No self-respecting horror fan should ever admit they don’t know who Jovanka Vuckovic is. Former editor-in-chief of Rue Morgue (the best horror magazine out there, in my opinion), she is an expert on the horror genre, a filmmaker and now a horror author. Her brand new book, Zombies! An Illustrated History of the Undead, has just hit stores and belongs on every horror fan’s bookshelf.
Dread Central recently had the opportunity to interview the multi-tasking Vuckovic about her new book and her upcoming short film as well as her opinion on everything from slow zombies vs. fast zombies to the state of horror as a whole.
Dread Central: Hello, Jovanka, and thank you for taking the time to talk about your new book, Zombies! An Illustrated History of the Undead. I suppose the first and most obvious question would be: Why zombies?
Jovanka Vuckovic: I actually didn’t choose the subject. My publisher did. They approached me over a year and a half ago after my appearance in the documentary Zombiemania. I couldn’t say no to a major publisher asking me to write my first book. It was just too good to be true. I wanted to break away from the magazine business and start doing my own thing so this was a great starting point. It’s a subject that I naturally know a lot about so I said yes.
DC: How long was the researching and writing process on this, your first book? And how would you describe the book to those with little or no knowledge of it?
JV: The publisher was looking for a genre expert to write a tome on the undead – something that would appeal to the average zombie lover, not just extreme horror nerds. So I tried to write the book in a voice that speaks to everyone. Anyway, I agreed and then some time passed and the deal was finally brokered when I was about six months pregnant. This gave me just about three months to research, write and source every single photo in the book. It was an immense amount of work! In some ways spending the most uncomfortable trimester of your pregnancy watching zombie movies was really great; in other ways it was terrible because I was so uncomfortable and had to do a minimum of eight hours of writing every day or else I would never make deadline. In the last couple of weeks I had to get some help from writer Jennifer Eiss because I was just too pregnant to work those kinds of hours. She did a great job, too. You should pick up her book, 500 Essential Cult Films. It’s great toilet reading.
DC: How did you come to be friends with George (call me “George”) Romero, and how instrumental was he in the gestation of Zombies!?
JV: I got to know George over the years I spent as editor of Rue Morgue. He’s a really sweet, approachable guy. I was having dinner with him one night and told him about my film project, The Captured Bird. He offered to help with the movie, but I told him I had a more imminent project he could help me with. I felt like the book just wouldn’t be the same without an introduction from him. He’s the grandfather of the modern zombie, man!
DC: You cover the zombie genre from its true beginnings as part of the voodoo religion to its current inception as a part of pop culture. What do you think is the continuing appeal of the zombie? There are plenty of other monsters out there, but the zombiemania just keeps going and going (no pun intended).
JV: I think the key to the zombie’s longevity is its malleability. It can be hammered into other shapes without breaking. The creature has managed to evolve quite effortlessly mostly on the silver screen, with small pitstops on the printed page such as Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. The zombie has served as a metaphor for a variety of things including slavery, industrialization, nuclear anxiety, war, xenophobia, disease and so on. In fact you can trace sociocultural evolution via the zombie in North American cinema – and to some degree in Europe and elsewhere, though the Italian zombie films are often less about what’s going on in society as they are about putting on a Grand Guignol feast for the senses.
DC: How would you describe your first “encounter” with the zombie genre? A movie you might have seen as a child? A story you read? And what is their appeal to you personally?
JV: I want to say that the first zombie movie I saw was Invasion of the Body Snatchers – Philip Kaufman’s version. It scared the beejezus out of me as a child. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where it began for me because I wasn’t looking at horror films in terms of subgenre at that time, but I do have a very clear memory of renting a compilation video called Terror on Tape and seeing a clip from Lucio Fulci’s Zombie that gave me nightmares for years. I was the eye gouging scene in which Olga Karlatos is attacked by a zombie that pulls her face slowly and surely toward a twelve-inch wood splinter that punctures her eye and breaks off in the socket! I remember really saving up my courage to finally rent Zombie and watch it in its entirety. I remember the shark vs. zombie scene just melted my brain. It was in this splendid black oversized clamshell beta case from Jumbo Video. After that I was hooked on Fulci. That was around 12 years old, I think. Of course I have gone through periods where I am beyond sick of the living dead until I realize it’s not zombies that I’m sick of; it’s the cadres of uninspired zombie movies that I’ve really grown tired of. Just when I think I’m done with the undead, something like [REC] comes along to remind me the old monster still has a lot of potential (un)life left in it.
DC: To answer a becoming-age-old question, do you prefer the slow Romero zombies or the fast Snyder zombies?
JV: Definitely in the Romero camp here. I think zombies are better when they move slowly. For one, zombies wouldn’t actually be able to run in reality. Their muscle insertions, sinews and other connective tissues would putrefy and disconnect from the skeleton. Unless it was a really fresh zombie, I mean, just turned, they wouldn’t be getting around too quickly. That said, because we were so used to the Romero paradigm for so long, when the zombies did come tearing after us in 28 Days Later, it was pretty freaky. But then again, they aren’t technically zombies – they’re the “infected.” Zombie parlance is very particular. You have to be careful with these designations! [Laughs] You know, I just think zombies are scarier when they are more lifeless – less human.
