George Romero’s 1968 film, “Night of the Living Dead,” helped inspire the popularity of zombies that continued with “Dawn of the Dead” (1978) and more recent pictures like “Land of the Dead” (2005) and the Robert Kirkman comic and TV phenomenon “The Walking Dead,” now in its sixth season on AMC, along with this year’s spinoff “Fear the Walking Dead.”
That popularity is due partly to the zombies’ adaptability in fiction. They can represent a number of things.
Zombies can serve as an analog for the homeless, the dispossessed. They can represent the refuse generated by an accelerating global economy.
Or zombies, characters famously unaware of their surroundings, might even symbolize … you, says David Castillo, University at Buffalo professor of romance languages and literatures, who will discuss the zombies’ destructive hunger in the next Scholars on the Road lecture presented by the UB College of Arts and Sciences.
Now in its third season, Scholars on the Road features UB faculty discussing their research and areas of expertise with alumni, taking the classroom experience and sharing it with UB alumni here in Buffalo and around the country.
“David was our first speaker when we started Scholars on the Road three years ago,” says Bruce Pitman, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “We’re excited to welcome him back to the series that he helped make such a success – plus a talk on zombies is great fun for Halloween!”
Castillo’s talk “Why Zombies? Why Now?” happens Oct. 27 at 6 p.m. at Hodgson Russ, 1540 Broadway #24 in New York City.
Castillo says Romero’s zombie films may be interpreted as commentaries on consequences of globalization. And his zombies have evolved, with one particular zombie in his 2005 film even developing a sense of self-consciousness, as he breaks his gaze from a fireworks display that distracts and ultimately dooms his comrades.
“That a zombie takes stock of his own situation is something that doesn’t happen in any other zombie movie I’ve seen,” says Castillo. “The fireworks spectacle allows mercenaries to approach the zombies, with one exception, with heavy weaponry and massacre them.”
“This can be read as an allegory to the spectacular media we are all consumed by, to the point that we are unware of being on an unsustainable course.”
Romero’s films are typically low-budget ventures, but Castillo says the director may have actually run away from blockbuster opportunities, preferring the freedom and cinematic agility of B-movies.
But because Romero has installed this foundational idea of zombies, even in the hands of other directors and writers, zombies have become proficient agents of the apocalypse.
“The reasons zombies have become rich imagery in these kind of apocalyptic scenarios in which they’re embedded are numerous, but all of them are related to this notion that we are living in the end of time,” says Castillo. “We are consuming ourselves and can’t seem to do anything about it.”
“We’re not looking away from the spectacle, like Romero’s self-aware extraordinary zombie,” says Castillo.
“We don’t give ourselves time to pause and think about the overwhelming messaging that comes to us all the time from all sides,” he says. “And I believe one of the priorities of a humanities education is to help us hit that pause button so we have time to think about the images we consume.
“Speaking from the perspective of a cultural studies educator I would say one of the most important callings for humanities scholars is to help students develop media literacy, not technical skills, but learning how to think about how we interact with certain forms of media and how that media frames the world with ourselves in it.
“Most of our world is framed by the borders of handheld devices,” says Castillo, but he says futurists speculate that technology may someday allow us to also choose what we see in the world, just as we do with electronic media decisions, with editing reality glasses that might make assumptions about what we ought to see and what we ought not to see or even want to see.
“The real point of this speculation is that it’s happening already,” says Castillo. “The media is making those decisions. So we don’t hear about news from land-leasing devastation in Africa; we don’t see miles of garbage floating in the ocean; we live as if global warming is not real.
“I think the zombies are that reminder that everything we are neglecting to see and rejecting from our field of vision can come back to haunt us – and in fact will.”