The Undead Intelligentsia: Highbrow Zombies in Pop Culture

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Zombies, somewhat inexplicably, have captured the attentions of American culture and don’t seem to be letting go anytime soon. Most representations, however, as perhaps best befits the shambling, brain eating, flailing creatures, are deliciously low-brow, from low budget horror films to trashy fright night novels — that is, until this week, when Colson Whitehead’s Zone One hit the shelves, reminding us all that zombies can be intellectual too. His literary use of the undead walkers in his post-apocalyptic vision of New York has led us to consider other high-brow treatments of zombies in pop culture, which have slowly been emerging to varying degrees of success as the gross-out creatures continue to gain popularity. Click through to see a few of our favorite highbrow zombies across the board, and let us know if we’ve missed any in the comments.

Zone One , Colson Whitehead

Mac Arthur Genius grant-winning author Colson Whitehead sixth novel is, inexplicably to some, about zombies. And it’s great. As Whitehead told The Atlantic, “When I was starting the book, I would say, ‘I’m writing a horror novel with zombies.’ And my sort of bookish friends would say [adopts a clipped, defensive tone]: ‘I don’t like zombies. I don’t like zombie books.’ And I’d ask them, ‘Well, what zombie books have you read? What zombie films have you seen?’ None. So people who are inside horror culture have their own ideas about zombies, and the people outside have their own stereotypes about zombies. What I tried to do with the book was embrace some of the conventions of the film genre, and reject others. By keeping what I like, and throwing out what I don’t, I hopefully can expand people’s ideas about this type of horror story.”

The Walking Dead

Originally a black and white comic book series, AMC’s post-zombie-apocalypse drama has been highly acclaimed by critics, and no wonder: like the best of AMC and HBO dramas, it looks and feels like a high-quality film, but has all the quick payoffs and runtime of television. Though this show doesn’t have much of anything we haven’t seen before in the zombie arena, it’s still probably the smartest thing you can watch about zombies right now. You don’t even have to lie and tell your snobby friends you’re watching Mad Men.

Zombies vs. Robots , Chris Ryall and Ashley Wood

Sure, the name sounds like the cheesiest thing in the world — don’t worry, we thought so too when we heard about it. But as stark as the title may be (anyone wondering what this graphic novel is about?), the illustrations are weird and disturbingly beautiful at times, the story is simple and satisfying, and the vision is unique, even among the genre. In fact, the rights to the book have been picked up by Sony, now producing a film based on the story called Inherit the Earth, to be directed by robot-maestro Michael Bay. We don’t have our hopes pinned on a totally high-brow movie treatment, but you never know.

World War Z , Max Brooks

The follow up to Max Brooks’ tongue-in-cheek Zombie Survival Guide, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War is a post-apocalyptic horror novel treated in an fairly unusual fashion: instead of a grand narrative and a hero pitted against the denizens of the rotten world, Brooks collects testimony and first person narrative from the remaining population 10 years after the zombie war, the author playing the role of a United Nations Postwar Commission agent putting together a report. The fractured style makes the novel seem almost a collection of short stories, all linked to one inexplicable event.

“They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh!”, Sufjan Stevens

See, even much-lauded, hyper-intellectual indie rockers love zombies. On Illinois, one of the most beloved albums by the gentle crooner Sufjan Stevens, you can find this gem not-so-discreetly nestled among his other insanely-titled tracks. The song is about (in part) the ghost towns of Illinois, and Stevens offers his own idea for the restlessness of the zombies, singing “I know, I know the nations past/ I know, I know they rust at last/ They tremble with the nervous thought/ Of having been, at last, forgot…”

The US Center of Disease Control’s Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response Social Media Campaign

You know zombies are it when a national health organization is using them to advertise disaster awareness. One day this spring, on the CDC’s blog, a page popped up entitled ‘Preparedness 101: The Zombie Apocalypse.’ The article begins, “There are all kinds of emergencies out there that we can prepare for. Take a zombie apocalypse for example. That’s right, I said z-o-m-b-i-e a-p-o-c-a-l-y-p-s-e. You may laugh now, but when it happens you’ll be happy you read this, and hey, maybe you’ll even learn a thing or two about how to prepare for a real emergency.” The campaign has been wildly successful, and the CDC has even come out with a novella teaching people about disaster-preparedness via zombies. It may seem like a gimmick, and it is, but it’s also one of the smartest uses of zombies we’ve ever seen.

Jillian McDonald’s zombie-based video installations and performance art

Artist Jillian McDonald creates video installations and performance art pieces inspired by zombie culture, and of course, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. The photo above is from an installation at the Michael Rosenthal Gallery in San Francisco, where gallery-goers could be transformed into zombies while watching McDonald’s art about people transforming into zombies. So meta right now.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies , Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

So sure, this is kind of bastardized fan fiction, but it’s smart bastardized fan fiction. Though the actual text is somewhat silly, we put this in the high-brow category for concept alone, and plus — there’s still some Jane Austen in there, and she’s a pretty important literary figure, we guess.

Pontypool Changes Everything , Tony Burgess

Though the affliction that spreads through the population in Burgess’s fantastic 1998 novel isn’t quite zombie-ism as we typically imagine it today, it’s pretty close, and all the more horrifying for its deviations from the norm. As Bruce McDonald, who directed the 2009 film adaptation of the book explained, “There are three stages to this virus. The first stage is you might begin to repeat a word. Something gets stuck. And usually it’s words that are terms of endearment like sweetheart or honey. The second stage is your language becomes scrambled and you can’t express yourself properly. The third stage you become so distraught at your condition that the only way out of the situation you feel, as an infected person, is to try and chew your way through the mouth of another person.” Driven by compulsion on a rampage where you eat others? Sounds like zombies to us, only even scarier, since the disease is based on a corruption of language. Better still is Burgess’ writing, which captivates, surprises, and chills.

Sean Bieri’s Cartoons

Cartoonist, illustrator and graphic designer Sean Bieri has done a lot of great work, but our favorites have got to be his witty zombie-based cartoons. From zombies at dinner to hungover zombies to zombies at Christmas, Bieri uses the undead trope to swipe at American culture, albeit in a hilarious way. See more of his work here.