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Mar. 17 2010 - 11:47 pm | 9,793 views | 1 recommendation | 27 comments

Dead Man Walking: What Do Zombies Mean?

Zombies. Found on the Web.

In our Day of the Dead, the reanimated are everywhere, from Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Seth Grahame-Smith’s inspired mash-up of the zombie myth and Jane Austen’s Regency novel of manners, to The Walking Dead, a graphic novel about humanity reduced to Hobbesian brutishness in a post-apocalyptic America overrun by the undead, to the splatterpunk videogame Left 4 Dead.

(I’m coming late to the blood feast, I know. But there are a few shreds of meaning left on this well-picked carcass, I think.)

The zombie is a polyvalent revenant, a bloating signifier that has given shape, alternately, to repressed memories of slavery’s horrors; white alienation from the darker Other; Cold War nightmares of mushroom clouds and megadeaths; the post-traumatic fallout of the AIDS pandemic; and free-floating anxieties about viral plagues and bioengineered outbreaks (as in 28 Days Later and Left 4 Dead, troubled dreams for an age of Avian flu and H1N1, when viruses leap the species barrier and spread, via jet travel, into global pandemics seemingly overnight. Which may be why the Infected, as they’re called in both the film and the game, move at terrifying, jump-cut speed, unlike their lumbering, stuporous predecessors.)

In the postwar decades, as suburban sprawl and mall culture metastasized across the nation, Hollywood cast the zombie as the decaying face of popular ambivalence toward amok consumerism. Implacable consumption machines, the mallcrawling dead of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) literalized the infantile psychology of consumer culture, with its oral fixation, its insistence on instant gratification, and its I-shop-therefore-I-am sense of self-worth, indexed to how pricey your status totems are, the sheer bodaciousness of your McMansion and your Super Duty Ford F-150 longbed pickup. The insatiable orality implied by market capitalism’s redefinition of citizens as consumers—”wallets with mouths,” in the cynical parlance of Madison Avenue—is instructive.

Dawn of the Dead. Copyright George Romero; all rights reserved.

Now that the econopocalypse has thrown millions out of work, triggered an upspike in homelessness, and eaten the braaains of consumer confidence, the zombie has undergone a role-reversal, incarnating American fears that the republic is a shambling shadow of its former glory, Left 4 Dead by the near-meltdown of the financial system. Zombies are the resident evil of an economy whose moribund state confronts us everywhere we look in a landscape littered with dead malls, “ghost boxes” (dark, shuttered big-box outlets), and “zombie stores”—retailers forced by dismal sales to reduce their inventory to its bare bones, with the ironic consequence that their emaciated stock and empty floorspace scare customers away, accelerating the death spiral.

“Zombies represent America hitting a very low bottom, as we witness the spectacle of consumer capitalism transforming itself into a feudalistic dance of death,” said the cultural critic David J. Skal, in an e-mail interview. “During the summer of 2009, politicians and political pundits alike started hurling the z-word as an all-purpose epithet while the economy collapsed and health care reform sputtered. Zombies are, in essence, creatures who have already faced Sarah Palin’s death panels, the better to escape brain-dead politics and faceless corporatism. Having cannibalized all their home equity, and foreclosed our future, zombies have become everyman avatars that have traded in the forward-looking, if audacious, message ‘I must eat you to live,’ settling for ‘I must eat you just to stay dead.’

“In recent decades, the zombie has been a cartoonish lampoon of consumer capitalism, but in the current economic mess, all the gathering themes of depersonalization and disenfranchisement have come to a critical mass. The image of real estate (representing the living, or the haves) besieged by the ravenous dead (the ultimate have-nots), has long been a staple of zombie narratives and never a more concise cultural statement than at the present. In the 1930s, at least one reviewer of the film White Zombie saw reflections of breadlines and displaced workers. Today’s zombies have an unprecedented, in-your-face rawness that seems to embody displaced rage about gut issues like food, shelter, and health care—the denial of any of these leading to living death, or death itself.”

