Beginnings and Bloodlines of Vampires and Revenants

John Edgar Browning
John Edgar Browning

Of the particular vampire fiction that has, in the last 1960s, crossed over into film and subsequently redefined the vampire subgenre — that is to say, dismantled its “inherited conventions of the particular filmic kind in order to display [its] formal and ideological complexity, but also in order to put them back together, so to speak, in better working condition than before”, to borrow from Carl Freedman’s (2002: 91) analysis of the works of Stanly Kubrick — none in this category has achieved greater distinction perhaps than Richard Matheson’s 1954 vampire novel ‘I Am Legend’.

The novel’s first years alone saw at least four editions, from Fawcett (New York), Buccaneer (Cutchogue, New York), Nelson Doubleday (Garden City, New York) and Walker (New York), and the next five years would bring the novel’s first international editions, with ‘Je suis une légende’ (Paris: Denoël, 1955), translated by Claude Elsen; ‘I Am Legend’ (London: Transworld, 1956); and ‘Soy leyenda’ (Buenos Aires: Minotauro, 1960).

In hindsight, these early years merely foreshadow the novel’s resilience, which has scarcely diminished after sixty-four editions and fourteen international translations.

Breaking from the long tradition of vampire fiction before the 1950s, Matheson’s novel, to borrow again from Freedman (2002: 91), “offers a critical reflection on its respective generic framework, working to lay bare the absolute presuppositions of the latter — while at the same time also exemplifying its genre with rare brilliance”.

More precisely, Matheson’s vampires diffuse from their literary foreparents: figures “derived from folklore but now bearing precious little resemblance to them”, as observed by Paul Barber (1988: 2).

The vampires of Matheson’s text resemble rather the relatively older, pre-literary revenant, the peasantry’s vampire. Hailing from some distant land far removed from the civilized capitals of Europe, the revenant is typically a local villager who returns from the dead to attack his family and neighbours.

In this regard, ‘I Am Legend’ comes to us much in the same vein as the “protostrain” of zombie films preceding the novel, famously with ‘White Zombie’ (1932). The zombie of the proto-strain, like its Eastern European cousin the revenant, is generally portrayed as a distant, geographically isolated and relatively surmountable (i.e. “single”) threat. Matheson’s zombie-vampires (vampirezombies?), on the other hand, diverge from this earlier conception, helping to birth what would eventually become an entirely new breed of zombie.

Prompting this study are two things. First is the need to map out the structural principia upon which modern zombies have generally come to be defined. Second, and perhaps more crucial, is the need to resituate the (terato) genesis of the modern zombie cinemyth to Matheson’s novel, which has been obscured or devalued over time by the work of George Romero and an ever-increasing body of films and video games that has followed in the wake of Romero’s films.

My contention, however, is not to diminish the significance of Romero’s filmic work and its impact on zombie cinema. Rather, I wish to recognize both Matheson’s and Romero’s respective configurations of the zombie mythos that have helped to institute, indistinct but overlapping ways, the particular tropes with which film-makers and video game designers continue to embody zombies.

The present study shall consider these tropes, while offering an account of their narrative complexity and continuous hybridization by other, more non-traditional, genres and narrative forms.

An intersectional analysis of earlier zombie films with the more recent ones is therefore instructive for understanding not only the function of these narratives within a general zombie discourse, but also the historicity underlying the most recent string of iterations: video games.

Before proceeding, however, an overview of Matheson’s novel and a brief outline of the zombie’s filmic progeny and its particular strains are essential.

To begin, while Matheson’s text is among the first works of fiction to graft the vampire and zombie mythos with dystopian elements, its principal narratological features have gone relatively unnoted.

Specifically, the novel’s greatest achievements lie in the way it forever infuses the figure of the zombie with mob-like tendencies; after ‘I Am Legend’, the zombie would no longer be understood in mere singular terms, but would instead comprise an insurmountable force – or “multiple threat”, a term I shall reiterate later.

