Zombies Eat Academic Brains in Misbegotten PBS Documentary Exhumed

Meanwhile on CBS, B Positive offers laughs about...kidney transplants.


  • Exhumed: A History of Zombies. PBS. Friday, October 30, 10 p.m.
  • B Positive. CBS. Thursday November 5, 8:30 p.m.

You've got an important television choice this week: Yet another medical pestilence to worry about along with the virus; or the scariest Halloween show ever. It's kind of a trick question, because I didn't say "best" Halloween show, just scariest: PBS unleashes a slavering pack of fanged academics on zombies, and the bloody brain cells and decapitated IQ points are scattered in all directions. Save yourself and stick to CBS' kidney-transplant sitcom.

Exhumed: A History of Zombies is a special broadcast episode of the streaming PBS series Monstrum, a weekly dissection of the history of monsters, myths, and legends hosted by Arizona State English professor Emily Zarka. Like any respectable academic trying to explain her interest in something like zombies, she says she's asking, "What does their complex history teach us about ourselves?" The answer, as you've probably surmised, is nothing as simple as "We don't like to be disemboweled and have our brains eaten."

Zombie stories originated in Haiti, perhaps as early as the 17th century, where voodoo priests known as bokurs were said to steal the souls of their enemies and reduce them to shuffling, blank-eyed slaves. Exhumed argues that the zombie stories are "an allegory for colonialism, imperialism, and oppression." But the tales were considered anything but folkloric allegories by Haitians, who in 1835 (long after white rule ended) outlawed the practice. And in any event, the original zombie stories sort of screw the metaphorical pooch; the supposed creators of zombies were not white planters but black voodoo priests.

Zombies remained largely unknown in America, or at least the white part of it, until U.S. Marines began returning from stints in Woodrow Wilson's 1915 military intervention in Haiti with lurid accounts of battles with them. By 1932, zombie fever had reached Hollywood, which for the next decade turned out a steady stream of films like I Walked with a Zombie in which sultry white maidens were besieged by giant shambling islanders.

Zarka and her colleagues are undoubtedly correct that there was at least an element of racism in many of those films. (Though when the zombies are white, as occasionally happened, the professors immediately launch cries of "cultural appropriation." And if you're about to ask if Zarka wonders if a show about black zombies produced by a pixieish blonde white professor might also be cultural appropriation, well, no.)

But it's hard to imagine how racism or slavery could be seen in the big bang of zombie creationism, the 1968 George Romero film Night of the Living Dead. It features flesh-eating creatures (Romero called them "ghouls," not zombies; it was fans who started using the z-word) who are turned not by voodoo priests but by radiation leaking from an exploded satellite, which reanimates recent corpses.

The only black character in the entire film is not a zombie but the hero, a truck driver who takes charge of the survivors—but he's killed in the film's coda by rescuers who mistake him for a zombie. "Lynch mob!" Zarka and her colleagues triumphantly declare. Actually, the black/white dichotomy in the casting was entirely coincidental; Night of the Living Dead was made for about $100,000 in a rural town outside Pittsburgh, and nearly everyone in it was a friend or neighbor of Romero's. The director wanted a professional actor, no matter how thin his resume, for the lead, and Duane Jones, who taught drama at SUNY-Old Westbury and happened to be home on Christmas break, got the part.

Nonetheless, the lynch-mob theory is downright plausible compared to Exhumed's final doctrinal proclamation, that Night of the Living Dead's conclusion is somehow linked to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., who was killed by a white gunman in April 1968. The problem with that is photography on Night of the Living Dead was completed in December 1967, five months earlier. If renegade zombies were to eat the brains of Zarka and her coterie of PC-obsessed companions, they'd be hungry an hour later.

So, things that go bump in the night be damned, stick with B Positive, the only fall pilot CBS was able to complete before last spring's virus lockdown. Created by Marco Pennette of the production shop of Chuck Lorre (The Big Bang TheoryMom), B Positive is supposedly inspired by Pennette's own experience with treacherous kidneys.

Thomas Middleditch (Silicon Valley) plays Drew, a tightly strung guy with an internet certificate in psychotherapy, a snippy ex-wife, and a teenage daughter who blames him for the breakup of the marriage. That's the happy side of his life. Now his doctor has warned him that both his kidneys are failing, and he'd better come up with a donor, fast. Not an easy task for a guy with an estranged family and few friends.

His last hope is a high-school acquaintance named Gina (Tony-winning Broadway actress Annaleigh Ashford) who he bumps into at a wedding—a bridesmaid, she's whispering gossip about anal sex during the ceremony—who hears his story and (very) drunkenly offers to help out. (With a kidney, not anal sex, though I've only seen one episode.) "My organ will be in you!" she proudly announces, to the bemusement of the wedding guests.

The good news is, she turns out to be a match; the bad news, that keeping an exuberantly intoxicated and promiscuous airhead (Gina herself tells a friend that Drew is "the one guy I didn't hook up with in high school") is not easy, notwithstanding Gina's promises. Stopping the drinking and dope, she vows, is "not a problem—I've quit hundreds of times."

Like most Chuck Lorre-branded shows, B Positive starts out as a barrage of one-liners, most of them admittedly funny, but not necessarily suggesting a solid structure for a continuing show. Yet somehow during all the raucous punchlines, some engaging characters start to show up—Drew, emerging in fits and starts from an endemic mistrust of the world that has only been deepened by the collapse of his marriage; Gina, recognizing the trivial trashiness of her life and desperately looking for an exit. They turn out to be likeable, and will neither try to eat your brains nor explain why structural racism made them do it.