Saturday 6 November 2010

Zombies and Ideology

The latest iteration of the zombie zeitgeist, The Walking Dead premiered on British TV last night. Based on the comic books of the same name, it has all the originality of a Westlife album and deals in tropes so tired they ought be interred in a nearby retirement home. But despite that, the pilot episode - 'Days Gone Bye' - works very well.

Sheriff's Deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln, or Egg from
This Life) is wounded in a shoot out and wakes up in a hospital bed. In scenes reminiscent of 28 Days Later and Day of the Triffids he gets his bearings and staggers through a deserted but battle scarred hospital. Rick comes across a half-eaten nurse, walls daubed with blood, and a locked door bulging with trapped undead. He gropes his way down a murky stairwell into the corpse-strewn grounds. It is a quiet desolate scene punctuated only by the buzzing of feeding flies. There are unmistakable signs of battle but vehicles, military equipment and battlefield positions are all intact. It's not long before Rick is confronted with the full gravity of what's happened. Pausing to pick up a bike on his way home he notices a badly mangled decomposing corpse ... and it notices him.

And so the scene is set for a gripping and gritty pilot episode. The production values are very high and the characters are very believable.
Walking is the first zombie serial for TV, but if it maintains this standard it need be the only one.

Assuming the first season is deemed a success by notoriously fickle television executives I expect some elements of the comic book won't cross over to the small screen. Sex and violence is one thing, but torture, rape and paedophilia are quite another. But I expect the plot - which is little more than a spin on the classical 'group of survivors find a hold out, gets overrun, finds a hold out, gets overrun' template - will survive without many changes.

But what is it about shambling bags of bones bent on eating your brain that commands widespread cultural attention and popularity? Why now? Why zombies? I have a couple of sketchy ideas.

In one sense the rise of zombie culture condenses a number of ambivalences and anxieties haunting the 'bourgeois condition'. As I've
argued before, Charlie Brooker's Dead Set could be read as a revenge-of-the-working-class allegory (despite his injunction that the mini-series is "not a chin-stroking exercise"). And the same is true of wider zombie culture as manufactured by various media interests. Despite burying the Soviet Union and having things their own way for 30 years (at least in Britain and the US), the end of history has proven to be a period as uncertain as any other. Far from ushering in a von Hayekian utopia, capitalism has been rocked to its foundations by a financial crisis few of its apologists saw coming. Keynes has been dug up and reanimated to get things going again, but at the same time the spectre of Marx has been disturbed and has taken to haunting their imaginations. On the one hand there's the geopolitical challenge represented by the Chinese (communists!). And on the other the declining salience of mainstream political parties, the retrenchment of irreverence, and the uncertainty around the character popular opposition to the cuts will eventually assume make the dangerous classes ... well ... dangerous again.

Zombies as a horror staple are the result of some unfathomable biological or supernatural crisis that cannot be reversed. They are mindless. They are faceless. They are ugly. And they want to invade your home and feast on your flesh. If this does not work as an allegory for bourgeois attitudes to and fears of the working class, I don't know what does.

But this in itself cannot explain why zombies are so
zeitgeisty. It might go some way to help explain how effortlessly the media's creative minds churn out undead product, but does not account for how this continually finds an eager market. I would suggest this has something to do with consumer capitalism. Since Romero's classic Dawn of the Dead, the point has been repeated to banality that zombies are a satire of a society that encourages people to find their souls in consumption. This, in my opinion, is no longer the case. Neoliberalism has assiduously cultivated an individualism that is not stupefied by the aura of the commodity. Instead contemporary capitalist culture offers choices, which in turn demands an active individual subjectivity capable of making them. Hence consumption is less a matter of finding one's self in objects and more objects being a means of marking and displaying personality and identity. This is not dumb mass culture as Adorno and the Frankfurt School would have it, but massified bourgeois culture: of the penetration of the social fabric by the common sense, outlook, and individuating practices of the ruling class.

What's this got to do with zombies?

1) Neoliberalism and bourgeois culture places the individual (the self) at the centre of the universe. From this perspective the bulk of society appear as an immense collection of herd-like Others engaged in an array of apparently meaningless and mundane activities. You and your immediate circle are the individuals. The rest are a homogenous mass.

2) Sometimes so many choices can be tiring.

