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A zombie invasion

Monster movie class looks beyond the thrills and chills of the scary genre

| 27 October 2009

Zombie movies have staged a cultural invasion ever since 9/11, and that's no coincidence, says Berkeley media studies lecturer Marina Levina.

28 Weeks Later poster Newsweek cover on SARSThe movie poster for "28 Weeks Later," a zombie movie that lecturer Marina Levina calls an allegory of the Iraq war, echoed an earlier Newsweek magazine cover on the SARS virus.
It's no accident, either, that the dominant image on a poster for the zombie thriller "28 Weeks Later" frightened eyes over a surgical mask looks exactly like the cover of Newsweek magazine cover featuring a story about the SARS virus.

"Zombies represent a swarm that comes in and destroys the world, that destroys the very fabric of civilization," she tells the 56 students gathered on a recent Tuesday in 100 Wheeler for her popular class, "Film Topics: Monster Movies."

That can mean terrorism and war, epidemics like SARS and swine flu, immigration, or computer virus attacks. Social, cultural, and economic anxieties about all of them find expression in monster movies, Levina teaches.

"Movies are a place where you can experience things in a safe space," says Levina, whose doctoral dissertation for the University of Chicago dealt in part with the ways zombie narratives map viral scenarios in the mass media.

Halloween night, coming up Saturday, is traditionally the time when monsters are let loose on America along with lots of princesses and hoboes.

But monsters, be they zombies, werewolves or vampires, are a constant cultural presence, and monster movies have been around for most of a century though the special effects have improved.

Media studies scholars like Levina approach film by looking to see the underlying concerns that are being played out.

Monsters in general are about difference, Levina says, and different types of monsters stand in for different kinds of concerns. One question scholars and media scientists have been asking recently, Levina told her class, is, "Why zombies, why now? What does it mean in the context of what we are going through as a nation?"

In the 1950s, fear of the spread of communism showed up as zombied pod people in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." In the 1970s, which Levina calls the last great wave of zombie movies before the current one, anxieties about society being overtaken by consumerism played out in director George Romero's "Dawn of the Dead."

The national dread raised by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, set off the latest surge, which includes "28 Days Later," whose plot revolves around a viral infection, and its sequel, "28 Weeks Later," another viral scenario that Levina calls an allegory of the Iraq war.

Zombie narratives are always about what Levina calls viral infection something that comes in from the outside, replicates, can't be stopped, and takes over. And they always deal with the same issue: "How do you keep control if you don't know who is human and who is not?"

In addition to making movies, society deals with viral fears by trying to keep invaders out and maintain the purity of its people through things like the eugenics campaigns of the early 20th century, laws against interracial marriage, and current efforts to build walls to keep out immigrants, or to screen airline passengers to keep out terrorists.

Viral narratives in movies and in real life use remarkably similar words and images, Levina says, making her point with a series of slides of past and current media, including public health posters warning of "Typhoid Mary" who "may look clean, but " and magazine covers, such as Time's 1994 "Revenge of the Killer Microbes," about new viruses and resistant bacteria.

This is the third time that Levina has taught "Monster Movies" as a media studies elective since arriving at Berkeley in 2006. She also teaches the major's intro course, and one in visual media. "Monster Movies" is a popular course: oversubscribed with 56 students this semester.

Brittany Jones, a third-year media studies major, took it because she's into vampires and wanted to see how vampire films were portrayed in intellectual terms.

"I wasn't expecting psychoanalysis," she says, but early weeks of the course plumbed Freudian and other theories at work in monster movies. She found out that werewolves, though almost always depicted as male, can be read as metaphors for women, since they're themselves except for a couple of days each month at the full moon.

"It's amazing how no one ever sees that," Jones says.

Monster movies grabbed Levina not as a child but as disaffected teenager in college, when she and her "dressed-up-all-in-black" friends saw 1994's "Interview with a Vampire."

"It was very Goth and very other. It made me feel that you can be different," Levina says, "and you're going to look good doing it."

Her zombies lecture for the media studies class is based on a segment of her dissertation that dealt with viral narratives. But monsters are a sidelight to her specialty, critical studies of science and technology. Levina is currently writing a book based on her dissertation that deals with scientific patterns of viruses and codes.

The recent zombie wave may have crested, Levina says, and vampires are ascending, with TV shows like "True Blood" and movies like "Twilight."

"I'm not exactly sure what to make of it yet," she adds.

As cool as zombies are, Levina says, vampires are still what get her most excited and they come up next on the Monster Movies syllabus.

"Vampires are sexy, they're dangerous, they equate sex with danger. Vampires are multilayered, in ways zombies and werewolves aren't," she says. "They're the most human. They're more human than we are. They're about all of our darkest fantasies."