Zombie apocalypse from now on
Why the undead live on.
The zombie is the figure of the moment, the interminably rotting metaphor in which myriad anxieties and fears continue to find expression. Viral contagion, post-9/11 angst, rampant value-devouring consumerism, the catatonic treadmill of adult life… you name it, there’s a cadaverous horde embodying it in a movie or TV show.
The zombie’s metaphorical role isn’t anything new, of course. Like its Gothic cousins, the vampire and Frankenstein’s monster, the zombie has always transfigured societal fears. So, when it shuffled its way into the pop-culture mainstream in the Halperin Brothers’ White Zombie in 1932, the zombie brought with him a strong racial undertow, a fear of black insurgence not just in the American South, but on the colonial margins. This, remember, was a movie about a young American woman called Madeleine who is about to be married to her American fiancé in Haiti, only to be entranced by an evil voodoo master, who, towards the film’s close, eventually commands his zombie army to attack Madeleine and her betrothed. As the zombified natives move threateningly towards a couple of white Americans, the anxious, fearful subtext becomes explicit.
That White Zombie draws so explicitly on colonial fears should not have been a surprise. After all, the zombie itself, as a cultural trope, emerged in the context of 19th-century imperialism, especially in relation to the former French colony of Saint-Domingue – or Haiti as it was known after Toussaint L’Ouverture’s successful slave revolt in the 1790s. Initially seen as a mere element of vodou, a syncretic religion born of African slaves’ assorted native belief systems and Roman Catholicism, the idea of the zombi, a resurrected ‘undead’ figure condemned to wander aimlessly on the outskirts of villages, was presented as just more evidence of Haitians’ perceived savagery and backwardness. This, 19th-century travel writers warned, and Arthur de Gobineau noted of post-revolution Haiti in his 1852 Essay on the Inequality of Human Races, is why the civilising influence of empire is so necessary; without it ‘they’ revert to savage type. This explains why, as the zombie trope develops during the late 19th century, it fuses with that other index of black savagery – cannibalism. The zombie becomes an all-purpose symbol of blacks’ backwardness. Indeed, although the zombie has long since shed its vodou references, the flesh-eating aspect survives, as a de-racialised sign of subhumanity in general, rather than racial atavism in particular.
There were those who claimed to have seen the literal reality of the metaphor, most notably, William Seabrook, an occultist with a typically modernist liking for the primitive. In his 1929 book on Haiti, The Magic Island, Seabrook wrote of ‘dead men working in the cane fields’: ‘The zombie, they say, is a soulless human corpse, still dead, but taken from the grave and endowed by sorcery with a mechanical semblance of life – it is a dead body which is made to walk and act and move as if it were alive and used as a servant or a slave, around the habitation or the farm.’ But, as Roger Luckhurst notes in his brilliant, exhaustive Zombies: A Cultural History (2015), what Seabrook actually saw was not a group of the living dead, but a corvée labour-gang, compelled to backbreaking work during the US occupation of Haiti, which lasted from 1915 until 1934. The trace of the zombie’s slave-labouring past can still be glimpsed in many contemporary iterations of the zombie, in that slow, shuffling gait, an energy-conserving trick of the indentured labourer turned into a stupefied mark of the undead.
The colonial, and increasingly, post-colonial anxiety that informed the zombie tropes of the films and pulp fictions of the 1920s and 1930s, in which civilisation battled the barbarity amassing on its fringes, has long since ebbed. Traces persist, of course, be it the flesh-eating or the slow, exhausted walk (and even that is no longer a zombie staple after the sprinting cannibals of 28 Days Later (2002)), but they serve new fears, new anxieties.
Take, for example, George Romero’s genre-revolutionising 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead. Right from its unsettling opening, in which brother-and-sister couple Barbara and Johnny pass a frayed US flag on their way to lay a wreath at their father’s grave, the sense that society is unravelling, that America is in decline, that something is rotting at society’s heart, is palpable. There is nothing of the countercultural optimism that might have marked a film from earlier that decade. Yes, Barbara and Johnny are young, and their faces are pressed against the window of the future. In a telling exchange at the beginning of the film, Johnny says that he can’t even remember what their father looked like, and that the wreath laying is an empty gesture. The generations are passing over. But in Night of the Living Dead, the past, America’s past, is not to be left behind. Too many wrongs have been committed, too much sin indulged. And now the past is literally rising up to claim and consume the tainted present. The end is nigh, and inevitably so, such is America’s descent.
