And the LORD will send a plague on all the nations that fought against Jerusalem. Their people will become like walking corpses, their flesh rotting away. Their eyes will rot in their sockets, and their tongues will rot in their mouths.
So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet–a vast army.
Since George A. Romero’s pioneering Night of the Living Dead, the zombie subgenre has steadily established a reputation as one of the more popular subgenres within the horror genre. Today with the immense popularity of the franchise, thousands of zombie-themed films, and even a Filipino zombie breakthrough film called Di Ingon Nato, the zombie apocalypse as a trope has assimilated potent tendrils of interpretations that often are brandished by the filmmakers like flags (hey, stick in there Jane Austen’s/ Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies).
Being a fan of the horror genre, I have consumed a lot of zombie texts, from films to novels, from the intellectually-challenging to the silliest ones (I have a penchant for the latter). Only of late, the mainstream TV series The Walking Dead converted a lot of fans to the horror fanbase. It is a rather pleasant thing, since hardcore zombie fans are quite a rarity only a few years ago. Now every college badass media geek I know has at least decent knowledge about the living dead.
Without surprise, the phenomenon has spawned a lot of academic activity, serious and otherwise. Nonetheless one may notice that the contents of many of these ‘studies’ are somewhat disturbingly similar. The zombie apocalypse is often formulated as a metaphor of anarchy, the dominance of basic instincts (the instinct to eat, for instance) over pretentious and complicated structures of power and organization. Unsurprisingly, this topic is obsessively picked off by scholars of the post-modern, focusing for instance on the malleability and recyclability of its tropes. For instance, Michael Jeknavorian’s study proposes that Romero’s Night of the Living Dead marked the start of postmodern horror cinema:
This work as well, like the former one, can be viewed as a film that bridges the gap between modern and postmodern horror cinema, for, there are moments of human success in the film, but at other times, this success is overshadowed by the antagonist’s intermittent, yet supreme dominance. The work portrays the protagonists as initially successful at opposing the zombies, but eventually they fail. This failure can be viewed as a statement of inevitability and seen to symbolize a newfound tone of pessimism in society, for despite appropriate resistance, failure is unavoidable.. Given this, though, there still is an implicit aspect of moralization in the work which is somewhat in contrast to the more pessimistic films of the postmodern era.[i]
Another popular formulation is by Slavoj Zizek who proposed that the popularity of post-apocalytic films during the last ten years (2012, The Book of Eli, I Am Legend, The Hunger Games, together with all the zombie films) can be attributed to the cultural effect of late capitalism. Following Fredric Jameson’s ‘waning of the affect’, Zizek argued that post-apocalyptic films, ultra-violent films (Hostel 1 and 2, Saw series), massacre films (Friday the 13th, Halloween, tons of slasher films) are attempts to ‘jolt’ or shock the audience into retrieving the lost ability of feeling.[ii] Zizek argues that late capitalist experience and alienation has rendered the audience numb and incapable of feeling emotion as they have before. Post-apocalyptic films portray extreme violence and helplessness to at least give the audience the illusion of feeling, or a fleeting glimpse of the Real.
Of course one may attack Zizek’s formulation with a stick of common sense. If the popularity of post-apocalyptic films, particularly zombie films, can be attributed from the material conditions of late capitalism, then why do themes and tropes of apocalypse and post-apocalypse exists even in ancient culture? How do we explain the fact that these kinds of films are produced in the first world, despite the fact that capitalist alienation is more severe in the third world side of the planet? How do we deal with the condition that the popularity of the zombie genre seems to be exclusively limited to the middle-class who have access to cinemas, the internet and First World pop culture?
