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What Does the Zombie Genre Say about the Modern West?

Source: www.open.salon.com


The ever-changing currents of a nation's cultural fibre, social mindset and mass psychology can often be traced by engaging in an in-depth examination of the popular culture prevalent at any given point in time.

Oftentimes, fictional pieces, whether in magazine, novel/novela, musical/opera, movie or television show, when created during said period of time can often reveal more about mindset of contemporaries than most nonfictional accounts, even those written during the time period in question by so-called cultural observers and academics. A poor, 1880s-era, B-grade novel from Great Britain about some fictional character living in the ancient Roman Empire can sometimes and in some ways tell you more about Victorian Britain than it can about the realities of ancient Rome. Further, it can often tell you more about the lives and concerns of Victorians than a modern non-fictional account, or modern fictional account of this time period could. Not always, but often.

When we look at movies and cultural themes, I am struck by the prevalence of zombie movies and novels. They are exploding all over the place. I have read World War Z, the Zombie Survival Handbook, seen all the various Night of the Living Dead, Evil Dead, 28 Days Later, Omega Man, and various spinoff undead films, played video games like Left for Dead and Resident Evil. I notice that various survivalists and military-minded people interested in spacial and situational/circumstantial strategy are also falling in love with the genre, publishing a myriad of underground, "what-if" e-novels and short stories online. What will literary analysts think, 100 or 200 years from now when they analyze this current trend in American culture? What does it say about us?

Already, today, numerous cultural scholars look at the UFO/Space Alien/Flying Saucer science fiction films of the 1950s and 1960s, interested not so much in the "art" and message of such movies, but rather for what they unwittingly communicate to us, across the span of time, about the collective unconscious of Post-War, early Cold War America. These films are filled with a sense of dread of being vaporized by a clever, sinister, technologically advanced "other." These "aliens" would rain fire from the sky, turn neighbor against neighbor. They would either "take over" through overt, high-tech Holocaust from the sky or through unconventional, covert subversive body-snatching tactics from within. The heroes of these stories were standup, clean-cut Americans, often youth consisting of a few athletic farm boys and some buxom female classmates, who not only had to save their friends and loved ones, but their local communities and entire nation as well. Often, the fate of the entire world rested in the hands of a handful of rural American youth, an image and idea they were not uncomfortable  imagining.

Clearly, these directors and writers were unconsciously betraying their own period-based anxieties, namely, the collective paranoia Americans felt during the early stages of the Cold War, where fears of nuclear annihilation, Soviet invasion, World War 3, and secret Communist subversion through spies, cells and "brainwashing" were endemic. They also betray the Don Quixote-style American mythos, where a handful of zealously upright, white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant youth save the nation and the world from errors brought about through society's selfish ignorance (failure to take  notice of the alien threat until it was too late to stop it).

Clearly, these period pieces tell us more about Americans during this period then they do about Aliens.  How does the Zombie genre differ from Cold War UFO/Space Alien movies? What does the Zombie genre tell us about the current mindset of Americans? 

In terms of the differences, first-off, the Zombie films show a "before-and-after" snapshot of society. They show society before the "outbreak" and society after the outbreak. The pre-outbreak society they depict is one that has reached the utmost limits of utopian prosperity, tolerance, unity and goodness. A world where everything is possible and where science and personal freedom of the most intense sort, reign free.  Cold War UFO/Flying Saucer films show a calm, peaceful life in both the urban and rural settings, but there is no pretense of utopia, only the hope that we may one day get there, through our own hard work, provided that everybody knows their place, works hard, and is able to root-out and identify hidden enemies among us who may prevent us from getting to the promised land. In this sense, Zion has yet to come for the heroes of 1950s Flying Saucer films, whereas in the Zombie genre, we are already in the Promised Land and for many of us, despite being awash in milk and honey, it is not all that it was held up to be. There is a pervasive sense of disappointment, that the JFK-style "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" hopeful promises of prior generations were misleading and that everybody is awakening to a giant sense of reality-shock.

Second, in the Zombie genre the Apocalypse comes about precisely because of Utopia. As with Milton, Paradise is Lost not from without, but from within. The freedom-seeking masses become licentious, reckless and careless. When mixed with the poorly understood scientific tools at their disposal, careless civilians or scientists too weak to withstand the influences of the reckless culture about them, disaster is inevitable. This is quite unlike the UFO/Flying Saucer genre, where catastrophe is caused not through the affirmative acts of actual Americans, but through the affirmative acts of the inherently evil "other." For the Flying Saucer genre of the 1950s, the only "sin" Americans are guilty of committing is not being vigilant enough in preventing the catastrophe, and perhaps, of lacking the bravery and fortitude needed in confronting it once it rears its ugly head.

