Say what you like about the zombie apocalypse, at least you don’t have to go to work on Monday morning
There are fucking zombies everywhere these days. There are so many fucking zombies around these days that there are things complaining about how many fucking zombies there are around these days everywhere these days. There are so many things complaining about how many fucking zombies there are around these days that we’re on the verge of crossing a kind of things-complaining-about-how-many-fucking-zombies-there-are-around-these-days event horizon, whereupon all the things-complaining-about-how-many-fucking-zombies-there-are-around-these-days will collapse in upon themselves and be crushed to a things-complaining-about-how-many-fucking-zombies-there-are-around-these-days singularity. Or something. Whereupon there will suddenly not be many things-complaining-about-how-many-fucking-zombies-there-are-around-these-days. Or many fucking zombies, for that matter. No more than usual, anyways. No more than before the recession, which is the event which caused the already insane proliferation of zombies to escalate to a kind of meta-proliferation. The zombies will die down. Back to their original, natural level of presence and prominence. The only thing you can be sure of is that The Guardian’s arts/culture opinion writers will notice and announce it as an exciting new development (which they alone have noticed through their unique powers of penetration) exactly three years and eight months after the very last member of the category known as ‘Everyone Else’ already got sick of talking about how there don’t seem to be any zombies around these days.
I’ve said stuff about zombies before (thus adding my name to a long fucking roster)… though I think my stuff about zombies was better than anyone else’s, naturally. Largely because it was mostly about Cybermen. But I do have a couple more little things to say about zombies, or rather about zombie stories.
The first little observation I want to make is about how accommodating they are to having an ‘interesting and novel new spin’ put on them. And about how seldom it is actually done, which I think is telling. No, no, the spins people put on them are so pallid and tentative. Like, make them Nazis. (They have ideology now?) Or do a zombie Osama bin Laden. (Oh how edgy.) Or insert them into Jane Austen (yes, I know – you’re welcome). Oh, Seth Graeme-Smith, you iconoclast you. You’ve figured out a way to make millions of dollars by essentially releasing someone else’s pre-written, public-domain text with your shit smeared over every page.
Why? Why is the ductility of the concept of the zombie so rejected?
It can’t be the fear of diluting the concept. It’s true that zombies are a very pure and simple and clear concept… but the never-ending, always-churning, meat-grinder-cum-wood-chipper-cum-tombola that is/are the culture industries doesn’t usually worry about diluting clear and pure and simple concepts. You wouldn’t have sequels at all if people worried about that. What is any sequel but a dilution of the purity of an original idea? All sequels, and perhaps even more so prequels, are exercises in stamping all over gorgeous unity and wholeness and discreteness with big muddy boots. This is even more marked in sequels or prequels to high-concept stories, i.e. stories which trade in games of rigour about relatively simple rules-frameworks.
It’s almost as if, via some complex form of recurved self-awareness, people are so aware of how easy, how bloody easy, it is to put an interesting and novel new spin on zombies, that they then feel disinclined to bother. Or perhaps, a few of these interesting and novel new spins getting through (because things always get through), people see them and, thus inclined to overestimate the amount of fucking about people are doing with zombies, they then start to think that the reeeeeally interesting and novel thing to do with zombies is to just do them straight. Of course, the reeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeally interesting and novel thing to do with zombies would be to JUST LEAVE THEM THE FUCK ALONE. But somehow we, as a culture, seem to have come to the collective conclusion that that would be cheating.
But no. I think the real reason is that the zombie genre, at least as it exists today, is inherently cheap and disposable, and we all know that, and that’s the point of it. It’s not a side-issue. It’s the fucking point. There is no one answer to the question of why zombie films have so much appeal to us now… indeed, there’s even complex stuff to be said about whether or not they even do appeal to us anymore, and if we’re not all just following a kind of dumb herd-instinct when it comes to zombies (which would be bitterly ironic, when you think about it)… but there is a part of the zombie-appeal that’s about how cheap life is now, if we’re honest. Everything is more expensive these days, and yet everything feels cheap. I can’t go in to TESCO now without bumping into racks and racks of expensive/cheap DVDs and Blu-rays. You know what I mean by ‘expensive/cheap’. Shitty, ultra-low-budget films, made so amateurishly that they make Jess Franco movies look like they were meticulously crafted by a perfectionist cineaste, starring actors too bad to be in Hollyoaks… but glossily packaged. And they’re all horror. And the only thing cheaper to make than a zombie movie is a found footage movie.