Paul Waldman, on the other hand, argues that zombie films are essentially progressive, for its tropes project an alternative reality, a wasteland wherein capitalism is obsolete and collective power is necessary for survival.[iii] In fact, most zombie films feature death scenes wherein those who die are often who deviate from the collective demands. More often than not, the climax of the film stems from a scenario wherein a character or a group of characters commits a lapse in judgement or undertakes a feat deemed too risky for the whole group. In Land of the Dead, wealthy elites constructed an exclusive skyscraper which provides them luxury and decadence while the common people just outside the building are dying of starvation. The rich, unwilling to share their wealth to the overall safety of the community, refused to barricade a river which the zombies eventually crossed to get to the city, killing the elite in their plush, air-conditioned lofts.
But are these kinds of films really that politically-drenched? Even Waldman questions this commonly-accepted assumption:
But most people who love a good zombie romp aren’t too interested in political subtext — they want to see arms being gnawed and large numbers of the undead blasted to kingdom come..When you play a zombie game, you get to act like a psychopath without saying to yourself, “I really shouldn’t be enjoying acting like a psychopath.” The zombie game allows us to indulge our inner barbarian without self-doubt.
Despite the apparent potency of the zombie trope for political critique, it is important to realize the limitations of this subgenre.
Note for instance the extreme popularity of the Hunger Games novels and its film. Having been branded as a post-apocalyptic dystopia film, it has been grouped together with 1984 and Brave New World, both outlining a future society governed by an all-powerful totalitarian regime that seeks to dissolve liberal freedoms and individuality. In The Hunger Games, the centralist Capitol seeks to consolidate power and quell revolt through an annual killing spree. The heroine-victor eventually takes on the task of revolting against the government, with her eventually leading the districts against the hegemon.
On the other hand, the situation is peculiarly not different with zombie films. However, in zombie films the power is not an organized regime but a chaotic mess of mindless undead, eager to eat your flesh and make you one of them. In fact, this is the very dynamic of every zombie film: A band of badass survivors take on a perilous adventure towards uncertain safety, avoiding along the way the deadly and faceless collective power of the zombies. The survivors struggle to maintain their humanity, or to be more precise, their individuality which seems to be the only thing that separates them from the walking, eating, existing, but not living, dead. (quite walking dead dale)
As we thread the coordinates of the trope, it wouldn’t come as a shock that the zombie trope is in fact constructed around the notion of the individual struggling against the collective, against integration, against being featureless amid the dominant power of organized and unorganized collective.
Another postmodern condition which characters in the post-apocalyptic often try to escape, and yet fail to escape, is the ontological questioning to which every postmodern individual is consistently subjected. As critics like Glen Scott Allen observe, the individual is “an entity considered essentially extinct in postmodern fiction” (2) and there is a widespread “absence of substantial and autonomous selfhood” (Lentricchia qtd. in Allen 23). Regardless of whether the postmodern individual actually has a selfhood to speak of, postmodern people certainly seem to talk about their selfhoods much more than previous generations, and it seems that the identity crisis has become a prolonged state of mind which almost every postmodern individual undergoes.[iv]
The popularity of the zombie subgenre can indeed be a reflection of the middle-class fantasy to assert his/her singularity. As a symbolic realm of Other-less chaos, these texts provide an experience wherein the audience can at least experience the status of being powerful, of being above the ‘multitude’ (of zombies, that is). This paranoia for totalitarianism stems from the Western media perversions of the previous attempts for socialism specially during the height of the Cold War.
In an alternative, imagined and beautifully chaotic dimension, the privileged middle-class are hacking their way towards safety, bringing down the collective, one zombie at a time. The less gallant and misfortuned ones, tragically, are rotting, searching for flesh to eat until their knees will fail them.
[i] Michael Jeknavorian, “The pessimism of horror cinema: A comparative study between modernist and post-modernist horror cinema” (University of South Florida, 2009).
[ii] Slavoj Zizek, from The Sublime Object of Ideology (Verso 1997).
[iv] Casey Dawn Evans from “They’re Us”: Infectious Trauma and the Zombie Apocalypse (University of Kansas, 2009) p. 58.