TV Review: Zombies: A Living History

This week, The History Channel tapped into the undead zeitgeist with Zombies: A Living History, a two hour documentary on the history of zombie mythology, its impact on our culture, and they way it relates to a lot of the issues facing us today.

The documentary can be pretty sharply divided into two halves. The first discusses the zombie throughout history, focusing in on myths like the Revenants (something I’d seen referenced before but never knew much about; Revenants are pretty awesome) and Arabic ghouls, as well as historical outbreaks and events of cannibalism like the Donner Party Tragedy or the Spanish Flu Pandemic.

It also went into a lot of different burial traditions, and explained where they came from. It was interesting in a trivial way, but only had a tangential relationship with the modern zombie.

While most of the historical information was interesting, the show really had to stretch the definition of a zombie to fit into its central notion that “throughout history all cultures have had a fear of zombies”. In a lot of cases, zombies were clearly substituting for fears of disease, curses, and even death in general. In the end, it felt like they were making more of the idea than could really be supported by evidence, and consequently making more of the zombie myth than was reasonable. Focusing on the Post World War II era probably would have yielded much better results.

People are really into these guys right now. They're like the Beatles, only undead.

The second half of Zombies: A Living History picked up a lot of the slack from the first. It focused on how current issues, like terrorism, global economic collapse, and the increase in both the frequency and strength of natural disasters, related to the fears that actually get played up in zombie stories. And it was dead right most of the time.

One statistic that really stuck with me was that more than half of all zombies movies that have ever been made came out after September 11th, 2001. That’s a real illustration of how our fears manifest themselves in popular culture, and makes a pretty interesting statement about what, exactly, zombies mean to us.

The second half of the show also delved into the realities of surviving a zombie outbreak, and what exactly it would take. I really enjoyed this part of the show because it helped to dispel a lot of the notion that anyone with a bunch of guns and ammo was going to do fine. While most of our imagined zombie survival plans are short term, Zombies: A Living History followed the rabbit hole to its logical conclusion in much the same way as World War Z. Interestingly, it seemed to focus more on humanity and the meaning of civilization than the killing of zombies, something I’ve always maintained is the essence of a good zombie story.

Before most of the commercial breaks there were silly segments about fighting zombies, most of which talked about different weapons and their perceived effectiveness against the living dead. While the segments were generally played for laughs, I felt that they really only scratched the surface of what could be done with the discussion. On the other hand, the host did subtly mock the idea that a katana is the be-all-end-all weapon to have in a zombie apocalypse, so I have to give credit there.

Peppered throughout Zombies: A Living History were a number of experts who really added a lot to what might have otherwise been a pretty rote exercise. Many of these experts were writers, such as Max Brooks, Jonathan Maberry, Kim Paffenroth, and JL Bourne, but they also had several professionals as well. I appreciated the nice cross section of experts here, and the fact that History seemed to pick people with interesting things to say and strong insight into the various intricacies of the zombie mythology.

Finally, the show did something I really liked: it segued into a discussion of ZombieSquad and how they use our cultural obsession with zombies as a way to teach people to prepare for natural disaster. Never did the show act as though the notion was silly, or ill informed, and I hope that it helps them continue to expand and increase general preparedness for disasters.

Zombies: A Living History was an interesting two hours of television that probably would have been an absolutely fascinating one hour program. I learned a bit, but was a little irritated by the show’s initial missteps. Thankfully, it picked up steam in the second half and ended on a high note. If you haven’t gotten the chance to check it out yet, then it’s worth setting your DVR.

Grade: B-

9 Comments

Angelina

I’ve seen that and I think they could have done the whole 2 hours on modern culture of zombies and how we use it represent modern fears. I did feel it was a stretch and could have done more. But… if you pair it with the Life After Humans specials, you get a really good look into the what if.

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zombiemutts

I liked it a bit more than you did. However I still agree with some of your complaints but one thing I want to point out is this was on the History Channel so the format had to be molded to that. Even though they are on the same network I think this would have been better served to have been created for the Discovery Channel.

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Dave

That’s a good point. The Discovery channel seems like a much more apt home for this show, especially with all their survival themed programs.

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zombiemutts

What’s funny is they did a better job with the zombies than the vast majority of crap movies we get thrown at us.

And huge props to Jonathan Maberry…very cool seeing him get the spotlight. He deserved it.

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Dave

They did a pretty nice job with the zeds, and I loved how they didn’t even entertain the notion of fast zombies. Good on them for that.

The experts were pretty great. My wife and I still don’t understand where they managed to find the smoking how anthropologist.

Dave

One thing that really amused me was how frequently they used clips from Night of the Living Dead. Being in the public domain is awesome.

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