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English Course Explores Zombie Literature

Class Capitalizes on Fascination with All Things Zombie

November 9, 2012

Brooke Byrne has a taste for human flesh as she attacks Erik Hammar. Several students in the zombie literature class teamed with some from Lois Hock's stage make-up class to create a minor zombie uprising Thursday afternoon.

Brooke Byrne has a taste for human flesh as she attacks Erik Hammar. Several students in the zombie literature class teamed with some from Lois Hock's stage make-up class to create a minor zombie uprising Thursday afternoon.

Once the domain of little more than a cult following, zombies have taken American popular culture by storm. A course at Wilmington College is delving into this fascination with the undead.

James McNelis’ class, “Varieties of Literature: Zombies, The Walking Dead,” is exploring the phenomenon that first gained traction with George A. Romero’s 1968 low budget film, Night of the Living Dead, and has exploded in recent years with a hit television series, bestselling books, video games and an upcoming film starring A-List actor Brad Pitt.

“Some of my students have played the video games and most are fans of the TV show,” said, McNelis, associate professor of English, noting that class discussion “runs the gamut” of all things zombie.

AMC’s The Walking Dead, now in its third season, has propelled a somewhat obscure cable channel into ratings nirvana.

“This show might have the largest viewership of any series this year — even more than the major networks,” he said.

Couple the series’ success with the much-anticipated Paramount film, World War Z, scheduled for June release and based on Max Brooks’ bestselling 2006 novel, which has more than a million copies in print. That film reportedly cost $170 million compared with Romero’s $114,000 cult classic that really started it all.

(LEFT) From the left are Brooke Byrne, Veronica Pitzer and Emily Porter.

Indeed, it was a subsequent paperback version of Night of the Living Dead that caught McNelis’ attention while in high school.

“I had nightmares for years,” he said.

However, when the nightmares subsided, his fascination with zombies continued.

McNelis explained the concept of zombies originated in pre-World War II West Africa and Haiti, and involved a voodoo spirit reviving a dead body. While the class used that as a starting point for discussion, its main focus quickly shifted to zombies in contemporary America.

“We understand the Romero definition — corpses that want to eat living people,” he said. “A lot of zombie literature involves last survivors of nuclear war.”

McNelis said zombie literature constitutes a sub-genre of fantasy literature, which has become the most popular — witness the smashing literary success of the Harry Potter series, The Twilight Saga and The Lord of the Rings.

(RIGHT) The original poster for George A. Romero's 1968 film Night of the Living Dead.

Class reading features three zombie-related books: Brooks’ post-apocalyptic World War Z; the 2011 mystery Zombie, Ohio: A Tale of the Undead by Scott Kenemore; and Richard Matheson’s 1954, horror fiction novel I Am Legend, which inspired Romero’s film.

The latter has been made into several popular films, Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price in 1964, The Omega Man with Charlton Heston in 1971 and 2007’s I Am Legend with Will Smith.

Also, the class, which saw the season-premiere of The Walking Dead in October, is viewing the zombie films: Last Man on Earth (1964), Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and his sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1978); also, Return of the Living Dead (1985), 28 Days Later (2002) and, if time permits, the zombie comedy, Shaun of the Dead (2004).

Pop star Michael Jackson’s 14-minute, 1983 MTV hit, Thriller, is the most popular zombie film ever, McNelis said.

Erik Hammar is a junior from Stockholm, Sweden. He possesses an astute interest in American popular culture, especially film. Romero’s original film sparked his curiosity about zombies — indeed, he had seen several films on McNelis’ class viewing list and other zombie cinema long before enrolling in the course.

“Personally, I prefer films over books but I’m sure a zombie novel could be as good as a zombie film,” he said. “I read World War Z, which might be the most famous zombie book to date, and was a bit disappointed. I have higher hopes for its film adaptation with Brad Pitt.”

Junior Alaina Hovey is a “huge fan” of The Walking Dead series, which piqued her interest in taking McNelis’ course.

(LEFT) Zombies are pictured from Night of the Living Dead.

“I find the whole idea of a zombie outbreak or an apocalypse of any kind psychologically interesting,” she said. “I was really excited when I saw zombie literature was going to be a class.

“I’m glad Wilmington offers classes such as this to let our inner-child run wild during what could be a boring, writing component class.”

McNelis has offered a number of special-themed literature courses through the years, including The Lord of the Rings trilogy, time travel and Japanese popular culture.

Junior Mason Metts is a veteran of a previous McNelis-instructed course.

“I took the zombies class knowing that Professor McNelis presents class material in very interesting ways,” he said. “Upon entering the class, I didn’t realize how much there was to zombies. It’s been interesting to learn what drives people to be fascinated by such ghoulish figures.”

World War Z author Brooks believes there is more than simply good marketing involved in the zombie craze. In fact, he thinks zombies have a mainstream following at least partially based upon a palpable and prevalent sense of fear and dread in modern society.

“I think they reflect our very real anxieties of these crazy scary times,” Brooks said on his Website. “A zombie story gives people a fictional lens to see the real problems of the world.

“You can deal with societal breakdown, famine, disease, chaos in the streets, but as long as the catalyst for all of them is zombies, you can still sleep.”

(RIGHT) Emily Porter and Katie Campbell.

Metts, who “dabbles in survivalism,” said much could be gained by preparing for the end of the world, whether by nuclear winter, pandemic disease or attacks by hoards of the walking dead. “We have learned proper ways to fend off the zombies and what it takes to make it alive out of a zombie apocalypse,” he said.

McNelis isn’t all that concerned about threats from legions of zombies; rather, he said such pandemics-in-waiting as bird flu pose the very real possibility of someday killing thousands/millions around the world.

He said the survivalist’s hobby is simply figuring out how one would react in the face of extraordinary circumstances and putting in place procedures and provisions for surviving them.

“Doing a little zombie apocalypse preparation is probably in everybody’s best interest,” he said.