and zombies just seemed like a natural fit. You really need a full roster of Arts and Sciences wonks to nail down the topic in any significant way: historians, philosophers, biologists, political scientists, film scholars, etc. During the course, we read Aristotle and Spinoza on ethics, Hurston on Haitian folklore, Sontag on disease, along with a host of others. It strikes me more and more that today’s zombie culture serves as a kind of vernacular forum for raising the kinds of questions that have always been central to work in the humanities -- questions about the nature of human being, of course, as well as civics, ethics, political organization, religion. These kinds of questions became the different chapters of our book. 

It’s funny, really, how there always seems to be at least one professor who has survived the zombie outbreak. H.P. Lovecraft’s protagonists are often professors, demented tenured radicals. Victor Frankenstein and Herbert West are professors; they’ve just dispensed with the human consent forms. Zombie research is a major theme of Romero’s famous saga as well as "The Walking Dead." It’s not all chainsaws and baseball bats. You need these people around, it seems, to make sense of it all.

Q: Discuss the topics and scholars who contributed chapters for this book.

A: "The Year’s Work at the Zombie Research Center" is a textbook of sorts -- or, rather, it’s an impossible textbook. It’s written for a world in which there are no more students around to read textbooks, no more TIS to stock them, no more classes, no more universities, no more publishers or public funding. To put a point on it, these are conditions that a lot of professors have to imagine for themselves today. We talk about scholars as survivors in the book, doing serious brainwork in a world with limited resources and public sympathy. We’re not just interested in zombies, but the zombified state of knowledge today and how, as scholars in the Arts and Sciences, we might breathe a little life back into it. 

The chapters cover broad topics: zombie demographics, zombie metabolism, zombie race, zombie media, zombie feminism. In each case, we use the zombie as a lens, a way of magnifying larger trends and ideas in contemporary culture. We’re not working in metaphors, though. A chapter on zombie physiology, written by my good friend Jack Raglin in IU’s Kinesiology Department, uses real zombie footage to track the locomotive capacities of the zombie body and then calculate its daily dietary needs. Another paper, by Tatjana Soldat-Jaffe, a linguist, studies zombie speech patterns and links them back to the mystical Hebrew tradition of the Golem. We know there are a lot of zombie fans out there who’ll eat this stuff up, but, as it turns out, you can get most full-grown Americans to think about anything as long as you lead with a zombie example.

Students dressed as zombies

IU Bloomington students dress up as zombies during one of Ed Comentale's classes in 2012. | PHOTO COURTESY OF ED COMENTALE

Q: Talk about why zombies are still hot, despite years of popularity, and what makes them perfect as a foil for this type of book?

A: As long as there have been human cultures, there have been zombies. The undead appear in Virgil’s "Eclogues," in the New Testament, the medieval legend of “The Three Living and the Three Dead.” Et in Arcadia Ego, as the saying goes. An equally prominent line extends from the African slave trade through Haiti to early 20th-century Hollywood, where zombies no longer serve as metaphors of slave labor, but rampant consumerism -- what Kanye West calls “New Slaves.” A lot of this international tradition informs the current zombie craze, but I think our interest today stems from a different set of fears and obsessions. Today’s zombies have us thinking in entirely new scales -- both the microscopic, in terms of germs and viruses, and the macroscopic, as the herd or horde, the international, the global. Today’s zombie culture is focused less on the metaphorical identity of the zombie than on the zombie landscape as a ruined landscape, one in which seemingly secure boundaries -- of body and germ, self and other, nation and world -- seem to be under constant threat. Today’s zombie texts allow us to focus that terror, helping us think about our environments and ecologies and perhaps pushing us to find better ways of placing ourselves in the world.

Q: And for you specifically, this is the latest in a series of fun topics -- the Big Lebowski, James Bond, American popular music. Talk about the intersection of your work and popular culture.

A: I’ve long been fascinated by how certain objects -- poems, paintings, records, celebrities -- circulate in our culture and how they’re used by different people seeking agency and expression. But I’m a formalist by training. Whether I’m studying a modernist novel or a contemporary pop song, I want to know how it works, how its unique formal qualities play on our emotions and focus our investments. As for this series with IU Press, which I co-edit with Aaron Jaffe from the University of Louisville, it’s dedicated to exploring the ways that fans think and talk about the things they love and how their intellectual practices might enliven our own academic projects. This is why the books in our series tend to emerge out of undergraduate classrooms and public fan-fests rather than academic symposia. There are many ways of making the world meaningful, and we’ve found that our work has been most dynamic when we bring other geeks and obsessives into the mix.

Q: Any parting thoughts on the undead?

A: While putting the book together, I was most surprised by the range of emotional responses that people have toward zombies. Our introduction addresses what we call “virophilia,” the contemporary fascination with contagions, plagues and viruses as well as the obsessive tracking of such disasters back to their presumed origins. For many people, though, including some of our writers, zombies are really just sick people, elderly people, homeless people -- people in need of care. It’s perhaps no surprise that zombie culture has grown popular again, especially for teens, along with what’s called “sick lit”-- young adult literature that focuses on diseased or dying lovers. I finally had the chance to read "The Fault in Our Stars" last month, and it struck me as one of the most beautiful zombie-free zombie stories ever written. “No one likes a corpse, after all,” says Hazel, the narrator. She’s a teenage cancer patient, desperately trying to manage her disease. There’s a lot to think about here, and feel. The claims of the undead are hard to shake.

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