Friday, 22 June 2012

Zombiescape

This article about zombies was just published in the fantabulous Cambridge Humanities Review, which unfortunately is not yet online (will add a link if/when it appears). Because of this, and because I thought of a couple of extra bits to add after I'd already submitted it, I'm putting my complete version of the article below, with kind permission. If you'd like a hard copy of the Review, they might have some left - email Harry at hjd33@cam.ac.uk and ask if he can send you one.

I'd really love to know what you think of my (over)analysis - especially if you disagree with it! Please leave comments below.

Finally, I'm really pleased with this article, so if you like it please share it around and encourage others to do the same! Thankee!

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Zombiescape: the real reasons why everyone is looking forward to the rise of the living dead

Everyone agrees: the early 21st century is the age of the zombie. The walking dead have saturated popular culture and the entertainment sector. Respectable universities and even schools offer zombie-inspired curricula. Activists flashmob government offices demanding preparedness in advance of the outbreak, which – a host of subcultures assure us – is clearly coming any day now.

As with any pop culture phenomenon, it's easy to spew armchair theories about the meaning of the undead infestation. In 2008, Simon Pegg, the new zombie godfather, who's 2004 “zom rom com” Shaun of the Dead paved the way for the genre's current popularity, complained in a Guardian editorial about a new upstart: running zombies. For Pegg, zombies must shuffle morosely or they would fail as effective metaphors for the inevitability of death. Meanwhile, critics of the classic Romero oeuvre tend to toe the standard line that the ghouls of the 60s-90s represented public fear of nuclear war or even terrorist-related catastrophe. Then, of course, zombies are also a synonym for sheep: symbolic of lack of individuality and the victory of mindless consumer ideology in modern times. After all, Dawn of the Dead is set in a shopping mall – it must be about shopping!

These analyses are fine if we want to restrict ourselves to how certain zombie films work as pieces of art. Romero himself has confirmed that much of the symbolism alluded to is intentional. But they do not in any way explain the pervasive mania for zombies in Western culture today. Zombie films are not effective because of any latent symbols or metaphors. The zombie zeitgeist did not emerge from people taking messages about the state of modern society or their own fear of death away from the cinema with them.

This article seeks to ask what exactly constitutes the appeal of the zombie. When a youthful pop culture nerd watches Dylan Moran being disembowelled or Woody Harrelson unloading several cartridges of ammunition into the screeching hordes, what makes him or her think “phwaor - awesome!”? What makes them buy a zombie-themed video game, stage real world zombie battles, or create a market for genre mash-ups with 19thcentury romantic fiction? My answer is threefold: zombies are fun, zombies hold rich imaginative potential, and zombies bring us together as humans.

I should also point out that many of these arguments are not exclusive to zombies. They also explain some of the appeal of alien invasions, superheroes and velociraptors, among other favourites. In fact, I want to start my zombie tale with a quote from a film that ostensibly features large monstrous aliens, but is in most respects indistinguishable from your standard zombie survival film: Joe Cornish's 2011 Attack the Block. Towards the end of the film, two main characters, Pest and Moses, are in a (temporarily) safe room, contemplating their approaching doom. Pest summarises everyone's feelings:

Pest: I'm shitting myself innit', but at the same time...
Moses: What?
Pest: This is sick.

There's no better way to capture the feeling of zombies. The sheer, fantastical fascination of horrific death and bodily destruction encroaching from all sides, and the sheer thrill and excitement at the prospect of dealing with it. To paraphrase Heath Ledger's Joker, people like zombies because they're just so much fun. Consider 2009's Zombieland, the highest grossing zombie film of all time and one of the few to gain more than a cult popularity. The very premise of the film is zombies as a theme park (Fasten your seat belts. This is going to be a bumpy ride.). Why are zombies fun? Because they're a game, of course.

Zombieland structures itself around a series of rules (e.g. Rule 31: always check the back seat). Perhaps one of the most common manifestations of the zombie craze in general culture is the famous zombie “plan”. Huge discussion forums across the internet endlessly dissect the best ways of surviving (winning) in the coming apocalypse (game). What kind of weapon is best? What kind of shelter? What are your general tactics – flee first or find team mates? Even before Zombieland, the basic rules are clear: zombies only attack the living and they're attracted to your movements. If you get even a small bite, you're dead. Only headshots kill. Weapons, food and shelter are the most vital elements.