Zombie product can appeal to both these coordinates of neoliberal individualism. Zombiescapes of
The Walking Dead, Zombieland, World War Z are very simple. It's an escapist world where choice is taken away. There is no ambiguity - all zombies want to nibble on your innards. None of them will pretend friendship or seduce you by guile. It's a black and white world of life and death. Your fellow survivors might be dodgy characters, but you won't wake up in the night to find them chewing your leg.

But at the same time zombies offer an opportunity for asserting superiority, mastery, contempt, and
individuality against the mass. Zombies are slow and stupid. Humans are quick and intelligent. Zombies are limited by their reach. Humans can use all manner of weapons. Provided they are not swarming in great numbers, humans run rings around them - lopping off a limb here, beheading another there, removing their teeth, chaining them up, what fun can be had! And all without a troubled conscience too.

In other words zombie settings offer a simple fantasy where one can assert the self - sometimes heroically - against the world. You have to beat the undead hordes. Unlike the ever-popular vampires, one cannot join them. Zombies tune into ruling class anxieties and a popular longing for recognition and simplicity. And as long as capitalism blindly lurches from crisis to crisis in the mindless pursuit of profits, so the popularity of the zombie will endure.


James Bloodworth said...

"but at the same time the spectre of Marx has been disturbed and has taken to haunting their imaginations."

Great phrase. Although I do hope the spectre of Marx haunts a little more than their imaginations as the aftermath of the crisis unfolds.

Alan G said...

More overt in zombie films is the mode of survival.

People all come together with different skills and look after each other as a group and manage to survive. As soon as one person puts their own selfish interests first not only do they suffer but the whole group suffers.

Anonymous said...

Zombie-town is where the fascist goes for entertainment.. sadistic entertainment, of course, as that is exactly the psychological appeal of fascism. What were the Jews to the Nazis? Zombies of course. What are the dirty "wogs" to today's NATOists? Zombies. What will the millions of starving workers be when the game collapses altogether? Zombies. The zombie genre is a recruitment method for the Blackwaters, the Xes, the Frei Korps of the near future. Get 'em and teach 'em young.

Phil said...

Eeerm ... yeah.

SamG said...

I think this kind of intellectualising is merited as the directors who make these movies do have an agenda. I think horror movies lend themselves to this kind of movie as metaphor.

However, I would point out that if you had a Zombie film without a bunch of survivors trying to, erm, survive, then all you would have is a bunch of people walking slowly without purpose and growling. And who the hell would want to watch that?

Phil said...

If memory serves, Neighbours was rather successful ...

SamG said...

Shit, I knew there was a punchline but wasn't smart enough to think of one. Damn my limitations!!

I will accept the role of Cannon to your Ball!

Anonymous said...

People keep speculating on this; it's a trope now so ubiquitous and conspicuous that it should have lost its power yet somehow it is just so the time for zombies that it keeps lurching on.

I think you are right about the sense of self vs other but I'm not sure that class is at the centre of the trope; you might be projecting your own interests somewhat. It's a viable element of zombie mythology but at its heart there's the 60s New Age concept of people who are 'more conscious' than those who fall into line with 'The Man' or give into their brute instincts and egotistical vices. This is clear in the early George Romero films.

Consumerism encourages people to regard themselves as unique special flowers in a selfish, isolating way - people are in little groups of friends who wear the same things or listen to the same music, etc - yet consumerism does not articulate any solid arguable rationale for this sense of superiority so the only critera for personhood is belonging to MY group and not being one of Them.

Perhaps the clear run of consumerism from the 1950s to the present therefore explains why the trope has endured and flourished. In the beginning it was paranoia about Reds; now it's paranoia about everyone. Ultimately, science tells us that we are meat and in this post-Christian world we are hanging on like weary survivors to the notion that we are anything more than meat. The undead represent our despair, which threatens to drag us down into both literal inevitable death and the horrifying realisation that even alive we are as dead - machines of flesh and appetite.

Zombie fiction will only wane when some new fervent morality or spirituality - wise or spurious - supplants our present nihilism.

JW Mason said...

I had more or less the same reaction. Gratifying to see that two Marxists come away from the show with such a similar analysis. Maybe there's something to this scientific socialism business after all!

Phil said...

Cheers, JW. I like to think so!