Third, the Zombie films depict a world that is totally destroyed from within, rather than from without. No invasion or enemy attack caused apocalypse. No Seven-Horned, foreign communist beast caused this Book of Revelation. There is no external enemy (whether from Mars or Moscow), no Doomsday Weapons killing us from the sky, no foreign armies or ships; no external designs by a sentient, thinking "other." Rather, the Zombie films depict an anarchy of sorts. They show us a world where law and order have totally collapsed. Where humanity itself has become the enemy, turned into an unthinking, uncivilized, animalistic mass of hungry, voracious beasts. Creatures that resemble the "humans" they once were, but who cannot control themselves, who victimize friend and family alike without any ability to think or ponder the nature, cause or consequences of their actions.

We see a virus or gas, a toxin of some sort spread through the population. We see civilization grinding to a halt, as everybody either turns into a zombie, flees the zombies, or gets killed and/or eaten by zombies. The police stop functioning. Water and electric stop running. No more TV, no more telephones. No more mass communication. Mobs of angry zombies running through the streets, like guerillas in Mogadishu, Somalia, looking for innocent American victims to prey upon.

We see the horrifying consequences of internal unrest, anarchy, mob violence (by zombies themselves, the surviving military establishment which tries to enact martial law, or by various lumpenproletariot who survive, due to their close-knit social ties and weaponry and form gangs to survive), a sort of Lord of the Flies situation gone haywire in a much more sinister and more threatening way. Unlike the UFO/Flying Saucer movies of yesteryear, in the Zombie films, the enemy is us. The enemy is our neighbor, our loved ones, the family down the block. Nobody can be relied upon. Nobody can save you, neither the government, the police, the army or the Church.

Fourth, unlike the UFO/Flying Saucer kitsch of the 1950s, where the heroes eventually triumphed, the good guys often die in the Zombie films. The zombies, more often than not, win. They take over, aside from a few hold-outs of normal human beings surviving in scattered rooftop dwellings and fortified outposts in remote areas. Rather than usher in a new golden age, a New Dark Age emerges, one where the good guys, like the shell-shocked Europeans of the Dark Ages (where the collapse of Rome created a massively brutal and anarchic power vacuum in Western Europe) they hunker down, adopt a militaristic siege mentality and surround their community with high walls and fortifications. Utopia is dead and so is any lingering sense of hope. Militia-style survivalists thrive and seem to be the only ones in this genre who "make it" out of the wilderness of anarchy, who survive, and who have the tools at their disposal to create civilization anew.

Fifth, the Zombie movies glorify a hyper cynical, nihilistic sort of individualism that would have embarassed the John Wayne style heroes in the 1950s flying saucer films. America in the 1950s was, despite all the rhetoric of hyper-individualism, a pretty communitarian, group-based society.  Most of the men were military veterans, served in either World War Two or Korea and had the inherent comraderie, team-effort, platoon-based mindset that inevitably forms after such large military undertakings. As General Patton once said, and George C. Scott immortalized in a movie about the famous general: "An Army is a team. It lives, sleeps, eats, and fights as a team. This individuality stuff is pure horse shit. The bilious bastards who write that kind of stuff for the Saturday Evening Post don't know any more about real fighting under fire than they know about fucking!" Clearly, the Greatest Generations were more communitarian and group-oriented than their anti-communist rhetoric implied. Regardless, they brought this group/team based mindset with them to the corporate amd athletic arenas and it permeated American culture. Teamwork and the group were king and it was reflected in the flying saucer movies. Teams of youth, working together, beat the bad guys. In the Zombie genre, it is an anti-group, anti-person, anti-communitarian uber-survivalist, armed with guns galore and fired up on Ayn Rand that wins the day. Hatred and mistrust of the group and a stubborn refusal to enter teams and form alliances are what keeps these anti-heroes alive. Those who put family, friends, community and country first, tend to get eaten and killed by the zombies. In the zombie films, the only person you can rely upon is yourself.

What does the Zombie Genre tell us about modern America? For starters, it tells us that there is an overwhelming sense of frustration, that the promises of our parents and grandparents about the potential and future of America were, perhaps, not grounded in reality. That we will never reach the promised land.

It also tells us that our real underlying fears today aren't of some evil foreign aggressor, even a hidden enemy like Osama Bin Laden, but instead, of the overwhelming and totally enveloping spectre of loneliness, of being alone, without friends and family, surrounded by a world that is alien to you and, for all intents and purposes, objectifies you and sees you as something to "use" or consume. It shows us our disconnect from other. 

These films also show us our growing anxiety over lawlessness. The images of failed states saturate the air-waves. Images of cities that have ceased functioning, like Sarajevo, Grozny, Mogadishu,  and Haiti after the earthquake, like New Orleans after Katrina and Los Angeles during the riots of 1992. A growing sense, awareness of, and sense of powerlessness in regard to a growing section of society that is anarchic and lawless and ruled by gangs, of growing poverty, a growing Lumpenproletariot and concomitant demise of the middle class. Isolated islands of humane civility taking refuge in a growing and ominous ocean of predatory anarchy.

