Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Slow or Fast, Undead & In Limbo: Zombies in Western Pop Culture

In October of 2007 I conducted a poll here at Shoot the Projectionist. As a sideline to the main question, I asked the respondents for a list of their five favorite examples of the hybrid film genre of horror comedy. 7 of the 10 films that received the most votes were zombie movies and the other three were variations on the Frankenstein story, itself about the negotiation between life and death. A bunch of popular movies of late have mined the same territory (28 Days Later, 2002; the recent installments/remakes of George Romero’s Dead series) many of them done in a humorous vein (Shaun of the Dead, 2004; Fido, 2006). Zombies have begun to make their appearance in the real world, as well, in the form of the internet-organized ‘zombie flash mobs,’ where a group of strangers dressed like zombies congregate at the same public location. The apex of this zombie fetish may be the book The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead by Max Brooks (published in 2003), in which the reader is instructed on what to do in the event of the zombie holocaust. The tone of this work—tongue in cheek but absolutely scientific in its discussion of the subject—is similar not only to the films it is indebted to, but to the ironic way people have begun to talk about popular culture and express themselves within it. Why are we so entranced with zombies? What elements of our own cultural character do we see in the zombie? How does the figure of the zombie point to a particular structure of feeling within our culture?

The zombie exists on the border between life and death: It is undead, in limbo. The zombie transgresses boundaries by its very existence. It blurs the line between states of existence. Modern society, too, has enacted a program of line-blurring and boundary-crossing since the Baby Boomers came to age. Societal roles have been broken down; workplace gender stereotypes have been challenged; traditional lines between masculine and feminine, between personal and private, and between technology and humanity have been blurred. These social developments have left many feeling uncertain and undefined. With traditions being deconstructed all around us and societal institutions such as churches and public schools holding less sway, the questions of who we are and what to do with our lives are no longer easily answerable. It’s no longer suitable simply to follow in your father’s professional footsteps or become a housewife—popular rhetoric now tells us that we are unique individuals and that we must find the great contribution to society that we are destined to make. Perhaps it is this limbo state—the seeking but never finding of purpose and identity—that compels us to see ourselves in the glazed-over eyes of the zombie. Today’s world-traveling-bisexual-
androgynous-tattooed-pierced-24-hour-a-day-user-of-technology youth culture finds itself crossing so many cultural/national/societal borders daily that the idea of a fixed state seems somewhat absurd. But how does this restless questing translate to the essentially mindless, non-life of the zombie? In one sense, we are seeing ourselves in the undead, limbo-loving zombie—but in another we see what’s wrong with everyone else around us in its drone-like existence.

In the late 60’s George Romero, himself born on the cusp of WWII, directed the film that introduced our modern American filmic conception of the zombie: Night of the Living Dead. Then, in 1978, when the horrors of the Vietnam War were finally over and much of American culture had begun to atrophy into solipsism and drug use, he released the first sequel, Dawn of the Dead, set almost entirely inside the ultimate symbol of American-style capitalism: The Mall. Steven Shaviro writes in Connected, or what it means to live in the network society, “[T]he zombies converge on a huge indoor shopping mall because that is where they were happiest when they were alive. Even in death, they continue to enact the rituals of a rapacious, yet basically aimless, consumerism.” (172) The zombie has no drive but hunger. He consumes but is never satisfied. Truly, for the zombie—in Althusser’s famous phrase—“the lonely hour of the last instance never comes.” He lurches ever forward, desiring more and wasting what he has. Shaviro points out that our American conception of the zombie is different from the classic Haitian one in one critical respect: the Voudoun priest goes about the business of resurrecting someone in order to turn him into a working slave, whereas our zombies are created for no purpose whatsoever and “squander and destroy wealth rather than produce it.” (172) Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was remade in 2004 and its themes are still so relevant that no significant updates needed to be made to the concept. However, the image of a mindless mass of useless consumers shuffling towards the mall in a somewhat narcotized state is replaced with one of crazed, mindless lunatics running towards the mall.

Above I credited Night of the Living Dead with popularizing the modern conception of the zombie, which was characterized as slow moving, moaning, and mindlessly hungry. But recently a different conception of the zombie has dominated. Films such as Resident Evil (2002), 28 Days Later and last year’s I am Legend (based on the same novella that Romero drew inspiration from for his Dead series) all present a savage, aggressive vision of the zombie. The somewhat directionless hunger of the previous model has transformed into insatiable blind lust. The so-called “fast zombie” phenomenon has incited much debate among fanboys, but what implications does this development have for society’s vision of its own character? Are we more aggressive and violent in our mindless consumerism than the previous generation—or do we just see it that way?

Raymond Williams believed that by looking at the texts of a culture, it is possible to diagnose a particular structure of feeling—or the way that a culture sees itself and lives its life. The proliferation of stories about zombies being told in Western culture since the Vietnam War points to a specific disconnection of purpose from daily life. The figure of the zombie presented in films in the last thirty years—whether slow or fast, but always undead and in limbo—has been a literalization of the obsessive consumerism of much of Western culture. When Romero made the original Dawn of the Dead in the late ‘70’s the prevailing image of the consumer was a slightly dazed and overwhelmed figure shuffling endlessly through the shopping mall, unsatisfied by the empty act of buying and always returning, again and again, to the food court to fatten up between shopping binges. But today, with images of mothers in Christmas shopping frenzies ripping each other’s hair out over the last Tickle Me Elmo still fresh in our heads, the crazed barbarism of the zombies Will Smith battled in I am Legend looks a lot more familiar. People have begun to express themselves solely through their wallet, and feel a lack of purpose and a disconnection from life because of it. By personifying our own consumerist impulses in the form of mindless, brain-craving zombies and then filming endless scenes of them being killed in all manner of creative ways, perhaps we are trying to kill off the consumers within us.

Works cited.

Shaviro, Steven. Connected, or what it means to live in the network society. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2003.

All images are of a zombie flash mob descending upon San Francisco.

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