Zombies in popular culture have always been placeholders for a barely repressed loathing of the masses. Some part of us believes or fears that most other people in the world are ignorant, they’re unhygienic, they’re easily led and above all that they’re useless mouths; all they want to do is consume without contributing or providing anything in exchange. The zombie genre allows us to sublimate and work through a vicarious holocaust of this surplus humanity.
During the 60s and 70s, despite student protests, rebellious youth and occasional half-baked terrorist wannabes like Baader Meinhof or the Weathermen in developed countries and real revolutions, coups and civil wars in the developing world, the majority of the population was still seen by the educated and the privileged classes through a Marxian (as opposed to Marxist) lens, as a potentially dangerous but fairly undifferentiated lumpenproletariat that was only ever stirred into a temporary, volatile state of agitation by prominent individual persuaders or tyrants like Stalin, Jim Jones or Andreas Baader.
And so for a long time zombies— the poor and disempowered strangers it was OK for a respectable person to fantasise about killing— remained a groaning scrum who for the most part did little but pound uselessly against doors and windows that could usually be relied upon to keep them out, provided that your boundaries were properly secured and policed. These zombies would bite if you let them indoors, but if you were foolish enough to let them indoors it was already game over.
Something has obviously changed, however, in our culture’s view of the masses. This has been mirrored in the recent evolution of zombies away from sad, shambling, faceless hordes. In the past zombies usually proved lethal from numerical superiority and tireless persistence combined with ethical or pragmatic failings on the part of survivors. These days, being in the right and doing what you should isn’t enough. The proletarian rabble still wants to tear you apart, even if you’ve been a vegetarian for 15 years, your coffee is Fair Trade and you sponsor goats in Guatemala instead of buying Christmas presents.
28 Days Later is popularly regarded as ferocious, sprinting, angry zombie Patient Zero. The film’s infection McGuffin is even called a “rage virus.” What drives these monsters is not uncontrollable hunger or evil (how quaint!) but uncontrolled emotions; hatred and destructive desire are apparently foremost among them. 28 Days Later ripped a lot from Romero, and from other places too. Although it’s technically accomplished, it’s more like a YouTube supercut of zombie and post-apocalyptic film tropes than a script in its own right. Zack Snyder’s ADD remake/redux of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead ripped a lot right back again, including stuff that was never in Romero’s rulebook but nonetheless got sucked back into the zombie mainstream along with the newfound rage and rapidity.
I know that some nerds like to make a distinction between infected but apparently still alive individuals like those in 28 Days Later or games like Resident Evil 4 and 5, and zombies who are explicitly stated to have risen from the dead as in Night of the Living Dead or its descendants. To these nerds I say: do us all a favour, shut your face, nobody else gives a shit and you’re totally missing the point again.
Resident Evil’s early instalments relied upon old school, virtually anonymous and depersonalised shambling zombies in claustrophobic domestic settings based on the Japanese developers’ rather skew-whiff ideas of what a North American city would be like if it was overrun by mindless, cannibalistic proles. As the 21st century began, parts 4 and 5 of the series both absorbed and led a new iteration of the pop cultural use of zombies as cyphers for fear of the masses. Resident Evil 4 puts its upgraded and raging, screaming, grasping infected in an unnamed and vaguely defined Mediterranean region. Wherever it’s meant to be, the people are obviously dirt poor and agricultural. When they talk at all (usually only to scream something like “die!” or “kill!”) they speak Spanish, for what it’s worth.
Resident Evil 5 provoked overwrought fretting in some quarters due to its alleged racism, because in this game the zombies are mostly black people from the Port Harcourt-esque slum hinterland of an oil and chemical processing complex somewhere in Western Africa. It’s understandable that images of a heavily armed white man calmly mowing down hordes of enraged black people should cause some alarm, and initially it struck me as dodgy too. But anyone who actually bothered to play the game in full would be in little doubt that we’re supposed to be horrified at what has been done to these people in the name of corporate profit and greed, and at what has to be done now to solve the problem. I think it’s a minor triumph that we are indeed mindful of how these innocent civilians turned into implacable enemies, even as we’re lining up our next headshot. The fact that it’s mostly Africans who’ve been mutated into ravening monsters is part of the critique and not accidental, casual racism. I’m not saying you should expect Resident Evil 5 to give Naomi Klein a run for her money, but there is a critique buried in it somewhere.
