The zombie subgenre: progressive or middle-class fantasy?


Zechariah 14:12

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.

Ezekiel 37:10
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]

Braains! from http://vimeo.com/7326166

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.

Political gore

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]

My favorite scene from severely underrated Land of the DeadThe 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).

[iii] Paul Waldman, “The Left and the Living Dead,” The American Prospect, http://prospect.org/article/left-and-living-dead, 16 June 2009.

[iv] Casey Dawn Evans from “They’re Us”: Infectious Trauma and the Zombie Apocalypse (University of Kansas, 2009) p. 58.

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5 thoughts on “The zombie subgenre: progressive or middle-class fantasy?”

  1. Hello, John,

    Let me hazard a few guesses on the questions you posed in the write up –

    “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? ”

    Well, for one, there are more money to produce films of various kinds in the First World. Secondly, First World artists, directors and producers seem to be more exploratory and more confident venturing into different film genres. Thirdly, the demand for “unusual” movie experiences in post-industrial societies seems to be higher compared to their non-First World counterparts. Lastly, there are several, many, attempts by Third World artists and creators to venture into the post-apocalyptic genres but their products rarely make it to the mainstream but instead enjoy the indie tag.

    As you said above, one of the goals of post-apocalyptic film creations is to induce feelings among the audience, to make them feel or to be sentient, so to speak. Why? Must be because life in the post-industrial societies often get so standardized, so steeped in routines and procedures such that “feeling” in the ordinary, private, traditional way becomes difficult. Perhaps, a good dose of the extreme on screen would reacquaint the audience with their old selves – how to feel ordinarily, how to react the common way, in a sense. By seeing the polar end of standardized existence, maybe they get to get back, to recoup their old feeling selves.

    “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?”

    Well, if one looks at it, a lot of things, other than the cinema, are enjoyed by the middle class. The ultra-rich people rarely go to the cinemas at the mall – they have theaters inside their huge homes. The poor do not even get to go to the cinemas once a year, what with movie ticket costing P140 to P180 nowadays. I think that movie-going is essentially a middle-class family and peer activity – the prohibitive cost alone sees to that. Also, middle class folks have more leisure hours than the very rich and the poor. So, I’d say that cinemas, internet and pop culture (led by First World trends) are relatively, almost decidedly middle-class territories.

    For another, tolerating or at the most, enjoying movies and works that feature the semi-dead, the warped and the desperately hopeless require a mindset or a conditioning, if one might say. It requires both education (liberal, to a certain extent) and confidence (an assurance that what one views on screen will not happen to the movie-goer in real life), something that middle-class people have, but fairly certain absent in the two polar end groups. Probably, it still boils down to the question of what kind of reality can one bear to see on screen and suffer, even enjoy or be entertained by it? The poor people do not take kindly to seeing the warped on big screen – they have some of them in their midst, in their village or community. The rich people are familiar with ambition – ah, they know that too well – and what happens when the same is thwarted – hopelessness and being almost dead. Thus, it is likely that it is the middle-class folks that can endure seeing extreme portrayals of human situations on screen and not be shaken by it.

    I’d say, the middling people can pay for the zombie experience, can view it with detachment (more or less) and they can locate it in their daily existence – as an art form, no more than an art form, perhaps. Something that could happen, might happen but thankfully, not to them. Or, at least, not to people they know closely. ^^

    1. i totally agree. The first to die in a zombie film is the stupid and the dispossessed.Many zombie films also attack the rich. But never in my life did I saw a zombie that made me uncomfortable (being middle class myself). I wish filmmakers will transcend their cooker-cutter films and make fresh and really progressive ones.

  2. nice one dre haha i’ve been expecting an entry like this from your blog for some time now. I didn’t even know that they made a Cebuano zombie movie, thanks for that haha.

    Anyway, i don’t know if you heard about the film Juan of the Dead (Juan de los Muertos), it’s actually very interesting being Cuba’s first horror film. Here’s the trailer if you want to check it out.

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