Zombies have never been more popular than in twenty-first century media as they spread virally from cinema and computer games to graphic novels and television. With each new incarnation, they undergo a transformation, sometimes subtle and sometimes drastic, but these changes impact upon how we engage with and understand the zombie. One of the most recent additions to a growing body of zombie texts is the television show iZombie (CW 2015-). This article will examine the series, positioning it within a history of the zombie in film and television, while considering how its own unique approach is taking the genre in new directions and offering new ways of understanding our evolving relationship with the undead. Zombies are, of course, everywhere in popular culture, appearing not only in comic books, videogames, film, and television, but also in theatre, fitness aps, on the streets in emergency training boot camps, paintball survival and zombie chase games, and cosplay at fan conventions and zombie walks.
Zombies are everywhere in twenty-first century popular culture, appearing in comic books, videogames, theatre, film, television, fitness aps, as well as on the streets in emergency training boot camps, paintball survival and zombie chase games, and cosplay at fan conventions and zombie walks. While Kyle Bishop argues that the zombie is ‘a monster of the Americas, born from imperialism, slavery, and – most importantly – voodoo magic and religion,’ Roger Luckhurst explains that in the twenty-first century, ‘the global reach of the zombie figure is represented … in the way it has fused with very local supernatural tales of the undead around the world, in Africa, Asia and Latin America’ (Bishop 2010: 28; Luckhurst 2015: 8). With this exponential growth in the genre’s popularity has come the need to regularly revitalise the genre, taking the monster in new directions. For instance, 28 Days Later (Boyle 2002; fig. 1) extended our conception of the zombie from slow to fast moving; from undead revenants as decaying corpses to viral infection resulting in profuse haemorrhaging. The zombie initially featured in horror films but now appears across genres, including romantic comedies (Shaun of the Dead 2004; fig. 2) and children’s films (ParaNorman 2012).
Furthermore, the zombie originally seemed suited to the cinema, emerging through the work of George Romero, Lucio Fulci, Tom Savini in the 1960s and 70s when the horror genre was becoming increasingly counter cultural. In recent years, however, the zombie has become transmedial. With the relaxation of the restrictions of what can be shown on television and the emergence of a multi-channel/online streaming broadcast landscape, however, the zombie is more at home on television than anywhere else, appearing in a wide range of programmes, including Game of Thrones (HBO 2011-, fig. 3), The Walking Dead (AMC 2010-), Fear the Walking Dead (AMC 2015-, fig. 4), Z Nation (SyFy 2014-), In the Flesh (BBC3 2013-14) and iZombie (CW 2015-) (see Abbott 2016).
One of the most significant of recent innovations is the emergence of the first person zombie narrative in which the undead is no longer a faceless horde, operating as a collective antagonist but rather an individual who functions as the focalisation of the story and through whose eyes the apocalypse unfolds. This figure is increasingly prominent across zombie texts such as the Canadian novel Husk (Corey Redekop 2012) and the British Young Adult serial Zom-B (Darren Shan 2012-2016), the films Colin (Marc Price 2008) and Warm Bodies (Jonathan Levine 2013), and television series In the Flesh and iZombie. This approach challenges those characteristics that have signified the zombie’s monstrosity: its lack of will and cognitive function alongside the loss of individuality and the threat of the zombie horde. In particular the focalisation on the zombie has transformed it, in many texts, from a figure of fear to one of sympathy, bringing the zombie more in line with its sister-undead, the vampire. Angela Tenga and Elizabeth Zimmerman argue that the vampire in Twilight (Catherine Hardwick 2008) and True Blood (HBO 2008-2014) became increasingly human, which initially allowed the zombie to surpass ‘the vampire as a source of horror and revulsion’ (2013: 76). They note, however that ‘with the advent of sentient, sympathetic zombies, the zombie’s future is uncertain’ (84). If the zombie is sentient and sympathetic, then what purpose does it serve narratively and generically? The aim of this essay will be to offer a close examination of iZombie to consider how the first person format impacts upon our cultural understanding of the zombie, questioning whether its monstrosity is domesticated by being rendered knowable.
‘There are zombies in the world…and I’m one of them’: Giving the Zombie a Voice
iZombie is based on a graphic novel by Chris Roberson and Michael Allred (2011-2012), subsequently adapted for television by Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggerio-Wright, best known for Veronica Mars (UPN/CW 2004-2007). The protagonist in the TV show is Olivia (Liv) Moore (Rose McIver), a successful medical intern who gets attacked at a boat party when it is overrun by zombies and wakes up the next morning, craving brains. Her skin and hair loses its pigment and her eyes become sunken and turn black around the edges (fig. 5).