Perhaps it is gives us hidden insight on the mass psychology of late 20th century/early 21st century white Americans and Europeans, their objective and subjective fear of imminent demographic decline, the latent fears of a people who, in 1920, comprised 35% of the world's population but who, due to 2 world wars and 30 years of negative replacement rates,  now comprise no more than 10% of the world's population. The demographic vacuum left by such a state of affairs has led to massive Third World immigration to both the United States and Canada, with rising tides of xenophobia and neofascism arising as a result. Could the Zombie films be an unconscious, outward manifestation of modern white racism? A racism that serves, rather than justifying the offensive acts of colonialism, slavery and imperialism of yesterday, but as a defensive, psychological reaction that illuminates their current demographic decline and simultaneous Third World immigration rates? I am not the first who has detected the imagery of racial and class-based stereotypes in the genre. That being said, this genre is also popular in Japan and South Korea, but then again, they, too, are facing similar demographic decline and a massive influx of replacement labor from abroad, immigrants who are causing a xenophobic backlash similar to that currently seen in the U.S. and Europe.

They also show us the perilous degree to which hyper-individualism has taken root and the hypocrisy it causes even within our own psyche. The zombies are a group, but they do not act collectively. They are an unruly mob of mass-consuming individuals. Clearly, from a tactical perspective, collective action such as that utilized by a military platoon or battalion could eliminate many of these ghouls. However, the genre doesn't uphold this. The genre views the zombies as representatives of "groupism" and "collectivism," even though, logically, this is not what they are. If anything, they represent selfishness gone awry. Regardless, the genre shows us that hardcore individualists are the only ones who can survive, showing us, perhaps, that this is the instinct prevalent in the hearts and minds of countless modern folks in the West. This is sad, because it is counterproductive. The way to combat the hungry, materialistic atomized horde/mob of mindless animalistic consumers is not to isolate yourself and become atomized as a result. The solution is teamwork, like that which our WW2-era grandpas knew only too well. A major insight the zombie genre gives us is how Americans today are trying to solve the problem of hyper-individualism and atomization/disconnectedness, by employing more hyper-individualism, which invariably causes more atomization, disconnectedness, loneliness and despair and makes one more suceptible to the emotional vacuousness of mass media, advertising, rank materialism and all the other false-prophets of modern society. We solve the problem, in this genre, by employing solutions that exacerbate the very things that created the problem to begin with. In a sense, then, the genre illuminates the self-referential, self-sustaining and cyclical nature of many modern social ills, how culture can create and reinforce the the very things that will, invariably, destroy said culture.

Taoist/Dialectical philosophy aside, the mass, nationalist-inspired paranoid fantasies such as those depicted in Cold War flying saucer films are normal, perhaps even healthy indications of a vibrant tribalistic society. They are outward manifestations, through art, that display that such a society has a "will to survive," that it can identify its perceived "enemy," and wants to subconsciously mobilize the "us" to fight the "them." Many native American/Plains Indian chants, rituals and war-dances served the same function. While they purported to be about a religious or fictional event or story, they had the sociological function of forming group cohesion and preparing them for the challenge of competing with neighboring tribes over mates, food, horses and choice camping grounds. This sort of thing is a natural sociological phenomena and has occured with great frequency in every culture throughout world history.

What we are seeing with the Zombie Genre is something different. They portray the fears of a society and culture collapsing, imploding in on itself. I am pretty well-read and have strong research skills. Cultural phenomena like that displayed by the Zombie Genre is something that hasn't occured in cultural history with great frequency. Apocalyptic imagery, when it has occurred, has usually taken place simultaneously with great religious and spiritual revivals, with all the good and bad that often trails in their wake, such as that which we saw with the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation and the various Great Awakenings. We also saw similar phenomena during the European Middle Ages when the year 999 became the year 1000 or whenever a new century was about to pass. We saw this with Y2K, albeit to a very faint degree. We see this, to some degree, with modern Christian Fundamentalists in the United States who talk of the "end times" and the "rapture," in all their books and the novels from the "Left Behind" series, a sentiment that reached its height during the late 1990s and was co-mingled, to a certain extent, with hatred of Bill Clinton, liberals, the United Nations and the New World Order, as well as a love of survivalism. This, too, is something the zombie films have in common with American sectarian eschatology: an obsession with John Wayne-style, Waco-style, Ruby Ridge-style survivalists, holding out for Ragnarok or whatever currently fashionable word they use to describe the collapse of civilization.  

These are all part of the same mass psychological phenomena, but that being said, it is not a cultural constant. The zombie films depict uniquely modern secular fears and anxieties in the West. Perhaps religious fears of the end times, throughout history, were merely manifestations of this inner secular fear and anxiety? Perhaps these inner, natural, social and psychological fears were merely articulated in religious phraseology and rhetoric, because earlier European and American societies were less advanced and only had the rhetoric of religion with which to describe their inner-fears?

Who knows. All I can be certain of is that the Zombie Genre is unique to our time and it will play no small part in the studies of future historians, social and literary commentators when they try to discern and analyze the the psychological and cultural preoccupations of late 20th and early 21st century Westerners.



Article published in English on: 9-2-2011.

Last update: 16-12-2023.