on zombies


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I’ve been thinking about zombie movies, of which the twenty-first century has seen a resurgence. The zombie movie database lists nearly 1600 films since the year 2000, though that includes shorts, tv shows, and direct to video releases. Still, many of those have been quite successful theatrical features. In 2002, we got 28 Days Later, and this year its sequel, 28 Weeks Later. In 2004, we saw a remake of George Romero’s 1978 classic Dawn of the Dead, as well as the British horror comedy Shaun of the Dead. The next year, 2005, Romero himself directed the fourth in his series, Land of the Dead. What’s more, there are games like Resident Evil (which itself spawned a series of films), and books like Max Brooks’ Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z. Zombies, it seems, are everywhere.

So, when I recently saw on the website commondreams.org an article by Olga Bonfiglio titled “Dead Nation Walking,” I naturally thought it must be about zombie movies. But of course the article was instead about capital punishment in the US, and the title a reference to the anti-death penalty work of sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking.

Still, in the midst of life we are in death. Surely the violence of our world has some bearing on the popularity of a genre about the walking, biting dead.

As one can confirm in Bonfiglio’s article and through her sources, most nations have recognized that capital punishment does not act as a deterrent to crime. The US is the only NATO nation that retains the death penalty, and we rank fourth in the world for the number of executions, behind only China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Not only are there significant racial disparities in sentencing, so that people of color are more likely than whites to be sentenced to death, but also many innocent people have been falsely convicted and sentenced to death. Since 1973 over 120 people have been released from death row because of evidence of their innocence.

But the 431 people who have been executed in the US since 2000 don’t necessarily account for the recent interest in the walking dead, since the yearly figures have actually been declining since they peaked in 1999, in part because of the work of activists like Prejean and Bonfiglio.
But we might consider the casualties in Iraq—including the over 600,000 “excess deaths” reported by the Lancet, or perhaps the deaths resulting here from the lack of access to health care. Or those who have died in US custody, or for that matter in the US in police custody

In the midst of life we are in death, indeed, and maybe death is also in us, as well. George Romero’s work, in particular, has tended to stress the blurring of boundaries between zombies and humans, the idea that zombies are us. In Land of the Dead, a human character observes of the zombies, “They’re pretending to be alive,” and another responds, “Isn’t that what we’re doing? Pretending to be alive?” Similarly, in Shaun of the Dead, some of the initial humor comes from Shaun’s failure to notice that the people around him are zombies, since they don’t seem to be acting all that differently than usual (though, as one character later notes, “they are a little bitey”).

This blurring of boundaries means that zombies figure differently in different films, or sometimes even within a single film. They may be emblems of frustration with routine, as when a character in Shaun of the Dead comments, before the zombie outbreak, “I want to live a little.” They may embody a rebellious underclass, as when they overrun the gated community of wealthy humans in Land of the Dead. They may provide opportunities for human characters to act out unacceptable and unconscious aggressive wishes, as when people are obliged to kill zombified family members. But the deadening effect of life under capitalism has long been a staple of the zombie tradition.

Writing in the journal Psychoanalysis, Culture, and Society, a psychoanalyst with the science-fictional name of Mark Borg suggests that the palliative care culture –which dovetails so nicely with the commodification of treatment, with selling drugs to cure sleeplessness, inattention, depression, anxiety, shyness, and all the ills the human mind is heir to—invites us to become emotional zombies, armored against social connection and empathy. He writes,

Human—that is, emotional—responses to everyday stimuli are increasingly pathologized, and we are increasingly promised the obliteration of all human suffering. Yet at the core of all these human responses to suffering that need remedy is a deep sense of empathy with the struggles associated with simply existing at this time in this society, in a state of perpetual dread over the immense social problems that infect those around us, and that seem (and often are) insurmountable.

The list of potential remedies for our discomfort is long enough to [ . . . remove] us from the emotional experience of painful and anxiety-provoking stimuli. In this state of amputated emotions and self-experience we can become zombie-like, unable to impact or be impacted by our world or by each other. (2)

One recurrent motif in zombie movies is the coming together of human survivor groups, often an affirmation of the human sympathy to which life under capitalism is so antagonistic. In Shaun of the Dead the title character quotes Bertrand Russell’s statement that “The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation.” That film ultimately betrays the words of the pacifist Russell, when the characters are saved by military intervention, but most zombie films are quite critical of militarism and of war.

Heather Hendershot, writing in Flow, notes that there is a long history of non-vampiric walking corpses being used as anti-war symbols, going back to Abel Gance's J'accuse in 1919: “The film ends with the dead of the Great War returning to ask why they have been sacrificed.” More recently, Joe Dante’s 2004 “Homecoming,” part of the television series Masters of Horror, featured dead soldiers from the current conflict returning to vote against the politicians who falsely led them into war.

Meghan Sutherland, writing in Framework, argues that zombie movies offer a “scenario . . . familiar to us in the time of the Patriot Act, it is precisely the bleed or collapse of structural boundaries—between murder and law, power and the body, life and death—that constitutes the survival of sovereign power on the unpredictable terrain of modern politics.”

This blurring of murder and law certainly sounds like a description of the death penalty, as well as, often enough, the actions of US forces in Iraq, and the actions of US police and prison guards in the US.

Despite the recurrent appearance of zombies, however, there has been a twist in the recent films, in many of which the zombies are not slow and shuffling, but fast and surprisingly agile, as in the remade Dawn of the Dead. Indeed, in 28 Days and 28 Weeks Later, the source of the problem is described as the “rage virus.” The deadened affect, the lack of emotion registered in earlier zombie films seems now to have given way to return of repressed fury.

And why shouldn’t we be furious? We have been paying attention, and we are outraged.

for the Old Mole Variety Hour, July 30, 2007