The Undead in the 21st Century

A Companion

by Simon Bacon (Volume editor)
©2022 Edited Collection XVI, 324 Pages


«Beyond the narrow application to the pop-cultural zombie, Simon Bacon’s editorial definition of the concept of being «undead» generates discussions in each chapter that creatively engage with the full agenda of critical debates in studies of horror and the gothic. With each chapter, the book unpacks the dense implications of its key concept, as it explores what it means to be undead, to determine who is and who isn’t, and how this matters. The book earns its rewards as a «Companion» in the true sense of the term since it is sure to accompany many curious and critical journeys through undead twenty-first-century culture.»
(Professor Steffen Hantke, Sogang University, Seoul, author of Monsters in the Machine: Science Fiction Film and the Militarization of America after World War II)
Who are the Undead?
The twenty-first century is truly the age of the undead. They are no longer just vampires or zombies, but every kind of monster that can be imagined. More so, they not only live in the alien terrain of our imaginations or nightmares but are embedded into the very nature of our existence in the neverending catastrophe of the 2000s. Featuring leading scholars such as David Punter, Roger Luckhurst, Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock and Lorna Piatti-Farnell amongst many others, the 30 original essays in The Undead in the 21st Century: A Companion describe and explain how the various fears and anxieties we have around such things as contagion, the environment, geopolitics and even ageing give form to the multifarious undead that plague our existence and seem bent on our destruction. However, as shall be argued here, if we can recognise and understand the undead they might not be the end of humanity as we know it, but possibly a way to exist beyond it.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editor
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Prologue: The Revolution of the Undead (David Punter)
  • Introduction (Simon Bacon)
  • Part I Undead Cultures in the Global Present
  • Hereditary (Ari Aster, 2018) – Folk Horror and the Undead (Mikel J. Koven)
  • La Llorona (Various, 2006–2019) – Mexican Undead (Cristina Santos)
  • Go Goa Gone (Raj and D. K., 2013) – Bollywood Undead (Iain Robert Smith)
  • Wakening (Danis Goulet, 2013) – Métis-Cree Undead (John R. Ziegler)
  • Killer Native (Bjorn Stewart, 2019) – Australian Aboriginal Undead (Naomi Simone Borwein)
  • Seoul Station (Sang-ho Yeon, 2016) – South Korean Undead (Katarzyna Ancuta)
  • Part II The Undead and Never-ending Present
  • The Haunting of Hill House (Mike Flanagan, 2018) – Domestic Undead (Dara Downey)
  • The Girl with All the Gifts (Colm McCarthy, 2016) – Undead Classroom (Tyler Unsell)
  • ZOMBIES 2 (Paul Hoen, 2020) – Anti-racist Undead (Antares Leask)
  • Deadgirl (Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel, 2008) – Undead Rape Culture (Natalie Wilson)
  • The Nun (Corin Hardy, 2018) – Religious Undead (Brandon R. Grafius)
  • Saint Maud (Rose Glass, 2019) – Medical Undead (Laura R. Kremmel)
  • Bubba Ho-tep (Don Coscarelli, 2002) – Ageing and the Undead (Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock)
  • Relic (Natalie Erika James, 2020) – Undead Heritage (Gina Wisker)
  • Part III Undying Identity
  • AHS: Hotel (Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, 2015–2016) and The Strain (Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, 2014–2017) – Undead Children (Leah Richards)
  • Suspiria (Luca Guadagnino, 2018) – Undead Motherhood (Sara Williams)
  • Game of Thrones (David Benioff, 2011–2019) – Undead Masculinity (Valerie Estelle Frankel)
  • Dorohedoro (Q Hayashida, 2000–2018) – Transgender Undead (Madeleine Mackenzie)
  • ‘The Zombie Mermaid’ (Katelynn E. Koontz, 2018) – Undead Mermaids (Martine Mussies)
  • Bloodthirsty (Amelia Moses, 2021) – Undead Celebrity (Gwyneth Peaty)
  • Behemoth (Nergal and others, 1991–present) – Extreme Metal and the Undead (Antonio Alcala Gonzalez)
  • Part IV Undead Futures
  • Wicked Weeds (Pedro Cabiya, 2011 [trans. 2016]) – Meta Undead (Persephone Braham)
  • Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017) – The Undead and Afrofuturism (Jay Treagus and Nicola Young)
  • Les Revenants (Fabrice Gobert, 2012–2015) – Environmental Undead (Mikaela Bobiy)
  • Antisepticeye (Seán McLoughlin, 2016) – Online Undead (Catherine Pugh)
  • Westworld (Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, 2016–present) – Posthuman Undead (Ildikó Limpár)
  • Marvel Zombies (Robert Kirkman, Sean Phillips and Arthur Suydam, 2005–2006) – Undead Superheroes (Lorna Piatti-Farnell)
  • The Cloverfield Paradox (Julius Onah, 2018) – Universal Undead (Simon Bacon)
  • Epilogue: The Death of Death – Zero K, Don DeLillo (2016) (Roger Luckhurst)
  • Bibliography
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series Index