One of the game’s protagonists—an African woman, incidentally— even encounters a settlement full of deliberately infected villagers and can’t help exclaiming rhetorically “My God, who would do such a thing?” She knows the answer already, and we do as well: a multinational biochemical company run by white people from the developed world, wealthy technocratic oligarchs who at best regard people from the developing world as commodities to be traded, used or written off according to the dictates of market forces.
The prominence of an oil refinery and hundreds of shipping containers throughout the game— not to mention the environmental and social cataclysms they have obviously caused— is also surely no coincidence. This makes it seem even weirder that in an apparent late concession to political correctness and “that’s racist!” hysteria there’s a demographically improbable contingent of European zombies in need of obliteration as well. Who knew so many white people lived in poverty in African slums?
The one aspect of this that may be skating somewhere close to the thin ice on Racist Lake is in the concomitant free-floating fear of what all those (real world/third world) poor people might do if they actually got their shit together and resisted or avenged the outrages that are heaped upon them daily in the name of the developed world’s comfort and profit. I would argue that even this is not necessarily or automatically racist; it’s a fact that the majority of the world’s poorest and most disempowered people are African, South American or Asian. This fact can probably be acknowledged by anybody, of any political persuasion, as can the proposition that major upheaval or social unrest in these regions would be in the best scenario challenging and at worst catastrophic for the whole planet. A certain amount of anxiety regarding the developing world is understandable and it doesn’t have to be racist if you don’t want it to be.
The Dead Rising series (also by Capcom) is deliberately and unashamedly more light-hearted, but it too places blame entirely on the free market’s cavalier and condescending attitude towards the masses, while simultaneously proposing and celebrating the extermination of those surplus mouths. In Dead Rising 2, the manufacturers of a zombism antidote called Zombrex deliberately provoke an outbreak as a corrective for flat sales figures, thereby creating both a new market of infected victims to whom they can market before they succumb— or alternatively harvest for Zombrex’s raw materials when they turn cannibal— in addition to panic buying by the population at large. The company also sponsors a TV show in which hundreds of the undead are publicly debased, mocked, crushed, beaten and stabbed for the amusement of screaming crowds and viewers at home, drawing a direct comparison between this gory, inhumane spectacle and the one that we ourselves are participating in and presumably enjoying.
Dead Rising, unlike its Resident Evil cousins, takes the notion of weaponised domesticity that’s also been seen in recent big screen zombie stories and runs with it. Recent zombie works have tended to downplay or entirely eschew conventional firearms and military protagonists, focusing instead upon ordinary people turning everyday objects and appliances to the suddenly legitimised purpose of annihilating friends, family, colleagues and total strangers. Everything from thrown vinyl records (as in Shaun of the Dead) to fire extinguishers, golf clubs, fireworks and even shampoo provide unrealistic but intensely satisfying injuries, dismemberments and impalements.
I could go on for many thousands more words, so ubiquitous have zombies become in games, TV, comics and films. Zombies mashed up with Jane Austen, kawaii zombies in casual iphone games. Some of these works seem popular solely because of the zombies that feature in them, since they have little else to recommend them. If you were to keep everything else but swap the zombies out for something else, say bubonic plague or civil war, most of these works would be of minority interest, cause widespread moral outrage due to their sadistic cruelty, or simply sink without a trace.
