Wednesday July 13th, 2011

The Influence of Feel-Bad Dystopias

The July issue of Harper’s features an excerpt from Zone One, Colson Whitehead’s soon-to-be-published entry in the thriving post-apocalyptic genre. The magazine also asked Whitehead six questions on its website. Here’s one of them, particularly appropriate as a lead-in to something else that will appear here sometime in the next week or so:

On your website, you’ve posted a list of apocalypse-themed films that affected you as a kid. Does one in particular stand out as influencing the book?

When I was a youngster, comic books and novels such as Lucifer’s Hammer and The Stand provided models of the apocalypse, but movies were my true primer — the glorious feel-bad dystopian flicks of the 1960s and 1970s. The inexplicable monsters of Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead were my template for this book, as they are for everything we currently categorize as a zombie text. (Happy to discuss aspects of the novel I Am Legend with advanced students!) I was in fifth or sixth grade when the local New York PBS affiliate broadcast the original Romero movie for Halloween, and as someone who rarely encountered the Strong Black Protagonist in movies — outside of blaxploitation flicks — the movie was a revelation. Night of the Living Dead is the story of a black man on the run from the mob of white people who want to destroy him, literally devour him — in other words, it’s a crucial subplot of the America narrative.