Every Era Gets the Monster It Needs, and Ours Is the Era of the Zombie
The images of humans imprisoning themselves in The Walking Dead speak poignantly about a world in which walls seem like an answer to the threat of those masses of bodies on the other side.
Like all monsters, the zombie is a sign, but unlike so many other monsters, there is no seduction. Where other monsters offer us ways to imagine new relationships to the world, the zombie is a catastrophic reduction of everything to a mindless, destroying appetite that we can only hope to resist. Rather than taking us out of ourselves, the zombie demands that we retreat as far as possible into our most conservative and unimaginative fantasies about ourselves and the world.
The great monsters of modernity, Frankenstein’s Wretch and Dracula, are seductive figures. They each represent a position outside the norms of everyday life. They are presented as a horrifying threat to the normal world, but that threat also elicits our desire for what is ultimately the promise of a better existence.
While one might be horrified by Dr. Frankenstein’s Wretch, his strength and his honesty call out the real horrors of the world that created him. Indeed, it is never that the Wretch is too awful, but that he was simply born into a world that is not good enough for him. Small wonder that in all his classic incarnations, from Mary Shelley’s novel, the great Universal films of the ‘30s, or even the slick reimaginings of the Terminators and Replicants of the ‘80s, the audience’s sympathy is fully with the Wretch.
Dracula, more ambiguously and intensely, is fully a creature of desire. His blood lust figures not just mere appetite, but rather profound sexual energies that interrupt banalities of heterosexual romance and model new ways of feeling the world, inventing non-reproductive sexual pleasures and new family structures while also promising a life beyond the ultimate fear of mortality. Indeed, the vampire is such a benevolent figure, he has now moved fully inside the norms of the social, representing a rather anemically straight Mormon ideal in Stephenie Meyer's most recent vision. While the Wretch and the vampire might in fact mean the death of a human existence, each brings the promise of a very different and appealing alternative to the very real horrors of the world as we know it.
The monster of the new millennium is without doubt the zombie, and the most remarkable thing about this is the utter lack of utopian imagination. In our newly chosen monster, there is no better world waiting. Our only hope is mere survival.
Three features distinguish the Zombie: 1. the decaying corpse 2. dumb, relentless appetite 3. the mass of corpses overwhelming the remaining humans. The body of the zombie is the figure of the purely physical aspects of human life. It is less that the zombie returns from the grave then it makes plain just how even the healthiest body already has one foot in it.
The decaying body itself is not the key to the zombie, however. It shares this with both Dracula and the Wretch, the one an eternal corpse and the other stitched together out of many dead bodies. What distinguishes the zombie body is that it is animated only by a stupid and overwhelming drive and never a desire of any kind. That is to say, the zombie does not want anything because there is no longer a self there that could desire anything. The zombie body is animated only by a relentless hunger, and this stupid hunger cannot be satiated, no matter how many bodies it consumes. Unlike the W
retch learning to speak and read, or Dracula enjoying the performance of his courtly manners, the zombie experiences no pleasure and no pain, cultivates nothing about itself, and performs no useful task. Quite simply the zombie is merely the physical, mechanistic drive towards life stripped of everything that makes a human subject: desire, reason, emotions, and imagination.
And yet, zombies nowhere resemble everyday human life so much as in their propensity to gather in a mass of bodies. What unites the zombies into a shuffling, or more recently sprinting, mass of bodies is only their appetite for normal flesh, but they seethe and teem only in pursuit of their individual, mindless goal. Zombies cannot consciously work together, form community, or offer a model for a revolution in the human organization of labor or pleasure.
In zombie films particularly, the sympathy is never with the monster, but always with the human protagonists who must heroically resist. The humans have only two options: 1. they can run, which works only until the growing mass of the zombies overcomes them, or 2. they can enclose themselves in a fortress and wait until they starve or are overwhelmed. Just about all zombie narratives simply alternate between these two situations.
One can think of the house in Night of the Living Dead (1968) or the Mall in Dawn of the Dead (1978). The first illustrates the conflicts about the horror of family relations, while the second offers a fantasy and critique of consumer culture. However, season three of AMC’s The Walking Dead puts it most starkly: our fears imprison us. Exhausted and exposed by running in open country, the humans see a prison as the ideal place to hole up. In a world of zombies, suddenly being behind razor wire and high walls seems like the best situation. The images of the prison in The Walking Dead speak poignantly about a world situation in which walls seem like an answer to the threat of those masses of bodies on the other side.
The pleasure of the zombie film is thus never the potential for a better world, but the end of the social contract altogether. Because the zombie is reduced to an image of bare life, there is no call to treat the undead with any respect, even the respect that would be accorded the literally dead. While the mass of zombies present an implacable threat, confronted individually, they are completely vulnerable to death merely by a well-placed blow, and because they think nothing, feel no pain, and cannot be appeased by reason or hospitality, we are free to treat the human body to every kind of degrading violence without even a whisper of guilt.
Much of the inventiveness and humor of the zombie film comes solely from images of violence that run from the slapstick to the pornographic. Indeed, The Walking Dead has innovated the entire genre of violent death through an infinite catalog of arms and blunt instruments. Zombiland (2009) is little more than the pornography of violent death, dealt out by Woody Harrelson with the smug satisfaction of a man laughing at his own jokes.
