News & Politics

"Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter": 8 Antebellum Vampire Zombies in Politics and Pop Culture

It's the Civil War rebooted, this time with the expendable undead

Zombies, vampires, monsters. Whether they're feeding on blood, brains or the body politic, throughout recorded history they have functioned as resilient parasites hell-bent on exhausting and annihilating their hosts. Sound familiar

It should, because humanity, now numbered at 7 billion and counting worldwide, is running out of room and resources. It shouldn't surprise anyone that ocean acidification is predictably but horrifically escalating in lockstep, or that its nearest death marches were 300 million years and four mass extinctions ago — still way too close for existential comfort. But the enemy of existential comfort is existential horror, and today that means zombies, vampires and further monstrous parasites in pop and politics. They are the stand-ins for the expendable among us, wish-fantasies of graphic extermination and hopeful reconstruction.

Speaking of Reconstruction, lately these parasitic entities that must be exterminated at all costs have freakishly emerged from the still-unsettled mental and regional wreckage of the American Civil War. Which itself would be a perfect metaphor for a ravenous species eating itself from within, were it not for the fact that it cost nearly a million American lives in real time, and resulted in political and cultural enmities that remain irreconcilable. Especially in a singular election year charged with apocalyptic rhetoric and amplified prejudices, which has only intensified the meaning of the Civil War reenactments — this time with bloodsuckers and brain eaters.

Take the popcorn blockbuster John Carter, about Edgar Rice Burroughs' paragon of reconstructed Southern masculinity, which transforms its slave-state Confederate captain into a freedom-fighting warlord far, far away from his earthly moral transgressions. Or the just-released Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, which reimagines Southern slave traders as bloodsucking cannon fodder for America's greatest president—who ended the Civil War, emancipated its slaves and took a bullet to the head, courtesy of John Wilkes Booth in a calculated payback of emasculated rage. 

From well-known electives like The Walking Dead, True Blood, and World War Z to indie experiments like Exit Humanity, pop culture is currently reanimating the American Civil War to reflect our real-time environmental and economic horrors. You know, the ones in which you are either a zombie, vampire or another targeted corpse without human, or subhuman, rights. Or you're one of the few survivalists left searching for your humanity in a priced-in, die-off centuries in the making.

These gruesome Civil War reboots have gone viral in politics as well. Americans are mired in an interminable election-year masquerade, starring an African-American president at the height of his power and a seething Southern body politic determined to suck the bones of his (New) New Deal utterly dry. Co-stars include zombie banks, vampire squids and even armed John Wilkes Booth bobblehead dolls showing up for sale at, of all places, the Gettysburg National Military Park.

So without further ado, here is a list of the pop and political wish-fantasies that have infiltrated and resuscitated American history's most murderous conflict. Starting with, conveniently enough, with a marketing zombie whose manufactured death mask simply will not, and probably could not, ever go away.

1. Sarah Palin, Confederate Heroin(e)

A bottomless boon to sensationalists everywhere, Palin recently accused president-of-color Barack Obama of wanting to return to the "mistake that took place before the Civil War ... when we were in different classes based on income, based on color of skin." Her bizarro logic, in which an increasingly multicultural American citizenry now regards last century's supreme whites as expendable subhumans, is a caricature ironically colored by the 2012 release of Game Change, in which the talented Julianne Moore humanizes the mythic Palin. 

That regressive humanization continues in Game Change director Jay Roach's 2012 film companion The Campaign, in which two bumbling Southerners compete for a congressional seat in North Carolina, an indispensable Civil War ally. For those keeping score, it's the U.S. state that's home to Bank of America, a definitivezombie bank, as well as Asheville, where a horde of zombies once invaded Palin's election speech in 2008. Looking for further undead parallels? Palin was transformed, along with similarly minded demagogues like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, into a walking corpse in the controversial game "Tea Party Zombies Must Die." Talk about your locked and loaded signifiers.

2. John Carter

Shortly after Andrew Stanton's blockbuster adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' influential pulp sci-fi books finally arrived after over-saturated marketing, so too did the extensive speculation as to why it fundamentally flopped. Yet few if any have posited what might be responsible for its $250 million rocket to nowhere: Its paragon, Confederate captain John Carter, is an anachronistic Civil War soldier on the wrong side of history. Burroughs' sensational racial fantasies of reversal — a beaten Confederate captain reincarnated as a peerless galactic warlord; the hypermasculine savage Tarzan, who plastered Darkest Africa with whiteface —- were written, as their author once explained, "just as rotten" as the "rot such as I had read" in magazines of his time. When John Carter appeared a century ago in 1912, the Civil War's doomed confederacy was far more culturally glorified, light years away from our more hindsight-rich reality.

