In 1968, George Romero debuted his feature film “Night of the Living Dead” with Judith Odea and Duane Jones. It was “revolutionary” at the time because it depicted a black man and a white woman alone in a house against a horde of zombies. The idea that possibly the last two survivors of the human race would be a black man and a white woman was highly controversial. But it was also subversive. Some believe the message being sent, during a time of great racial upheaval, via an all-white zombie horde had more to do with the end of a morally bankrupt civilization. A civilization that simply didn’t deserve to continue and might possibly be reborn in the black “Adam” and white “Eve”.
More zombie films continued to be made, Romero released another in 1978 and was involved in a number of them until as recently as ten years ago. However, none of the sequels were as controversial, likely because the country had moved on from the moment.
But there has been a resurgence of zombie films. And now there are several shows on cable and streaming services. My theory is that this resurgence started after 9/11. It was an event that had shown us we were vulnerable. And that vulnerability was exploited in the vilification of people of color, specifically the various Muslim cultures. That fear of other was nurtured in Americans and given form through manufactured scarcity, a market crash, massive unemployment, and all of the social ills that come with it. There were zombie films before this time but they were relegated to “b” status and lacked the coherent relevance of today.
The argument here isn’t that zombie films are a vehicle for demonizing the developing world. It is that the subconscious terror played out in zombie films is a manifestation of the American fear that our influence is dwindling. Those countries we have engaged with through neo-colonial and imperialist policies are gaining in economic and political clout. Countries are doing today what we did 50 years ago and they are doing it better and cheaper.
It isn’t just other countries. It’s those same people in this country from abroad. Many of those people come to the US with entrenched academic traditions and a resolve to make the most out of the “American Dream”. This makes it easier for them to excel against a population drunk on the success of previous generations. Those people, pacified by their own privilege have awakened to a nightmare of being non-competitive in college admissions and unable to secure jobs in services sectors, where previously those were all but guaranteed.
There are also those who are scapegoated for coming to the US and working labor jobs. Most of the well-paying union jobs are off-limits to these people and therefore the fear is unfounded. Though the fear in this instance has more to do with numerical, and therefore electoral, superiority. This is the very epitome of a zombie scenario. Los Angeles County is more than 50 percent Latino. They comprise 24 percent of the population nationally. When you add in African Americans and Asians, it’s just under half.
Supernatural vs Pathogenic
Modern zombies no longer attribute their reanimation to supernatural means. Most of the zombie tropes that have been created since 2001 are the result of pathogens. Again, I won’t argue the deliberateness with which this is done, but in 2020 this has a particular relevance. Disease was one of the stated reasons why the current administration wanted to build a wall. At least with a supernatural modus, zombies could be chalked up to the fantasy. But these new zombies simply complete a paranoid picture of ravenous hordes at the gates of the country. Not just ravenous, aggressive, subhuman, and invasive, but now also contagious.
The implication now is not simply that you might be eaten by zombies, or displaced by them. The idea is that whatever the zombies have is now communicable. According to many capitalist principles, it is permissible to concentrate wealth in the hands of a few as a means of inoculating oneself against poverty. An “affliction” that disproportionately affects black and brown folks.
I would like to turn that idea on its head for a moment. If you look at most zombie films and shows, often the villains are people who have figured out how to accumulate resources necessary in the new paradigm. Zombies conversely, only feed on the living. Once they have turned a living person, he or she becomes part of the horde. From that moment forward they live in a type of shuffling, undead, egalitarianism. Everyone gets a bite until nothing is left. It is a subconscious representation of all that has been vilified in collective action.
Early horror films used zombies to exotify developing nations and reduce their religious and ritual practices to caricatures. They used the mysterious aspects of the culture to generate fear in their audiences. I contend that as film and media matured, many couldn’t help but superimpose their latent fears onto the subject matter. And given what we see in real life; constant assertion of fearing for one’s life as a pretext for violence against people of color,i t is no great leap to suppose that the entire sub-genre is built on a racist and classist subtext.
Mythlogized rugged individualism
The idea of the rugged individual is largely a myth. There were people who moved out to the frontier and beyond and became totally self-reliant. Those people are far and few in between, and certainly were not the people who won the West or somehow the establishment of what would become the modern United States. Not by a long shot. The West was won with brute military and economic force, genocide, and greed. But the country wasn’t built on their backs. The country was built on the backs of stolen labor, indentured Asians, and the mass murder of entire nations. Not a few laconic individuals with Kentucky Long Rifles.
Yet this deeply distorted trope persists in modern times. It not only persists. It’s worshipped. This is strange given there is no modern analog for it. A person could pick a direction and walk, and almost without fail, come upon a road before starving or dying of exposure. Almost every inch of the country is blanketed in cellular signals and almost every American has a cell phone. Even when you are in the deep woods, you aren’t alone. You are accompanied at all times by Google, Facebook, and Instagram.
