Euny Hong: Unlike with vampires, zombies are at the forefront of breaking racial boundaries -- a function of good storytelling, not politics
Zombies are equal opportunists -- anyone, regardless of race or background, can become a zombie or a zombie slayer, writes Hong
Editor’s Note: Euny Hong is the author of ”The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World through Pop Culture” (Picador 2014) and “Kept: A Comedy of Sex and Manners” (Simon & Schuster 2006). She was previously an editor at France 24 in Paris, a columnist at the Financial Times, and a Fulbright Young Journalists Fellow in Berlin. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
Vampires were the most popular undead creatures for over a century, far outshining zombies, mummies, Frankenstein monsters and all other dwellers of that liminal space between life and death.
But what good is Halloween if we don’t take annual stock of our views on animated corpses? (The irony you hear in my voice is not just your imagination.) It is time to admit that the Age of the Vampire has been eclipsed and given way to the Age of the Zombie.
Consider this undeniable phenomenon: From its beginnings, the zombie film and television drama has been at the forefront of racial boundary-breaking. This progressiveness is a function of good storytelling, not a liberal political agenda.
In a post-apocalyptic scenario brought on by a highly contagious zombie virus, survival skills are the currency of the realm. Racial stereotyping would be clunky for the plot. There’s no time to compare pedigrees when the involuntary loss of your frontal lobe is at stake.
While the zombie genre has been said to have a fraught history with race, it’s also been a vehicle for breaking down racial boundaries. The mother of all zombie films, George Romero’s 1968 cult classic “Night of the Living Dead,” featured one of the first African-American action heroes in the history of cinema, in the role of Ben (played by Duane Jones, who was a theater director in the State University of New York system).
The sole person of color trapped in a house with hysterical white strangers, Ben alone remains cool-headed. He boards up the windows, seeks medical help for an injured girl and is generally the sole rational decision-maker. Remarkably, no mention is made of his blackness. The one time his tactics are challenged – with no mention of race – he says calmly, “Now get the hell down in the cellar. You can be the boss down there, I’m boss up here!” That is the end of the matter.
Whereas the zombie genre has only been popular for the last five decades or so, vampires had a long head start, having benefited from an unbeatable PR machine. Starting with Bram Stoker’s Dracula and culminating in the “Twilight” franchise, vampires have been depicted as aristocratic and wealthy – immortality is expensive, after all. They are multilingual and acquire all manner of degrees and skills you’d expect from those with a lot of free time. They are intensely erotic and driven by the credo that love is literally eternal.
Zombies, by contrast, are walking putrefaction. No one wants to have sex with them. They are unhygienic and ill-mannered. Vampires at least have the decency not to enter a home uninvited, while zombies from time immemorial have loved nothing better than to shove their arms through boarded-up windows.
But in recent years, public interest has shifted toward the smelly, unmanicured zombie. In 2009, the year before AMC’s zombie series “The Walking Dead” premiered, there were no episodic television series about zombies. Now, there are no fewer than eight such series – “The Walking Dead” (which just broadcast its 100th episode), “Fear of the Walking Dead,” “iZombie,” “Z Nation,” “Ash v. Evil Dead,” “Santa Clarita Diet,” “Let the Right One In” and “Feel the Dead.” (The latter two shows are set to premiere in the coming months.)
Actually, there are nine zombie shows if you include “Game of Thrones,” since we now know that the real threat (spoiler alert) is not being conquered, but being turned into a zombie – or the fear that the White Walkers will turn all humans into members of their undead army.
So, why are we more riveted than ever by these unsympathetic creatures who have lost their minds, autonomy and ability to love?
One reason that leaps to mind is that for some who feel disenfranchised, the zombie’s fate has become increasingly relatable. This first became apparent in October 2011, when a group of Occupy Wall Street protesters started dressing as zombies to make the point that the ruling 1% was stealing everyone’s autonomy. That same year, viewership for AMC’s “The Walking Dead” grew by 32% compared to the previous season: Season 2 had an average audience of 6.91 million viewers per episode, versus 5.23 million an episode for Season 1.
One of the most popular characters in “The Walking Dead” was that of Glenn Rhee, a Korean-American (played by Steven Yeun, also Korean-American). Glenn’s storyline was closely followed by every Korean-American I know. In October 2015, when a friend of mine mysteriously wrote on Facebook “F- you, Walking Dead, I’m done,” I knew without having seen the show that something had happened to Glenn.
As with the character Ben from the aforementioned “Night of the Walking Dead,” Glenn’s ethnicity is not a punch line. Nor is it a precursor to explaining an adeptness at martial arts. Glenn is simply a former pizza delivery boy with excellent survival skills. And in the true meritocracy that is the zombie-plagued world, his skills are king.
The height of zombie popularity comes at a time when the movement to increase diversity in film is more vocal than ever, giving rise to hashtags like #StarringJohnCho -- a series of photoshopped images that imagined a world in which the Korean-American actor could be cast as a romantic or heroic lead in a major Hollywood film. In 2016, #MakeMulanRight arose from reports of an allegedly leaked Disney script for the live-action version of Mulan, which may have featured a white sailor as its male protagonist.
And in recent years, there has been increasing public furor over whitewashing in Hollywood casting, with Asian-Americans threatening film boycotts over the matter of Asian roles being given to actors like Emma Stone, Tilda Swinton and Ed Skrein. The latter ultimately bowed out of a role in the upcoming film “Hellboy,” so that the Asian character could be played by an Asian actor. The role eventually went to the Korean-American actor Daniel Dae Kim.
Zombies tap into very contemporary fears among people of color. It’s not for nothing the widely-circulated “Black People’s Guide to Game of Thrones,” published online at The Root, compares the White Walker invasion to the rise of white supremacy.
Get our free weekly newsletter
Vampire stories are still very popular, but vampires possess certain qualities that are rather unappealing for a woke world. Some vampires attained undead status voluntarily, because they are unable to accept their mortality. They made a Faustian bargain.
To become a vampire is to insist on privilege at the expense of others. They suffer no consequences for hurting their bodies, so they are impervious to the dangers of drug abuse or unprotected sex. They are sociopaths. Narcissists. They are inherently supremacists. They think they are better than everyone else.
Meanwhile, no one – but no one – wants to be a zombie. Anyone can fall victim to the zombie virus. Anyone, regardless of race or background, can become a zombie. And anyone, regardless of race or background, can become a zombie slayer.