Art almost always reflects what is going on in the world at the time it is conceived. Something about what is happening in the world tends to influence what is represented in our art but I don't think ever really considered how much until recently. As an example, does "Military Science Fiction" proliferate during times of war? By that logic that particular sub-genre should have had a banner decade. I don’t mean "protest art" or "artivisim" or even revolutionary art. Those terms tend to diminish the native significance of any art form. More to the point, I am referring to something that may impact us on a level that we do not consciously perceive. Or perhaps it worms its way deep into our subconscious. Perhaps that is the way of art in general. Whenever we take a course on art or literature we find it is merely a process of deconstructing the artists work and casting it in the context of the time in which they lived or obscure events in their lives. It is also possible that art or even pop culture has a way of manifesting our anxieties about a specific dilemma. Or media has a way of exploiting that anxiety for profit
I was discussing this with a couple of friends while we were at dinner recently. One of my friends used zombie films to illustrate his point about the over-mining of genres and the exploitation of anxiety and obsession for profit.
He capped off his point by asserting that the "Zombie Phenomenon" was really an allegory for the rise of the global south. What is the "Global South"? Generally, this refers to developing countries in the equatorial regions and sub-equatorial regions of the world. Hence the term: "Global South". For centuries the labor and resources of the global south fed Northern greed. The colonial powers of Europe dominated Africa, Asia, and Latin America for centuries, during which, they extracted untold quantities of wealth and labor. In recent years some of these nations have begun to rise to prominence. Two wars and a massive financial collapse have left a great deal of room in the margins for developing nations to begin prospering. One could look at Brazil as an example of this, as well as India.
This brings me back to my original point. North Americans and Europeans must be sensing if only on a subconscious level, their diminishing influence in the world. Most of us are too busy trying to find jobs, healthcare, find ways to retire by age 70. All the while, our 600+ channels of cable television and superfluous cable news are beaming information about BRIC (Brasil, India, China) surpluses, splurging on weapons contracts, and bailing the West out of financial trouble. I know I found that idea a bit depressing. So what does this have to do with the Global South?
As the Western Powers influence in the world diminishes, the influence and prestige of the developing world are growing. This growing affluence is seeping into the subconscious of the developed world and, in theory, making for some really bad movies (but really good television). This is where the idea becomes controversial, and probably the reason I've been so hot and bothered over it. For centuries, the Western, colonial powers have maintained their dominance over the developing world. During this process of colonization, the narrative that has been perpetuated amongst the "civilized" world is one that tends to de-humanize the developing world. It wasn’t that uncommon for people in these countries to be referred to as “savage”. Sadly to this day, these types of stereotypes remain in use. When you throw in the mass migrations of displaced populations, due to war and famine, the staggering populations of two of the fastest growing economies and populations in the world (China at 1.6 billion and counting and India at 1.2), what you have is a twisted allegory for hordes of inhuman and ravenous non-persons.
This is not the first time the idea of Zombies has been used to represent social or political themes. Certainly, it isn't the first time such themes have been found in the zombie trope. The inaugural zombie film "Night of the Living Dead" by George Romero, has often been attributed with revolutionary themes of the day. 1968 was a racially charged year, reaching its fever pitch on April 4th with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Civil Rights were being hotly contested in the streets of Selma as well as in American courts. Only a few years previous the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles erupted into riots. News footage of African Americans pouring into the streets kept the country captivated and terrified. George Romero decides to film a horror movie about reanimated undead trapping three people in a house. Two of the people a black man (Duane Jones) and a white woman (Judith O'Dea), spend the entire film trying to keep the zombie masses at bay.
The archetypes presented in the “Night of the Living Dead” are reminiscent of a book I once read titled “Soul on Ice”. In it, the author, Eldridge Cleaver constructs similar archetypes to define the role of African Americans in a hostile white world. African American men, who at that time, were relegated to largely menial jobs, he described as “Super Masculine Menial”.
But where was the real horror in the minds of middle-class white America? Was it the prospect of being torn to shreds by swarms of the undead?
Was it the idea of a Supermasculine Menial, coupled with a blonde haired, blue eyed, white woman being the last two humans on Earth? Or worse yet, maybe the portrayal of a strong, black, figure as thoughtful and competent, even gallant, in an apocalyptic scenario? Some say this was a statement about the state of the world, the Communist hordes come to lay waste to the American way of life. Whether intended or not, Romeros'portrayal humanizes African Americans in a way not really seen in film before. With the contrast between Jones inside the house, against the masses of (white) zombies outside, the effect is undeniable. Zombies have been used before to paint people as other. Romero, ahead of his time by decades, took a theme in its infancy and turned it on its head.
There is a lot of irony in Romero’s films if one were to look hard enough. But the largest irony lays in the origin of the word, and by extension, the sub-genre. The entire idea of zombies was appropriated from Haitian religious practices brought from West Africa by a man named William Seabrook. Seabrook wrote a sensational and exploitative study about the concept in 1929. It was only two years before Victor Halpern’s classic film “White Zombie” appeared in theaters. There is something ironic about the fact that the allegory by which some choose to express their anxiety about hordes of black and brown people comes from the very people who originated the concept upon which the allegory is founded.
The theme is no less relevant today than it was in 1968. The world has no shortage of ills and even less a shortage of those beset by those ills. More recent examples might include the wars in Syria and Yemen, and the increased Islamaphobia in the west. The stream of refugees is often seen as hordes of not-quite-human people literally banging on the gates of the west. Recent rhetoric about the flow of immigrants into the United States, and the inane quest to build a wall demonstrates this idea succinctly. The rise of far-right groups in Europe, Brexit, and calls for the mass deportation of Central and South American immigrants from the US is also an appropriate comparison. We rationalize our prejudices and racism by dreaming up some ethereal, existential threat meant to embody those upon whom we project our fears. It is a simple thing to manufacture when we have masses of haggard people of color at the borders clamoring to get into the country.
Romero was right to turn the socio-political dynamic on its head in "Night of the Living Dead". Yet I can't help wondering if there is something we may have missed in the reflection of that tale. Perhaps those "zombies" those undead people are not the ones trying to get into the house. Maybe those shuffling rotting masses are simply a more accurate and powerful reflection of many of us internally and philosophically. While those masses in the film are bereft of life, we, in reality, are bereft of humanity. We, in the west, are the ones shuffling aimlessly through existence with no moral or ethical compass to guide us. We are the ones rending and tearing flesh from those less fortunate and weaker than ourselves.