Zombie-conomy: Reflections of culture, class and the undead

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In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, David Simon, creator of The Wire and Treme, took to his blog to decry American gun culture. Simon saw the Newtown tragedy as a result of a hostile society that festishizes the 2nd Amendment.

In the post, he highlighted The Walking Dead, an enormously popular television show on AMC about the zombie apocalypse set in the American south:

On television the other evening, I caught a glimpse of a drama in which some future America was overrun by zombies, a thrilling narrative in which survivors could only rely on force of arms to keep the unthinking, unfeeling hordes at bay. And I realized: This isn’t mere entertainment, it’s national consensus. More than that, it’s a well-executed and starkly visual rendering of the collective fear that governs us. We know that they’re out there: The less human. The poor. The godless. The frightening other. And they want what we have, they are going to take what we have and they understand nothing save for a well-placed bullet.  

The zombie is the contemporary folk symbol. Zombies represent a grotesque otherness. They are like us but not us; they are people reduced to animal magnetism. They articulate a fear of the "great unwashed" turning against the population. As the wealth gap widens in our economic climate, the undifferentiated masses have become horrific.

The zombie concept comes from the Haitian voodoo tradition. Initially, a zombie was someone raised from the dead by witchcraft. White Zombie (1932) is most often identified as the first zombie movie. Set in Haiti, White Zombie stars Bela Legosi as a plantation owner controlling his zombie slaves with voodoo witchcraft.

We owe our contemporary vision of zombies to George A. Romero, who directed The Night of the Living Dead (1968). Here we see a shift from witchcraft to the concept of infection. Zombies are no longer created by a supernatural forces. Instead, they spread the "disease" through biting. Romero's zombies are cannibalistic, which they had never been before.

Night of the Living Dead is a classic and enjoyed great box office success, but it isn't until recently that zombies can be said to have truly hit the mainstream. Over 200 zombie movies have been made in the last ten years alone. In our post-9/11 world, the zombie has become our favourite antagonist.

In her book Our Vampires, Ourselves, Nina Auerbach argues that every generation gets a new version of the vampire. Kelly Doyle, a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia focusing on zombie fiction, believes the same can be said of zombies. "For every generation that a zombie film has been released," says Doyle, "that figure is reflecting back on that particular period."

In regards to White Zombie, Doyle argues, what we see is a reflection on how America colonized Haiti. With Rombero, Night of Living Dead, whose black protagonist survives a night of zombie onslaught only to be (spoiler alert!) shot by white gunmen the next day, tackled race and the equal rights movement.

While the current crop of zombies from The Walking Dead are keeping with the tradition started with Romero, they are noticeably different. Zombies have actually become more horrific, more vicious. Slavoj Zizek observes that Romero's zombies are more mournful than monstrous. To quote Edgar Wright's zombie homage, Shaun of the Dead: "Just look at the face. It's vacant with a hint of sadness. Like a drunk who's lost a bet."

Our zombies are more visceral than ever. They aren't hampered by their decaying bodies. There are many scenes in The Walking Dead that revel in the corporeality of ravaged flesh. One of the signature moments of the show's pilot depicts a legless torso groping its way towards the protagonist.

Zombie narratives have thus shifted towards body horror, a sub-genre of horror fiction identified with depictions of the degradation or destruction of the body. Romero`s generation of zombies denoted a fear of losing one`s consciousness amongst the maddening crowd. Modern zombies expand on this by exploring the physical abasement of becoming a zombie.

In Powers of Horror, Julia Kristeva writes about the anxiety of the abject. She points to the excess of bodily fluid as particularly abject. So long as blood, mucus and excrement are contained, they're fine. But once they leek, they become an object of revulsion. The ultimate expression of this is the corpse. The whole human being has become itself excrement.

"Zombie narratives allegorize the horror of excess," says Christopher Lockett, an English professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland who focuses on contemporary American culture. "What's particularly terrifying is that they want to assimilate us. Not only are zombies the returned of the repressed, they're coming for us to turn us into excess."

Technology and current economic trends have lead to mass unemployed, making swaths of people excess. When David Simon talks about the dangerous horde, he is talking about the marginalized, the dregs of society who have been cast out but refuse to go away. The hegemony tries to quarantine them using containment strategies such as prisons, debt and fractured law; but they are bursting out, bleeding onto the streets, fighting back in the form of mass protests and demonstrations.

It is thus apropos when South Park imagines the zombie apocalypse as an onslaught of homeless people wandering the streets, mumbling, "Change, change."

The "great unwashed" are our era's zombies. With no jobs or means to support themselves, the un- and under-employed have become the living dead. As the middle class shrinks and wealth becomes increasingly disparate, we see widening gap between a vast heap of poverty versus a few select survivors. Ultimately, this translates into a fear of class warfare, which is expressed in the survivalist fantasy of zombie narratives.

For Doyle, it's a matter of identity. "Who gets to hold on that title of 'human?'" she asks. "And then who has the power to decide if you are human and to take that away?"

The zombie has no identity. It is an instantiation in a undifferentiated hostile mass. The individual who fights back against the horde gets to call themself a human. This is the survivalist fantasy inherent in the modern zombie apocalypse narrative.

The privilege of asserting individuality against the hoi polloi speaks to the elitism of our current cultural discourse. To be unemployed, poor, down and out is to be subhuman. Furthermore, the subhuman is revolting; an object of fear, not sympathy. And the only way to maintain our dignity as human beings is to protect whatever wealth we have at all costs.

Brad Dunne is a freelance writer based out of St. John's, Newfoundland. He maintains a blog at braddunne.com.

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