Every age has its totemic monsters. Because he lived in an era of premature burials, “resurrectionists” (grave robbers), post-mortem daguerreotypes, table-rappers, and spirit photography, when the air was thick with ectoplasm, Marx—the unparalleled master of the political gothic—opened his Communist Manifesto in a dry-ice fog: “A specter is haunting Europe: the specter of Communism.” In Karl Marx: A Life, Francis Wheen suggests that “more use-value…can be derived from Capital if it is read as a work of the imagination: a Victorian melodrama, or a vast gothic novel whose heroes are enslaved and consumed by the monster they created (‘Capital which comes into the world soiled with mire from top to toe and oozing blood from every pore’).” Indeed, Marx’s political economics teems with imagery straight out of Victorian penny dreadfuls like Varney the Vampire (1847): capital, that, “vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor” (Capital); bourgeoisie that “has become a vampire that sucks out [wage laborers'] blood and brains” (The Eighteenth Brumaire) and whose “prolongation of the working day beyond the limits of the natural day, into the night…only slightly quenches the vampire thirst for the living blood of labor” (Capital).

Left 4 Dead; all rights reserved.

Today, gonzo economic commentators like Matt Taibbi take up Marx’s tune, describing the investment bank Goldman Sachs as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” As befits a nation whose haves and have-nots regard each other across a Grand Canyon-sized income gap that’s yawning wider by the minute, America’s nightmares are haunted by vampires and zombies—the bloodsucking Wall Street elite, drunk on seven-figure bonuses, and the dead-eyed, bone-gnawing underclass.

The vampire as symbol of a parasitic plutocracy, battening on the tears and toil of wage labor, has been a stock character in the demonology of class war since Marx at least. With predictable perversity, America’s winner-take-all culture has embraced the vampire as an aspirational figure. And why not? Whether a scion of old money with a continental accent or a conscienceless monster in tasseled loafers, chainsawing workers to bolster quarterly earnings, the vampire has perfect hair, a sommelier’s taste in Type O, and more money than God or even Lloyd Blankfein, seemingly. He’s a photogenic poster boy for the new social Darwinism. Here, where neo-liberal capitalism is the official religion, on par with juche in North Korea, and the Myth of the Level Playing Field is impervious to fact—for example, that 80 percent of the nation’s wealth is held by those in the top 20 percent of the income pyramid, or that the CEO who, a decade ago, raked in 30 times the average worker’s salary now makes 116 times that worker’s income—nobody wants to be a zombie.

Dead on their feet, zombies began as a glassy-eyed metaphor for the plight of Haiti’s human chattel, forced to do the boss’s bidding even in death. In his classic ethnographic study, Voodoo in Haiti, Alfred Metraux underscores the parallels between the living dead and Haitian blacks under the colonial whip: “The zombie is a beast of burden, which his master exploits without mercy, making him work in the fields, weighing him down with labor, whipping him freely and feeding him on meager, tasteless food.” Like Frankenstein, a working stiff with neckbolts, readymade for the Fordist factory, zombies are wage slaves. A solitary hunter, the vampire is well-suited to Ayn Randian fantasies of Promethean captains of industry, self-made masters of their own destiny; zombies, by contrast, are trade unionists from beyond the grave, a Heritage Foundation wonk’s worst nightmare of collectivism on the march, the downsized and the disenfranchised jolted into action by class consciousness.

The Walking Dead; all rights reserved.

At the same time, the circular firing squad of Angry White Lumpen, emptying their political ammo clips at illegal immigrants, Nancy Pelosi, and the Red Menace at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue—everything, in other words, but the structural injustices behind their economic woes—sees zombies as harbingers of a post-apocalyptic landscape, overrun by Obamaniacs, where the embattled vestiges of Real America make their last stand against an engulfing tide of border-jumping aliens, left-wing academics, and brain-eating libtards. Stockpiling MREs and heavy weaponry, the survivalist fringe can’t wait to live in the America of I Am Legend.  When our unwieldy, duct-tape democracy collapses into anarchy, we’ll revert to the sociopathic utopia of the Western frontier, a happily uncomplicated time when every man—every white man, at least—was a law unto himself, free from governmental meddling and moral ambiguities.

Over at SurvivalBlog.com, author Jim Rawles and his fellow survivalists are digging in for an apocalypse straight out of Left 4 Dead. There is much talk of “hordes of zombies running rampant” when “the government fails.” Contributor Michael Z. Williamson thinks a wicked-looking implement called the Dead On Tools Annihilator Demolition Hammer will come in handy When The System Crashes: “Anyone with bayonet training can grip this appropriately and hack through a crowd of zombies, or heft it like an axe and use it on single opponents.” An anxious reader with “a heavily supplied, fairly secluded and defensible, and very well-armed suburban outpost with several highly skilled sons for fire support” wonders if he should secure “a secondary retreat for when it looks as if our ammo is exceeded by the number of urban zombies (or, police-state drones, same thing) invading the ‘burbs.”