There is, no doubt, a fairly simple point of political economy here. People wanna make-a da movies. But they dohna godda no money. So they godda make-a da cheapa movies. But cheapa movies datta gonna sell. Hence, horror. Because nobody ever bought My Dinner With Andre on blu-ray in TESCO.
But I want to venture to suggest that there are some wider points. Firstly, there’s the grotesquely obvious question of why people generally don’t want to buy films about interesting dinner conversations, but generally do want to buy stories about being cut up into pieces by psychopaths, or devoured by demons, or becoming walking corpses. I’ll skip this. I’ve touched on why I think people in capitalist societies are attracted to stories about mutilation and living-death… not least in the Cybermen thing I linked-to above (drawing heavily on the resources of Gothic Marxism as practiced by David McNally).
The thing I want to stress here is what I see as a connection between the cheapness of the genre nowadays and the theme of cheapness in the very ideas being treated within the genre. There has always been a bit of the multifarious appeal of the zombie to do with the thrill of treating human figures as utterly worthless, disposable, endlessly-replaceable fodder that it’s perfectly okay, or even laudable, to slaughter.
Yet the inflection seems to have changed. In Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, for instance, there is the de rigeur post-boom and post-60s satirical critique of consumerism. But the emphasis is on the mall that the zombies still want to get into and wander around in, and the things inside it that they still want to play with. The zombies are disposable, and the heroes go about purging the mall of the human figures they don’t want around in a way that could almost be a metaphor for ethnic cleansing before the term was even existed. But the emphasis is on the threat they pose. “They must be destroyed on sight!” In the early 2000s, as is much noted, zombies started running. Zack Snyder’s Dawn remake, 28 Days Later, Charlie Brooker’s TV serial Dead Set… all featured running zombies, characterised by some – including China Mieville – as ‘post-Seattle zombies’, i.e. zombies informed by the spectacle of urban insurrection at protests. Again, the emphasis was on the threat. It’s telling that Shaun of the Dead went back to classic shambling zombies, because that film was all about the pleasure of treating the people around you as disposable fleshbags. Shaun doesn’t notice the difference the first time he goes out after the zombie apocalypse kicks-in. It’s not a joke at his expense so much as at theirs. People are still shuffling and shambling around as vacantly and moronically as they were the day before. In the shops, these zombies are as cheap and tawdry and disposable as the tat they used to covet. That’s life.
What has changed is the rules. Which brings us to the next thing…
Maybe one reason why people are reluctant to tinker with the zombie too much is because they don’t want to change the rules, because one of the rules of zombie stories is that the rules have changed. And we wouldn’t want to unchange the changed rules. Because we like the changed rules.
A lot of our zombie apocalypse movies are about how much fun the zombie apocalypse will be. Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, Romero’s Dawn, are all at least partly about this. In Dawn, the survivors who take over the shopping mall end up rather enjoying the purging process, and then set about raiding the shops, furnishing their new secure apartments on the top floor, etc. Shaun tries, with varying degrees of commitment, to treat Z-Day as an opportunity to stay in the pub. Similarly, the Simon Pegg character in World’s End (a quasi-zombie movie of the Stepford variety) ends up treating the post-apocalyptic world in the coda as an opportunity for endless fun and showing off. But I think it goes deeper than that.
There’s something about the end of the world. Ironically, a lot goes on there. And a lot of what goes on there seems quite free compared to how we live now. The sighted survivors in The Day of the Triffids find themselves dramatically and suddenly freed from social restrictions. Indeed, the story is actually about their constant struggle to maintain their new freedom from social restrictions in the face of various attempts by others to impose new structures of power. In Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, the only surviving human being constructs a totally isolated life, hiding from the rest of the population at night because they’ve all become vampires. Safely tucked away behind shutters, garlic, and sound-proofing, Robert Neville sits alone and studied biology while listening to classical music, and boozing. During the day, when the vampires are all asleep, he roams the world freely, totally unrestricted, ransacking shops and libraries, and killing his sleeping, vampirised neighbours. Matheson frames the story as one of corrosive loneliness, but it’s hard not to see the fantasy of absolute autonomy, freedom, self-reliance, and unfettered individualism lurking within. Neville is paranoid, suspicious and hostile when he eventually thinks he’s met a human woman, and is ultimately unhappy to find himself surrounded by rational vampires who are forging their own new society, complete with social rules – to which he is now as allergic as they are to garlic. Indeed, the finale of the story demonstrates that he has become a lone alien creature to the vampires. He alone stalks the part of the day into which they cannot venture, and kills them freely. He is to them what they once were to him. He has become the monster, the legend. And the crux is that he has felt entirely free to kill them, lawlessly, at whim. They will execute him for this, because his removal is to be the keystone to their new construction of a nascently-totalitarian system of social control. This is the negation of Neville’s society-of-one, which he built alone, rationally planning his own safety and liberty.
