Zombies, Like Punks, Have Been Sedated & Sold, Prepackaged As Pitiful Empty Signifiers

[17 June 2011]

By David Ensminger

“Zombies are so passé, so mass marketed,” my wife nonchalantly informed me while she nibbled on grilled sweet potatoes at lunch.  Coming from a lady who was a devoted bedtime reader of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and World War Z, this was significant. For her, seeing zombies on inane car commercials was like me hearing the Ramones and Iggy Pop used as innocuous backdrops for multinational conglomerates. Zombies have been sedated and sold, prepackaged as pitiful empty signifiers.

Even the Center for Disease Control recently seized on the popularity of the zombie trope to disseminate Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse. The usually dry, memo-like government bureau’s decrees amounted to “tongue-in-cheek advice on its blog to inspire people to make at least basic preparations for a real emergency,” reported the LA Times. Some 30,000 viewers rushed to the site, crashing it like zombies grabbing at the same skull. Recent articles that borrow zombie phraseology include “Does Legalized Marijuana Mean the Zombification of America?” (Steve the Zombie, Zombie Zone News.com, 19 March 2011), “Obamanomics and the Zombification of American Business” (End the Illuminati Conspiracy, author unknown)m “Germs R Us: The Zombification of America” (Sonia Aurora, Pink Ray Gun, 22 April 2011) and “Tunisia and the Zombification of War” (Jeff Sparrow, Overland, 20 January 2011).

And if you haven’t picked up Ryan Mecum’s Zombie Haiku: Good Poetry for Your… Brains and Scott Kenemore’s Zen of Zombie: Better Living Through the Undead recently, then shame on you, pop trend follower.

I am equally guilty, to some degree, of zombie fascination. I devote an entire chapter of my upcoming book Visual Vitriol: The Punk Art and Subcultures of the Punk and Hardcore Generation, which dissects and explores the legacy of punk street art such as stencils and gig flyers, to the metaphors and allegories of horror. Punk lore swims with images of the undead and monstrous, the uncontrolled and the napalmed. Such symbolism is an intrinsic part of punk’s rhetorical position, rough writerly devices, and death-infused narratives.

Acid-drenched proto-punker Roky Erickson, who once called matinee movie horror his religion, released “I Walked with a Zombie”, an eerily beautiful mantra that consists of the single line “I walked with a zombie… last night” ad infinitum, while Detroit icon Iggy Pop released the album Zombie Birdhouse in 1982. The same year, during a transition from punk to hardcore, the Misfits released “Astro Zombies”. Other camp horror punk bands had already staked their ground by then too, including the Cramps, 45 Grave, and True Sounds of Liberty.

In punk flyer art, the so-called “normal world” is mobbed by ugly and ripped bodies, of detested bodies, which are supposed to subordinate themselves to law and order. Pathetic and lifeless, like a teenager’s life who cares little for organized sports, religion, or studies, such bodies are re-animated in these drawings and illustrations, cocooned in their own sense of power, revealing an instant visual vocabulary spelling out an anti-authority (God, parent culture, civil society) presence. Feared and loathed, unable to be disciplined or acculturated, the undead are nimble, fierce, gargantuan, and unbound.

They resemble the fragments of our dead past, re-making cities as their own. Carnivorous and devouring, they challenge the righteous inhabitants — the leaders of science and rationality. Incubated in pain, misery, and abjection, these morbid figures redefine being an ‘outsider.’ These atavistic, primordial figures transplant the goo of our most primal selves into the arena of body politic and social discourse. Parents, teachers, scientists, and police try to relegate youth, but imagined as avatars— the electrified dead bodies of the miscreant and maladroit – they are indeed uncontrollable.

George Romero’s undead films, beloved by the Ramones and many others, exemplify the zombie genre during the VHS era. Night of the Living Dead (1968), the black and white opus filmed in Evans City, Pennsylvania during the height of race riots and Vietnam, takes place at a lone rural house, racially integrated by necessity. Dawn of the Dead (1978) unfurls mostly at a secluded, shut-off mall, while Day of the Dead (1985), the third installment of his zombie series, features an embattled underground military bunker in Florida. As such, Romero deftly dissects America’s three-pronged institutions: the domestic, commercial/capitalistic, and military/technical spheres from the ‘60s to the ‘80s.

All three invoke and provide penetrating insight into basic human fears of otherness, science, and the integrity and sanctity of human bodies. As the humans are outflanked and surrounded by the living dead, Romero reveals a true gore aesthetic: the human body is less a vehicle for rational discourse than a vulnerable landscape of muscle, tissue, and bone. People are highly fragile units: a rib cage can easily be pried open, a heart yanked out, and an intestine gnawed on in total deprivation. He offered a campy pornography of morbidity.

The zombies transgress the boundaries of what it means to live in the age of enlightenment and reason. They seem totally depraved, lack any basic control, and their pure flesh-eating impulse and animalism is a surrender to pure over-riding function—must eat, satisfy a DNA instinct, not exactly hunger, but brain need. To witness 1968, Romero suggests in the first film’s cinema of in-fighting whites and black men in duress, was like (to quote a later song title by Funkadelic) watching “America Eats Its Young”. Humanity was gnawing at itself, pursuing out of control science and industry (pesticides, jelly bombs, radiation), consumerism, racism, and mass media hysteria.

