Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Book of the Dead: Gutmuncher History, Laid Bare and Bloody

Regular visitors to the 'Dish know that nothing floats yours truly's proverbial boat like a good (OK, any) zombie movie. So it follows that British film writer Jamie Russell's reference tome, Book of the Dead: The Complete History of Zombie Cinema, was a must purchase in these parts. The happy surprise here is what an engaging read it is.

Russell's book begins not with the zombie's ostensible cinematic bow in 1932's White Zombie, but with the western world's journalistic introduction to the living dead several decades earlier. "The Country of the Comers-Back," Lafcadio Hearn's 1889 non-fiction Harper's Magazine article covering skullduggery on the island of Mozambique, netted the first literary mention of the zombie in the west. Thirty years later, 1929's pioneering travelogue/adventure novel The Magic Island saw author/adventurer William Seabrook exploring Haiti and risking life and limb to delve deeply into that country's voodoo religion (Seabrook's colorful life would make a helluva retrospective bio in its own right). His rip-roaring account captured the western world's imagination, Hollywood took notice, and a new movie monster was born.

Book of the Dead traces the zombie movie in all of its permutations, from the Depression-era parable of White Zombie to the veiled racial context of the 1940's Poverty Row thrillers, to the unexceptional-but-influential atomic-era sci-fi opus Invisible Invaders, to the viscera-spattered deluge loosed upon the world by George Romero's Living Dead series and its aesthetic progeny, to present-day classics like Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later. Along the way, Russell covers all of the touchstones of the sub-genre, their architects, the socio-political context of the films, Haitian history and voodoo mythos, and a lot more with an appealing combination of scholarship, enthusiasm, and dry British wit. It's that rare reference book that provides a solid read even for non-initiates.

Obsessives, however, will get their pleasure nodes stroked big-time. Book of the Dead's movie content--copious research, an exhaustive alphabetical listing of every damned zombie movie you've ever (and never) heard of, and heaps of photos and poster/pressbook reproductions (many in belly-churning color)--fills the bill and then some. Thanks to Russell's thoughtful analyses, I'm seeking movies I'd never heard of (French erotic horror auteur Jean Rollin's The Grapes of Death), and looking forward to digging into films I'd previously avoided (the 1990 Night of the Living Dead remake, for one).

Russell's done such great work here that the only sore points for me are differences in opinion. Using his scalpel-sharp dissection skills derisively on the humble Poverty Row B-schlockers is a little excessive--like siccing Evander Holyfield on a mentally-defective eight-year-old. And he's exceptionally dismissive of Spanish horror star/director/screenwriter Paul Naschy--them's fighting words, Mr. Russell (as you Petri Dish readers will discover before the month's out).

But on these trifling points, Jamie Russell and I can agree to disagree. It's the least I owe him for helming a reference book that'll reside on my bookshelf for as long as I inhabit the earth, living or undead.

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