Author Bob Curran explores the facts and folklores circulating about the undead in the impressive Zombies: A Field Guide to the Walking Dead. The guide looks at the supernatural figure through a wide cultural and historical lens, covering the ancient and medieval periods up to the modern age. Discussing beliefs and tales from Europe to Africa, Middle East and the Far East, the intention of the writer quickly becomes clear — to send you screaming through the door. The graphics by Ian Daniels almost surpass the book’s content with their shocking intensity. Beautiful and powerfully evocative, these gothic illustrations add to the haunting texture of the pages.
One of the most ingrained images in our psyche is of the African Zombie, most probably owing to early cinema with films such as I Walked with a Zombie, King of the Zombies and Return of the Zombie, among others. Curran, of course, examines the role of voodoo derived from Haiti, Africa, and the Caribbean in the creation of these terrifying creatures, dispelling some of the myths surrounding the belief system along the way. He explains that voodoo is not actually a religion: “Rather it is an umbrella term for a number of spirit-based beliefs and interpretations that have emerged out of Africa and South America.”
Zombies: A Field Guide to the Walking Dead also covers diverse topics from Jesus’s resurrection to the body-snatching trade prevalent in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Although seeming to go off the point here, the author argues that the idea of the grave robbers, or ‘Resurrectionists’, was essential in the shaping of the corporeal dead figure in society’s imagination at that time.
Curran, author of another similar book – Vampires: A Field Guide to the Creatures That Stalk the Night - and other folkloric textbooks, presents a well-researched history of a “complex belief system” which he covers in the first half of the guide, setting the scene for ‘Zombie Culture’ in the second half, a topic which discusses how the image of the “walking dead man” has been cultivated in our minds today, highlighting films such as Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978 and 2004) and fiction such as Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954) and popular comics and anthologies like Zombie Island and The Walking Dead. Although the author mentions these films and fictions, the content would have been more absorbing if he had investigated the root cause of the revival of the animated corpse in popular culture. What was going on in the cultural psyche of the times when Zombie movies and books became popular? The answer to this question would have added more meat to the discussion.
Nonetheless, another piece of intriguing information is how this supernatural entity is portrayed in the pre-Islamic beliefs of Arab cultures. We discover that the djinn (spirits) are capable of reviving the dead in the shape of a guul – “a form of angel or demon that might possess and animate the bodies of the dead, usually for evil purposes.” Interestingly, the one thing these zombies from around the world seem to have in common is that they are intent on malevolence and appear to enjoy wreaking havoc on the living - not to mention their penchant for human flesh…
The author argues that it is in fact Eastern Europe that is “most strongly associated with the walking dead.” The image of the Vampire, after all, was born from the depths of this obscure region. Curran goes on to explore Egyptian mummies, the “living mummies” of Japan, and Chinese and Indian mythos, as well as ancient and modern legends from other Isles not previously considered in the context of Zombie lore.
Zombies: A Field Guide to the Walking Dead provides a broad but short study of the dreadfully departed and would benefit from greater cultural analysis. However, it’s a must read for the paranormal enthusiast.
Having once worked as a gravedigger, it’s unsurprising that Bob Curran’s morbid curiosity led him to study up on those rotted corpses who sleep awake. While you read on, you can’t help but feel some of his creepy enthusiasm rub off on you.