Bare Life and the Zombie Apocalypse
In the past several decades, but especially since the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001, the proliferation of zombie and disaster films, books, television shows, and video games attest to new fears about national and global calamities, which proliferate as inequality and globalization accelerates. The Hunger Games trilogy of films starring Jennifer Lawrence, for example, based on the science-fiction best sellers by Suzanne Collins, focuses on themes of poverty, starvation, oppression, and gladiatorial-style fights for survival in a postapocalyptic world. The Hunger Games films follow in the tradition of other notable postapocalyptic films such as the Terminator series (1984, 1991, 2004) and the Matrix series (1999, 2003), in which the world is destroyed in nuclear holocausts, and the future is left to self-replicating systems of artificial intelligence and intelligent machines that either obliterate or enslave the human race, and the Left Behind series of best-selling books and films that focus on the Christian dispensationalist end times/2 Postapocalyptic television shows include the BBC series Survivors, about a small band of people who survive a deadly unknown strain of influenza that kills most of the world’s population; Jericho, about the survival of a town after the nuclear destruction of twenty-three other American cities; The Lottery, about a world in which humans can no longer reproduce; The Leftovers, in which a part of the population has inexplicably disappeared; Under the Dome, in which a town is isolated under a mysterious dome; The Last Ship and The Strain, both about destructive viruses; Falling Skies, about an alien invasion that devastated the planet; Revolution, about a permanent global blackout; The Colony, a reality show about ten people thrown together in a warehouse after a simulated epidemic has destroyed civilization; and The 100, set ninety-seven years after civilization has been destroyed by nuclear war, when one hundred juvenile survivors are sent back in a spaceship to repopulate Earth.
Cinema and television are particularly well-suited for plumbing our collective cultural anxieties and dreams of disaster, cultivating the ruin imaginary as we contemplate the obliteration of the world in the safety of darkened theaters or our own living rooms. Just as the explosion of cinematic fantasies of global disaster in the form of postwar sci-fi thrillers was a response to the real effects of nuclear incineration, the recent surge in zombie and disaster films and television responds to contemporaneous threats of catastrophe in an era when the state is widely perceived as either corrupt or unable to protect and sustain its populations against any number of possible threats. The imagined economic and social collapse in these narratives consists of two key elements: wrecked
FIG. 33 The Walking Dead, AMC television series, 2008-present, poster.
urban environments and survivors who are reduced to the conditions of bare necessity. At the same time, the zombie has become the central alien figure in our culture.
Danny Boyle’s film 28 Days Later (2002) sparked the renaissance of the zombie genre following 9/11. The film opens with a man who wakes up from a coma in a London hospital to find that a raging viral pandemic has devastated all of England within a month. It suggests fears of AIDS, cholera, anthrax, avian and swine flus, and other biohazards. Central London is destroyed and deserted, evoking a whole population of such images, for which the imagery of downtown Detroit serves as the paradigmatic example. Indeed, the image of abandoned skyscrapers in the city center arguably has emerged as the quintessential urban disaster image, the central signifier of the end of progress and the ruin of modernity.
Similarly, the AMC television series The Walking Dead, which began in 2010—based on Robert Kirkman’s 132-issue (and counting) comic book series The Walking Dead, which began in 2003—portrays a man who wakes up in a hospital to discover that an unexplained zombie apocalypse has occurred. He makes his way to Atlanta—also the home base for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—only to discover that the city has been deserted and overtaken by zombies (figure 33). Kirkman focuses on the moral and ethical quandaries of the postapocalyptic world as well as the characters’ strategies for survival, which become struggles to maintain a sense of humanity in the wrecked and dangerous environment. Wildly popular, The Walking Dead became the most-watched program on television, with 12.9 million viewers for the 2013 season three finale, which was topped by 16.1 million viewers for the 2013 season four premiere.