Significantly, the Zombie never arrives naked. All the zombies the heroes encounter carry all the signs that mean we should recognize them as our neighbors, conjuring up entire professions and life-worlds: the waitress still wearing her nametag, the doctor in the white coat, the soldier in fatigues, the grocery clerk, the skate kid, the student, the small town cop, the teacher, the soccer mom, the retiree in robe and slippers. The blows directed against them are thus brutally entwined with the fantasies and resentments that all these ways of life and distinctions of rank work on us everyday, but they cut even deeper.
More sinisterly, they tell us that behind the matrix of signs that make our places recognizable to one another, every social sign is merely a facade concealing an unappeasable drive that wants to tear us to shreds, to infect us, to overwhelm our reason and freedom. There is also the inevitable fear that at any moment, one of the band of heroes will become a zombie, and so the living constantly scan one another for the signs of the change.
The contemporary zombie thus functions exactly as the rhetorics of anti-Semitism, homophobia, racism, or nativism; sure, the Jew, the homosexual, the black, the Palestinian or the immigrant might look like us, but each of them is, underneath the facade of normal signs, part of an evil, implacable mass driven by dumb appetite that can only mean our destruction. In the world of zombies, the human heroes are thus inevitably reduced to the most conservative and stupid choice between fight or flight.
In Marc Forster and Brad Pitt’s blockbuster version of World War Z, the iconic image is one of the multitude of zombie bodies writhing on the other side of the wall until, attracted by a sound, they converge in a mass and begin climbing over one another to reach the remaining humans on the other side. We see them thus not even as the individual, socially marked bodies of previous zombie films, but as a writhing mass of voracious insects, bare life surging and crawling in an abject orgy of destruction. These body-towers are surveyed from walls, helicopters sweep above them as they are shot at, bombed, and, failing that, subjected to sweeping jets of flame.
The hordes at the walls in World War Z (2013)
This is a new development in the iconography of the zombie, and it most clearly marks World War Z as a film that speaks to the fears of the contemporary American moment. One need only think about the recent demands that the entire Southern border of the United States be enclosed behind a wall, or consider the walls that continue to be built by Israel, or imagine the virtual economic walls that separate our planet of slums from the emerald cities of the embattled one-percent just on the other side.
The zombie was not always this contemporary image of the irredeemable, abject Other. The golden age of American horror films imagined the zombie as a potential source of revolutionary critique. White Zombie (United Artists, 1932) starring Bela Lugosi, represented the zombie as a figure of alienated labor. Lugosi played Murder Legendre, the operator of a vast sugar cane mill. His zombies are not flesh eating multitudes, but bodies reduced to the status of slave labor without any free will. All that seems fine as far as the film is concerned, until Lugosi’s eyes fall on the beautiful and very white Madge Bellamy, whom he transforms into a zombie slave for sexual labor.
The film concludes with the mass of sugar cane workers being driven over a cliff, but by killing Lugosi, the spell is broken, and Madge becomes fully human once again. While the zombie does not offer the utopian potentials of the Wretch or Dracula, it is a potent critique of raced, sexualized, and alienated labor, and one that demands violent revolution to break the spell of capitalists like Lugosi’s Murder Legendre so that the zombies might become human once more.
More recently, comic zombie films have played with this critical use of the zombie figure, including Shaun of the Dead (2004), in which zombies are trained to work low skill service sector jobs, not to mention the self-explanatory Zombie Strippers (2008). Even George Romero has flirted with this other potential of the zombie figure, particularly in Day of the Dead (1985). But Romero finally abandoned the revolutionary zombie, preferring instead what has become the contemporary figure of the zombie as the multitude outside the walls in Land of the Dead (2005).
Every era gets the monster it needs, and the overwhelming dominance of the zombie as the monster of the moment is clearly signaled not only by Hollywood and the rabid following of The Walking Dead, but even more in the zombie fan culture, replete with amateur films, websites and slash fiction that have eclipsed every other millennial monster. While the technological utopianism of the ‘80s gave us a wave of cyborg wretches, and the socially optimistic ‘90s relished inventive, queer vampires, the post-9/11 monster of choice is the zombie as abject multitude. This speaks to the impasse of our neoconservative politics and the failures of our domestic and international policies.
As I write, the United States Senate has just voted to double the size of the border patrol, a commitment of a staggering $30 billion in a time of austerity in order, essentially, to build a wall that would keep out a horde. To look from the perspective of our monsters, it is hard to come to any other conclusion other than a recognition of the utter impoverishment of our cultural imagination. When we look at the world from the perspective of those inside the gated enclaves, be they the physically gated communities of the wealthy or the virtual economic walls that separate the top 20 percept with job security and mobility from the precarious lives of everyone else, what could possibly be on the other side but the anarchy of writhing bodies that threaten to swallow this sad privilege unless held at bay through both institutional and vigilante violence?
See also: "WIU Professor Tries to Interpret Zombie Fad" with Chris Lovingood, Tri States Public Radio, 13 August 2013.