So from John Carter's first shot, Stanton and his storytellers were tasked with creating a sympathetic hook for postmodern audiences, whose current president of color would have likely been cannon fodder in its hero's less evolved historical period. They invented Carter's murdered wife and child, hoping it would support the half-baked premise that a Confederate messiah was actually capable of winning several epochal wars, albeit on an imaginary Mars wracked by bitterly divided monsters of all colors, shapes and sizes. One would have imagined that Disney would have been smart enough avoid the Civil War like a plague of zombies after the doomed, out-of-circulation Song of the South.

3. Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter

Burroughs' Southern paragon John Carter likely would have been a vampire capitalist in Seth Grahame-Smith's 2010 epistolary novel Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, whose blockbuster movie treatment arrived today. America's greatest president ever, Abraham Lincoln, spent his short, inspirational life uniting his country by extracting a civil-rights parasite that he knew would eventually kill it. But in Graham-Smith's novel and undead-friendly director TimurBekmambetov's Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter film adaptation, the slave trade itself is the food supply for Southern parasites determined to destroy the nation. Like True Blood below, there are good and bad vampires in Grahame-Smith's genre experiment, but the apocalyptic scourge of the undead is indistinguishable from the dehumanizing scourge of slavery.

This clever revision contains real-time economic and political resonance. Palin's ludicrous logic of Obama's Civil War time travel is a prime example, whose multiracial president is recast as the head vampire sucking the South dry of its whiteness. That's a crafty inversion, given that Obama is too often compared to the healing Lincoln by political marketers, rather than the capitulating Bill Clinton, a more reasonable analogue. And what is Palin's fantasy but another iteration of Ayn Rand's archetypal narcissism, which divides humanity into "producers" and "parasites?" It's a savvy fantasy, but reality is closer to Grahame-Smith's vampiric imagination, as AlterNet's Sara Robinson recently, and popularly, pointed out in an article with the apt subtitle "Blue States Are the Providers, Red States Are the Parasites."

"It's now a stone fact that the blue states and cities are the country's real wealth creators," wrote Robinson, employing a tax-ratio analysis as backup. "That's why we pay more taxes and are able to send that money to the red states in the first place ... the unimaginative, exhausted places that have clung to a fading past, rejected science, substituted superstition for sense, and refused to invest in their own futures."

3. Lincoln vs. Booth vs. Obama

Speaking of Lincoln, there is probably no more popular current analysis of his stunning presidency than the delightful Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, which also happens to be one of President Obama's favorite books. Its popularity practically demanded a cinematic adaptation, and one is indeed coming this year. But not before the apocalyptic election season, explained Lincoln director Steven Spielberg. ""The movie will be purposely coming out after [the] election," the acclaimed auteur explained in 2011. "I didn't want it to become political fodder."

It's a bit too late for that, although Spielberg's choice of words is instructive. Comparisons between Lincoln and Obama have already thoroughly permeated American culture, as have mounting calls for retributive violence that would make John Wilkes Booth happy. Last year, Oscar Ortega-Hernandez fired seven bullets at the White House, before that Rupert Murdoch's New York Post transformed Obama into a bullet-ridden chimp, conservatives on Twitter have threatened to shoot him (like Lincoln) point blank, ad nauseam. These are just a few among a multitude of death threats the first African-American president in history receives daily, according to In the President's Secret Service author Ronald Kessler, who's worried that Obama's protection regime is dangerously behind. No wonder that last year a Republican Committee in Virginia sent out a gruesome email featuring a zombie Obama with a bullet in his head.

Virginia is also where Spielberg filmed the majority of Lincoln: The one-time Capitol of the Confederacy still reveres and preserves its historic Civil War architecture, which makes for blockbuster period vistas. And last but not least, Virginia is eventually where John Wilkes Booth — assassin of the figurative vampire hunter Abraham Lincoln and champion of the parasitic South — was himself finally killed. Yet it is in Philadelphia's Gettysburg where the Civil War was won and where he was brought back from the dead as an increasingly popular John Wilkes Booth bobblehead doll, complete with loaded pistol and theater box, to haunt his victim's respective bobblehead doll on the shelves of the Gettysburg National Military Park's visitor's center bookstore. Which, it might as well be mentioned, currently receives its funding from American taxpayers and their African-American president.