←viii | ix→


To begin I’d like to say a huge well done to all the contributors to the book for actually getting their chapters completed under the difficult conditions that the world has thrown at us over the past few years. I would also like to thank Laurel Plapp at Peter Lang for all her help and patience during the production and completion of this book, and indeed with all the books in the Genre Fiction and Film Companions series. Many thanks also to all those on FB and Twitter, particularly the members of SCMS Horror Studies Group, the International Gothic Association, Open Graves, Open Minds, and the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies, who have offered their help and ideas at various stages during this book and have also stood in when contributors have had to pull out. Many thanks also to Jason@SMurnau, who helped with the original cover design of the book, Anthony Hogg for his encouragement and suggestions in getting the project together and for the support of the Vampire Studies Organization (https://vampirestudies.org/) and The Journal of Vampire Studies, and all those I have forgotten who offered help and advice along the way. Most importantly I want to thank my amazing wife Kasia for her unending help, patience and support, without whom none of this would get done or be worth doing. Also, our two ever-growing monsters, Seba and Majki, who always manage to provide some light relief and distraction no matter how stressful things get. And last but by no means least the constant support (and sernik Magdi) of Mam i Tata Bronk.←ix | x→

←x | xi→

David Punter

Prologue: The Revolution of the Undead

Forty years ago, in the first edition of The Literature of Terror, I said this about the twentieth-century horror film:

The beast may come from the stars or from 20,000 fathoms, from Mars or from beneath the earth, from the moon, Venus, the ocean floor or the black lagoon […] but wherever it comes from it generally might as well not have bothered: the moral virtues of the clean-cut American hero, sometimes backed up by clean-cut American tanks and guided missiles, prove far too strong – or unattractive – for it to withstand. (Punter 1980: 352)

In the twenty-first century, things have changed. It is no longer so easy to put the monster – the aberrant, the deformed, the grotesque, the zombie – back in its box. Many texts – literary, filmic, televisual – remain unresolved; the invasion continues, often up to the point where it is difficult, as comically envisioned at the conclusion of Shaun of the Dead (2004), to tell the difference between the zombie and the ‘normal’ human being.

And at the heart of this lies the problem, precisely, of ‘human being’. In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844), Marx described four kinds of alienation, or estrangement, which are the product – and the motor force – of capitalism. The one that interests me is estrangement from ‘species-being’, of which he has this to say:

Estranged labour turns […] Man’s species being, both nature and his spiritual species property, into a being alien to him, into a means to his individual existence. It estranges from man his own body, as well as external nature and his spiritual essence, his human being. (ed. Struik 1964: 114)

It might seem surprising to hear Marx, even the young Marx of 1844, speaking of the spirit; yet how else are we to define the zombie, that cardinal example of the undead, except as a human body without a spirit or soul – or ←xi | xii→vital spark, or any of the other myriad ways in which we have tried down the millennia to define what it is that makes us human?

We might want to consider a few instances of how we have under capitalism attempted to dehumanise work and productivity. ‘Manpower’; ‘hands’; ‘workforce’; and now, above all, ‘human resources’, as though these resources – living, breathing people who have to live by the work they do, generally in the absence of what we laughably call a state-sponsored ‘safety net’, as though even the attempt to attain life security through labour is tantamount to the risky activities of a trapeze artist – are simply another disposable on the balance sheet. We are all the precariat now.

Yet we have a reassurance: we may no longer be valued for our labour (whether that be by hand or mind), but we are valued for our consumption. Indeed, we are so valued that we figure largely in terms of the algorithm, the set of predictions of desire that determine the focus of advertising. Human being is now an effect of an algorithm defined as a set of instructions: for that set of instructions, individual behaviour no longer matters; what matters is the mass, the aggregate, the maximisation of sales capacity.

