NIGHT OF THE LIVING
Interview by Zombie-A-GoGo
Maybe you've seen it around the bookstores, or possibly
you've come across it at Amazon.com. The green, blue, and
yellow cover calling to you. The crudely drawn zombie waving
to you. It's The
Zombie Movie Encyclopedia. And you wondered
to yourself, who is this Peter Dendle fellow and what makes
him think he's qualified to take on such daunting task?
Dr. Peter Jonathan Dendle is an Assistant Professor of English
at Penn State's Mont Alto Campus, in Pennsylvania. Prior
to this, he received both an English and Philosophy BA from
the University of Kentucky (where is he is originally from),
an English MA from Yale and a Philosophy MA from Kentucky,
once again. He then went on to earn his English PhD from
the University of Toronto. To say that the man somehow lacks
the education is, well, silly. In 2002 he was awarded the
Mont Alto Faculty Scholar Award, which recognizes the research,
scholarship and creative accomplishments of a faculty member.
Not too shabby for a man familiar with Phillis Diller's
portrayal of Miss Poopinplatz, al la The Boneyard
I wrote a review for this book, and prior to submitting it, I thought I'd contact Dr. Dendle, to see if maybe he'd be kind enough to answer a question or two that would compliment the review. I couldn't have possibly asked for a better response.
made you decide to catalog zombie films?
Toronto is a terrifically international city, and it's a
terrific city for film. When I first moved there in 1993,
I found myself surrounded by quirky theatres and cult video
stores & rental places. I had always loved zombie movies
in a general sort of way--I spent my high school years in
the mid-80s going to them with friends--but all of a sudden
I found myself surrounded by scores of weird Mexican and
Italian zombie movies, by indie zombie experiments, and
all manner of utterly non-intuitive variations on the familiar
themes and motifs. I figured, if this is interesting to
me, it's bound to be interesting to my friends and probably
to lots of other people out there.
ZAGG: How long did it
take you to research and write?
Dendle: By 1995, I was already jotting down notes and impressions of the movies I was watching right after they were over, even though I didn't know why at first. (I don't usually sit down and write my impressions after watching a movie! It was weird to me too.) Quickly I was writing up full entries, and seeking out movies with an increased obsessiveness. Eventually I realized that what I was doing was writing a book. Serious writing of the core text took place from 1996-97. Since I was a grad student at the University of Toronto at the time, I was using the library to research zombies and zombie movies, at the same time that I was writing my dissertation on Old English literature. By 1998-1999, only very few new entries were being added, and I did a few extensive rounds of copy-editing and revising. I guess, then, 1995-1999 is the broadest answer of "how long was I working on it and changing it," while 1996-1997 is the answer to "how long was it an active, integral part of my everyday life and schedule."
ZAGG: How did you go
about finding certain obscure titles?
Dendle: There really weren't
any substantial studies/overviews available when I started
out, so I was largely on my own--which encouraged me that
such a book needed to be done, but made it a nebulous sort
of undertaking at first. The book was largely written before
the internet was what it is now--this was almost ten years
ago. It would be a very different sort of endeavor now (easier
in some ways, more difficult in others). I started off renting
anything and everything from the offbeat video stores in
Toronto, and then once I started ordering catalogues from
cult video distributors. I read through the catalogues as
though they were novels, first page to last, ignoring everything
except when I saw the word zombie or read something that
sounded like a potential zombie. I was reading horror and
video guide books also, same way. Early on I compiled a
mammoth list of "possibles," and it took me years
to find a lot of them. The more obscure titles I only ever
acquired on second- or third-generation copies from sketchy
distributors. Some only came in versions dubbed in Japanese,
or taped from Dutch TV and dubbed into English, or whatever.
In any event, I tried to obtain and watch everything that
was even a candidate.