The ideal of type of the Plan is established in Shaun of the Dead. As soon as they realise the situation viz.zombies, the protagonists Shaun and Ed immediately set out a course of action. They will rescue their loved ones and hole up safe. After considering several options, they elect their local pub (and what is a pub is not a symbol of fun?) as the best choice of shelter after asking themselves “Where's safe? Where's familiar? Where can I smoke?” In contrast to previous scenes, our heroes here are confident, determined and in control. The blood on their faces and weapons attests to their experience and clear ability to carry out what they are suggesting, as do the short, clipped, idealised images and fast, beat-driven music that accompany this recipe for unrealistic happy ending (“and wait for all this to blow over”). Their casual talk of doing away with Shaun's stepfather - “Sorry Philip!” - shows how, despite their seriousness, they are treating the whole thing as a game, something that doesn't really count as real life.

This brings us to the second part of our quest for what constitutes zombie appeal, namely its imaginative potential. This part has two key elements, escapism and identity-formation, both of which are also key to the Planning Scene. There's a reason Shaun takes place in a pub, and Zombieland in a themepark/millionaire's mansion. As well as representing fun, both are places where inhibitions are lost. The most important part of the zombie apocalypse's appeal is that social barriers, norms and other restrictions are voided. It is the allure of social collapse. Not complete anarchy, of course, which would be genuinely frightening. As we have seen, the apocalypse is surprisingly well ordered and has its own rules. But the everyday structures of our lives as they are currently experienced are demolished in the most satisfying fashion.

The result is a fantasy land which is not just fun but decidedly surreal. In escaping our ordinary strictures, we must emphasise our separation from the old order of life by focusing and revelling in all things foreign to it – ludicrous quantities of gory violence being the main example. You can kill humanoids without guilt. Removing the head or destroying the brain are both activities that are about as far from thinkable as it's possible to get in the real world. Zombies let us escape, they let us finally do whatever it is we feel like – the perfect antidote for a culture where everything is regulated by social approval. This is explicitly highlighted in Zombieland, when the protagonists, finding themselves in an empty shop, spontaneously decide to destroy it for no reason. The commercial setting makes the casting off of the shackles of capitalism as crystal clear as the shards of glass that whirl randomly through the air in slow motion to the joyous cadences of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro as the demolition unfolds. The scene is also replete with Native American objects (Little Rock is even wearing a feathered headdress), as if to stress the characters' return to a primitive state of ancient and simple freedom, generally constructed as the antithesis to the overbearing modern condition.

I am paying special attention to Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland in this essay because they – by far – are the two films which most latch on to (and create) the zombie appeal as it is enacted in mainstream popular culture. But other films have clearly been influential in this appeal. One successful film is 28 Days Later, which seems at first sight to undermine my point about escapism. The film is set in a military base, the paragon of modern order and constraint. And yet it is the soldiers themselves who become the enemy. It is only with the defeat – and zombification – of military order that the survivors can truly escape to their idyllic countryside retreat where they are found at the end of the film.

In the climactic moments of the film, in which the soldiers are dying in unpleasant ways to the sound of heavy guitar music, the hero Jim has clearly found himself. He is in control of the carnage, shirtless, covered in blood and rainwater, the epic mis-en-scene and soundtrack driving his glorious charge. Lost and aimless since the start of the film when he awakes in a world he does not recognise, his full identity finally breaks the surface when his love interest, Selina, hesitates for “longer than a heartbeat” – a pure act of recognition – and the two passionately kiss. In the same way, Shaun is able to establish his own sense of self only after killing his first zombie, and Colombus from Zombieland becomes a functional human only after all his dreams are destroyed by the apocalypse, as symbolised by the reanimation and killing of his fantasy girl “406”. Zombie films typically take those who are marginal or do badly under the normal system (and who does not see themselves as limited in such a system?), and allows them to flourish, build a proper sense of identity, and take control of their lives. Even in Romero's films, it was often the woman or black man who were pointedly the only ones that survived.

Anthropologist Arjun Appadurai, who has extensively studied and theorised globalisation, claims that the contemporary world is driven by imaginative possibilities. Mass migration has left many peoples out of place, with shattered social identities. Global interconnections, especially in the form of electronic mass media, have provided these “diasporic public spaces” with a vast source of new and diffuse cultural elements, allowing people to reconstruct hybrid identities out of the circulating fragments to which they are exposed. Cultural material in these global “flows” passes through different “-scapes”: ethnoscapes, technoscapes, ideoscapes and so forth. These are inherently interactive and overlapping, making identity or group construction slippery and almost impossible to pin down in any one arena.