The reason why the mythology of rugged individualism is important here is because it is tied up in the erasure of the real builders of the United States. The idealization of the trope implies a desire to live in that time. Less complicated to be sure, but less complicated in ways that often disenfranchise others. Truthfully some people pray for an apocalyptic event. It has the potential to turn their mediocre existences into something meaningful. Or at least less restrained by civility. In the words of Tina Turner: “One day cock of the walk. Next day a feather duster.”
Some men, falsely believing themselves to be physically superior, but in other respects completely sub-par, find the idea of a reality where physicality is king, far more palatable. Further, some fantasize about an existence where they can simply impose their will through violence as opposed to the reality where they frequently underperform intellectually against other people. Which is a major cause for their feelings of inadequacy and fear-based thinking. What we have is a group of people who founded the myth of rugged individualism at the expense of black and indigenous populations and people who want to create a reality based on that myth.
Economics of the Apocalypse and Capitalism
If you notice in zombie films, despite 99 percent of all living having died, there always appears to be an absence of resources. Granted it is a stressor that heightens the conflict and drama but it very much parallels what is happening in real life. Even accounting for perishable goods, if only one percent of a given population has survived an apocalypse, there would be enough food to last indefinitely for the remaining people.
As stated, part of what seems to drive this xenophobia is this idea that brown people are showing up in Europe and the US to “take our jobs”. Despite that most of the jobs occupied by foreign labor are the ones Americans simply won’t do. While this attribute should not determine the worth of those seeking to come here, it is a fact created by a system intent on keeping wage rates in this country artificially low. But just as the writers of these shows create scarcity where none should logically exist, Americans believe they are being displaced by foreign workers. Both are fiction.
Another specious aspect of capitalism that persists in zombie flicks is the idea that everyone has a shot at surviving. One of the reasons why so many poor folks in the US vote against their own interests is because of the false belief that they will be rich someday. I mean why vote against your future, lottery winning, self? In the imagination of the viewer, they are among the one percent or less who don’t get sick and don’t get eaten. Which makes them one of the automatic inheritors of the planet’s wealth. And assuming that they manage to survive the initial infection there are still hundreds of unforeseen factors that could result in their death.
The racist history of zombies in the mainstream
The first appearance of zombies in the mainstream was in the 1932 film “White Zombie”. It was panned by critics, for being poorly acted, despite its financial success. The movie starts by portraying a large funeral in which the “West Indies” natives are burying one of their own in the middle of the road. This procession was chanting something unintelligible, presumably some racist take on a voodoo chant. The rest of the film is rife with similar examples of racist stereotypes. Bela Lugosi plays the antagonist, a powerful “voodoo” sorcerer who uses his powers to get a woman.
Granted, the film was released in 1932 and Black folks weren’t even being invited to award shows, let alone starring in features. The relegation of Black folks to the roles of superstitious villagers in their own narrative is downright offensive. Then to take a position of great reverence and influence, fetishize it, then cast it with a white man is just compounding the insult. Much of what we believe about the inherent evil of “voodoo” and witchcraft comes from mainstream popularizations of these beliefs. As recently as 1989 there was another film called “The Serpent and the Rainbow” which was a fictionalized account of a true story.
That story depicted a dangerous and corrupt Haiti, being ruled over by quaint superstition and evil Black folks intent on acquiring power through witchcraft. I can assure you the traditions from which these stories are derived are typically far more benign than the movie portrays. And in true Hollywood fashion, the white protagonist ends up being the savior. However, this story tells on itself. The objective of the main character was never to liberate Black folks from an evil sorcerer. It was to learn the pharmacological secrets in ritual voodoo. In other words, the “protagonist” was there in an exploitative capacity, to extract these secrets for monetary gain.
I used to enjoy this genre very much before it became saturated. But even at its peak or earlier, I couldn’t help but recognize the parallels between the films/shows and what I saw in real life. As right-wing ideologies proliferated in North America and Europe, and as the rhetoric harkened further and further back, I realized that those people really just want a world where their mastery is guaranteed. And if they can’t have that, then a world in which they have the power to numerically subjugate those who don’t look like them. A planet depopulated and rapidly returned to its pristine glory. The rugged individual who has been preparing his or her whole life for this moment grabs their go-bag and their guns. A fierce fight against the hordes for control of the land ensues. It makes for a great story on tv, and in the minds of the viewers. It also glosses over the fact the ninety-nine percent of these people have died.
Right now, the intersection of race and class has never been more in the public discourse. Sit down and watch any one of the hundred zombie movies to come out in the last twenty years. I would be surprised if you didn’t pick up on parallels between our world and those movie worlds. I think these films have contributed to a fairy tale in the minds of many in this country. It is a reflection of our anxieties about living in a country in decline and what comes after. And I also believe that many of us are waking up to a new alternate reality. We look at zombie films as a cautionary tale, not a preppers manual. Hell, many of us sit down in front of the television with a bowl of popcorn and route for the zombies.