While there is no evidence of decay, her resting heart rate is ten beats per minute and her blood stops flowing through her veins, making it clear that she is dead, or undead. Liv comes to understand that if she maintains a diet of human brains, she can retain her identity, memory, full range of emotion and cognitive thought. The longer she goes without brains, the more the zombie takes over. In moments of extreme anger or emotional distress, her eyes burn red and she goes ‘full-on zombie’, possessing superhuman strength and violent rage. In order to facilitate her new dietary requirements, Liv gives up her career as a doctor in order to take a job as an assistant Medical Examiner. There she feeds on the brains of murder victims, from which she receives visions of their recent past as well as elements of their personalities and with which she helps the police solve the crimes. The series, in the tradition of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (WB/UPN 1997-2003; fig. 6), is balanced between its episodic narratives – Liv and police detective Clive Babineau (Malcolm Goodwin) solving the murder of the week – and its serialised arc narrative – in which Liv and her boss Ravi Chakrabarti (Rahul Kohli) attempt to find a cure and stave off the zombie apocalypse, which is silently and invisibly spreading across the city. This is by no means a traditional zombie narrative.
The pilot does acknowledge its forerunners, such as when Liv watches Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968; fig. 7) as research or the manner in which in season two zombies who have been stripped of their identities through starvation are described as ‘Romeros’ (‘Method Head’ 2.10). Ravi, who previously worked for the Centre for Disease Control, reflects the contemporary perception of the zombie outbreak, as seen in 28 Days Later, as a ‘man-made plague’ and therefore must be treated as a public health crisis (‘Pilot’ 1.1). Furthermore, the series maintains the zombie’s cannibalistic tendencies, although limiting their diet to human brains in the tradition of Return of the Living Dead (Dan O’Bannon 1985).
The show, however, also paves a new, highly televisual way forward for the genre. The style and format of the series owes more to recent examples of genre television, with its strong, supernatural, independent heroine (Buffy the Vampire Slayer); female driven detective procedural format (Veronica Mars); and supernatural method of solving crimes (Pushing Daisies ABC 2007-2009) (fig. 8-9). Significantly, the series privileges Liv’s voice through the narration that structures each episode. For instance, the pilot begins with a pre-zombie shot of Liv in hospital scrubs (an allusion perhaps to 28 Days Later), as her voice-over explains: ‘This was my life before I died’. After revealing how Liv was infected, the episode introduces the new Liv, deathly pale, socially alienated, suffering what she describes as ‘post-traumatic ennui’ as she mourns the death of her old life. As she cuts into the skull of a Jane Doe and prepares her meal, she muses ‘It’s probably wrong that every time I see a dead body I think, “What the hell am I doing with my life?”’ The voice-over that accompanies her food preparation contrasts the quotidian quality of undeath with the vibrancy of the life that she has lost. As the scene cuts from shots of her making Pot Noodles, mixing them with fleshy chunks of pink brain, dousing the meal in hot sauce and then selecting and eating a mouthful of brain with her chopsticks, she explains: ‘This is not me going confidently in the direction of my dreams. I used to have ambition – I used to be passionate – inspired – alive. Now I’m mostly just hungry. Oh, and a zombie. So there’s that.’ In this manner she literalises the metaphorical meaning of zombie as someone who seems lifeless and apathetic.
Significantly, the zombie as narrator in this series facilitates an exploration of identity, rather than embodying the loss of self. With every brain she eats Liv not only inherits the victim’s memories but aspects of their personality. The series, therefore, does not strip the zombie of identity like those enslaved by voodoo or the Romero-zombie, driven by primal hungers. Instead, Liv is marked by an abundance of identity, with her thinking processes, emotions and behaviour shifting and changing from the exuberance of a cheerleader (‘Dead Rat, Live Rat, Brown Rat, White Rat’ 1.12) to the ‘chillaxed’ humour and sexism of a frat boy (‘Zombie Bro’ 2.2), from the confidence of a sex expert (‘Dead Air’ 1.8) to the cold detachment of a socio-path (‘The Exterminator’ 1.3). In this manner, the series challenges conceptions of identity as fixed by presenting it as ever-changing. Even gender appears fluid as she oscillates between male and female brains, calling attention to gender as a performative construct.