Zombies are the ultimate solution to global identity crises. While it still provides a huge amount of imaginative material for building identity, the zombiescape has no difficulties with unclear boundaries or slippery self-definitions. It is single and clearly defined. In it, we can imagine ourselves as clear projections of unproblematic social categories. Like the displaced nationals in Appadurai's diasporas, zombie fanatics are active appropriators of this imaginative potential. They are intentionally and creatively using zombies to help construct who they really are. Zombies are excellent proof of Appadurai's argument that religiosity, spontaneity and play are not constrained but rather thrive in today's mobile, globalised world.

The final part of the zombie appeal is community. To use again one of Appadurai's points: modern fantasies are not private or individualistic or even just about thought. They entail purposeful collective action and group imagination in public space. Just like other fan groups, zombie nerds regularly meet and form societies in the real world. But more important than this is what the zombie apocalypse, as depicted in the films, represents. In the 1960s Victor Turner proposed a theory of social history in which groups cycle between states of “structure” and “communitas”. Structure is the standard state in which people functionally plod through ordinary life by dividing themselves into categories and following restrictive social norms or interaction. It fundamentally relies on a conception of difference among groups. Such a state is necessary for the long term stability of functional social order. But every now an again, it is equally vital that it's counterpart and polar opposite, communitas, makes an appearance. Communitas is a state of pure undiluted connection between all people. It is invigorating, freeing, spontaneous, immediate and concrete. Boundaries and rules are dissolved for a time so that the connection can be as strong as possible. This state is necessary on a temporary basis in order to prevent structured existence devolving into pathology and crime. Turner gives several examples, including Benedictine monks, the hippy movement and the ritual practices of tribes he studied in Africa.

What is the apocalypse if not the ultimate transition from structure to communitas? It is zombies that finally shore up Shaun's relationship with his family and girlfriend. The first thing he does is collect them all into a team to deal with the zombie situation together. While his team does have major tensions and conflicts, these are spectacularly resolved by the zombies themselves when they seize and devour the principal troublemaker. Shaun even quotes Bertrand Russell: “The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation”, perhaps the definitive motto for the zombiescape. The same goes for the other films. For all their talk of not forming attachments, the quartet in Zombieland become a tight-knit, harmonious social group by the end of the film, as do the trio from 28 Days Later. Again, Romero's willingness to use “minority” actors represents not just the potential for success of such marginal groups, but also the overcoming of group distinctions altogether. When 90% of the world is a reanimated corpse, your ties to the living, whatever their type or category, are automatically extremely powerful. In the words of Robert Brockway, author of Everything Is Going To Kill Everyone:

In every post-apocalyptic story, there's always the one crazy old man with the wacky helmet muttering about Revelations, and all the heroes take pity on him - "look at the poor soul, driven mad by all the death he's witnessed." But that's bullshit: We weren't driven mad at all. We were like this way before Armageddon, we just weren't allowed to show it because of all those damn people everywhere with their precious "morals" and "laws."

This is exactly the point. Zombie communitas lets us be who we want to be, and bond with whom we want to bond (even if that's no one). Unfortunately, Brockway misses the value of his own insight when he argues that apocalypse stories appeal because of our innate arrogance, our belief that we would be among the survivors and therefore the winners:

[It] all comes down to simple playground logic: The apocalypse is just a big game of King of the Hill with no other players left alive to retake the mountain.

While I have also argued that zombies have a game-like appeal, this alone could not possibly account for their astonishing popularity in recent years. Rather, it's the imaginative potential of the game world, which provides forms of escape and empowering self-creation, and the sociality this fosters, that makes us want to take part so badly. Zombies don't divide us, they don't bring out our competitive side, and they don't create a Hobbesian state of nature. In this sense they affirm our humanity, allowing us to build ourselves a utopia of human happiness and harmony, even while we're meting violent destruction to the outsiders, the enemies at the gates who are so non-human that they finally provide an Other against which to define the species as a whole – one big family – ending the depressing system of having small parts of it defining against each other. And we can take this utopia and set it up as the fantastical alternative to the world we live in today. Or even as the solution to it.