Zombie Apocalypse Part I

Oct 24, 2011 by

Since Halloween is just around the corner my brother and I have stepped up our usual consumption of ghoulish cinema. When he invited me to his tree shrouded shack on our back acreage at midnight to watch zombie movies until dawn I couldn’t resist; I mean honestly, Dawn of the Dead until dawn! Since at least the turn of the millennium there has been a resurgence in movies or re-makes of movies featuring zombies. Books have been written on zombies and surviving the coming apocalypse and there is even an undead version of Jane Austen. The University of Baltimore recently launched Eng 333, a class entirely dedicated to zombies in cinema and fiction. Harvard and the University of Chicago also have plans for classes featuring a quest to consume “brains.” I was eager for our zombie marathon to discover just what it is that motivates our recent interest in zombies, to determine the cultural relevance of it all.

The history of the zombie has its origins in the African slave trade. Voodoo, a comingling of African, European and American Indian religious beliefs is the genesis of the walking dead. As such, “The zombie is historically tied to, and has been read alongside, the expansion of global capitalism” (Lauro 96). Zombies have always been connected with subjugation and control. In the context of voodoo the zombie is initially only created by a non zombie, a master for whom the zombie must do their bidding.

Historically for the Haitians this was a metaphor (although there are as Wade Davis’ work demonstrates quite real zombies)  for the worst kind of enslavement: slavery which not even death could liberate. The enslaved zombie was robbed of the slave’s hope of at least enjoying a felicitous afterlife. The telling of zombie stories then is a sort of hope for liberation by spreading awareness of the zombie condition. As Lauro points out, “the zombie narrative is in some ways, a reprisal of the Haitian Revolution and a story of slave rebellion.”

The zombie represents the death of humanness. At least since the Renaissance man has seen himself as occupying a peculiar place in the world by virtue of his human attributes. Humanism defines man by his capacity to reason and to act as an independent agent, it exalts mankind as the glory of creation. The terror of zombificaiton is the loss of both reason and agency. The process of becoming a zombie is the process of becoming subhuman, “to be a human without agency is to be a prisoner, a slave” (Lauro 90).

This terror at the loss of humanity is what frightens us most about the zombie. Brooks reaffirms this in The Zombie Survival Guide: “Conventional warfare is useless against these creatures, as is conventional thought. The science of ending life, developed and perfected since the beginning of our existence, cannot protect us from an enemy that has no ‘life’ to end” (Brooks). The zombie can not be reasoned with; it is a total adherent of a mass; one rarely sees solitary zombies. They inevitable are part of a swirling press of mobile dead. “Like the vampire and werewolf, the zombie threatens with its material form. Whereas the vampire and even the intangible ghost retain their mental faculties, and the werewolf may become irrational, bestial only part time, only the zombie has completely lost its mind, becoming a bland – animate, but wholly devoid of consciousness” (Lauro 89).

In I Am Legend 2007, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Neville resists this death of humanness. He is the hero and champion of the human condition. Even surrounded by post apocalyptic New York he still maintains the dignity of that peculiar place occupied by humanity in humanist thinking. He is a man both of science and of art. He has filled his apartment with priceless artifacts of human imagination, like the Van Gogh above his mantel but he is also a man of science. With his lab beneath his apartment he toils to discover a way to restore humanity in the world.

The Van Gogh above the mantel

In modern cinema the zombie has become a non conscious consuming machine. The only thing that motivates it is its compulsion to feed, to consume more and more. This dualism is described in Dawn of the Dead, 2004: A zombie film that takes place almost entirely within the confines of a mall, a symbol of mass consumption. The characters of Michael and Andre further demonstrate the tight circle of capitalistic consumption: Michael it is reveled sells TVs and Andre steals them.