Marc Forster’s World War Z (2013), inspired by the eponymous 2006 apocalyptic novel and bestseller by Max Brooks, begins with a family caught in a traffic jam during a terrifying zombie onslaught in Philadelphia that leads to panic and anarchy as the city is overrun. Later the film takes us to Jerusalem, where the Israelis have allowed the uninfected, including Palestinians, into the city, but joyful singing attracts the zombies outside the walls. They madly scramble atop each other until they form a giant anthill high enough to get over the wall and invade the city, pointedly demonstrating the ineffectiveness of walls in keeping out the other. Commenting on wall-building and the conflict between nation-state sovereignty and the processes of globalization, political theorist Wendy Brown asserts, “Rather than resurgent expressions of nation-state sovereignty, the new walls are icons of its erosion. While they may appear as hyperbolic tokens of such sovereignty, like all hyperbole, they reveal a tremulousness, vulnerability, dubiousness, or instability at the core of what they aim to express—qualities that are themselves antithetical to sovereignty and thus elements of its undoing.”13 The scene in Jerusalem is viewed from above as if from a television news helicopter, producing an image format that is easily mapped onto other scenes of recent mass political protests in countries across North Africa as well as countries such as Turkey, Greece, and Brazil. These dystopian film narratives therefore must be understood as critical responses to the contemporary anxiety of social unrest and economic decline coupled with a loss of confidence in progress and the state. By the time the zombie threat finally ends in World War Z, the scope of devastation and city ruination is massive, just as it is in countries such as Iraq and Syria today.
In addition to viral threats and the exigencies of basic survival, zombie films connect to a variety of political issues. George Romero’s Land of the Dead (2005), set in Romero’s hometown of Pittsburgh, for example, portrays the financial elite hoarding all remaining resources in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse while trying to insulate themselves against both the zombies that have overtaken the devastated city and the living survivors that reside in a slum beneath the gleaming high-rise enclave of the wealthy. The enclave is called Fiddler’s Green, bringing to mind Nero fiddling while Rome burned. Fiddler’s Green is protected by barricaded bridges, electric fences, and armed guards with standing orders to shoot any intruder on sight. The zombies, however, eventually become tool users, picking up weapons, walking underwater to cross a river, and finally storming the citadel of power through determination
FIG. 34 Land of the Dead, directed by George Romero, 2005, poster.
and sheer force of numbers. Evoking the anxiety of immigrants crossing the Mexican border into the United States at a time when the government was proposing to build a border fence and deploy National Guard troops, Fiddler’s Green becomes a metaphor for the United States itself, a paranoid xeno- phobe’s dream of extreme security and a simultaneous critique of American immigration policy.14
Like other zombie films, Land of the Dead reiterates and reframes images of city ruination; it also connects postapocalyptic decay with the hoarding of wealth by the ruling minority and the forcible impoverishment of the majority. The signature image of Land of the Dead is the derelict landscape inhabited by the poor and the zombies set before the shining tower of the wealthy (figure 34). Like the poster for The Walking Dead, it evokes an image by Camilo Jose Vergara of Detroit’s own desolate city landscape, with its vacant lots in the shadow of the Renaissance Center and the pre-Depression skyscrapers in its once-thriving downtown (figure 35). As the imagery of city ruination is reproduced in postapocalyptic narratives, its power is intensified by new patterns of connection to social issues such as class privilege, extreme inequality, immigration, and the security state.
Detroit ruination also evokes the inequalities of the developing world. In a typical example, veteran CBS correspondent Bob Simon, following a visit to
FIG. 35 Camilo Jose Vergara, Downtown Detroit, 1991, View from Sibley Street down Park Avenue, from The New American Ghetto, 1995. © Camilo Jose Vergara.
Detroit, compared it to Mogadishu, the impoverished and strife-torn capital of Somalia, a so-called failed state.15 Recalling filmmaker Julien Temple’s excited encounter with “street zombies” in an abandoned part of downtown Detroit when shooting Requiem for Detroit?, both responses underline Detroit’s ongoing marginalization and isolation, a city both within and without the nation that resonates as easily with postapocalyptic film landscapes as it does with cities in poor developing countries ravaged by civil war. Both responses construct Detroit as a reigning metaphor for decline.
As the contradictions of capitalism have become steadily exacerbated over the last several decades, so has the figure of the zombie evolved in response to deepening anxieties. Zombies first appeared in modern form in George Romero’s now classic 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, which started the flesh-eating form of the genre. Prior to this, zombies did not consume others. First appearing in Haitian folklore at the beginning of the twentieth century (although Central and West African sources have been postulated), zombies were thought to be the reanimated corpses of former slaves that were brought back from the dead to be enslaved again; they worked in the fields and were controlled by their masters, having no will of their own. In modern South Africa, anthropologists Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff show that fear of zombies of this nature has been produced by the extremes of joblessness juxtaposed with the great prosperity of the wealthy whose wealth seems to have no obvious source because it is based on market speculation and abstract finan?cial instruments. This abstract source of wealth leads to the suspicion that the affluent employ magical means, embodied by the unseen labor of zombies, to produce their wealth.16
Romero popularized zombies as lumbering, awkward figures that sway from side to side as they walk and want to consume you. Since 1968, however, zombies have gathered strength and speed. As reimagined in 28 Days Later, they run at high velocity and are violently aggressive. Moreover, the time to transition, once bitten, from living to undead has been greatly reduced. Whereas before, death occurred first and it took many hours for a corpse to reanimate as a zombie, in 28 Days Later it takes only twenty seconds, with no intervening death state; in World War Z, it takes only twelve seconds. The zombie thus embodies the sudden transformation from a sustainable condition of life to a near instant loss of autonomy.