Moreover, because the central “threat” in the story is re-centred around the Gothic edifice or enclosure (in this case, a house), rather than inside it, the setting depicted in Matheson’s novel is an inversion of typical Gothic space and geography.

As a result of this viable combination, ‘I Am Legend’ and its male protagonist, Robert Neville, reaped the success of a three-film cycle over the next half a century, starting with American International Pictures’s ‘The Last Man on Earth’ (1964),5 starring Vincent Price as Robert Morgan.

Later, two films would follow from Warner Brothers: ‘The Omega Man’ (1971), starring Charlton Heston as Robert Neville, and more recently ‘I Am Legend’ (2007), this time with Will Smith in the lead role.

This cycle of “straight” filmic adaptations (hereafter referred to as the “first strain”) attests to the novel’s enduring “generic framework”, as Freedman puts it. Even more strikingly, the teratological qualities that help to distinguish Matheson’s zombie are less foreign in nature than recognizably domestic.

Namely, the novel firmly de-orientalizes the figure of the zombie by relocating it from its previously exotic locale, to the western spheres of suburbia and civilization, what Bernice M. Murphy (2009: 15) describes as the genre’s latest “valid gothic site”. It is here that the zombie and the pronouncedly anglicized bodies and faces of families, friends and neighbours are forever after merged.

By the late-1960s, however, Matheson’s novel would engender a vastly larger “second strain” comprised mainly of filmic offshoots. This body of films is, by comparison, culturally and socio-politically more prolific than what we see evidenced in the “straight” filmic adaptations of the first strain.

To adequately address this second strain, I turn to Caroline J. S. Picart (2004: 336–37), who similarly argues that Rhona Berenstein’s description of the struggle between ideologically conservative and progressive elements in classic horror “is actually more visible in hybrid genre offshoots (as opposed to the classic or ‘straight’ horror versions) of the Frankensteinian narrative, as in ‘Alien Resurrection’” (1996: 10).

In line with Picart’s (2004: 336–37) analysis, I approach the filmic progeny of the second strain along a similar course: that “The ‘meaning’ of the[se] film[s] resists being fixed by ‘one’ reading but reveals these various forces at work”.

In what follows, I will situate George Romero’s ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (1968) and the sequel ‘Dawn of the Dead’ (1978) as zombie films proper, the locus classicus of the second strain.

These films, I would argue, are consistent with Freedman’s (2002: 91) postulation concerning similar horror films, in that they too provide “a rich theoretical meditation on the (much undertheorized) genre of horror itself, suggesting the historical function and ideological limits of horror as well as the complex involvement of horror with the whole category of historicity.”

Furthermore, evidence for both Picart’s and Freedman’s respective claims lies visibly across the second strain, which signals a body of films that is consistent with, yet has mutated considerably from, Matheson’s original narrative.

While previous scholarship has examined, in considerable depth, the highly lucrative business end of Romero’s low-budget reconfiguration of the zombie archetype with ‘Night of the Living Dead’, as well as its impact on subsequent zombie pictures in the second strain, this study shall focus primarily on teratogenic and narratological concerns.

The second strain has consistently preserved two essential Mathesonian elements that have remained staples in nearly every subsequent zombie narrative for the last half a century.

It is my contention that the preservation of these elements has allowed the second strain to continue to speak to us through its numerous cinematic retellings.

The first of these elements is Matheson’s threaten masse, or “multiple threat” [a term I borrow from Gregory A. Waller (1986), whose work informs this essay heavily]. Similarly, on the fantastic biologies of monsters, Noël Carroll (1990: 50) makes a similar point in his discussion of “massification”, that is to say, augmenting, or massing, the threat phobic objects pose.

The second, and least recognized, of these elements is what I shall refer to as the “survival space”: the edifice or enclosure in ‘I Am Legend’ in which Neville — the world’s only survivor — is forced to defend, fortify and survive.

