28 March 2090

Zombie Wednesday: ...And Then [Nothing] Changed

Ah, zombie survival-horror, that well that started drying up twenty years ago. A few intrepid filmmakers continue to do interesting things with Romero-style undead, but movies like Shaun of the Dead (Wright, 2004), Planet Terror (Rodriguez, 2007), and Dead Snow (Wirkola, 2009) are the exception. Most zombie-moviemakers approach the material with all the artistry of a wedding band covering "We Are Family."

We are family.

I offer a speculation. In zombie movie terms, this is where I stalk into the abandoned convenience store in the second reel, calling "Hello? Anybody in here?" (which is to say, I could die). My speculation: I think the American rage for zombie outbreak movies is a symptom of our hopelessness about collective solutions to collective problems.

What is the fate of groups in zombie-apocalypse movies? They collapse. First, the state goes. Cops die, platoons disintegrate, and politicians run for their survival bunkers; any such groups that remain functional do so by means of ruthless predation on survivors (i.e. the rogue unit that becomes "worse than the zombies"). The family follows suit, as daughters devour fathers, and brothers drag sisters through windows into the waiting hands of the undead.

New, ad-hoc groups form, in shopping malls, or in underground redoubts, or in armed compounds, or in sport-utility vehicles. However, these collapse, too. Individual vices--lust, greed, bravado--lead to an unlocked gate, or an exposed window, or an infected bite. Loner protagonists spurn groups as not merely ineffective, but inherently dangerous, since every other human is a potential zombie. In these 21st-century Robinsonades, lucky heroes end up more isolated than they were at the start of the film; unlucky ones end up dead. Nearly always, the idiotic hunger of the zombie horde is the only clear winner.

The Zombie Family Robinson.

The trope of the contagious, incurable zombie bite suggests political surrender: if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. In the world of zombie plagues (as in the discursive world of neoliberal self-congratulation over the victory of capitalism), somehow you can never "beat 'em." What you therefore must "join" is not an organized army of the undead, who work together to accomplish goals, but a mob of individuals trampling each other as they grab for something to eat. This isn't the joining of a political party or a labor union, but the joining of an undifferentiated mass of individuals that do not acknowledge any commonality. Despite the zombie's tendency to appear in hordes, the horde is a radical negation of the social and the political.

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has pointed out a tendency in the imaginary narratives that circulate in today's late capitalist culture.
Thirty, forty years ago, we were still debating about what the future will be: communist, fascist, capitalist, whatever. Today, nobody even debates these issues. We all silently accept global capitalism is here to stay. On the other hand, we are obsessed with cosmic catastrophes: the whole life on earth disintegrating, because of some virus, because of an asteroid hitting the earth, and so on. So the paradox is, that it's much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism. (Žižek!)
He does not mention zombies by name, but the zombie-apocalypse film is part of this cultural moment. Our movies can imagine the living dead overrunning a mall; they cannot imagine a mall's living employees organizing a union or turning the space into a cooperative.

Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I am Legend, midwife of the zombie-apocalypse genre, tells the story of Robert Neville, an ex-military man who barricades himself against the vampires who besiege his house every night. These undead are victims of a plague, and now, like junkies desperate for a fix, they are too sick and stupid to work together. By day, Neville scours Los Angeles for useful goods, and destroys any sleeping vampires he finds. He eventually learns (spoiler alert!) that a small group of infected have discovered a drug that allows them to control their disease enough that they retain their intellectual and moral faculties, though they cannot venture out in daylight. The novel culminates in this new society sending a paramilitary squad to capture Neville, to try him for his crimes against their diseased friends and relatives. He acknowledges that he has become their Dracula, their legendary monster that sheds their blood as they sleep.

No zombie movie I have ever heard of goes where Matheson took his undead: a functional society replacing ours. Occasionally, zombie movies since Day of the Dead (Romero, 1985) explore the notion of a single, extraordinary zombie that can (re-)learn to behave socially, but the "smart" zombie is always one of a kind.

Bub: not the average zombie.

This rendering of zombie intellect and sociality as unique reflects American notions of individualism in an era of union-busting, increasing corporate power, and diminishing security for all but the most wealthy. We each root for the one "smart" zombie, identifying with him and congratulating ourselves for being the one who doesn't just follow the rest of the horde, hoping that we'll make it to the last reel (or become a billionaire). When people dress up as zombies and participate in "zombie walks," they make play out of real but historically specific feelings of isolation and hopelessness, their quirky and individualistic cosplay a mockery of the real condition they loathe to recognize. Zombies are free from all social obligations, but they are free only to stumble along in search of food.

Thus the notion that in a zombie apocalypse "everything" changes obscures the more fundamental narrative of zombie movies, where nothing changes except for a slight acceleration of the processes of atomization that have been eroding Americans' sense of sociality for decades. Zombie apocalypse movies are not radical visions of disruption and revolution, but neoliberal visions of continuity and (d)evolution. A zombie movie in which zombies establish worker-owned factories or build public schools or bring manufacturing back to the United States from overseas--that would be a zombie movie where everything changes.