Romero’s Land of the Dead also suggests, for the first time, the possibility of coexistence between the zombies and the living poor based on the essential sameness of the disfranchised survivors and the zombies. The zombies are loosely organized and led by Big Daddy, a black zombie who communicates with his fellow zombies through grunts and gestures. The zombies appear to be exhausted sources of value-producing labor, still recognizable by the clothing of their former day jobs, like Big Daddy himself, a former gas station attendant. During a run into the city for supplies, the protagonist, Riley, and his sometime rival, Cholo, offer a revealing exchange as they observe Big Daddy uselessly attempting to pump gas. “They’re pretending to be alive,” says Cholo. Riley replies, “Isn’t that what we’re doing? Pretending to be alive?” Romero begins to humanize the zombies, making them more sympathetic and complex characters with their own personalities and motivations. Kyle Bishop, a film scholar, observes that Romero is thus “encouraging audience identification with the very monsters he had formerly taught them to fear.”i7 At some moments Romero uses close-ups to forge audience identification with Big Daddy when he howls to express his rage and grief; at other times Riley is visibly disgusted by the gratuitous slaughter of zombies or their abuse for entertainment purposes, recalling the abusive treatment of Arab and Muslim prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison by American troops in Iraq, a scandal that became public in 2004, only a year before the film’s released8
Kaufman, the head of the tenants’ board of Fiddler’s Green, could stand in for Nero, or any sovereign, while both the zombies and impoverished survivors become metaphors for the world’s expendable populations/9 Romero himself identified Kaufman as Donald Rumsfeld and the board as the Bush administration. Kaufman evokes Rumsfeld with his repeated assertions that he “won’t negotiate with terrorists,” meaning the ragged survivors struggling for concessions from the wealthy Kaufman.20 After his downfall, the zombies are rendered equivalent to the survivors as Riley and Big Daddy exchange looks and Riley decides to leave the zombies alone and move on with his own group, establishing a mutual detente in a depressed and ruined world.
As Bishop argues, Romero gradually humanizes zombies in the films following Night of the Living Dead, including Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985), culminating in Land of the Dead, because his overarching thesis is that humans and zombies are essentially the same.21 Romero’s films therefore must be understood as antiracist, anticapitalist parables that deliver social and cultural critiques. Night of the Living Dead addresses issues of patriarchy and the nuclear family; Dawn of the Dead, set in a mall, satirizes rampant consumerism; Day of the Dead, set in an underground bunker, takes on militarism and the abuses of technology; and Land of the Dead attacks the racist and oppressive security state that legitimizes itself as an enemy to terrorism.
Like Romero, Robert Kirkman creates a paradoxical equivalence between zombies and survivors in The Walking Dead. For a long period in both the comic books and the TV series, the protagonist, Rick Grimes, a former sheriff’s deputy, along with the survivor group he leads, ironically secure their freedom by settling into a prison complex, the ultimate “gated community,” while zombies roam freely in the surrounding cities and countryside. When Grimes learns early on from a scientist (who commits suicide) at the Centers for Disease Control that everyone is already infected and will turn into zombies when they die, whether or not they are bitten, he exclaims, “We are the walking dead!”22 Even in satirical zombie films, or “zomedies,” such as Edgar Wright’s 2004 Shaun of the Dead (an homage to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead), stumbling zombies become indistinguishable from living drunks, and Shaun even keeps his friend Ed, who has turned into a zombie, chained up in his garden shed so they can continue to play video games together after the British army has killed the remaining zombies.
The zombie and disaster genres, which operate in the future anterior, represent futures in which the contemporary era has been ruined for reasons that are always anchored in the viewer’s present23—scarcity of resources, class, race, and ethnic hatred, unemployment, dispossession, viruses, and a wrecked environment. In this way postapocalyptic films deliberately slow down or halt any idea of progress and operate at the level of ideology critique.