With this focus on identity in place and the privileging of Liv’s point-of-view, Liv repeatedly questions who she is, was and will be. Initially Liv’s ‘zombie-like’ appearance is equated with depression and apathy – correctly understood by her friends as the result of trauma. As the show progresses, however, it becomes about an alternative life choice. Her best friend Peyton (Aly Michalka), explains that before the boat party, Liv was a ‘force – this unstoppable hyper-focused fire ball.’ Liv acknowledges that pre-zombie, she had ‘map[ped] out and colour code[d] a ten year plan’ (‘Pilot’). Pre-zombie-Liv conforms to a conventional ideal for the modern woman: intelligent, beautiful, driven, in love; with a clear and focused plan for her life. She has, and can do, it all. The impact of becoming a zombie forces Liv to abandon the ten year plan and embrace an alternative lifestyle. This focus on lifestyle is conveyed through the parallels between her zombie appearance and Goth subculture, a factor that is repeatedly commented on in the series, such as when Clive refers to her as ‘Dark Princess’ and comments “I don’t know what you are. Emo? Goth? Which is the one that is too tortured to go on living?” (‘Pilot’). Catherine Spooner points out that a common trope within the teen movie is the makeover, “the sartorial transformation that signals the geek’s initiation into the popular set, the rebellious teen’s recuperation into polite mainstream culture” and cites Goth Alison’s transformation in The Breakfast Club (John Hughes 1985; fig. 10) as one such example (2006: 122). iZombie, however, enacts a reverse transformation of the twenty-something woman, in which becoming a zombie begins a Goth makeover (fig. 11). Pre-zombie Liv was a member of the ‘popular set’, evidenced by her scholastic achievement and her sorority experiences, but her transformation into a zombie embodies a ‘symbolic resistance’ to conventional conceptions of beauty, career and normality (Spooner 2006: 94). Gradually Liv comes to embrace this alternative existence, finding power and fulfilment in her new lifestyle and vocation in solving crimes. She even starts dating a zombie musician. When Liv tells Peyton about this new relationship, Peyton responds “broody musician – not your usual type but you’re not the usual Liv,’ to which Liv responds, ‘You’re looking at the new normal” (‘Dead Air’).
In contrast, the other zombies in the series, such as Blaine (David Anders), Lowell (Bradley James) and Lieutenant Suzuki (Hiro Kanagawa), conceal their zombie appearance in an effort to look ‘normal’ by dying their hair and applying fake tan. Liv never adopts this as an option and refers to those zombies who seek to assimilate as ‘self-loathing’. Instead, she moves increasingly toward acceptance, such as when she explains her condition to Peyton, after she has witnessed Liv ‘rage out’ while fighting another zombie:
The night of the boat party I got scratched … it’s why I got a job at the morgue — so that I could get brains. Because that is what I have to eat to stay me – or this version of me. There are zombies in the world Peyton and I’m one of them (‘Dead Rat, Live Rat, Brown Rat, White Rat’)
While the characters in the series repeatedly express the desire to find a cure and render Liv ‘normal’ again, returning her to her former life, the show’s exploration of identity and its zombie perspective renders any conception of ‘normality’ as inherently suspect.
‘I feel like there’d be some buzz on the street if we were mid-zombie apocalypse’: The hidden apocalypse
By focusing on the singular ‘I’ in iZombie, the series seems to have removed one of the most threatening aspects of the undead which is their power in numbers. While individually they are easily dispatched, in large groups they are an unbeatable force that keeps coming, wave upon wave. In iZombie, Liv acknowledges this convention when she comments that she is relieved that in contrast to most zombie movies, she is the only member of the undead walking the streets of Seattle, explaining: ‘if my zombie movie research has taught me anything, it’s that being part of a horde would suck’. When queried about whether she is the only one, she explains that she isn’t sure but feels ‘there’d be some buzz on the street if we were mid-zombie apocalypse’ (‘Pilot’). As iZombie unfolds, however, it becomes apparent that there are more zombies out there, hiding among the living, concealing their identities like Blaine, Lowell, Suzuki, and the many zombies identified in season two. Their need to assimilate does not, however, domesticate the zombie but rather reveals an even greater horror. Blaine, the zombie who turned Liv, makes zombies in order to blackmail them into paying him $25,000 a month to keep them supplied in brains and thus able to maintain the charade of their normal life (‘Brother Can you Spare a Brain’ 1.2). To provide the food supply, Blaine murders homeless street kids, whose disappearances are not noticed or mourned (season 1). In this manner, the series uses the zombie to expose a twofold horror, more unsettling and insidious than the undead.