4. The Walking Dead

"There are no n***ers, no inbred, dumb-as-shit, white-trash fools neither," explains The Walking Dead's zombie-killing Sheriff's Deputy Rick Grimes in AMC 's adaptation of Robert Kirkman's acclaimed comics series. "Just white meat and dark meat." 

That visceral philosophy cleverly revises the Civil War for post-millennials fascinated by zombies and vampires. Instead of being torn apart by ethnicity and economics, it is now reductively centered on expendable matter not worth saving for the inevitable apocalypse to come. For what else are we but expendable matter, in an age of perpetual war, lethal drones, surveillance states, proprietary algorithms and worse? That's right, just meat with heat signatures. Especially in an undead-centric series whose apocalypse first unravels in the South — Kentucky and Atlanta, a critical Civil War contention, as well as America's currently fourth-sickest housing market — before migrating to a walled compound in a more hopeful West. It's a dead giveaway. 

And there's more North-South carnage to come. The Walking Dead's third season premieres this fall, introducing the comics' most notorious tyrant, The Governor. The self-proclaimed leader of Woodbury, Georgia, the governor is as viciously despicable as the zombies he purportedly protects his citizenry from. He's also as a survivalist fantasy of extreme prejudice and control that teases out The Walking Dead's graphic paranoia. With a political office for a name and a thirst for ultraviolence, he's a metaphor for ravenous governance that would probably make Palin smile. That his cartoonish evil demands his destruction — at the hands of an unleashed law enforcement hero like Grimes, no less — is no accident. But the fact that the last name of the actor playing Grimes is Lincoln probably is an accident, however serendipitous it may be for our purposes.

5. True Blood

Adapted from Charlaine Harris' The Southern Vampire Mysteries, Alan Ball's HBO series True Blood, whose fifth season just began, is perhaps the most popular undead experiment ahead of The Walking Dead. But its Civil War roots are far more obvious: Like John Carter before him, its chief male protagonist Bill Compton is a Confederate veteran who, like those in Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, also happens to be a vampire that sometimes viciously, sometimes hornily feeds on humanity. This provides Ball's sexualized adaptation plenty of opportunity to show off Civil War sluts and revisionist Confederate army posters that add televisual luster to the South's historic shame.

But Ball's show is also problematized by a lamely bleached ethnicity. It's an insidious strain of prejudice given that its invented setting, Bon Temps, resides in the state of Louisiana, which is nearly 38 percent nonwhite. Even True Blood's tongue-in-cheek website "Welcome to Bon Temps" — "Good times," to you non-Francophiles — explains that Louisiana is "home to the second-largest proportion of Black Americans (32.5 percent) in the United States," despite the fact that its first few seasons featured only two blacks, one of which was a gay male, the other of which was an embittered female, and one of which [spoiler] took a bullet to the head. Meanwhile, all of the major undead characters are cotton-white and fleshed out with far more rigor, leading one blogger to revise Kanye West's infamous post-Katrina blurt as "Alan Ball Doesn't Care About Black People." Meanwhile, sexy Confederates and imported Europeans get a pass, because that's what Southern-fried undead fantasies of identity reconstruction demand. And that sucks.

6. Attack of the Undead Indies!

Toiling beneath their most mainstream undead kin are the home-grown fantasies of Civil War vampires and zombies, many released this year as e-books. That includes William Van Winkle's The Followers, which the PC World contributor explained on his official site is a vehicle for not just enlivening what he considers the "dessicated, lifeless" shell of American history, but also working out currently paranoid geopolitical tensions surrounding Iran's nuclear program, which at last report is years away from a weapon of any kind.

"What if zombies were such a weapon?" Van Winkle posited. "What if one side had been able to wield that weapon at the most pivotal moment of the most pivotal battle in American history?"

That undead looking-glass is inverted in Pauline Ray's new, extensively titled Emancipation: A Civil War Vampire Novel: Book One of the Thirsty Ones, wherein a Southern belle laments a suspiciously total Confederate victory in a alternative Civil War history wracked by bloodsuckers. Both follow in the footsteps of more popular undead revisionism like Josh Miller's A Zombie's History of the United States, whose brain eaters ride the coattails of the late, great Howard Zinn's indispensable The People's History of the United States.