It is not clear at this moment, in the third decade of the twenty-first century, in what age we are living: it might be the Anthropocene, it might (optimistically) be a stage of late capitalism, it might be an age of neoliberal global consensus. But whatever it is, it seems to be an age in which the undead are proliferating. What are these undead? In this book, you will find many examples, and I would not want to rehearse them here, nor would I want to attempt a general definition of the many forms in which they occur and recur. But one thing, I think, is of vast significance, which is that they are, literally, all over the place. We can find them in the West, we can find them in Japan; we can find them in Korea, we can find them in Africa. In Max Brooks’s emblematic World War Z (2006), their ubiquity and the ways in which different national governments and traditions attempt to deal with them form the entire substrate of the novel.

And we see this not only in our dealings with the undead, but also in our dealings with the perhaps wider sphere of the Gothic. The term ‘global Gothic’ is now much used, and a valuable term it is; but it is also, of course, a hybrid term, signifying the numerous conjunctions between a history of terror with its origins firmly rooted in Europe and North America and a huge variety of ←xii | xiii→folk traditions with their roots equally firmly in different cultures, different histories. The ‘globality’ does not refer to a common set of interests, but to a worldwide cultural spread which, although inflected by the local, in the end threatens to absorb the local and either turn it into a version of the dominant, or locate it in a space denoted as the exotic.

Where the undead are, there are bodies; and where there are bodies, there is usually war. It is perhaps not necessary to detail the connections between capitalism and war: suffice to mention the many fictions of manipulated shortages of goods and services which lead to otherwise avoidable conflict, and the close links between governments and the armaments industry. War, of course, pre-dates capitalism; but now it has become an essential part of the economic machine.

And this leads me to a consideration of a text about the undead, Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad. This is not obviously a zombie text; it does not deal in hordes, or slavering greed, or (exactly) in mindless bodies. It was written in Arabic in 2013, but not translated into English for five years, until 2018, even though in 2014 it had made Saadawi the first Iraqi winner of the prestigious International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Once translated, it was immediately shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. Set, of course, in Baghdad, in the years 2003 to 2005, the novel begins from the contentious claims of an alcoholic junk dealer, Hadi, that he has constructed an undead creature from the bits and pieces of broken bodies he finds every day on the war-torn streets of the city. This contention is never fully validated: Hadi is a known liar and storyteller, and rarely certain of his own memories. Amid a large cast of other characters, our main point of focalisation is a young journalist named Mahmoud, who runs across the trail of this creature at various points and in various different ways, all the while having to struggle with the uncertainties of trying to follow a journalist’s calling in a city where news is rarely verifiable and almost never true.

The creature, whatever it is, is certainly undead. And although it is a single entity, it also represents myriads, because it is composed of the body parts of all those who have suffered from Iraq’s endless wars. But unlike many recent examples of the undead, this creature, although monstrous, is also perceived as heroic:

←xiii | xiv→People in coffee shops spoke of seeing him during the day and vied to describe how horrible he looked. He sits with us in restaurants, goes into clothing shops, or gets on buses with us, they said. He’s everywhere and has an amazing speed, jumping from roof to roof and wall to wall in the middle of the night, they added. No one knew who his next victim would be, and despite all the assurances from the government, people grew more convinced with every passing day that he would never die. They were well aware of the stories of bullets passing through him. They knew he didn’t bleed and didn’t let anyone catch a glimpse of his face. The definitive image of him was whatever lurked in people’s heads, fed by fear and despair. It was an image that had as many forms as there were people to conjure it. (Saadawi 2018: 260)

Of course, this paragraph is an account of the Frankenstein mythos, a version of the monster created by a human but failing to be answerable to its supposed master. It focuses on the perceived immortality of the undead; on our ability to remake the creature’s form in almost any way we want, as we have seen in countless film versions; on the essential link with fear; on the horror of ugliness; but also, most importantly, on the everyday-ness, the mundanity, of the so-called monster.

The point here is that what Saadawi is recounting is that in a city like war-torn Baghdad, the sighting of deformity or mutilation is hardly strange at all; it is indeed the stuff of common life. Everybody is accustomed to the monstrous as it blurs the line between life and death; indeed, the monstrous, whether physical or ethical, is what is to be expected. And it is what we live with every day; we are no longer able to register whether what is sitting beside us on a bus is human or zombie, alive or dead, a ‘natural’ creature or a composition of body parts. How do we register the human when the thin line between life and death has proved permeable?

