The trailer for The Walking Dead has been released, and it upset me. A lot of my friends – I have a lot of friends who like zombies – are really excited about the series, because the comic book series it’s based on has gained pretty iconic status over the last few years, and it’s a bit tough to explain to them why I’m not, because it does, I’m afraid, involve delving into a good bit of politics and cultural studies. I didn’t really like the comic book either, for the same reasons, but now it’s on screen the threat is much bigger and clearer: our zombies are in peril, and they need to be saved.
Most of what you need to know about zombie films can probably be gleaned from Christian Thornes excellent essay, ‘The Running of the Dead‘. The essence begins here: at their birth, zombies (as brought to term by George A Romero, mashing up Haitian culture with Richard West’s I Am Legend) were a representation of the unthinking mass of bourgeois conservatism, and the zombie film hero was a representation of individuals marginalised and oppressed by society. The first ever zombie hero, from Night of the Living Dead, was black, fighting against the marauding hordes of pasty white people dressed in suits and the idiotic prejudices of the people he’s trapped with; the second zombie hero was a woman. Dawn of the Dead critiques consumerism, Day of the Dead has a bash at militarism, and so forth. Zombie films began as subversive critiques disguised as popular horror films; those early works were so startling and still so fresh because of how much they broke with dominant conceptions and stereotypes.
But put any concept out into popular culture and it becomes anyone’s to play with. So pretty damn soon zombies did become stock figures of pulp horror, and that means that the forces of reaction began to sneak in and denude zombie films of any real meaning. You might still get something interesting popping up now and again, but zombie films, having shown such promise, became a pretty desperate genre. Now: enter the fast zombie.
The fast zombie, a zombie which can now run, is the postmodern zombie, reimagined for another paranoid era. It used to be the case that an individual zombie was a pretty pathetic foe: you were only at risk if it surprised you, and really zombies had to be a mob to be a problem. (Just like bigots.) But the fast zombie is an individual threat, and so now it’s not the mob of zombies we’ve got to be worried about, but every individual zombie: zombies aren’t a white mob now, they’re insurgents, revolutionaries, terrorists. Zombie films used to be about marginalised and victimised individuals’ struggle to survive; now they’re about the need for a monopoly of violence and a strong state to control the uncontrollable mass. I’m not going to repeat all the work of Christian Thorne’s tour de force here; suffice to say, while the original fast zombie film, 28 Days Later, used the fast zombie to open up a space for subtly problematising the relationship between the need for revolutionary individuals and the need for an authoritarian state, later fast zombie films, like Zack Synder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead, bought into the fear-of-insurgency theme wholesale. Even Charlie Brooker, cuddly-vitriolic commonsensical anti-reactionary mouthpiece that he is, gave us Dead Set, an excellent horror film with dubious politics, that used the zombie film’s capacity for satire to express the liberal intelligentsia’s terror of the media-consuming mass.
And now we’ve got The Walking Dead. The style and the plot make it look like a return to the roots of the zombie film, but it’s anything but. Gone is the subversive critique, gone is the satire: instead, what we have is the ancient dull story of One White Man fighting the Mob to protect His Wife and Child. Look at him. He’s so clean! He’s a law enforcement officer! He rides a horse! Look at those zombies He has to deal with. They probably want to eat him. They want to turn him into one of them. They probably want to take his gun.
So zombies are in peril. The postmodern revolution of the fast zombie has freed our hungry foe to be a floating signifier, attaching itself to whatever anxieties and prejudices the filmmakers want to work out. And so, inevitably, the forces of reaction take over. Soon zombies will only ever represent the working class, the terrorists, the Other, and all our heroes will be white man.
It’s time to fight back, en masse. They want to make zombies of us? Fine, we’ll be zombies. Let’s reclaim zombies, all together. We need an outpouring of revolutionary zombie literature, zombie comics, zombie films. It’s already beginning. Check out Dead Eyes Open, for example: a free zombie comics series in which we find another new breed of zombie, the zombie that can think, and in which once more zombies are used to expose prejudice and the workings of the reactionary machine. Or Vertigo’s I, Zombie, where a zombie becomes a heroic everygirl. Hell, we’ve even got poststructuralist critical theory on our side: check out ‘A Zombie Manifesto: the Nonhuman Condition in the Era of Advanced Capitalism‘, proposing the critical figure of the zombii as an empowering figure (a development of Donna Haraway’s ‘Cyborg Manifesto‘; but, you know, cyborgs are also under threat by a media trying to turn the liberatory transgressive figure into an anti-human psychopath: read #50cyborgs for more). There’s a lot to fight for here, and we’re zombies, there are more of us than of them, and we can Eat Their Brains.
We are Zombies. Save Our Souls.