ZAGG: Did your research
affect your social relationships, and if so, how? As in
"Sorry I can not attend this very important University
dinner as I must stay home and watch Erotic Nights of
the Living Dead"
Dendle: The medievalists I was
hanging out with in grad school were very open to zombie
movies, and "zombie movie parties" became a regular staple
for us. On the other hand, I think my significant other
at the time probably felt a bit like a "zombie widow" after
a while. Even though she was certainly open to a lot of
things and enjoyed watching them with me from time to time,
you have to understand that at the time I literally had
no interest in watching anything else. Any other movie seemed
like a waste of time--it was great that "Fargo" and
"Clerks" and whatever was out, and I've since caught
up on all these excellent movies in a more sane frame of
mind--but at the time, if a horde of zombies didn't suddenly
appear on the scene in the middle of "Forrest Gump"
or "The English Patient" to slaughter everybody,
then it did nothing for me.
By the time the book came out, I had landed my professorship. I don't really think my administrators and most of my fellow colleagues right now quite know what to make of the whole zombie thing. I think they're suspicious of it. If they think that I have a basement full of bodies or something, though, I don't go terribly out of my way to disabuse them of such notions.
ZAGG: Are your students familiar with this work?
Dendle: They do love the fact that their English professor has written a book on zombie movies, it's true. I don't advertise it in class--in fact I've never mentioned it in class a single time--but somehow or other they always find out, and word gets around.
ZAGG: Do you know who
is responsible for the cover art?
Dendle: No, I don't. No clue. I didn't come up with the title (which I objected to, by the way, and which is by far the single-most repeated criticism of the book), or the cover art. Actually I proposed an authentic cubist painting of a zombie by a Haitian artist which I came across for the cover, but they would have none of it ("too obscure and doesn't really look like a zombie"). Those are my only criticisms of McFarland, by the way, which has otherwise been a delightful press to work with.
ZAGG: You have another
book out, Satan
Unbound: The Devil in Old English Narrative Literature.
Despite it's lack of zombies, could you tell us a little
Dendle: That started out as
my doctoral thesis, actually written concurrently with ZME.
It's probably not as exciting as the title makes it sound,
but the upshot is that the devil of Anglo-Saxon literature
(literature in Old English) is much more stylized and artificial
than one might expect. He's manipulated as a sort of chess-piece
in the symbolic landscape of the saints' lives (the main
type of narrative at the time) which leads me to suspect
ultimately that he may not have been as real, vibrant, powerful,
and personal a figure in the early Middle Ages as I might
have thought. It's gotten pretty good reviews, but isn't
the sort of thing more than a handful of people in the world
are going to read.
ZAGG: What else is in
Dendle: Heh. Yes, the "day job" for me is medieval literature and culture. I have just completed a manuscript entitled "Demon Possession in Anglo-Saxon England," a historical work which actually winds up downplaying the place of possession and exorcism in Anglo-Saxon society (eighth through eleventh centuries AD). It doesn't have a lot to do with zombies, admittedly. I do have a substantial series of writings on zombies in Haitian and early southern U.S. folklore, but I haven't quite decided yet how to release that.
ZAGG: These writings
on zombies in Haitian and early southern U.S. folklore that
you mentioned, can you tell us a little more about those
That turned out to be a really interesting direction my
research took. The Haitian (and West African) zombie is
not just one thing--it's can be a ghost, a bogeyman, a revenant,
a bringer of justice or a mischievous imp. It's not necessarily
a soulless body--just as often it's a disembodied soul (like
our "ghost," I suppose), and in either conceptualization
it can be invisible. There are folkloric aspects like an
aversion to salt, which were never really picked up on by
the U.S. movie industry (with a few notable exceptions).
As for the southern U.S., the zombie in the 19th and early 20th centuries was sometimes a frightening bogeyman, as we might expect. But also, it was apparently a god of some sort called Li Grand Zombi. I found some fascinating stuff in early New Orleans city guides and Times-Picayune articles on what the "colored folk" were off doing in their ceremonies. Even Marie Laveau is cited as worshipping this god on the Bayou St. John in a 1900 edition of the "Picayune Guide to New Orleans"--they print the Creole chant used to address the god in full. I don't know how accurate this sensationalistic tourist publication is in recording what was or wasn't actually going on in the black communities, but there are fairly consistent references to this god Li Grand Zombi. I don't quite know what to make of it. There are references at times to "zombi" being a divinity of some sort in West Africa--but that would be a very long way and a very long time for such an apparently tangential belief to have survived, to 19th century Louisiana! There's no record of it in Haiti. Anyway, I've written that material up as an article, but it's been shelved for a while and I haven't quite figured out what I'm going to do with it.