A good example is the mystifying enthusiasm many people have for Robert Kirkman’s interminable The Walking Dead comics, and more recently for their more bearable TV incarnation. Ignore the zombies and the occasional spectacular violence occasioned by their presence and what you’re left with is a two dimensional, meandering melodrama whose characters are so thin they can hardly be distinguished from each other and dialogue apparently written by a person who never heard a real human talk. With the exception of the first few issues, The Walking Dead also has shockingly bad art work, which compounds Kirkman’s inability to delineate who is who and who is speaking. These latter faults are critical and unforgiveable ones in a drawn narrative in which we rely equally or more so upon the pictures than we do on the text. They’re especially egregious in this case because for reasons I don’t really understand the series tends to be eulogised for being “adult” and focusing on human reactions to a dire situation rather than on zombies or zombism per se. This might well be Kirkman’s intention, but he’s just not a good enough writer to pull off anything with that kind of convincing intellectual gravity.
A recent spinoff from Rockstar’s open world Western game Red Dead Redemption (Undead Nightmare) would also seem at first glance to be just another manifestation of the entertainment industry’s current policy of “if in doubt, put zombies in it.” In fact, as in Dead Rising, the makers of this game deftly entertain us with ultraviolence while holding up a disturbing mirror to our frankly base motivations for going to the zombie genre again and again. Like most successful works in the zombie genre, these games manage to have their rotting flesh and eat it; they deplore the dehumanisation of the inferior masses while they conspire to help us enjoy the annihilation of them that has apparently become necessary, or at least acceptable.
Dead Rising’s uninfected psychopaths have no excuse for their actions and their inhumanity, unlike the zombies who are only vicious because they have been infected against their will and are now unable to control themselves either metaphorically or literally. Undead Nightmare is modelled on a 70s horror film just as Red Dead Redemption takes cues for its turn of the 20th century Western setting from The Wild Bunch and its ilk. We see ordinary people on the American frontier venting their most base desires, prejudices and fantasies. The outbreak of undead mayhem and the weakening of civilisation’s foundations are mere pretexts for the inhumanity, selfishness and anti-social behaviour of these people. Demonstrating a similar class consciousness/anxiety to Resident Evil 5, Undead Nightmare has Mexican peasants, subsistence farmers and two-bit hookers strikingly visible among the ravening masses.
French zombie film La Horde is one of the most explicit filmic incarnations reflecting this dichotomy of uninfected who choose to do evil versus a seething accumulation of insatiable beasts created through no fault of their own by poverty, injustice and inequality. While otherwise following the familiar Zombie template, La Horde’s eponymous multitude of infected victims turned monsters comes from the Parisian banlieus, the notorious high-rise social housing projects disproportionately and unwillingly inhabited by Africans, Turks and other immigrants. In La Horde, a banlieu tower block becomes an equal-opportunities death trap for its erstwhile inhabitants and the flics who’ve come to persecute them.
A more respectable, bourgeois apartment building features in the Spanish film Rec, but as in La Horde a domicile transforms easily into a prison, which turns rapidly into a tomb. The estrangement of social classes and ethnic groups from one another is almost as overt. The poorest members of society and immigrants (often the same thing) are again prominent amongst the enraged undead cannibals.
Why have zombies come back into fashion and cultural ubiquity? I think it’s because right now we’re particularly disconnected and afraid of the places where we live and of our compatriots. The near universal genre rule that zombies are only definitively thwarted with the destruction of the brain doesn’t take much deconstruction. Although the masses are depicted as not thinking very much and having little control over their own actions, for the safety of “us” this hungry crowd must be stopped from thinking or acting at all. The darkest part of our psyches exults in the idea of a final solution for them all.
Two footnotes on Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare
1 I’m still disappointed they didn’t take the opportunity to call it Undead Redemption, or Undead Revolver.
2 Am I the only person who found the game’s denouement problematic and illogical to the point where it completely broke the internal logic of the story? (i.e. it was badly written even if this was intended to be taken as a “nightmare.”) John Marston’s wife and son are infected and turn into zombies: the whole narrative is driven by his search for a cure while they remain confined to the Marston farmhouse. When at long last John finds the cure, Abbie and Jack return to normal and they’re more or less unscathed. Good for them, but meanwhile John has slaughtered hundreds of zombies who could also presumably have been cured if John and other people hadn’t gone around shooting them all in the head.
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