Recently I have been watching The Walking Dead, a new Zombie apocalypse survival TV show from the US. So far – 5 episodes in – it’s awesome, with all the hallmarks of a good zombie show (zombies, good make up, gore, tension, nowhere to run) and all the hallmarks of a good US TV show (fine plot development, excellent acting, good scripting), and at the moment I’ve already enjoyed more zombie tv (5 hours’ worth, roughly) than I can usually bear. I won’t say more about the TV show yet except that it really is very good and you, gentle reader, should be scaring yourself grey on it as soon as possible.
This post is more about the sociological implications of zombification, something I don’t usually think about but was brought to contemplate by this essay on zombies as symbol of working class uprising. (I think this article is well worth a read even if you don’t agree with this part of its conclusions – it has some interesting ideas about keeping-up-with-the-jones’s and zombies as an allegory for individualism in modern pop culture that I quite like ). Zombies are rich with symbolism and, like Winnie the Pooh, just begging for analysis from every political and ideological perspective, so it’s no surprise that a socialist would fixate on them as a symbol of bourgeois fears of a working class revolution. I think there are a few flaws in that image, which I will describe in a moment, but the article got me to thinking about the rich symbolism of the modern zombie, and some of the many metaphors they can represent. Let’s go through a few.
Zombie as Working Class Revolutionary
This is the idea presented in the linked post, that Zombies represent middle class fears of the working class/ lumpen proles rising up to get them and take their stuff or destroy their lifestyle. Under this metaphor, zombies represent all those huddled faceless masses who are excluded from the tranquil pleasantries of middle class life, and whose exclusion is an essential element of the continuation of middle class life. In the zombie movie they come to take your pleasant life away from you, and you have to fight them off. This is a superficially interesting metaphor but I don’t think it works, because it’s a-cultural and a little bit a-historical. Particularly, the Zombie movie sprang up in 50s/60s America, when the industrial working class were well respected and integrated into American life, and the lumpen proletariat (i.e. the long-term unemployed) didn’t really exist. Had the Zombie sprung up elsewhere, e.g. in 30s Europe, I can see the power of this metaphor, but it didn’t. Furthermore, the linked essay doesn’t seem to take account of the importance of race in America, and given that the Zombie movie originated there, I think it’s important to consider. The main social tension in the US in the 50s was the final destruction of the barriers keeping black Americans out of ordinary life, and there was a strong fear of the loss of the established peaceful order of things. I imagine to many Americans at that time black Americans were faceless masses who threatened them, and the zombie may make the perfect image of the black American they fear – even the name is a caribbean import!
Which isn’t to say that the original creators of the Zombie (Romero?) were scared of a black uprising. They just read the mood and saw an excellent theme for a story. The zombie has remained an enduring vehicle for expressing certain social fears, and doing so doesn’t mean that we the viewer (or the creator) themselves feel those fears directly.
Zombies as New Left Demonstrators
If there was any political movement in the US in the 50s and 60s that could have genuinely stirred mainstream middle-class fear, it was the New Left with its huge anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, marches for equality, desegregation riots, etc. These people actually presented in public for the first time in a generation as a mass of faceless people on TV, confronting out-numbered and beleaguered security forces and all emitting the same senseless, mindless noise (“slogans”). These people didn’t usually carry weapons, but overwhelmed security forces by means of their bare hands and weight of numbers. Worse still, anyone could be infected with this disease – your daughter, your brother, white or black people, they’re all down there at the flower-power sit in. If the earlier Zombie movies represented a fear of any radical movement or revolution, it was surely the New Left, and the New Left was many things but it was not socialist.
In this sense we can see the survivors as the image of the security state, having to police each other for signs of nascent zombification. In earlier movies the police state was quite benevolent – you had to be bitten by a zombie, and they could wait for you to die before they administered any radical measures. But in the newer versions – particularly 28 Days Later – we see a newer, very post-9/11 (and I would add, very British) form of pre-emptive security. In the early minutes of that movie we see a brief, perhaps 2 second long debate between two survivors, in which one has been bitten and the other one gives him barely a moment to protest before terminating him with extreme prejudice. This is the logic of the modern security state, of control orders and imprisonment without charge. It’s the post-apocalypse-cinema version of executing a Brazilian chap on a train because he might be a terrorist, and getting away with it.
Reclaiming and Neutralizing Undeath through Zombies
The earlier Zombie was explicitly Undead – “when hell is full the dead will walk the earth” – but later Zombies have become a biological phenomenon. In later movies – especially 28 Days Later but also The Walking Dead and maybe Biohazard – they are a biological phenomenon, explained through viral studies and, for all that biological phenomena are explicable and potentially curable, infinitely more terrifying than the earlier zombie. The virus is transmitted even through a drop of blood, and in some cases can turn you to a zombie before you even die. Rapid intervention is needed, any form of exposure is not to be trusted, and there is no redemption or salvation. In earlier movies, the infected could be given a period of grace, could even be allowed to die with dignity. Not so anymore, the only solution to the viral zombie is immediate and extreme eradication. This change in the modern Zombie obvious corresponds to the development of modern public health consciousness, particularly the discovery and spread of HIV/AIDS, that most terrifying of infectious diseases. But in transforming the Zombie from undead to biological, we have removed the terror of ghosts, hell and the grave – we have rendered the undead into merely the viral, another form of explicable natural law, a pest that can be controlled. We know we can end the disease, and we know that no viral phenomenon is beyond modern science and public health. The modern zombie transforms our understanding of undeath, from a mysterious curse or magic to a mere biological mistake, easily cured.
Note also that the 28 Days Later storyline explicitly reflects modern fears about the transmission of disease from animals to humans, and indeed incorporates one of the main suspected causes of HIV into the story.
Zombies as critique of Urban Planning
Note that through all the eras of the zombie movie, the prime action tends to take place in a modern urban development of the time. From the suburban house of the 60s, to the shopping mall of the 70s, the pub in Shaun of the Dead, the metropolis and then the military camp in 28 Days Later. These places figure in the consciousness of the time and are incorporated into the movie as a central place of conflict between the main characters, who are aware of their difference from the masses, and the masses themselves. We may be defending some ideal of urban planning (the detached home of the early movies), retreating to the bastion of the modern order because it supplies all our needs (the mall in the 70s movies) or finding ourselves betrayed by the complex urban structures of our modern lives (28 Days Later), but in all cases the latest debates in urban planning are central to the development of the story, at least until it takes on its inevitable survivalist theme. Even survivalism takes on some form relevant to the modern debate about how we are living or should live – the pub in Shaun of the Dead, and the military camp in post-9/11 28 Days Later. Zombies are the ultimate, mindless incursion into our urban planning dreams and nightmares.
Drawing a long (cross)bow
These ideas are all silly, of course, or limited in their validity – there is no single rhetorical or metaphorical meaning to a zombie story, and they’re all very easily debated or dismissed. But I think when we watch the movies they invoke a lot of these kinds of themes and the sociological and political commentary makes a welcome undercurrent to what is usually a gripping and powerful story. This is why I think zombie movies have enduring appeal, even when their format is often very similar. It’s the setting and the underlying ideological conflict that makes the otherwise formulaic stories new and interesting. They’re a very versatile blank canvas on which to paint ideological and sociological debates. While blowing brains out.