Marx’s reading of bourgeois economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo led him to christen then ‘Robinsonades’ after Robinson Crusoe. Robinson Crusoe is, of course, the man stranded on an island who survives alone – at least for a while – because he can rationally and determinedly work to create a world for himself. The starting point of Smith and Ricardo was an idea of society based on an idea of human nature which saw society as an aggregation of isolated, rational individuals. These individuals were the basis of the economy, with the entire structure reflecting the unitary, atomised nature of individuals, and their rational choices. The world was made up of lots of Robinson Crusoes. Relatedly, there is the fetish of individual genius, work, enterprise and initiative.
It’s a fantasy, but so is the story Robinson Crusoe. The pleasure of reading it lies in the relishing of the fantasy of self-reliance, which is a function of the narrative conceit of isolation. But the isolation is more than just a narrative conceit enabling a fantasy. The isolation is a fantasy itself. A very attractive one. Its basis is the fantasy of autonomy. I wrote elsewhere that the fundamental appeal of the detective story lies in a fantasy of autonomy (pardon me quoting myself but I can’t be bothered to paraphrase):
What does every detective story have in common? The hero or heroine who can move as freely as they choose from place to place, doing what they wish according to their own judgements as they make those judgements, managing their own time, roving from person to person conducting interviews, or from scene to scene gathering evidence or perceptions, entirely under their own steam… Whatever the fictional copper’s notional complaints about paper work, the body of the story will see him or her cruising from suspect to suspect in a car. The appeal is of not being tied in some way in which most of us are tied… Here’s the secret fantasy. It works in a way reminiscent of the American fantasy about solving guilt-problems held over from conquest which lies at the heart of the American ghost story. American ghost stories are all, fundamentally, about disputed real estate. British ghost stories are, of course, far more about the haunting of the modern by the feudal. Both are about capitalism vs some flavour of pre-capitalism. The detective story is… about some fantasy of freedom from the capitalist organisation of time or, relatedly, from the schedules imposed by the bourgeois family.
Even in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (almost the first work in the post-apocalyptic genre but for a little known French prose poem), there is a clear wish-fulfillment logic at work. Despite the horror of what happens to the human race in that book, and the overpowering feel of melancholy as Shelley weaves her metaphor about the failure of Romanticism and her loss of the companions of her youth, the isolation of the last survivors lends itself to pleasure. Toward the end there is a clear sense that the last few people alive on Earth are rather enjoying bodding around Europe all by themselves. The ultimate irony is that the tragedy of Romantic individualism and personal freedom is not generalised political freedom but rather tyranny followed by utter atomisation and loneliness. The last people are living the Romantic dream, which is only possible in good conscience if everyone else is already gone.
It’s not difficult to see something similar in our present-day stories about the last few survivors of the apocalypse (zombie or otherwise). We’re living in the ruins of neoliberalism, but neoliberalism continues. Dead system walking… well, running actually. And still eating. Zombie neoliberalism, as many have observed. And these ruins of neoliberalism are also the ruins of liberalism, of social democracy. The fantasy of prosperity is still indulged. The aspiration to freedom is still indulged. It’s just that they’ve become inherently cheap fantasies, predicated upon the idea that everybody else has to be cleared out of the way, or made disposable.
February 18, 2016 @ 11:55 am
If you really want to see Capitalist society’s fascination with death an mutilation, look into Nollywood. The eternal Cowboy Capitalism of Africa has made an industrial singularity of cheap, pulpy horror for the masses who have to live in an already horrifying reality.
