Monday, September 13, 2010

Interview: Dr Arnold T. Blumberg

A few weeks back, NecroScope reported on an upcoming Pop Culture minor course on zombies (original post here) being offered by the University of Baltimore. Well, despite the fact that class in now in session, and international media interest in the course is at fever pitch, course tutor Dr. Arnold T. Blumberg (co-author of Zombiemania: 80 Movies to Die For) was kind enough to take time out from his busy schedule to tell us a little about how it's all rolling...

NecroScope: Dr. Blumberg, tell us briefly about your interest in zombies, and from where this interest originated.

Dr. Arnold T. Blumberg: My entire life personally and professionally has been about taking a critical look at pop culture and genre entertainment, and I love everything from comics and science fiction (especially Doctor Who!) to horror. Part of that, obviously, has been a fascination with zombies, a lot of which really crystalized when I worked on my book with Andy Hershberger, Zombiemania. From 2003-2005, when we worked on that book, I got a chance to see many of the movies I'd always wanted to see as a child but never got around to seeing, so it was as much about discovery for me as it was a chance to rewatch and write about movies I already enjoyed.

NS: Zombies have a really strong fan base at present, but what made you believe that an educational course on the undead would be viable? Is there actually a 'need' to educate people about zombies?

ATB: The course is not the first in the country, but certainly the justification is there now more than ever. We are inundated with media 24/7 and we need to be able to provide students with the tools they need to be intelligent and informed consumers of that media. The zombie is such an all-pervasive icon in our culture right now, so mainstream, that we simply must ask the questions: Why? What does the zombie say about us and to us? Why does it attract us and what does it say about us as a people, a nation, and a culture?

NS: What sort of reaction did you get from the University of Baltimore when you pitched the idea of a course on zombies?

ATB: Perhaps a bit surprisingly, rather intrigued and enthusiastic! They were starting a Pop Culture minor as part of their College of Arts & Sciences, with courses deliberately designed to offer incisive, critical looks at different genres in our media, so it was just a matter of explaining why the zombie as a genre and an icon was ripe for academic analysis. It wasn't that difficult to establish.

NS: The general public tends to have a preconceived idea of what fans of zombies (and of horror tropes in general) are like, in the same way that many have a stereotypical view of SF fans. Tell us a little about the sort of people who have signed up for your course.

ATB: The class so far seems to run a very predictable range of students of various ages and both genders, some of whom are clearly already fans, some of whom have never seen or read about zombies in their lives, and then folks in the middle that aren't enthusiasts but have probably caught Night of the Living Dead or heard the word 'zombie' in the news at some point. It's a very balanced range from the casual to the dedicated zombie viewer, just right for sparking a lot of dynamic discussion in class, and I feel it's in those discussions where learning really takes place.

NS: Your course involves the viewing of a number of zombie movies. Tell us a little about some of the specific movies being viewed, and why they've been included in the course.

ATB: We start with White Zombie and explore the ways in which that film reflects western culture's first exposure to the Voudoun traditions of the West Indies. From there we proceed chronologically through the '40s (I Walked With a Zombie), '50s (Invisible Invaders, Plan 9 From Outer Space), '60s (NOTLD, of course) and so on, taking time to analyze how the zombie evolves and offers a mirror of the culture at that point. By the time we reach the end of the semester and films like Zombieland and [REC], we'll be looking at how our current world situation - fears of terrorism, collapse of financial institutions, ongoing military conflict - both inform and transform the zombie in popular media.

NS: Your passion for zombie cinema is obvious, but are there any examples of zombie literature that you'd cite as being particularly important to the genre?
ATB: I was never as much into zombie-themed literature as cinema and television, but obviously there are some standouts, and I've assigned a few in class, everything from Max Brooks' World War Z to [Jonathan Maberry's] Patient Zero and [David Wellington's] Monster Island. I'll also be touching on The Walking Dead comic (and TV show), [Mira Grant's] Feed, the phenomenon of classic literature mash-ups like Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, and even zombie haiku!

NS: Finally, what are your all-time favourite three zombie movies, and why?

ATB: I'd have to go with White Zombie (1932) for its delightful Lugosi performance and perfectly pitched mood, NOTLD as just one of the most reliable Halloween-night films you can watch for that relentless siege atmosphere, and Burial Ground (1981) for how over-the-top it is, just as I always imagined an Italian zombie movie would be when I was a kid.

NecroScope thanks Dr. Blumberg for making the time to 'sit and chat'. Those seeking further information on Dr. Blumberg's course - entitled Media Genres: Zombies - will soon be able to access an FAQ page on Blumberg's website (link here).

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