DC: The book is out on March 15th. Where can readers get their hands on the tome, and will it be available internationally?
JV: The book is being simultaneously published in North America by St. Martin’s Press and in the UK by Ilex Press. St. Martin’s has decided to go trade paperback, while Ilex is issuing a nice hardcover with a slipcase. So if you’re a real book nerd, you can pick up your first edition HC from Amazon.co.uk for about $30 with shipping. Ilex is definitely making it available internationally as they have direct distribution in Europe and to Australia and other places.
But trade paperback will be widely available in North American bookstores, comic shops and online, of course. Amazon.com has a great deal right now on the trade paperback – $13.49! You can’t beat that!
DC: Since your brilliant tenure as editor-in-chief of Rue Morgue magazine, you have become a well-respected expert in the horror field as a whole. What is your opinion on the current state of horror?
JV: The genre by nature is cyclical. What’s popular right now won’t be in a few years, but it will definitely be back. So right now it’s zombies and vampires, but it’s not the first time these creatures have been de rigueur. It come and goes in waves. Unfortunately I think genre is at one of its low points, oversaturated with far too many remakes, 3D sequels and even the last gasps of the regrettable “torture porn” movement still linger. That is not to say all remakes are bad or that the remake is even a new phenomenon, because it’s not. There are just a lot of shitty mainstream remakes. At the same time, there are always some choice cuts available underground while the mainstream is busy gorging itself on the tripe. Take Let Me In for example, a film almost as good as its foreign counterpart – almost. It absolutely tanked at the box office, which isn’t good for filmmakers with original ideas unfortunately. As long as people keep flocking in droves to see films like the risible and inexcusable A Nightmare on Elm Street remake, the studios will keep churning out indigestible pap.
Then there’s the endless flow of needless violent crap that stoops so low it makes the whole genre look bad. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Horror films aren’t going to get any respect unless we start treating them with respect. In other words, it’s not necessary to approach stories in any way other than the telling of a good story – this is why Let the Right One In is so good. In the hands of the wrong filmmaker, it might have been adapted with the kids wearing KISS t-shirts and Journey pumping through on the soundtrack. I hope filmmakers aren’t too scared off by the dismal performance of the remake because it really is a very elegant, thoughtful horror film.
DC: Are there any recent or upcoming horror films that you recommend horror fans see at any cost?
JV: We need more films like this (Let the Right One In) and Never Let Me Go – another gorgeous example of a genre film that doesn’t feel like a genre film. In this case it’s a sci-fi period piece. That’s my favourite film of last year. I say this because I think people need to expand their horizons and sink into this darkly poetic, dystopian thriller.
DC: What about horror literature? Who are your personal favorites, and what books, fiction and non-fiction, would you recommend be on every horror fan’s bookshelf?
JV: Since this interview is about zombies, I’ll pick just one to keep it simple: If you haven’t read Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, you must do so immediately. It’s one of the most important contemporary pieces of horror literature in existence. And it ages really well. I’m still waiting for someone to do that story justice in film.
DC: In addition to your new book (and new and adorable baby, Violet), you are also at work on a short film called The Captured Bird. Would you care to share any information about the film and when audiences will be able to see it?
JV: We are just putting together the last chunks of financing for the short, which is really expensive and ambitious for a six-minute film. We should be shooting in May or June. Probably June. I’ve been chronicling the whole experience on the film’s website, TheCapturedBird.com. It’s my first movie so it’s sort of my film school, and I’ve been sharing every step of the process with readers and backers on the site. It’s exciting for me because I love learning and trying new things. We’re going to start scouting for locations soon and working on creature designs – which will be a mix of practical and visual effects. It’s an extremely visual film so it’s a long way from finished. We’ll likely have months of post on it as we beg and plead with visual effects shops to help us with all the complex shots we’ve boarded. But hopefully we’ll be able to submit to festivals by the fall. Fingers crossed!
DC: How difficult, or not, has it been juggling motherhood with your new book and film? You seem to be involved in so many projects.
JV: I’ll be honest. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you like not sleeping. I have definitely taken on more than I should, but it’s just the way it worked out. I got the ball rolling on the film before I got pregnant, and I have to see it through now. So I definitely have my hands full all day, all night. I’m exhausted all of the time, but hopefully it will get easier as the baby gets older. I’ve recently started a new book project with my publisher, but for right now I am completely focused on being there for my baby and prepping The Captured Bird. While I’m thrilled to be busy, I do miss sleep very, very much!
DC: What is one thing no one knows about Jovanka Vuckovic that you think they should?
JV: I think love is the most important thing a person can have in life. If you have love, you are truly rich. As Oscar Wilde said, “Who, being loved, is poor?”
DC: Thank you so much for your time and congratulations on a wonderful book!
Look for a review of Jovanka’s Zombies! An Illustrated History of the Undead soon. To keep up-to-date on what she’s up to in the meantime, be sure to befriend Jovanka Vuckovic on Facebook.
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