The films underscore and reveal people’s intense fear of isolation and disconnection. Hunted by their own kind, people group together tenuously, and this microcosm embodies a Lord of the Flies conundrum. Writer Scott Bukatman once told my film class at the University of New Mexico that just as religion attempts to negate people’s physical being – “our fears that we may just be bodies” – the advanced technological state defends not the self, but the intellect, as an “autonomous and independent” machine that both represses base animal desires and tries to shape, shield, or disempower bodily instincts. The brain is treated like a microprocessor that can be tinkered, toyed, and fixed in order to make sure people postpone gratification. The zombies, however, have been unshackled from such constraints. They symbolize decontrol.

On Desire, Instinct and Troublesome Intellect

Desire and instinct, which run full-bore and unchecked in the zombies, transgress the imposed boundaries and limits of human society. The grotesque, imbalanced, out-of-whack physicality of the zombies is a taboo itself. Their half-rotted carcasses are open to the world, like exposed wounds or syphilis sores; sometimes, they are fully turned inside out as their once hidden gelatinous entrails ooze and bubble. This is an inversion of the scientists in Day of the Dead, who don stained lab coats and attempt to understand, control, trick, and redirect the zombies.

The humans symbolize repressed body urges: their dirty lower bodily stratum are covered by army fatigues or science gear. They attempt to deny the grotesque that hides within them. In turn, the zombies are ravenous avatars awakened from the id of the ‘normal’ people, symbolically embodying the public’s latent dissatisfaction with their own dystopia. We give birth to monsters, on many different levels.

The zombies ask no questions, heed no caution, and lack empathy. They’ll gnaw on children and priests, no problem.  People, though, are subsumed by an over-weaning sense of confidence, entitlement, aggression, and intellect—the engines of hubris.

The zombies are like children catalyzed by “deep down primordial instinct,” blurts Dr. Logan in Day of the Dead. “This one, even without a stomach, wants me. Even when it receives no nourishment,” he ponders. The zombies are powerful, disturbing aberrations that barely resemble proper human condition, let alone etiquette.  The doctor pinpoints the issue at stake: the undead are “working from that central bit of prehistoric jelly that we inherit from the reptiles.”

Their guts flop out, their contorted bodies walk despite rigor mortis, though they are often suspended in a motor coordination vortex, as well. Yet, as demonstrated by the unlikely zombie protagonist Bub, they retain small cognitive leftovers, tiny specks of former consciousness. Logan suggests they can be :domesticated and conditioned to behave”, if they undergo a regimen of forced re-education and inculcation. This is, ironically, exactly what Dr. Moreau insisted about the animals on his own island, his paradise lost littered with grotesque hybrids. This is exactly what some parents of punks believe, too.

Romero pursues a double line of reasoning. Both humans and zombies have been devoured by their brains. The zombies ask no questions, heed no caution, and lack empathy. They’ll gnaw on children and priests, no problem.  People, though, are subsumed by an over-weaning sense of confidence, entitlement, aggression, and intellect—the engines of hubris. Neither humans or the undead are nourished by the heart. Dr. Logan figures that “the brain is the engine, the motor that drives them.” The brain is the central control panel, lacking pathos, in the zombies and most people.

Make no mistake, though. Bub, with his darkened, shriveled, deep-lined face, is sympathetic to a degree. His face appears akin to the creature in Edward Munch’s painting The Scream, the figures in Leon Golub’s Gigantomachy series from the 1960s and his Mercenaries paintings from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.  Like them, his body is dehumanized, reduced to a hideous, debased form—mere emotive flesh. Through such bodies, the apocalypse is readable and definable; the apocalypse is made flesh. It is not the hell of Dante, is the hell of bodies putrifying, and re-animated, at the local mall parking lot or Florida cavern.

Bub the Zombie, listening to The Ramones

Bub the Zombie, listening to The Ramones, “Pet Sematary”

Romero’s films picture what will happen, what will become of us when B-movie macabre becomes the reality, writ large. The invasion will not occur from a distant planet, it will come from our hands too easily drawn to bad decisions. Foreshadowed in the sinister technocrat languages and bureaucracies imagined in the likes of Orwell and Kafka, germinated from the human mind itself, the zombie contagion transforms, engulfs, and mutates us. The undead are rampant and ruinous while citizens, scientists, and soldiers are divided and specious. The undead’s herd-like reflexes often outmatch our perilous individualism and self-interest.

Romero’s idea that bodies are also war zones also invariably links to the American onslaught of militarism in the waning years of the Cold War, commingled with ramped-up omnivorous consumerism. This invokes the impending zombification of the nation under the lure of commodities. People’s bodies may become a hideous byproduct of global technical failure, but they are stoned on consumption, thus miss the warning.  In Day of the Dead, when the zombies attack the military missile silo/underground bunker, it is as if they are instinctively confronting the last vestiges of American decadent bourgeois society – the same society that instigated and propelled their mutilated bodies to emerge like the dead children of Nagasaki.

The tightly controlled films of Romero’s trilogy, often replete with hokey flailing bodies and black comedy routines, identify the limits of authority in any given power structure. The zombie invasion acts as a leveling force that links consumers, sellers, workers, bosses, police, and army, mimicking the late stage of late-stage capitalism, with its dot.com and housing bubbles, bird flu and tornado terror, solar flares and nuclear meltdown, in which the tenuous systems that shape society are seemingly unstable as decomposing bodies.

The zombies, or our potential future selves, usually governed by rules and grids, discourse and logic, are reduced to survival by any means necessary. On a positive note, Romero suggests another option: resist the future, don’t give in to zombification, be media literate, give up the burdens of faulty science and the heartless military-industrial complex, deplore social prejudice and scapegoating, and find your conscience before it is devoured by unscrupulous, vain brain impulses – the darker, more terror-infused side of ourselves.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/142192-america-eats-itself-revisiting-romeros-undead-tropes/