In Search Of… Cowboy Zombie Zero

(Originally published on my old LiveJournal.)

Howdy, pardners. Hunker down by the campfire, I got a serious question for y’all:

Cowboys and zombies. What gives?

I was reading this book, see, Zeppelins West, by the hyper-prolific Joe Lansdale. Nothing to write home about, just your basic weird western alternate history with cowboys and zombies. Well, it does feature gay sex between Frankenstein’s Monster and the Tin Man of Oz, and Buffalo Bill Cody’s disembodied head floating in a jar. One of my basic rules of life is, you damn well better read or watch anything that features a living disembodied head floating in a jar. Not sure where my basic rules of life come down on hot tin-man-on-reanimated-monster action.

Anyway, cowboys and zombies. Zombies and cowboys. Within the circled wagons of geek culture, it’s a recognized trope, right? Even a cliché? Jonah Hex, Tex Arcana, Deadlands…. Apparently the Dust Devils RPG took Gen Con by storm last year in part because it was “a western without zombies,” and people found that so refreshing.

Lisa asked me what I was reading, and I told her, “just your basic weird western alternate history, with cowboys and zombies.” And Lisa says, “Anon?” Which is old western talk for “What the hell you talking about, Mabel?” (See the novels of James Fenimore Cooper if you don’t believe me.) Never mind what Entertainment Weekly tells you, la culture de la mainstream and la culture du geek are not yet interchangeable.

But all this leaves me cogitating. Where did this mini-genre of weird westerns—and specifically, of cowboys and zombies—come from in the first place? How far back does it go? Tex Arcana was in Heavy Metal in the 1980s. Jonah Hex was a DC comic character in the 1970s, but I think back then he was pretty much just a Clint Eastwood Man With No Name pastiche. No zombies that I know of.

Is there a really obvious work I’m missing? The fact that it’s always zombies and cowboys—never vampires and Indian braves, or werewolves and grizzled prospectors, or flying polyps and saloon girls with hearts of gold—suggests to me that all these works might have one single pop cultural ancestor among them. The African Eve of cowboy zombies, if you will. Or of zombie cowboys. Whatever.

How about it, geek culture polymaths? ? ? Anyone have any ideas?

9 Comments

  1. In Search Of… Cowboy Zombie Zero

    This, good sir, is a worthy quest for such as we. To the windmills!

  2. Interesting question. I don’t know what The First Zombie Western was, but I’d be willing to bet that the specific concept emerged in the later pulps, when genres were being merged and you had cowboy airmen and blind vigilante flyers and the like.

    But it’s also quite possible that somewhere in the vast corpus of dime novels featuring cowboys there’s a zombie story or two. Some of those stories got surprisingly Gothic and horrorific.

    Very interesting question, though. I could get a good article out of that, if I had the resources to investigate it thoroughly.

  3. …Robert E. Howard’s “Horror from the Mound,” which appeared in Weird Tales in 1932.

    It’s about a vampire in the Old West, not a zombie, but the general principle of merging classic horror tropes and the Western is the same.

  4. Howard’s influence on the whole Gothic Western thing is without peer in my mind. The whole Breckinridge Elkins cycle is marvelous. Though none come to mind that involve zombies.

    That said, I instantly think of Lucio Fulci’s work in the late 1970s when it comes to westerns and zombies. Though probably more so ebcause Fulci did both Spaghetti Westerns and Zombie flicks than any particular film.

    But probably this strand gets a hefty boost in the arm from Mexican cinema (like so many other things in geek culture). Cabeza de Pancho Villa (1956), Charro de las Calaveras (1965), Grito de la Muerte (1958), Latigo contra las Momias Asesino (1979), Latigo Negro vs. el Anima del Ahorcado (1957). Some of these are fairly early and all involve stuff that I identify as ‘zombies’. Or close enough for this sort of thing.

    Than there was Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966) starring Cal Bolder. Thats a good one.

  5. Rather than a single uniform Eve if you will, maybe it is just because the fandom of the 2 genres overlap in some way. Like giant apes in comics. They were popular in the 60s because someone found putting an ape on the cover sold more issues. It wasn’t done in homage to some UrSuperApe, but just because the type of person likely to read a comic book is likely to think it is a better story if apes are somehow involved.

    You don’t get super-apes in other genres. There are very few in soap operas, “nurse fiction,” or even High Fantasy. It’s something about the combo of apes and supers that hits paydirt. Likewise, try combining zombies or cowboys with other genres and I doubt it would have the staying power of the examples Jere notes above. It might *work* but it doesn’t *resonate* (e.g. Firefly – the overt Space Western just doesn’t have legs, unless you take a lot of the Cowboy out of it)

    Which turns the question to being “what about these genres overlap enough to draw in the fans, and what about the fans of these two genres keeps them coming back for more?”

    ook ook,

    Chris the LJ-less

  6. As an aside, am I a bad person because the propsect of Frankenstein-Tin Man slash intrigues me more than the whole zombie cowboy angle?

    Yeah. I thought so.

    Chris

  7. Much like those genre-bending pulp novels, my first thought was “EC Comics” and the mish-mash of Face-Eating Horrors from Space/ Death Valley/ Pirate Ships they turned out back in the 50s.

    I’d argue that although EC and the like didn’t start the genre, they probably helped cement it.

    — S

  8. Pingback: Old is the New New :: The Zombie With No Name

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