Spoiler alert: In Miller's own alternative history, Booth assassinates Lincoln because he believes him to be a zombie president, sort of like Virginia's Loudon County Republican Committee thinks not just Obama but also Nancy Pelosi is a blue-state brain eater. It's probably not a stretch from that troubling fantasy to Tessa Schlesinger's Nook book Civil War 2012, but it's your mind, which industrial noisemakers Ministry once reminded us is a terrible thing to taste. Stretch it with caution.

7. Exit Humanity

Speaking of indies, Exit Humanity, an ambitious independent production from John Geddes' Foresight Features, injects zombies into the Civil War's disoriented aftermath, with interesting results. Aptly for our purposes, Fangoria has called it the long-lost cousin of Jim Jarmusch's psychedelic western classic Dead Man, wherein Johnny Depp haunts the film's alternately hilarious and harrowing proceedings like an undead avenger. But Exit Humanity — in an intriguing merge between John Carter and The Walking Dead, albeit with a much smaller budget — pits a post-traumatic Civil War veteran despondent at the death of his family against a disgraced and deranged Southern general capitalizing on the indie horror's zombie hordes as gruesome payback for Confederacy emasculation.

Geddes' thematic exploration fits comfortably into the parasitic South paradigm analyzed here, but it also nakedly name-checks our collective loss of humanity from the title onward. As such, there are no extended sequences of zombie gore, which is to say no glorification of parasitic violence and fear. Rather, the zombies function as namelessly accessible receptacles for our unchecked human brutality. It's a potent crossover analysis, given recent headlines about Army sergeant Robert Bales, the family man and desensitized assassin who emerged out of the darkness in Afghanistan's Kandahar region to gruesomely murder and immolate 16 faceless villagers, nine of them children. It's not for nothing that the military's tactical suppliers in Kandahar are selling out of "Zombie Hunter" patches.

8. World War Z

Undead aficionados may already know, but most don't that the aforementioned military infatuation with Zombie Hunter patches derives from Max Brooks' 2006 novel World War Z. A first-person telling of the Great Zombie War — originally due onscreen in 2012 with superstar Brad Pitt, before being wisely pushed back to June 2013, well after our decidedly uncivil presidential election — World War Z globally magnifies the American Civil War as an apocalyptic showdown between the living and the undead. Its regional and ethnic rivalries are amplified into geopolitical enmities, so instead of the North-South and black-white binarisms that color the aforementioned explorations, Brooks' sequel to his 2003 undead fighting manual The Zombie Survival Guide involves humanity locked in a sovereignty death match between the United Nations and their expendable human and subhuman fodder.

Inspired by Studs Terkel's The Good War and as critical as it is of mindless extremism and American isolationism, Brooks' book is a bit of a geopolitical mess. Its zombie contagion begins in China, initiates a laughable nuclear war between Iran and Pakistan, justifies a walled-off Israel, revels in worldwide carnage and finishes with a fully unleashed American military whose offensive campaign eventually gives birth to not just a democratic Cuba, but also a full-circle democratic China. But these geopolitical fantasies are as obvious as its weaponized fetishes such as the book's Lobotomizer (which John Wilkes Booth probably would have loved), designed to explode zombie heads at point-blank range. 

One can expect director Marc Forster's Word War Z blockbuster, which some pop-cult tastemakers have already tabbed as an Oscar possibility, will lavish as much attention on the Lobo as it will on Pitt, humanity's United Nations savior. One can also expect an immersively cinematic annihilation of the expendable walking dead that humanity has sadly become. Which, in turn, has birthed a seemingly bulletproof militarism that does not bode well for our collective future. 

But one might also want to keep an eye on the conspiracy theorists, including Glenn Beck and even the Republican National Committee, terrified that the United Nations' Agenda 21 action plan is in fact, as the RNC's 2012 resolution explains, "a comprehensive plan of extreme environmentalism, social engineering, and global political control." Like the Civil War South before them, Agenda 21 paranoiacs are convinced that the United Nations is determined to destroy their regional sovereignty. It's logical to assume that World War Z's monumental Hollywood blockbuster of graphic, and geographic, annihilation and reconstruction is going to give them far more survivalist nightmares than the proliferating pop-cultural phantasms of Abraham Lincoln. Fade to black, indeed. 

Scott Thill runs the online mag His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.