The film opens with Ana, an overworked nurse desperately trying to get home. As she drives home the camera pans out to a wide overhead shot, showing her car driving through a tight grid of suburban track homes; the product of mass commercialism and consumption. The next morning her husband is attacked by the neighbors daughter and he in turn attacks Ana. The ties of family, friendship, love, every human bond is broken or sublimated. Ana and several survivors, including Sergeant Hall a police officer, flee to the local mall. As the zombies swarm around the entrances the question is posed, ‘why are they coming here?’ to which the only answer seems to be ‘I don’t know, out of habit.’ The zombies are so caught up in the machine of consumption that even in their postmortem state, deprived of what made them individual and human they lumber onwards towards the mall.

While trying to determine a strategy for escape Andre reveals to Sergeant Hall that he has led a bad life but now wishes to repent. He insists that having a family will redeem him. His girlfriend Luda however, did not escape zombie infection and dies shortly before giving birth. Transformed into a zombie herself, she births a zombie baby. Andre, now entirely consumed by the acquisition of a family kills another human (Norma) rather than let her remove the zombie threat by killing zombie Luda and the zombie baby. Andre has not at all repented. On the contrary he forsakes reason and truth and consequently his humanity. He sees his salvation as coming through acquisition and consumption, even if it is the acquisition of a family of living dead.

The zombie of American cinema and advanced stage capitalism has been transformed from the Haitian slave of the triangular trade to the body enslaved to capitalism. This takes two forms: “The capitalist worker but also the consumer, trapped within the ideological construct that assures the survival of the system. This ravenous somnambulist, blindly stumbling toward its next meal, is a machine that performs but two functions: it consumes, and it makes more consumers…The Hollywood zombie of today does not produce anything except more zombies” (Lauro 99). But the zombie does not in fact have two distinct functions. It reproduces even as it consumes. The act of biting a human is also the act of contagion. “Thus, the urge of self preservation is unified with the propagation of the species: the urge of the individual body is the same as the will of the collective;” Or as Horkheirmer and Adorno put it “the desires of the individual and the state merge” (Lauro 99). The zombie has maximized its efficiency mirroring advanced capitalism’s quest to perfect optimal efficiency between producer and consumer.

At the end of the film Ana and the remaining humans trapped in the mall flee to a boat and optimistically try to sail to an island devoid of the undead. She is forced to leave behind the man she has recently fallen in love with, and the death of all human virtues is again underscored. The American flag flutters optimistically above the boat, but there will be no recourse to any government or any system whatsoever to save them: The system has broken down not from a revolt of the proletariat but under its cumulative logic, under its own weight.

Works Cited

Brooks, Max, and Ibraim Roberson. The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks. New York: Three Rivers, 2009. Print.
Dawn of the Dead. Dir. Zach Snyder. Perf. Sarah Polley. 2004. DVD.
Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment. [New York]: Herder and Herder, 1972. Print.
I Am Legend. Dir. Francis Lawrence. Prod. Akiva Goldsman, James Lassiter, David Heyman, and Neal H. Moritz. By Akiva Goldsman and Mark Protosevich. Perf. Will Smith, Alice Braga, and Dash Mihok. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2007. DVD.
Lauro, Sarah, and Karen Embry. “A Zombie Manifesto: The Nonhuman Condition in in the Era of Advanced Capitalism.” Boundary 2 Spring (2008): 85-106. Print.

1 Comment

  1. Anonymous

    There has been a series of video games released by Bungi that plays into this subject. In the Halo Franchsise, we see a war between humanity and the religous alien race. In their attempts to advance their technology, the alien race releases a zombie horde known as the flood. This “flood” then, in turn, consumes both man and religous alien alike. These aliens consume their pray and then, instead of the pray merely turning into a zombie, they are more like a puppet. The entire “flood” is controled by a universal consciousness of the “flood” known as the “Gravemind”. It seems here that, instead of capitalism being the focus of zombies, it plays on religion. When you look at the way in which the game is constructed: The religous aliens unleash a horde of zombies that infects them and the human race. The way in which that the aliens believe to destroy the “flood” is to activate what is known as the “ark.” This “ark” kills all sentient life in the galaxy, thus, everyone dies. But, the “Prophets” believe that the believers will be saved in the afterlife.

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