Zombies lumber into curriculum at University of Baltimore

New class examines monsters' ever-expanding grip on pop culture

September 06, 2010|By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

Arnold Blumberg plops the zombie head on a table at the front of the small theater.

"I brought a friend," says the University of Baltimore professor, clad in an unbuttoned black shirt adorned with red skulls.

Blumberg is meeting his class for the first time and it seems appropriate that he greet them beside "old Worm Eye," undead star of the 1979 Italian cult film "Zombi 2."

It was Worm Eye's decaying visage that called to a young Blumberg from the shelf of a Randallstown video store in the 1980s. Without him, maybe Blumberg wouldn't be here today, teaching a new generation about his favorite movie monster.

Zombies are everywhere these days. Last year they hit the best-seller list in a bizarre mash-up with Jane Austen called "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies." They have inspired math professors to devise statistical models for surviving a "zombie apocalypse." This fall, they'll star in the AMC TV series "The Walking Dead."

And now, they're the subject of a new course, otherwise known as English 333, at the University of Baltimore.

"Zombies are one of the most potent, direct reflections of what we're thinking moment to moment in our culture," Blumberg tells the class in explaining why they're all here.

Students will watch 16 classic zombie films (including "Zombi 2," in which a zombie fights a shark), read zombie comics and, as an alternative to a final research paper, have the chance to write scripts or draw storyboards for their ideal zombie flicks.

Jonathan Shorr, chair of the university's school of communications design, wanted a rotation of "interesting, off-the-wall" courses for a new minor in pop culture. But when Blumberg pitched him a course about the walking dead, he says, "I hit the side of my monitor a couple times thinking, 'Do I have this right? Did he say zombies?' "

The more he thought about it, however, the more intrigued Shorr became. Zombies have shown great resilience as a storytelling device and in this era of gloom and dread, their popularity is cresting. Maybe they would be a perfect hook to get students talking about sociology, literature and a bevy of other disciplines that can sound stuffy.

"It's a back door into a lot of subjects," Shorr says. "They think they're taking this wacko zombie course, and they are. But on the way, they learn how literature and mass media work, and how they come to reflect our times."

The university isn't the first to jump in line with the lumbering undead. Columbia College in Chicago has offered Zombies in Popular Media for years, making several lists of the country's most bizarre courses in the process. At Iowa's Simpson College, students spent the spring semester collectively writing a book on "The History of the Great Zombie War."

Blumberg, curator of Geppi's Entertainment Museum at Camden Yards, takes zombies seriously enough that he wrote a book about them. But he's not above tongue-in-cheek remarks about his decidedly nontraditional course.

"This hopefully is as dry and historical as we'll get for the rest for the semester," he says during a discourse on the misguided interpretation of West Indian rituals that allowed zombies into popular culture in the 1930s. "We'll get the blood and guts flying up on the screen soon enough."

Among the official course objectives, he lists "get you ready for a zombie apocalypse."

"Well, not really," Blumberg says. "But pay attention, and you'll pick up a few tips along the way."

For you doomed souls who aren't taking his class, here's rule No. 1: If zombies have you cornered and you have to shoot, aim for the head.

Blumberg starts class with a deceptively complicated question: What is a zombie?

"I know that lately, a lot of zombies have been created by viruses," one student volunteers. "Is that a zombie?"

"Absolutely!" Blumberg says merrily. One of his key beliefs is that we use zombies to reflect contemporary dreads, such as our current fear of pandemics. He seems thrilled that a student has tapped this theme so quickly.

"It's a computer used to attack other computers," says another.

"Yes!" Blumberg says. He'll be talking a lot about how zombies have invaded everyday language — so again, he's excited that a student has anticipated his message.

"It's pretty much anyone who doesn't have free will," the same student says.

"That's an excellent way to look at it," Blumberg replies.

Though he's an all-inclusive zombie guy who makes fun of the geeks who'd fight you over rigid definitions, Blumberg does have a few prejudices. Frankenstein and other monsters constructed of human parts aren't zombies, for one. And the hugely successful Marvel Comics series that turned favorite superheroes into zombies? Well, that really bothered him.

"As I get older, I have my restrictions," he says.

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