Dr. Robert Ficociello was only half joking when he listed the zombie apocalypse as a natural disaster that the United States wouldn’t be able to stop. After sifting through literature for a journal proposal, the topic of zombies started to become more and more prevalent, showing up in popular books, television shows, and movies. Now, Ficociello is bringing his knowledge of the undead to the classroom, where he will teach Zombie Literature, Film, & TV in the fall.
Ficociello sat down with Holy Family University to discuss his background in Marine Biology, how the zombie narrative intrigued him, and the parallel he sees between zombies and today’s society.
HFU: You have an interesting background. You originally earned your degree in Marine Biology before receiving your MFA in Creative Writing. How did you end up as a professor at Holy Family University?
RF: “I ended up working as a chemist and did a lot of environmental science, analytical chemistry, and organic chemistry. It just wasn’t floating my boat, so to speak. I started doing more reading, including Jack Kerouac’s novel On The Road and thought about travel and travel writing. At the time, I couldn’t do a lot of travel, but I could do a lot of reading, which led me to start writing. I ended up showing my work to someone, and she said, ‘You know, Robert, they have schools for this.’ It was either a compliment or an insult. I choose the compliment because it told me that maybe I had some potential. I managed to get a few things published in small and obscure journals. As a country music song would go, I sold my house, left my woman, left my dog, and moved to New Orleans to go to school. While I was there, I realized I wasn’t going to be a blockbuster novel writer. I really enjoyed teaching though. I applied to schools for a PhD, and I ended up going to SUNY Albany because it was close to where I grew up in Massachusetts.”
HFU: What are some of your favorite areas of literature to explore?
RF: “I completed my dissertation on war literature. I like to look at American literature in the 20th and 21st century. A former colleague of mine, Robert Bell, at Loyola New Orleans is working with me on a book about natural disasters and how they’re represented in the media. This is where the zombie motif fits in. There is a claim that capitalism in America will always have a solution to these natural disaster problems. But what are the ones that are beyond what capitalism can reconstruct? One of them is global warming—eventually it is going to reach a point where we cannot fix it. The zombie apocalypse is another—whereas we won’t just be able to go out and buy stuff to survive that type of event. Traditional commerce won’t exist. Of course it’s hypothetical, but that’s where the zombie research fits into that.”
HFU: How did you come up with the idea for a class about zombies in popular media?
RF: “I got there in a really silly way. I go to the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association Conference annually. Once I moved away from New Orleans, Robert and I were trying to find a way to keep in touch and exchange ideas. We decided that we would go to this conference. While we were there, a publisher was taking proposals for journals. We went back to our rooms and discussed how we could come up with a new journal. We went through the publishers catalog and did the research, and there was nothing for how natural disasters were represented in the media. The title of the journal was “Disaster Culture.” They loved the proposal, but it was taking too long, so we did a book proposal instead. We had success in getting some contracts for that work. Robert and I have an argument where I argue that business will survive…he’s a Marxist, so he wants capitalism to crumble sooner or later. I think capitalism is much more resilient, to a fault sometimes, where it can adapt to certain types of things such as wars and smaller natural disasters. Zombies were a part of that discussion.”
HFU: What are some of the main principals students will learn in the Zombie Literature, Film, & TV course?
RF: “I think the essence is learning how to read popular culture—it just happens to be about zombies. It’ll teach them to really analyze TV, become better equipped to analyze film, and study popular literature as well.”
HFU: What are some of the popular works you’ll be exploring throughout the semester, and how did you select these items amidst the plethora of zombie-related material?
RF: “Believe me, I’m no expert yet on zombie material, but I’ve deeply analyzed a number of zombie things. We’ll take a look at the book World War Z. I think most people have seen the movie, but not read the book. We’ll also take a look at The Walking Dead graphic novel series, and read the book Warm Bodies, which was also a popular film. To me, it’s a middle ground between familiarity and seeing where the roots of these items came from.”
HFU: Are you a perpetual zombie fan, and if not, how much reading up on the subject have you done to be able to teach a course about the brain-eating living dead?
RF: “When we started the project I really started looking at The Walking Dead series. It was around season two when I got interested in it, and I’m hooked on it now. Z Nation is another TV show that I follow and the classic George Romero film, Night of the Living Dead, which started a lot of the zombie pop culture. My assumption is that there may be students in the class who have read more zombie material then I have.”
HFU: Has the pop culture phenomenon surrounding zombies been something that our population has always been interested in, or is this a new fascination that is sweeping us up before the new one comes along?
RF: “Zombies have gotten really complex as of late, and humor has been another aspect that has been injected into it. A book like Warm Bodies or the TV show Z Nation has an ironic element to it. We’re also going to look at the movie Zombieland, and that’s from the late 2000s, so the irony and humor is already starting. To me, it’s kind of a natural progression away from the trend. The big questions are ‘Why zombies?’ and ‘Why now?’ Vampires had their day and alien movies are a popular subject. To me, it’s really an extension or hyperbole from American culture about why we like to watch zombies. If you look at when class is let out, everyone grabs their cellphones and walks around like a zombie. The same thing is true with consumerism. If you see videos on Black Friday, it looks like a hoard of zombies going in and trying to get that one warm body, except this time it’s a plasma TV they’re after. Often times with these trends I see a parallel of actual behavior that gets exaggerated in popular culture. That’s the end point to the question, ‘Are we already zombies?’”