HALLOWEEN: Surrey professor says zombies can teach us a lot about ourselves

Dr. Sam Migliore, a professor of anthropology at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, is co-writing a book that explores what makes us human.

Amelia Naismith was a zombie in a movie that was filmed in Ponoka, AB.

Amelia Naismith was a zombie in a movie that was filmed in Ponoka, AB.

SURREY — Zombies are mindless, right? Maybe so, but they can still teach us a lot about ourselves (other than we need to run fast because our brains are yummy).

Dr. Sam Migliore, a professor of anthropology at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, wants to show us how. He’s co-writing a book with his brother John Migliore, a retired teacher and now part-time actor who has played a zombie in numerous movies including a 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead.

“Although I have read numerous academic books and articles on zombies and vampires, I have learned a great deal of what I know about zombies from working with my brother John, the ‘survival zombie,’” Dr. Migliore said. “I’ll be handling the anthropology part, talking about zombies, but he has played the role of the zombie in films and other projects. He’s been in all those remakes of the Living Dead, George Romero films.”

The professor teaches a second-year anthropology course at KPU on religion, magic and witchcraft and is author of Mal’uocchiu: Ambiguity, Evil Eye and the Language of Distress, a book which explores the belief held by some Sicilian-Canadians that a curse can be cast through a malignant glare.

“We have a working title, ‘What is a Zombie: an insider’s perspective,’” Dr. Migliore said of his latest project.

“It’s going to be part case history, life history where the focus is really on him and his experiences. From an anthropology point of view, it would be, how does one become a zombie, to learn how to be a zombie, and now he’s actually teaching people on set how to be zombies. He has a whole list of things. You don’t want to all be doing the same thing – it looks choreographed. In some you want to be slow moving, pick a body part that doesn’t work. In others they want you to move as if you were in water, sort of gliding around in water.”

PICTURED: Dr. Sam Migliore is a professor of anthropology at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey. (Photo: TOM ZYTARUK)

The book, which Dr. Migliore describes as a graphic ethnography, will be written in three voices: The professor’s, his brother’s and the voice of Johnny Ghoulash, a zombie character his brother created.

“The book will have my voice as the person writing the book, and my brother’s voice as the person who has played the role as a zombie. So you have the anthropological voice, the insider’s voice, and then you have the zombie’s voice that keeps us in check to make sure that we don’t take it too seriously, in directions that people won’t understand. Johnny Ghoulash will be there to keep everything going smoothly, I guess.”

Dr. Migliore said his book will explore what makes us human.

“Really what I’m interested in is to see what the meanings behind the zombie are, and what that tells us about people, about society,” he said.

So why are people so fascinated by zombies?

“A lot of it has to do with what’s going on in society at the time. Today, I think, in our society with everything from such rapid contact between places around the world and disease entities in certain places being able to spread very quickly, you have a basis for this notion of epidemic, contamination etc., where it is possible that some disease can be present and affect a large population, unwary population and zombie films address that. So they’re getting at some societal fears about the outside and what can come in, and what is dangerous. The whole idea that even people you love can be transformed into something else, and be dangerous in a sense.”

Dr. Migliore says he’s not sure where the concept of the zombie originated – probably Haiti or West Africa.

But movie director George A. Romero, with his 1968 cult classic Night of the Living Dead, he said, “transformed the zombie into these consumers, the living dead, and I think that’s where the popular zombie of today comes from.”

The modern zombie speaks to “mindless” consumerism, he explained. Romero’s 1978 film Dawn of the Dead, is set in a mall “and zombies are there to consume people. That tells us something about how we might be acting in terms of going to the mall and consuming products, and what does that mean for our survival, in a sense?

“So we have these mindless consumers and mindless workers as well, leading to this notion of a zombie… It’s also fun. People every year go out for these zombie walks at Halloween; they can dress up as zombies. So everything from fun to societal fears, I think, makes it popular today.”

Still, questions remain. Like why do zombies eat brains?

“I really don’t know,” the professor replied. “To not have a brain, or to not be able to think, becomes something that people do worry about.”

Also, do zombies have to be sinister?

“I guess it depends where people take it. It’s not a matter of whether the zombie is or is not dangerous but whether the person is dangerous, where they take the zombie metaphor. If you take The Walking Dead, some of the human villains are far worse than the zombies in the destruction they cause, in the suffering they cause for people.

The Walking Dead in particular, and I think a lot of other zombie programs right now, they seem to be geared towards telling us more about people than they are about zombies. How the living are transformed, and what they have to do to stay alive.”



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