Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Exterminate the Brutes, er, Zombies!

At the bar the other night, they had The Walking Dead on. We do seem to be in a zombie moment right now. One can't but wonder what it means.

I hadn't seen the show before, but I did read the comic books it's based on. (Whatever; I like comics.) The comic version is notable for having the least threatening zombies around; in one scene, a normal guy is trapped overnight in a room with dozens of zombies, and kills them all. With his bare hands. Sure, you don't want them to bite you, but that goes for bedbugs too. (It's also notable for its exceptionally blatant ripoffs of other zombie stories, like the opening lifted straight from 28 Days Later. But maybe that sort of borrowing is the sign of a vital popular form?) More to the point, it, even more than the run of post-apocalypse survival tales, valorizes traditional, masculine authority. Not for nothing it's set in the South, and the main character is a cop; that's a departure from most of these stories, which get their juice precisely from the ordinariness of their protagonists. My friend Ben makes the interesting observation that a very large proportion of horror movies are set in decaying industrial landscapes. But that's not the case with The Walking Dead. There, the spaces the human characters defend against the zombies are iconic enclaves of order: a gated subdivision, a prison. Their central challenge, literal and metaphorical, is to keep the fences in place.

And on the other side of the fences, the zombies. The specific characteristic of the zombie, as opposed to other horror genre monsters, is their lack of individuality. They look human but have no minds, souls or personalities. Their behavior is mechanical, and they only ever appear in groups. The classic vampire story is of the monster stealthily infiltrating our society. You can't tell that story about zombies; they have to be everywhere. Nor can you deter them or manage them, they don't follow the various rules vampires are supposed to. All you can do, is kill them. Indeed, one of the themes of the comic-book Walking Dead is the danger of empathizing with the zombies. In one plot arc, a group of farmers are keeping their zombified relatives and neighbors locked in a barn (again, these are some seriously wimpy zombies) in the hope that they're somehow recoverable. The heroes, naturally, put aside sentimentality and exterminate them. They may look human, is the point, but they're really just part of the formless, threatening mass.

The idea of a small group of civilized people holding some redoubt against a human-looking but impersonal mass is a familiar one in the culture, from Fort Apache to Fort Apache in the Bronx. (My father used to point out that the trope of the small band of white settlers facing a mass of Indians stretching the horizon reversed the historical situation almost exactly.) In this sense zombies slot neatly into some important political myths as well. It's not a coincidence that in Max Brooks' World War Z, the most mainstream recent zombie book, the two countries that are best prepared to deal with the worldwide zombie plague are Israel and South Africa, the latter explicitly thanks to apartheid-era plans for defense of the white minority against the African hordes.

In terms of the logic of zombie stories, Brooks made a good choice. The idea of a small group of fully-human individuals defending themselves against a faceless, anonymous mass has deep roots, but it comes most clearly to the surface in settler societies. Here is Mario Vargas Llosa, for example, on the original confrontation between his Spanish ancestors and the ancestors of the Indian and mestizo poor all around him:

Men like Father Bartolome de Las Casas came to America with the conquistadores and abandoned the ranks in order to collaborate with the vanquished... This self-determination could not have been possible among the Incas or any of the other pre-Hispanic cultures. In these cultures, as in the other great civilizations of history foreign to the West, the individual could not morally question the social organism of which he was a part, because he existed only as an integral atom of that organism and because for him the dictates of the state could not be separated from morality.

It seems to me useless to ask ... whether it would have been better for humanity if the individual had never been born and the tradition of the antlike societies had continued forever.

There's the settler creed, with unusual frankness. We are capable of moral choices; they -- that is, everyone "foreign to the West" -- have no individual existence, but are only parts of a larger organism. We can sympathize with them; they can't even sympathize with themselves. We are human; they are "antlike." Or zombielike.

But why now?

Well, of course the entertainment industry needs new material; vampires are mostly played out and werewolves don't seem to touch any commercially viable anxieties. (Maybe this one will do better.) James Frey is betting on aliens; we'll see.