ZAGG: Do you still watch the latest zombie movies?
Dendle: I do try to keep up
as best as I can (though it's not the focus of my work at
the moment), and I eventually hope to do an updated edition
of the ZME. Most recently, of course, I was interested
to see a zombie movie get national attention: "28 Days Later"
opened as a first-run movie in something like 1200 cinemas,
for no apparent reason. It's a solid enough movie, I suppose,
but it certainly didn't do anything different from what
zombie movies were doing 20 years ago, or from what they've
been doing in scores of movies ever since.
ZAGG: What, in your opinion, makes a good zombie flick?
Dendle: That's an excellent question. For me, zombie movies tap into a few specific human fears and anxieties very effectively: most notably, apocalypticism and contagion, betrayal by friends and loved ones, and claustrophobia. Zombie movies de-romanticize the connections between human beings, since it turns out that--under the surface--we're all locked in competitive power relationships with one another. Familiar people are not what they seem. Also, the best of these movies focus most on the suspense of being very close to someone who is after you, and having to negotiate the placement of windows, chairs, tables, etc. to keep them outside of arm's reach. Everything you thought you knew is somehow suddenly different--you re-interpret it for what it's made of and what it's good for (people as well as household objects). You see it not for what is represents symbolically or culturally, but simply for what it just plain is.
On the other hand, like all apocalyptic movies, these movies also contain the excitement of being there at a time and place when you have the full run of empty homes and stores. All the old rules are gone. You can run amok, unchecked, rediscovering the world around you without the fetters of authority and society, and forced to rethink your own patterns of morality and your own point of orientation for what is right or wrong. But of course these fantasies of having the whole world to yourself are fools' fantasies.
Bottom line: A good zombie movie is unforgiving, unromantic, and maddeningly patient. It gives us what we think we want--freedom, toys, even access to other people's bodies, and then lays bare how undesirable all those things actually are.
ZAGG: Name your favorite zombie movie and why it is so.
Dendle: I've never been asked to pin it down so precisely! This is hard. The "correct" answer, of course, should normally be "Night of the Living Dead," and then after that, the two Romero follow-ups. But by now, as influential as those have been on me, I can't say they hold the same personal significance they once did. It now has to be a toss-up between "Burial Ground" and "Tombs of the Blind Dead." Taken together, the four "Tombs of the Blind Dead" movies are my favorite series, and they form a beautifully dynamic whole that then makes each of the four movies that much more layered. But if I have to pick one and only one, then I suppose it's "Burial Ground." It's a horrible, cheesy movie with crappy actors and awful special effects, and it transparently plagiarizes from others like Romero and Fulci, and I admit all of that fully and freely: but somehow I just love it. It's fun as well as being dark. I do laugh at it while I'm watching it (at the lousy dialogue, implausible plot twists, and the ridiculous choices the characters seem to make), but the whole time, the unfolding vision of how a zombie apocalypse should proceed is delicious: the build-up of suspense is unyielding and the zombies are sadistically slow. It's dark and gory and driven.
What have I personally learned about Peter Dendle during
our correspondence? I learned that he is familiar with Rotten.com,
which may or may not be frightening. I learned that he thinks
Bettie Page and Alan Greenspan-shaped swimming pools are
A-Okay. I learned that he could be coerced by his students
to partake in class snowboarding trips. And, I learned that
he has put a lot of thought and time on the phenomena that
is zombie folklore and filmdom. So much so that, well, there's
more, and he's sitting on it. There's only one way to get
it out of him and that's to show a need for it. Pick up
Zombie Movie Encyclopedia. If we show him our love,
he might just reciprocate. We can only win in the end.
I'd like to thank Peter for giving so much of his time and
for being so forthcoming. And in closing…more zombies, please?
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