This is a signal moment in the development of the zombie trope; it now becomes an amassed, society-wide figure of the apocalypse, the zombie as the grave-digger of a decaying, post-imperial West. Whereas in earlier zombie fictions, indeed Gothic fictions, dramatic tension is generated by the conflict between civilisation and barbarism – think of Van Helsing’s moth-eaten but still vital Christian faith in Bram Stoker’s Dracula – from Romero onwards, things have changed. Between good and evil, the tension has lessened, the line blurred. The imagined evil no longer affirms the would-be good. Civilisation itself starts to be treated as little more than a document of barbarism, rather than its antithesis. At some level, not only is civilisation no longer deemed worthy of saving, or of dramatic affirmation, but also humanity is seen to be reaping what it has sowed.
The historical context of Night of the Living Dead informs this nihilistic vision. This is the moment of the Vietnam War, the moment when the prospect of an atomic end time seemed imminent, the moment when the student counterculture of 1960s started to generate an active nihilism in the shape of groups like the Weathermen, the moment when the civil-rights movement ran up against lethal resistance – Martin Luther King was assassinated the same year Night of the Living Dead was made. If Night of the Living Dead wasn’t so frighteningly nihilistic in its envisioning of a self-destructive humanity almost beyond redemption, it could have played as scathing satire. How else is one to understand the grim coda to a film in which the hero, Ben, played by black actor Duane Jones, survives the zombie attack on the Last Redoubt, only to be shot dead by a lynch mob of Good Ol’ Boys looking for more of ‘them’ to slaughter? If anyone was in any doubt as to Romero’s critique of humanity’s continued inhumanity to man, writ large in the persistence of racism, then the message is rammed home with the closing shots of grainy photographs of zombie kills invoking the pictures lynchers would take of their black victims.
Clever Romero’s zombie films may be, but subtle they are not. His 1978 follow-up Dawn of the Dead turns the zombie into an all-too-literal metaphor for the stultified masses, their brains deadened by empty consumerism and babbling media (the radio and TV play a significant role in Night of the Living Dead, too, as a source of misinformation and un-enlightenment). Hence the most famous scene of Dawn of the Dead, a film in which survivors hole up in a shopping mall in post-industrial Pittsburgh, features zombies trundling around a department store to a muzak accompaniment. The zombie here channels a fear of the levelling down, and devalorisation, of Western life, its abysmal emptiness come to consume what’s left of the citizenry. The barbarians are no longer to be found at the gates; they are flourishing in our nihilistic, consumerist midst. It is but one short step from fearing (and loathing) brain-dead Westerners caught in the vice of a seemingly soulless capitalism, to sympathising with, and supporting, the vehicles of their comeuppance. Which Romero does in the Day of the Dead (1985), with its almost moving portrait of the zombie Bub, and Land of the Dead (2005), which pits a put-upon zombie army against an evil high-living capitalistic elite.
But, as epochal as Romero’s contribution to zombiedom is, transforming it into one of the most potent symbols of the West’s self-induced apocalypse, its self-loathing given a once-human form, the emphasis has shifted once more. Today’s zombie is still, of course, a near transparent metaphor for contemporary fears and anxieties. The opening sequence of World War Z (2013), for instance, combines footage of red-in-tooth-and-claw nature with media reports of ecological catastrophe and killer super viruses. Make no mistake, these are still our end times. But there’s something else, too, something that may explain why the zombie really does seem to have become the fearful trope of our era, eclipsing vampires, ghosts and ghouls. And that’s the extent to which zombie fictions play on the sense that it’s all over, that history is finished, the future gone. Its sources are not difficult to fathom, from a prevailing narrative of environmental collapse and individualised helplessness to a deeper sense of the groundlessness and illegitmacy of Western polities. And that’s why the emphasis in contemporary zombie fictions is not on the end times as such, but on surviving the end times. The zombie apocalypse, most strikingly envisioned by Romero, now offers a setting in which to dramatise a sensibility that goes hand in hand with our end-of-history mood: survivalism. The apocalypse is a given; it’s now all about getting on with it.
This is why the time frame of the zombie trope has shifted. From Romero’s early imaginings onwards, the setting had always been the end of the world, always the apocalypse itself. These narratives played on a pervasive sense of imminent catastrophe, of an accelerating sense of decline, of, as Frank Kermode once put it in the late 1960s, ‘the sense of an ending’. But from 28 Days Later onwards, the zombie apocalypse tends already to have happened. The human characters tend to be already living amid the emergency, after the end, facing the apocalypse from now on. It is not a question of whether an individual or a group of individuals survive the end; it’s a question of how they will survive after the end.