However, the “survival space” in ‘Night of the Living Dead’ is one in which more than one survivor simultaneously occupies and defends against the “multiple threat”. Thus, the result is a more socially and politically volatile enclosure (in stark contrast to Neville’s singly defended “survival space” in the first strain). Despite their origination, these particular features leave us with a key issue that continues to be overlooked or remain unacknowledged.

Many tend to credit these essential elements to the work of Romero. A recent example of this oversight can be found in the important work of Kim Paffenroth (2006). Concerning the zombie’s cinematic beginnings, Paffenroth (2006: 1) writes, “When one speaks of zombie movies today, one is really speaking of movies that are either made by or directly influenced by George A. Romero”.

Paffenroth goes on to say that “Romero’s landmark film, ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (1968), has defined the zombie genre since its release”.

However, the significant elements to which Paffenroth here alludes (i.e. the indiscriminate and voracious nature of the zombie’s hunger, coupled with its advanced decompositional state; the multiplicity and insurmountability by which it threatens humanity; and the “survival space”, whose occupants must, together, fortify in order to protect the enclosure from what is “outside”, coping all the while with the bleak sense of disparity and hopelessness around them) are distinctly Matheson’s.

On the other hand, what is unquestionably Romero’s, as Paffenroth aptly illustrates, is the enduring pliability Romero imparts to the genre with the second strain, by reconfiguring the “survival space” into a repository for socially turbulent — and predominantly anti-capitalist — configurations, conservative and progressive negotiation, and hierarchical discourses concerning class, race and gender.

While some critics have pointed out that the zombie en masse did indeed begin with Matheson, it is scarcely acknowledged that the “survival space” is also his conception, perhaps because critics rarely treat the predominantly monolithic construction of the “survival space” in the first strain.

Thus, the question I take up below is a simple one. Stated briefly: What do Matheson’s “survival space” and infectious, zombie-producing pandemic owe then to Romero’s anti-capitalist (re)configurations of the “survival space” in ‘Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Dawn of the Dead’?

It seems to me, and this shall be the chief position of this article, that the intricacies of the multi- rather than singly defended “survival space” introduced in ‘Night of the Living Dead’ have not only afforded the second strain its longevity, but more crucially, offer us the most compelling conceptual tool with which to trace the trajectory of the second strain, anticipating, in its design, according to Tony Williams (2003: 29), “Romero’s later attacks on the government/ military/media, and scientific establishments”.

By this, I am offering that the “survival space” has continuously lent the second strain its most fundamentally entertaining and dramatic qualities, permitting it to function as a highly porous “public performance space”, one in which political tensioning has swelled and contracted in every sequel, adaptation and hybridization of the zombie films I have observed since Romero’s ‘Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Dawn of the Dead’ (Picart 2004: 335).

Picart (2004: 334–35) identifies “cinemyths” as “public performance spaces within which patriarchal and matriarchal myths compete with each other, and where conservative and progressive ideological forces struggle against each other in working through collective anxieties, traumas, or aspirations”.

In line with Picart’s model, Tom E. Tollefson (1998: 27) offers that “Films may be an ideal medium for generating myths that map the rapidly shifting landscape of the twentieth-century” Tollefson (1998: 108) further adds that “These ‘cinemyths’ […] always bear the stamp of a particular time, place, and culture”.

Later, the second strain’s porosity and versatility would incite cross-pollinations between the film and the video gaming industries as well. Thus, “survival horror” video game titles are, for our purposes here, particularly beneficial to outlining the second strain, and therefore call for examination.

However, because the socio-historical development of the “survival space” is a complex one, an examination of its interiority, is an equally complex endeavour.

It is for this reason that I find a Marxist reading particularly useful as an interpretative tool, though to provide a balanced view its use shall be primarily one of synthesis with other scholarly works that treat the zombie’s structural and representational development.

It is not my goal here to provide totalizing remarks about the political landscape of the second strain. Rather, this study hopes to reveal the rich history of dialogue between these texts. Thus, have I drawn necessarily from previous Marxist scholarship, while relying heavily on production and distribution history, reception history and print culture to help elucidate the zombie subgenre’s complex inner workings.

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