Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Politics Of: Zombies

You'll Want Hollow-Point Ammo For That

Watch the advertisement before the trailer and then imagine all the actors and actresses being eaten by zombies. MMmmmm--delicious!

The Golden Age of Zombies
To be sure, we live in a golden age of the undead. Vampires are sexy and sparkly. Mummies are high adventure--and Zombies? Well, they aren't sexy--but there sure as hell are a lot of them--and they're getting the deluxe treatment. This is probably best illustrated by AMC's The Walking Dead--which keeps rising relentlessly on the blogs I follow. Here is a visual synopsis:
If It Works It Works
The CDC has a page for the Zombie Apocalypse which includes a web-comic wherein zombies attack and only disaster preparedness might save our heroes. It's light-hearted (it's also "all a dream") but the fact that it's not just an obscure joke is telling. Even FEMA is getting in on the act. We live in the Zombie Age.

What Does It Mean?
Screen writer and all around genius analyst Todd Alcott holds that literarily speaking, monsters (movie monsters, at least) are warnings. What might zombies be warning us about? Well, it's easy to make a case that zombies represent a warning about--or fear of--pandemic. I think that's reasonable--after all, zombism is transmitted through bites (an exchange of bodily fluids--but not the kind of sexualized bite a vampire gives). For another interesting take, here is The Last Psychiatrist on The Walking Dead:
If it’s about zombies, it’s about mourning, and we’re presented with two kinds of pathological mourning. First, the negation of the negation: we see the Governor in denial and not letting go– of his daughter’s hair as he brushes it, by sheer will alone he has ended her death and kept her undead, but this kind of grief results in obsessive control of the present, a stand against change, and his society building and experiments searching for a “cure” are the neurotic’s busy activity which guard against inevitability.
In the other extreme, Rick has fully accepted his wife’s death (which is why you never see her as a zombie) but is consumed by vengeful rage, so he abandons life to spend time amongst the dead– after all, that’s where his wife is.
I'm not going to argue with TLP: Zombie symbolism can be a lot of things--and when you are dealing with a zombified loved one--the ultimate expression of the zombie tragedy--I'll concede that that particular trope is about mourning (or, at least, largely about mourning--read the Dead of Night entry).

However, politically speaking, something else is going on. I think it's no mistake that we are living in an age of zombie media. Behold the chart below: I have taken Wikipedia's list of Zombie Movies and created a bar-chart. Bars in RED represent a year when one of BoxOfficeMojo's top-10 grossing zombie movies came out (I have omitted a couple of movies due to their only marginally being about zombies). Note: These are not adjusted for inflation so many seminal zombie movies that came out much earlier might have made more in adjusted dollars (Edited on 1/5: and it turns out that any early movie such as the original Dawn of the Dead that made over 5 mil would score higher than my listed high points in adjusted dollars--so much for that theory)
Where's The Spike?
This brings us to: The Politics of Zombies!

The Politics of Zombies
I think it's no coincidence that the gross number of zombie movies spiked in 2008. The big event of 2008 was, of course, the financial meltdown--and in the lead up to it? Rising economic inequality peaking around 2006.

A couple of key things to understand about zombies are these:
  1. YOU are the survivor. No consumer of zombie fiction imagines themselves as the victims even though we all intellectually know that's what we'd likely be (in fact, some have argued that the standard survivalist tactics of running to a gun shop, pharmacy, mall, or military base would be counter-productive since that's what everyone else is already doing: you're rushing into a massive feeding-frenzy fire-fight).
  2. THE WORLD is YOUR OYSTER. You get to loot a (fully stocked) shopping mall--or make raids on the infested zones to bring back still-packaged consumer goods. The world is not generally ravaged by out-of-control fires (for example) or entirely pre-looted and wrecked (which is more realistic). It's mostly instantly evaporated so you get to shop. NOTE: there are some notable exceptions to this, but look at stuff like Zombieland, Dawn of the Dead, Land of the Dead, and 28 Days Later to see the trend. Zombies are like neutron-bombs: they kill all the people but leave the infrastructure standing. AND IT'S YOURS. Because YOU are SPECIAL ... and READY.
  3. YOU are beset by unwashed stinking hoards who wish to consume you--literally. You're rich (now) ... and 'they' want to eat you.
Get The Picture?
The underlying political theme of zombies is class warfare made literal: the poor, tired (shambling), and hungry (braaaaains)--the teeming masses (look at that WWZ trailer for some righteous 'teeming') come to your "shore" ... and eat you. You, laden with consumer goods, a fast car, and 2nd Amendment rights, fight your way to your castle or private island and live in luxury or die trying (in the last reel, anyway).
No Matter Who Wins, We Lose. Except Obama.
I think that the societal preparedness for the zombie apocalypse is not simple mental masturbation--it's preparing for a (predicted--or at least subconsciously feared) governmental breakdown where the ready-survivors will suddenly be the upper class and everyone else will be gunned down from atop your urban technical. This is the emotional driver for indulging in the zombie apocalypse: you get to shoot your neighbors because now you're the star. To be sure, almost no one actually wants this to happen--but the sanitized cloak of the zombie apocalypse gives that battle a structure where you aren't a bad guy for fantasizing about it. 

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