February 18, 2016 @ 1:16 pm
I’m always struck by how most zombie and post-apocalyptic stories are about how human beings need macho strong leaders, who are prepared to do awful things to protect us. If that isn’t the theme, then it’s just about how human beings are all irredeemably shitty.
February 18, 2016 @ 7:20 pm
That’s probably the main reason why I liked School-Live!’s crossing of the zombie apocalypse with the schoolgirl slice-of-life genre. It being mostly about how even if it is all zombies outside, you need to forget them sometimes if life is going to be worth living.
Kind of like we can all go on watching TV even in the face of capitalism, global warming and pending ecological collapse, or whatever horror is most on your mind.
February 18, 2016 @ 1:36 pm
I attended a panel of writers at The British Fantasy Society on the zombie apocalypse last year. Joe Hill was there, talking about his new novel, ‘The Fireman’, and he said two things that I thought were interesting in light of the above.
The first was that he had a fundamental unease about zombie fiction becasue, in his words (filtered via my memory) “The survivors are actually the 1% – they’re the ones who will have the food and guns stashes, the fortresses. We, the 99%, are the zombies.” Following on from that, he said that one of the things he wanted to do with his own novel was make the infected ‘the good guys’. The book is not out for a while yet, but I thought that was an interesting take, and might actually represent that ‘fresh spin’ that you rightly note has become a cliche.
February 18, 2016 @ 8:41 pm
Warm Bodies might have gotten there first, depending on how one looks at it.
February 18, 2016 @ 9:40 pm
I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on Handling The Dead by John Ajvide Lindquist. The titular “dead” aren’t really in the traditional zombie mould, but the book does present an interesting look at a mass resurrection that turns its subjects into unhumans, and an attempt at a government response to the situation.
February 19, 2016 @ 1:35 am
The only kind of zombie stories I like these days are ones where the zombies are almost entirely off-screen and just there to justify the societal collapse, and the story is actually about the survivors building a postcapitalist society out of the wreckage.
Yeah, I don’t actually read a lot of zombie stories.
(Actually found it really hard to come up with a good substitute for zombies to serve the story role of “Quickly collapse civilization and pose an active persistent continuing threat for the new emerging society, but one that can be fended off with vigilence and fortification, not, like, radiation. Best substitute I’ve come up with so far is poisonous rain.
February 23, 2016 @ 11:11 pm
Didn’t McCaffrey do this with Pern’s Thread?
February 19, 2016 @ 11:56 am
You’re absolutely right about the central pleasure in post apocalyptic fiction. But another aspect I though you might be more interested in is the earlier origins of zombie fiction specifically.
The original tales of zombies came from Haiti – and were part of the slave population’s syncretic Vodou religion: a fairly clear expression of their lived experience as owned unpaid labour force of the colonial masters.
Of course, when Hollywood discovered the tales of working corpses – forced even beyond their natural spans to labour eternally for their master’s benefit – it grabbed the most superficial part of the myth, and used it to tell the tale of white men rescuing their stolen fiancee’s. Sigh.
When Romero FIRST used the zombie, in Night of the Living Dead in 1968, it was neither about slavery nor post apocalyptic. At the end of that film, a bunch of good ol’ white boys come through in a posse with the local sheriff, and calmly and effectively dispatch all the zombies.
In Romero’s original, they stand for the myriad of social pressures tearing relentlessly at American society. In an incredibly cynical move, the Sheriff’s men gun down the sole surviving person from the cast: a young, intelligent, active black man.
If you’re interested, I have talked at more length about this a couple of years ago, here:
… before I got bored with the political direction The Walking Dead was obviously taking over the past two seasons. So much promise, so little return.
February 20, 2016 @ 9:34 am
I’m pretty bored by zombies, I just generally find the stories rather dull – perhaps apart from Romero’s original film.
February 20, 2016 @ 11:26 pm
Hello! Been reading this site for a little while, first comment. Couldn’t help but wonder, do you think the imperialist/racist origins of the zombie movie (a la White Zombie) tie in to this? Because that’s a tension that could have interesting ties to this current zombie situation you’ve outlined.
February 21, 2016 @ 11:37 pm
Some interesting background here.
One view is that being turned into zombie is the closest that a white American gets to becoming a black American – loss of agency, treated as vermin, a mindless body threatening you. In fact, zombie infection is a repressed fear of miscegenation returning in an acceptable form.
I’m not sure I completely agree with what I just wrote.