Exploring the undead: University of Baltimore to offer English class on zombies

By Daniel de Vise
Friday, September 10, 2010

Is "Night of the Living Dead" a simple zombie film or a subtle antiwar statement? Precisely when did viral pandemic supplant nuclear radiation as the leading cause of zombification? And which sort of animated dead has the greater potential to frighten: shambler or sprinter?

Those questions and others will be laid to rest -- and then grotesquely revivified -- in a new course at the University of Baltimore called "Media Genres: Zombies."

Arnold Blumberg, a lifelong enthusiast of popular culture in general and zombie films in particular, is among the first university professors to devote a semester to study of the reawakened dead. His course, and recent offerings at Columbia College, Rice University and Georgia Tech, share a common interest in the zombie movie as an expression of the zeitgeist.

Zombies have clawed their way to the center of pop culture over the past decade in several big-budget mainstream films.

There was "28 Days Later," a 2002 British production that revived the genre with hip London zombies that were supremely athletic if not, strictly speaking, dead. And "Dawn of the Dead," a 2004 remake of a George A. Romero classic. And "Shaun of the Dead," the definitive satire. And "Zombieland," the slightly less-definitive satire.

And "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies," the 2009 literary mash-up that has intermittently outsold the Jane Austen original. And "The Walking Dead," the comic awaiting rebirth as an AMC TV series. And annual zombie walks in fashionable urban centers.

"Right now we're in a massive surge of zombie entertainment," said Blumberg, whose University of Baltimore course is English 333, a number that is -- numerologists, take note -- exactly half of 666.

"On the most basic level, zombies are probably one of the most potent horror icons, one of the closest to us in terms of identification factor, in terms of reflecting ourselves," he said. "The zombie is, simply, us."

Blumberg is curator of Geppi's Entertainment Museum, a shrine to popular culture at Baltimore's Camden Yards. He has degrees from the University of Baltimore and the University of Maryland Baltimore County and co-wrote the book "Zombiemania," a scholarly interest possibly surpassed only by his love for the venerable British science fiction series "Dr. Who". He teaches a UMBC course on the comic book as literature.

"Zombiemania" examines 85 zombie movies "to die for." The zombie course covers a mere 16 "classic" titles, from the 1932 Bela Lugosi vehicle "White Zombie" through last year's "Zombieland," the highest-grossing zombie film to date.

"We're looking at how the character of the zombie changes and evolves over the years and how it reflects our culture," Blumberg said.

Even before zombie films became self-aware and artsy, they betrayed the great societal fears of their times. Early zombies obeyed evil voodoo priests and seemed to channel the United States' unresolved issues with race. Nuclear waste spawned Cold War zombies. Romero's gore reminded 1960s viewers of the nightly televised carnage in Vietnam. Millennial zombies -- not actually dead, but hungry and cranky because of viral mutation -- mirror the post-Sept. 11 obsession with pathogen.

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