Found on the Web.

By “zombies,” a.k.a. the “golden horde” in SurvivalBlog parlance, Rawles and his fellow travelers mean “the anticipated large mixed horde of refugees and looters that will pour out of the metropolitan regions.” The “horde” trope has a familiar ring, especially when coupled with the suggestive adjective “golden,” with its echoes of Yellow Peril. We’ve heard it before, in colonial whispers of rebellious coolies, out on the edge of empire, and in The Turner Diaries‘ revulsion at the mongrel metropolis, that polymorphous horror of miscegenation—the “mixed horde”—and moral relativism. “The foundational morality of the civilized world is best summarized in the Ten Commandments,” writes Rawles. “Moral relativism and secular humanism are slippery slopes. The terminal moraine at the base of these slopes is a rubble pile consisting of either despotism and pillage, or anarchy and the depths of depravity.” Better to arm ourselves to the teeth, light out for the territories, and rebuild society in a blast-proof City Upon a Hill, populated with People Like Us.

I’ve noticed recently that alot of survivalists and preparedness freaks are big fans of Zombie movies…where…a small group of people test their skills against an onslaught of blood sucking and brain eating ghouls. For White Nationalists it’s easy to translate Non-Whites into the role of the Zombies as they’re certainly blood sucking leeches who are overrunning and ruining our countries and who in some cases are literally trying to prey on us and eat us (remember that case a little while ago where that Black guy in East Texas killed and ate his White girlfriend? I’ll bet she didn’t foresee him turning into a Zombie and eating her.)

– “Browning 35,” in a discussion thread on the white-supremacist website Stormfront.org

I’m a big fan of the zombie survival stuff. I’ve read the Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks as well as his novel World War Z. Both were fun reads but certainly lacking as far as hardcore survival goes. One must always remember that in a more realistic SHTF [Shit Hits the Fans] situation we will be facing armed opposition not some mindless shambling horde, but it’s still nice to imagine sitting on a rooftop all day with a boomstick popping zombie skulls.

– Chrispy, later in the same thread

The Walking Dead; all rights reserved.

Unfortunately for the blood-and-soil gang, history teaches us that the war of all against all doesn’t end at the barred gates of the fuhrerbunker. It’s only a matter of time, after the chairs are jammed against the doors and the windows are nailed shut, before the survivors succumb to power struggles and paranoia. Twenty eight days later, they’re eating each other. Worse yet, you can’t always tell Us from Them. “Eyewitness accounts described the assassins as ordinary-looking people,” says a radio announcer in Night of the Living Dead.

Aren’t they always?

Dead Snow; all rights reserved.


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  1. collapse expand

    ….now we know where Obama voters come from

    • collapse expand

      I give up.
      A) Vat-grown in the Tyrell Pyramid?
      B) Cultured in the voodoo-genetics labs, deep in the bowels of the Streisand compound?
      C) Raised from the dead by Rotwang, the claw-handed necromancer in METROPOLIS?
      D) Cloned from Trotsky’s stem cells?
      E) Eugenically engineered as ruling-class Alphas to gently lead low-functioning conservative Zetas to water, the better to teach them to drink?

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    Interesting that you didn’t talk about another kind of zombie: The playful Evil Dead-genre zombie (Night of the Demons, Return of the Living Dead, etc) popular in the 80s. What do you think those symbolize? They’re played up as much for laughs as horror, can often speak quite eloquently, and torment their victims before dispatching them. Just an insignificant parody of the larger zombie genre, or is there something to their wits that speaks to the culture of the time? Interested to hear your thoughts.

    • collapse expand

      samjf: My rotting undercarcass is showing. I’m chagrined to confess that you’ve poked your finger into a big patch of cultural cluelessness in my knowledge of this subject. If I’d had time, I would’ve, er, boned up by watching the movies you mention, which—incredibly!—I haven’t seen. But I’m very much in your debt for pointing this out, and now have my next few weeks of Netflix cut out for me. Watch do YOU think the sick/funny, articulate undead of the ’80s are trying to tell us? You’ve obviously given this some thought. Curious to hear your take.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Thanks! :-) By the way, if you’re going to delve into 80’s zombie comedy, PLEASE don’t miss Peter Jackson’s seminal Dead Alive. Yes, THAT Peter Jackson.