But there might be a deeper reason. Look at that picture above, of the zombies pressing up against the fence. It doesn't take a degree in semiology to see what that represents. But it's not just the border. My friend Christian, who is finishing a book on the politics of global warming, describes one of the main forms of adaptation in the rich countries as the armed lifeboat. It's adaptation to climate change as exclusion and repression, and that's much easier if you can imagine the excluded as faceless ant people. If we don't find a better way to translate climate change into a political vision that can mobilize people, then the white policeman with the gun, ruthlessly exterminating the masses outside the lager and strictly maintaining order inside it, is an idea we may be increasingly asked to become comfortable with. If so, one could read zombie tales like The Walking Dead as a warning -- or, less charitably, as helping to prepare the way.


  1. great post! really. I wonder tho at the zombies and pride and prejudice types of combos and their appeal.

  2. Thanks!

    Yeah, good point about the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I thumbed through it for maybe ten minutes in a bookstore, which even by blog standards doesn't seem like enough to build an opinion on. What do you think?

    As it happens I had dinner with Ben B. tonight and we discussed this stuff a bit. He pointed out that one of the main ways you've heard zombie in public discussions lately is as the first half of a phrase whose second half is banks, which doesn't obviously fit with the zombie-as-native idea. On the other hand, we also noticed that vampires are from decadent Europe, while zombies originate in Haiti. The dead who won't stay in their place are the work of the slaves who wouldn't stay in their place. Which gets us, if not to Pride and Prejudice, at least to Mansfield Park.

  3. FYI, I think you'll like this post:


    There's a certain neoliberalism to the current strain of zombie horror, where the narrative centralizes instrumental survival as the main narrative device, with a certain glee in killing off those who get too sentimental.

  4. I don't know if I agree with this line of reasoning.

    A central theme in most zombie canon is integration. After all, the most important thing about an individual when one is surrounded by undead is their humanity. "Night of the Living Dead" - the film that launched the genre - has a black man as the protagonist. In "The Walking Dead" the Latino gang is revealed as coming from what can easily be conceived as immigrant backgrounds (janitors) to defending the weak and aged. The racist is left to his own devices handcuffed to a roof, etc.

    I think a better metaphor for why zombie flicks are appealing in this day is consumerism. The only thing that appeals to the zombie is consuming (human flesh). But, the act is not satisfying and ultimately only leads to more consumers. The survivors are left to struggle with their humanity against rampant consumption with the knowledge that they could lose it at any given moment.

  5. Mike-

    Thanks, good stuff!

    There's another interesting post on the The Walking Dead here. I was gratified to see this guy has a very similar analysis to mine: "Neoliberalism and bourgeois culture places the individual (the self) at the centre of the universe. From this perspective the bulk of society appear as an immense collection of herd-like Others engaged in an array of apparently meaningless and mundane activities. You and your immediate circle are the individuals. The rest are a homogenous mass."

  6. He also argues that zombies-as-consumerism story no longer works. Which is too bad (or just as well?), since that would let us enjoy this stuff without finding it ideologically problematic.

  7. Hey Josh-

    This is the point where I agree with the anonymous post and argue that The Walking Dead takes care not to tell a simple "us vs. them" story, to instead consistently emphasize that this is about protecting the humanity (literally, I guess) of the survivors, about rejecting prior (ethnic) divisions between them and plays with the question "When, if ever, can we relax the rules about how we treat one another?"

    But really, that might be justifying and it boils down to your last statement. Show is totally fun!


  8. Glad you liked the post over at my place :)

    When I was growing up I used to fantasise about survival-type scenarios - nuclear war, plague, War of the Worlds-style Martian invasions. I was a kid but I think what appealed most was the promise of agency - of being spared responsibility and being able to assert myself against the world. Of course, it is a fantasy - there's nothing more disempowering from a humanist perspective than having to scrabble around in the dirt for survival. So I guess I was alert to those sorts of themes in The Walking Dead anyway, albeit reinforced by years of Marxist learning :)

    I must confess this isn't the first time I've had a stab at thinking about zombies. My first thoughts appeared in my review of the excellent Dead Set, albeit not as rounded-out as my latest offering.

    Anyway, now The Walking Dead is done for who knows how long, where else can I go for my zombie fix? Vampires are so, so dull ...

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