For reasons that are somewhat mysterious to me, zombie movies remain fairly popular.1 There has been a notable change in the genre, however. A few decades ago, zombie movies were probably best classified as a sub-genre of horror, while nowadays they seem to be a variety of disaster movie – particularly, a variety of end-of-the-world disaster movie. Picking up on this subtle, but telling genre shift, Brad Evans and Henry Giroux write in Disposable Futures, a book on the role of (depictions of) violence in contemporary society, that the zombie figure “speaks to a future in which survival fully colonizes the meaning of life, a future that both anticipates and consents to the possibility of extinction”.2
While this genre shift is interesting from a sociological point of view, it corresponds with a more general shift in disaster movies and adjacent genres towards a rather bleak view of the future which has been analyzed by others before. Typically, such analyses at one point quote Fredric Jameson’s report that “someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism”.3 (Probably the most important text in this genre of social and cultural analysis is Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism.4) That zombie movies follow this trend hardly justifies a separate analysis (in the same terms) of the genre. Moreover, Evans and Giroux remain stuck in a very traditional view on the zombie phenomenon. For example, their brief section on zombies opens with the following statement:
The zombie genre can be traced to earlier critiques of capitalism, with the undead in particular appearing at a time when the shopping mall started to become a defining symbol of modernity. Zombies here would become the embodiment of a political form, one that had lost all sense of the past and had no future to speak of. The only performance it knew was the desire for violence, as it was suspended in a state of purgatory that offered no means of escape.5
Zombie movies are invariably told from the perspective of the surviving non-zombies, the uninfected humans, and Evans and Giroux fail to see that another – and much more interesting – perspective is possible. They are stuck in seeing the zombies as a metaphor for a threat to human survival, and thereby they (almost) completely miss the ideological aspect of the zombie genre.6
Zombies are brainless and without personality – they are sub-human. They were once human, but now their humanity is denied, and usually their past humanity is irrelevant. Zombies are dangerous. They are threatening. They are other, not us, outside. And they must be kept outside. They must be kept outside by means of fortified walls, violence, and any other means available. And this OK. It is OK to use violence against zombies, because they are sub-human. They don’t matter. They are disposable. They are just a nuisance, a pest.
The zombie genre splits the world in two. There is the non-zombie “inside” – the people inside the (metaphorical) fortress, fighting for their survival. And the zombie “outside” – the dangerous, dehumanized, disposable others who threaten the fortress and the non-zombies inside it.
The rich industrialized countries have fortified themselves to keep outside the “pest” of refugees and immigrants. Like zombies, they are clawing at the walls, trying to climb over them or tunnel beneath them. Like zombies they gather in overcrowded boats trying to cross dangerous seas. That, at least, is how they are seen from the “inside”, from within the fortresses: as pests, as less than human, as a threat, as something that must be kept out at all costs. Zombie movies are a metaphor for the perceived threat of immigration, reinforcing the dehumanization of immigrants. And by denying their humanity anything becomes possible: refusing (and even criminalizing) rescue, concentration camps (like the EU is planning and Australia and the US are already operating), and even murder.
It would be a serious mistake, however, to think that this is all there is to zombie movies. Remember what zombies are: dehumanized, disposable, seen as a threat by the “inside” (i.e. the non-zombies hiding behind their defensive barriers). That’s exactly what most of us are in the eyes of the elite. Fast food employees, warehouse workers, clerks, assistants (of whatever kind), construction workers, nurses, security guards, adjunct professors, cleaners, school teachers, and so forth – we are all disposable. We are all easily replaced when we “break down” or become a nuisance. We don’t matter. Who we are doesn’t matter. We are just labor power – nothing but disposable parts of the machine. Our humanity doesn’t matter – only our labor power matters.
In the eyes of the elite (or the ruling class, noting that there is no sharp boundary between the elite/ruling class and the rest of society) we are nothing but anonymous parts of the machine(s) that sustain(s) their status. We are not persons but tools, and as such we are not fully human – and thus dehumanized – and we are disposable. Furthermore, to the elites in their (fortified?) villas and gated communities, living in a separate world of affluence and conspicuous consumption, we are a threat, or a potential threat at least. That’s why we must be kept out of their communities and out of their world. They are inside. We are outside. We are the dehumanized, disposable threat. We are the zombies.
So, you are a zombie.7 I can (almost) hear you protesting: “But I’m not a brainless ghoul! I’m a person. I’m nothing like those zombies in the movies…” True; you’re not a brainless ghoul, but don’t forget that movie zombies are depicted from the “inside” perspective, from the perspective from those within the gated communities, villa parks, and its world of wealth and power. From that perspective you are a not an individual but a disposable “other”, just like a zombie.