        Going by your notion that monsters reflect the fears of an era, maybe fears being reduced to comedy is a way of expressing doubt that our fears were really justified about the Red Menace? In the late 80s, was it becoming apparent that the USSR was failing? I don’t know, I’m only 26, and blogs weren’t around back then to archive the feelings and moods minute by minute like they are now.

        As a side note, I’m a big fan of horror, including zombie movies, but it seems like zombies have turned into cutsie shadows of their former terrifying selves (Have you looked at the App Store lately?)

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    Vampires versus zombies – class warfare my ass. The difference between vampires and zombies is that vampires are Catholic and zombies are Protestant. If you have a vampire problem, you go to a specialist. He consults ancient books, mumbles some gibberish, performs an arcane ritual, and your vampire problem goes away. But if you have a zombie problem, you get together with the neighbours, arm yourselves to the teeth, and blast the bastards to smithereens. Good old Protestant communitarianism!

  4. collapse expand

    How ironic that your Lloyd Blankfein link is [un]dead.

  5. collapse expand

    People who study films often say that Godzilla movies were probably a metaphor and the result of the atomic bombs psychological effect on the Japanese psyche. People also say that a lot of American science fiction from the 50s were about our cold war fears of Communism, especially the ones about evil alien entities taking over secretly and creating a peaceful but bland and amoral “hive mind” society.

    Now I know that saying this is going to cause some anger and a lot of “I know you are, but what am I” talk for some reason, but I’m impressed zombie movies and its popularity in general are actually about the fear of creeping fascism in this country and not about the poor or minorities.

    I can imagine that fascists of various flavors love these movies, but they have flipped the script on the meaning. That’s what they usually do. Fascists are often are very guilty of exactly what they accuse you of. I’ll give you my reasons why zombie movies are probably about fascism.

    1. The first of the current trend was “Night Of The Living Dead”. In this movie the main character and hero of the movie is a black guy. This was unusual for that time period. This guy survives a long dark night of zombies only to be killed by a trailer park posse who shoot him anyway and throw him on the fire.

    2. Zombies are the risen dead. Shambling aberrations come to get you. They should be dead and gone, but they really aren’t.

    3. They are a mob; their only result is your death or conversion.

    4. They convert you by contact, usually with their mouths.

    5. They are relentless and can’t be reasoned with.

    6. They want to get to your brains.

    7. In the first movies zombies were created by something mysterious. In the later versions they are actually created by the government or government contractors, one of which has a cosmetic front.

    8. In one version hippie types do something that causes a ”Rage” virus to occur.

    9. In later incarnations like “Quarantine” & “Left 4 Dead” it turns out the real cause for zombies is that some people have just become plain old rabid.

    10. Two words “Dead Snow”. The rise of the Reich to come and get you and keep the money.

    These are just the off the top of my head observations. I’m sure other people can find a lot of other parallels on closer examination.

  6. collapse expand

    Thanks for the link from ‘bloating signifier’ to ‘floating signifier.’ Keep up the good work–please. I’m now sufficiently motivated to finsh Huysmans.

  7. collapse expand

    Seems a little elitist to me. I consider myself a prepper (rather than a full on survivalist) and I’m into the whole Zombie thing (as fiction, Zombies aren’t real). But the tenor of your article seems really judgmental. Remember Katrina? If people had been even a little bit more prepared (well, that and left when they were told) that tragedy could have been mitigated and it’s a really good example of the gov’t failing to take care of people in various ways.

    To be clear I in no way align myself with any kind of intolerance racial or otherwise. I don’t want to see people come out on the other side of your article thinking that the prepping community on the whole (and there is one) is a bunch of racist hicks. Even our federal gov’t strongly suggests a 72-hour “bug out bag” for each member of a household. The zombie angle really just allows it to be more of a tongue in cheek sort of a thing because basically if you’re prepped for the Zombie Apocalypse, then you’re ready for anything.

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    About Me

    I'm a cultural critic. Doom Patrol is a series of drive-by essays, mostly on America in the Age of Anxiety, as the title suggests, but also on whatever wild surmise crosses my mind. I've written for publications ranging from The New York Times Magazine to Rolling Stone, Bookforum to Cabinet. My books include The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink and Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century. I'm associated with the concept of "culture jamming," the guerrilla media criticism movement I popularized through my 1993 essay "Culture Jamming," and "Afrofuturism," a term I coined in my 1994 essay "Black to the Future" (in the anthology Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, which I edited). More: http://www.markdery.com/author.html Mail: markdery at verizon dot net.

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