The survivalist mentality is not an especially new phenomenon. In his 1984 book, The Minimal Self, the American historian and cultural critic Christopher Lasch noted that Western individuals’ increasing concern with their psychic and physical survival went hand in hand with both a fear of the future, a sense that it was little more than a source of ever-proliferating threats, and a belief that collective political action can no longer ameliorate the world – that, if anything, it makes things worse. The result is a collective hunkering down, a conviction that one’s main task is to ‘get by’, to ‘cope’, to, in short, ‘survive’. It rests on a sense that one is assailed by malevolent forces beyond one’s control, be they corporations, capitalism in general, or even the military-industrial complex. The individual as passive victim becomes the individual as survivor.
As Lasch himself notes, ‘We think of ourselves both as survivors and as victims or potential victims. The growing belief that we are all victimised, in one way or another, by events beyond our control owes much of its power not just to the general feeling that we live in a dangerous world dominated by large organisations but to memory of a specific event in 20th century history that victimised people on a mass scale.’ (1) This is the reason, Lasch argues, that Holocaust literature, replete in tales of survival, of coping amidst the ruins of civilisation, really begins to grow in grim popularity in the later years of the 20th century. Because, powerless and besieged, too many Westerners started to see the concentration camp as an appropriate metaphor for late-20th-century society, a society composed of victims straining to survive the everyday punishments of societal life. The end of civilisation is assumed, and the future hopeless – it’s now just a case of getting through it.
It is this survivalist mentality, this sense that the individual is adrift in a precarious, threatening world, framed, no matter how obliquely, in terms of the Holocaust, that begins to inform the zombie trope (indeed, there’s a thriving subgenre of zombie fiction in which Nazis are re-imagined as the undead, and gleefully slaughtered). As Luckhurst notes, the film-and-game franchise Resident Evil even has as its tagline, ‘Welcome to the world of survival horror’. But it’s in The Walking Dead (2010-), American TV’s biggest show with viewing figures upwards of 22million a week, that this survivalist-cum-zombie narrative is played out to most popular effect.
Here, the survivalist underpinning of contemporary zombie fiction is turned into something akin to an undead soap opera. Set after the world ended, the day-to-day struggle of Rick, his family and their companions to stay alive, to deal with ever proliferating threats, human and zombie alike, not only turns the apocalypse into an ‘unfolding condition’, as The Walking Dead’s creator Robert Kirkman put it; it also normalises it, makes it the new routine – stabbing zombies in the head is as mundane an activity as peeling potatoes. There is little narrative interest in what happened – namely, the zombie apocalypse. Nor is there a genuine possibility that the world can be saved. Instead, this is how things are now, this is reality, as Rick increasingly reminds the audience as the show progresses. The result is a sprawling, never-ending chronicle of survival, a demand to recognise the zombified world as the real world, and the civilised one as a nostalgic dream.
What’s more, it’s replete in Holocaust allusions, visual and narrative, from the emaciated bodies of the zombies themselves, often glimpsed through wire fences, to the Primo Levi-like struggle to retain one’s humanity amid so much inhumanity. A couple of years ago, showrunner Glen Mazzara even tweeted that every writer on The Walking Dead is required to read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, a Holocaust survivor’s reflection on how to sustain one’s faith ‘in a position of utter desolation’.
If that sounds unremittingly bleak, that’s because survivalism is sustained by an unremittingly bleak worldview – that the best one can do, amid the ruins of civilisation, is, as one Walking Dead character put it, ‘just survive somehow’. Hopelessness is made virtue, and called ‘realism’.
But, paradoxically, there is hope, too. Because survivalism, as Lasch himself noted, is also the last refuge for that which seems to be most under threat: namely, a rugged, robust form of individualism. This is why The Walking Dead frequently invokes the Western. Rick is a sharp shooter, his holster is slung gun-slinger low, and, for the first few seasons, his sheriff’s hat was a staple. The visual mood, too, from the empty rural vistas, to the sometimes inscrutable facial close-ups, invokes the world of the Man With No Name. At the last, then, the zombie-ridden landscape of Georgia is an opportunity for Rick and his kith and kin to trailblaze, to start anew, to forge a new life after the old one consumed itself. After the zombies, it seems, there is still a world to come. A shrunken, individualised world, but a world nonetheless.
Tim Black is editor of the spiked review.
(1) The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times, by Christopher Lasch, WW Norton and Co, 1985, p66.