“But,” you might object, “it is not a matter of perspective. It is just a ridiculous kind of relativism to say that. Reality is not a matter of perspective, and those zombies are really brainless ghouls.” Well, yes and no… Zombie movies aren’t real – they are a metaphor, their metaphor. And in their view your brain only matters in as far as it enables you to function as a tool. The relativism objection would be valid if we would be talking about reality, but completely misses the point in case of movies. Movies aren’t real. Movies are just perspective, and in the vast majority of cases they are (or represent) the perspective of the elite or ruling class, because it is the very purpose of the “culture industry” to package, distribute, and promote that perspective or world view.8 It makes no sense, then, to object on the grounds that you are not like a real zombie, because there are no real zombies. The point is that in the eyes of the elite you are a stereotypical zombie or something very much like it. You are the closest “thing” there is to a real zombie: dehumanized, disposable, and potentially dangerous.
There are, however, two very important differences between us (i.e. you and me) and a zombie in the movies. Firstly, movie zombies are victims of some kind of infection, something like a virus, but our zombie status isn’t. It is the social, political, and economic organization of society that makes us mindless, disposable parts of the machine. In one word, it is capitalism that makes us zombies. This is, of course, at the core of Marx’s critique of capitalism, but, rather unsurprisingly, he never used the term “zombie”.
Secondly, most of us aren’t actually clawing at the walls of the elite’s villas and gated communities. (Refugees trying to get into the fortresses of the rich, industrialized countries are, of course, the exception here). We are meek zombies. There may not be a virus that makes us zombies, but there is something like a virus that makes us meek. That “virus” is ideology.
Ideology is the collection of values and beliefs that serve the interests of the elite or ruling class and that (have) become the “common sense” value of everyone partially due to the status and influence of the elite/ruling class, and partially due to the latter’s direct and indirect control over the mass media and the culture industry. Ideology turns us into meek zombies by making sure that most of us don’t realize that we are zombies, by making us identify in some way or another with the non-zombies. Zombie movies are themselves a reflection and tool of ideology: by taking the perspective of the non-zombies they make us identify with the non-zombies and see the zombies as enemy. But obviously, zombie movies are not the main ideological tool that keeps us meek and keeps us from behaving like “real” zombies (wherein “real” refers to movie “reality”, of course).9 This is mainly achieved in two other ways. Firstly, by making us believe that there is no alternative to the status quo and/or that the current socio-economic system is “natural”. And secondly, by dehumanizing, othering, and “zombifying” other people. Refugees, immigrants, the homeless, the poor, and so forth are routinely dehumanized and routinely depicted as a disposable nuisance or threat by the mass media. In that way, by making us believe that (those) others are (like) zombies, we are distracted from realizing that we are zombies ourselves. We are deceived into believing that we have more in common with the elites that exploit us and that destroy our planet than with the refugees who are fleeing that exploitation and/or destruction. But we are zombies as much as they are, and all that keeps us in check is our mistaken belief that we aren’t.
We are meek zombies, and unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be an antidote to the ideological “virus” that keeps us meek. If ever a Zombie Liberation Front rises up, its first task would be to develop a cure for that virus, a cure that would make us realize that we are zombies and thereby would make us act like “real” zombies,10 a cure that would make us attack and destroy the fortresses of wealth and power that turned us into zombies in the first place. From the “inside” perspective (i.e. the view from inside the fortresses of wealth and power) that would be a disaster indeed, but zombie movies got it all wrong: such a zombie “apocalypse” wouldn’t end the world but save it.
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- At the time of writing, IMDB lists 1259 movies with the keyword “zombie”. 884 of those were released in the current century, and 605 (i.e. almost half) in the current decade.
- Brad Evans and Henry A. Giroux (2015). Disposable Futures: The Seduction of Violence in the Age of Spectacle (San Francisco: City Lights): 17-18. Their (brief) analysis of the zombie genre, focusing mainly on the movie World War Z takes up most of pages 17 to 20.
- Fredric Jameson (2003). “Future City,” New Left Review 21: 65–79.
- Mark Fisher (2009). Capitalist Realism: Is There no Alternative? (Winchester: Zero Books).
- Evans & Giroux (2015). Disposable Futures, p. 17.
- “Almost”, because they do recognize a link between the zombie genre and capitalism, although they do not really explore that link.
- Unless, of course, you’re a member of the elite.
- Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno (1947), Dialektik der Aufklärung [Dialectic of Enlightenment] (Amsterdam: Querido).
- Despite their popularity they are too much a fringe phenomenon for that.
- Here again, “real” refers to movie “reality”.