First, the show uses this narrative to explore how the middle and upper classes turn a blind eye to the suffering of others in order to maintain the status quo. Suzuki covers up Blaine’s crimes including the murder of Liv’s boyfriend Lowell (‘MR Berserk’ 1.10) and the growing missing person crisis emerging from the underclass, highlighting an institutional blindness to crimes against the homeless. Blaine’s wealthier clients ignore the often violent and disturbing visions that emerge from the brains they consume. Blaine’s delivery of the brains in identical cooler bags, as well as packaging them within gourmet recipes such as Cerebellum Sashimi, all produced from within the façade of a high class butcher shop, renders the meat ‘normal’ and palatable – literally and figuratively – enabling the consumers to deny the brutal reality and horror of their diet. This is made clear in ‘Patriot Brains’ (1.9) when Liv confronts Lowell with the truth about the brains supplied by Blaine. To win her back, Lowell digs up a recently interred body in order to acquire the brains on his own, after having attended the funeral, listened to the eulogies and witness the mourning. This experience drives home the truth of his cannibalistic condition and his culpability in Blaine’s actions, resulting in him vomiting up the brains and finally acknowledging: “we eat people – we eat people … I get it. I was a coward … Blaine killed those kids and I ate those brains.” His guilt is reinforced later in the episode when Lowell has a vision of Blaine murdering Jerome, a homeless teenager, with a meat hook, shot from the point-of-view of the victim as Blaine lunges at him. While the sequence is not gory, its location within the drab back room of the butcher shop possesses echoes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Hooper 1974). More importantly, the use of the first person point-of-view shot is a visceral evocation of horror and both positions Lowell as victim – looking through Jerome’s eyes as he is murdered — and perpetrator – the consumer of the brains— literalising Romero’s metaphorical equation of zombie and commercial consumption in Dawn of the Dead (1978; fig. 12).
Secondly, the series overtly positions the zombie as the product of corporate and commercial greed. Blaine is a budding entrepreneur; a two-bit crook with aspirations of becoming a criminal mastermind, who makes zombies in order to build up his clientele for his expensive service, first through his butcher shop and in the second season through his ‘legitimate’ business, the funeral home. The invisible zombie apocalypse, quietly spreading across the city, is therefore fuelled by commercial imperative. More insidious than Blaine’s criminal aspirations, is the origin of the zombie virus, revealed to be the product of mixing a high energy drink, Max Rager, with a tainted form of designer drug called Utopian. Both Max Rager and Utopian are commercial products, one legal and one illegal, designed as life enhancing stimulants. While Max Rager offers a legal high, the company is shown to be morally corrupt when it is revealed that one in a thousand users becoming homicidally dangerous after consuming the drink, a fact that they bury, along with the bodies of whistle blowers. As the series progresses, both the drug kingpin Stacey Boss and the Max Rager CEO Vaughn Du Clark (Steven Weber) are presented as shadow selves, cold-hearted and megalomaniac businessmen who care only for their own profits and empires. While Boss kills anyone who threatens his criminal empire, Du Clark attempts to have all of the zombies ‘living’ in the city murdered – ostensibly to protect humanity but in actuality to cover-up his company’s involvement in the outbreak. He does this while simultaneously researching how to channel the power of the zombie, minus its more violent and cannibalistic characteristics, into a new energy drink, a plan that takes on an even more sinister twist when he sells the product to an independent military contractor (‘Salvation Army’ 2.19). Here the zombie is no longer a metaphor for commercial consumption but now the product of commercial, and military, exploitation. The series, therefore, re-imagines the zombie apocalypse as the enslavement of humanity to corporate greed, returning the zombie to its voodoo origins as a metaphor, expressing cultural anxieties about slavery. Rather than evoking a cultural legacy of slavery, however, the series uses the zombie as a means of exposing contemporary enslavement to new corporate masters.
With its bright colours, comic undertone and plucky heroine, iZombie does not appear to conform to the growing boom of TV Horror as embodied in its sister zombie series The Walking Dead. However it is through the show’s re-conception of the zombie that it is able to offer an innovative and unsettling form of horror in which our definitions of normal and monstrous are overturned. Significantly, the show’s critique of social and corporate corruption warns us that the zombie apocalypse may not be looming but already here.
- Abbott, Stacey. Undead Apocalypse: Vampires and Zombies in the 21st Century. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming 2016.
- Bishop, Kyle William. American Zombie Gothic: The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popular Culture. Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, 2010).
- Luckhurst, Roger. Zombies: A Cultural History. London: Reaktion Books, 2015.
- Spooner, Catherine. Contemporary Gothic. London: Reaktion Books, 2006.
- Tenga, Angela and Elizabeth Zimmerman. ‘Vampire Gentlemen and Zombie Beasts: A Rendering of True Monstrosity.’ Gothic Studies 15: 1 (May 2013), 76-87.