Talking dead

Students learn about zombies in an unconventional seminar

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The Spectrum

If a zombie apocalypse hits Buffalo anytime soon, one group of UB students will be prepared to handle the impending chaos.

These students meet every Tuesday around a large seminar table in Capen Hall and are instructed by John Edgar Browning, an adjunct English professor and Ph.D. candidate in the department of transnational studies.

Browning's class, "A Cultural History of the Walking Dead," aims to provide students with historical background on zombies and their social and cultural implications. Reviews of the class have been positive, with most students keenly interested in what the class and its professor have to offer.

"To have a class on zombies as a freshman is something fun that I thought would be a more interesting break from the grind of other classes," said Derek Stein, a freshman media study and political science major, in an email. "The thing that I am most looking forward to is really the perspective I'll get from this class on zombies and their prevalence in film and culture."

This perspective is exactly what Browning intends to flesh out and explore. He has been fascinated with zombies, along with monsters of other kinds, since he was a kid in the early 1980s. He said it was around that time that his family first bought a VCR, just as they were becoming more easily available to the typical American family.

"My parents were all about taping movies and renting movies, and they had no qualms with showing my brothers and me horror films," Browning said. "I mean, before I was even in kindergarten I had seen a lot of rated 'R' horror films."

Browning later realized his love for monsters, including zombies, could blossom into an academic career - one that has brought him to UB to work on a doctoral dissertation focusing on vampires and people who identify themselves as vampires.

Zombie films and other representations have more to offer society than gruesome and gory depictions of violence and bloodshed, he believes.

"Sometimes, we look at statuettes and pottery to see what particular cultures thought about sexuality," Browning said. "Well, in a thousand years, they'll easily look at our films to see what we thought about sexuality."

He thinks this anthropological value surrounding topics like sexuality is not the only aspect of zombies in our culture that is important. Browning suggests it's not strictly the zombies drawing many Americans to television shows like "The Walking Dead" or the Hollywood blockbuster film and bestselling novel World War Z.

"It's the people that have to survive the zombie attacks and the zombie onslaught," Browning said. "We'll discover it's not [George A. Romero's] zombies that people love; it was cramming a few people into an enclosure or house and forcing them to survive together, making them either work together or not work together and get killed because of it."

The ways in which the uninfected people in zombie stories manage to survive in what Browning dubs their "survival space," are directly responsible for keeping the genre fresh, interesting and relevant, he said.

Another innovation that has kept the zombie subculture so intriguing is the tendency of recent zombie depictions to feature "ambulatory survival spaces" with dynamic sizes and shapes that multiple groups are vying for resources, according to Browning.

"The one good thing [about zombie films] now is that people who are interested in our culture, or cultures in general, can look at these right now and basically get the gist of what people are thinking, because sometimes film imitates life," Browning said.

But the opposite is also true, in that, at times, life imitates film - even zombie films. This relationship is what helped to keep their social applications so relevant throughout history, according to Browning. These are exactly the types of ideals that have captivated Browning's students, like Krista Armbruster, a biological sciences and Spanish major.

"It's interesting that there are 'experts' on topics such as zombies and that zombies have such an extensive history that's so different from what we think of now when we think of zombies," Armbruster said in an email. "I'm looking forward to exploring the facets of zombies that I've never thought of before."

For other students looking to get in on the monster craze arising in this classroom, Browning will offer a similar seminar during the spring semester focusing on not only zombies, but vampires as well.

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