Of course, we do not all live in war zones. Many of us are privileged to pass our lives in protected spaces where we believe we need not fear our fellow human. And yet, is that really true? In Stephen King’s novel Cell (2006), one of the characters remarks, ‘We are all refugees now’ (252), and surely this marks one of the most looming of contemporary fears, which is bifurcated at root: our fear of being driven from or supplanted in what we consider to be our native land, which then replicates itself in our fear of the refugee considered as usurper. Politicians of many stripes fuel our fears of the invading hordes, and one way to handle this paranoia is to treat them as less than human, to fail to see their faces, to credit them with malevolently supernatural powers; ←xiv | xv→in short, to attribute to them all the terrifying powers which the undead have traditionally exercised.

Weaving through Frankenstein in Baghdad, alongside the tale of the creature and interlocking with it, there is also a tale of capitalist profiteering, focused on two characters in particular, Hadi himself and Faraj the real estate agent. Hadi’s junk business is based on the dead; to him, the dead are indispensable. In one particular incident amid the bomb-fuelled mayhem of Baghdad,

Ambulances came to pick up the dead and injured, then fire engines to douse the cars and tow trucks to drag them off to an unknown destination. Water hoses washed way the blood and ashes. Hadi watched the scene with eagle eyes, looking for something in particular amid this binge of death and devastation. Once he was sure he had seen it, he threw his cigarette to the ground and rushed to grab it before a powerful jet of water could blast it down into the sewer. He wrapped it into his canvas sack, folded the sack under his arm, and left the scene. (Saadawi 2018: 20)

What Hadi is actually looking for here is body parts, but this is only an extension of his normal activity of searching for the goods that the dead and disappeared may have left behind; it is on this that his business is founded. After one such disappearance, we hear, ‘by midday Hadi had sold half the stuff to people living in the area and felt he would make a good profit’ (Saadawi 2018: 235). This is an almost exact reimagining of what Brecht had to say so many years ago in Mother Courage (1939): that war is primarily a means of gaining profit (Brecht 1986). And Saadawi underlines this through his depiction of Faraj: he

had many relatives and acquaintances, and when the regime fell, they were the means by which he imposed authority, winning everyone’s respect and legalising his appropriation of the abandoned houses, even though everyone knew he didn’t have the papers to prove he owned them or had ever rented them from the government. (Saadawi 2018: 12–3)

War for Faraj is a process of acquiring property, preferably the property of the dead, who appear to have no further claim on it. And the creature, composed of body parts, residues of interminable wars, emerges as the culmination of a reappropriation of the bones of the dead: as the physical form of the reanimated undead, he too signifies a form of capitalist enterprise.

←xv | xvi→The ending of the novel is emblematic of twenty-first-century developments in the depiction of the undead. For political reasons, Hadi is found guilty of the many murders committed by the creature, even though few of his neighbours believe he could possibly have been responsible. But ‘reduced to a state of childlike elation, no one could see, or even tried to see, those timid eyes looking out from behind the balconies and windows of the abandoned Orouba Hotel’ (Saadawi 2018: 271). Those timid eyes, we are led to believe – rendered timid by his increasing realisation of the things he has done – belong to the creature, who has survived yet again and will, we may presume, continue to exist as long as the dead bodies mount up and Baghdad fails to find, or be permitted to find, peace. As I said at the beginning of this prologue, one of the distinguishing features of the twenty-first-century undead is that they can no longer be banished; after all, those clean-cut American heroes whose operations were so successful even fifty years ago are now no longer the solution to successive waves of terror, they are instead at least part, perhaps indeed the instigators, of the problem.


XVI, 324
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2022 (November)
Undead Horror 21st Century Popular Culture The Undead in the 21st Century Simon Bacon Horror and gothic studies Twenty-first century culture Catastrophe of the 2000s
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2022. XVI, 324, 6 pp., 52 fig. col., 6 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Simon Bacon (Volume editor)

Simon Bacon is an award-winning writer and film critic based in Poznań, Poland. He is the Series Editor for Genre Fiction and Film Companions with Peter Lang, to which he has also contributed The Gothic (2018), Horror (2019), Monsters (2020) and Transmedia Cultures (2021). He is also the editor of Transmedia Vampires (2021), Nosferatu in the 21st Century (2022) and The Anthropocene and the Undead (2022). He has published a series of monographs on vampires in popular culture: Becoming Vampire: Difference and the Vampire in Popular Culture (2016), Dracula as Absolute Other (2019), Eco-Vampires (2020), Vampires from Another World (2021) and 1000 Vampires on Screen (forthcoming).


Title: The Undead in the 21st Century
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340 pages