Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Political Economy of Zombies: An Introduction

Google search "Dawn of the Dead" 
Today is the 2nd anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street protests, and coinciding with the debut on Blu-ray of Brad Pitt’s zombie apocalypse epic, World War Z. This is an entirely arbitrary coincidence, except for the fact that the literary site, The Airship Daily is publishing a piece I wrote equating zombies with anti-capitalist revolution, and the zombie apocalypse with utopia; admittedly strange bedfellows - but not absurd. [Update: Felix Salmon wrote a terrific post in response to the essay for Reuters and David Graeber gave it an amazing endorsement via twitter.] Both neoliberalism and zombies are everywhere and unavoidable, and both mean something, something about us and the times we live in. The essay that The Airship has posted is plenty long, but I thought I’d post here a bit about why I chose to write about zombies: a genre, that growing up, I had actively avoided.

I would describe myself as a “not-zombie guy.” Those who are very serious about zombies, will be probably find the depth of my zombie knowledge wanting. In the essay, I admit upfront I am, at best, an “accidental expert” on the subject of zombies; that I’m a bit like Brad Pitt, who explains: "Four years ago, I knew nothing about zombies, wasn't really interested. Now I'm an expert." As best I can tell, that’s a situation a lot of us are in. Like vampires and wizards, zombies have gone from obscure ghouls of a fringe genre, to mainstream blockbuster fair. Hollywood has made a huge numbers of us accidental experts in. As the anthropologist (and Wall Street Occupier) David Graeber says, “any eight year old child in America knows more about how you kill a vampire than people who are actually from Transilvania.”

When The Airship contacted me and asked me if I’d be interested in writing something for them, I immediately suggested zombies. I had just finished reading Max Brooks’ novel, World War Z, but had done so on the heels of reading a bunch of essays by David Graeber - a self described anarchist who doesn’t like to be described as such (“I see anarchism as something you do not an identity so stop calling me the anarchist anthropologist”). It is Graeber who is credited with coming up with the the slogan “We are the 99 percent.” Graeber’s ideas ended up coloring my experience of WWZ, and got me thinking about what zombies had come to mean; especially about what they had come to mean in the past ten or so years.

But again, I backed into this thing. I have never considered myself a zombie guy. I am more of a not-zombie guy. In high school I can remember friends tying to lure me into watching George Ramero films, but I wasn’t interested. And while I loved 28 Days Later and Zombieland, it wasn’t because they were zombie movies, it was despite the fact that they were. Which is all to say that I had never intended on reading Brooks’ novel. In fact I had every intention of never reading WWZ. The first time I can remember hearing about the book it was from a precocious 13 year old, with acne and dirty hair. We were talking movies and he told me WWZ was “the best book ever.” And in addition to being a not-zombie guy, I can be a bit of a snob. Random 13 year old with dirty hair were a mark against Brooks. The Zombie Survival Guides and other hokum I’d see around the checkout counters of Barnes & Noble reinforced my first impression.

But then the New York Times ran a profile on Max Brooks. I think at some point I knew that Max Brooks was Mel Brooks’ son, but the connection hadn’t clicked. My dad loved Mel Brooks. I grew up watching his movies. But that’s not what got me to buy the book however. In the profile Brooks explains: “I’m not a horror fan, I’m an anti-horror fan.” That got my attention. I don’t find apocalyptic societal collapse or survival cannibalism titillating. I think Cormac McCarthy got it exactly right in his book the The Road. Apocalypse isn’t sexy, I don’t want to read a novelist who think it is. In my mind the breakdown of civilization isn’t Mad Max muscle men in fetish wear, its sickness and death. according to the profile, Brooks gets that.

The Times profile explains that in Brooks mind “most people in a zombie apocalypse would die not from zombie wounds or anything as sexy as that. They’d die, he explained, from the lack of a clean-water supply.” I also like how Brooks explained his reasons for joining the ROTC in college. “I wanted to serve,” he said. “It was Desert Storm. I thought, I was a rich kid, and America’s been good to me.” Brooks sounded, not only like a smart guy, but like someone whose ideas might appeal to me.

Brooks attitude towards the politics of his own government aren’t wholly unlike Danny Boyle’s at the beginning of 28 Days Later. Doyle’s story begins with the political disconnect that would allow for the engineering of an apocalyptic bi-hazard, by British authorities, and its accidental release by British animal rights protesters. Brooks’ zombies have no cause we ever learn. But he tells the story of fumbled early moments of the pandemic. Brooks places a lot of the blame, for the catastrophe getting out of hand, on wars he calls “bushfires.” WWZ was published in 2006, at a time, when personally I could hardly turn on the news because I could not stand the sound of George Bush’s voice. Evidently I wasn’t alone. Brooks tells us that the “bushfires” in Afghanistan and Iraq not only misspent the goodwill of the international community, they wasted the American people’s willingness and resolve to fight.  

Perhaps if he hadn’t start within that political context, Brooks story would more closely resemble the story told by Steven Soderbergh in his 2011 film, Contagion. A story of bureaucratic scramble and eventual, but hard-won, success; a story of how we work effectively as a society, rather than how yet another lone hero can save us all from our collective incompetence. (As it turns out, Brad Pitt’s adaptation of WWZ ended on just such a messiah-like moment of breakthrough/revelation.)

But the story Brooks tells in his novel is about people working together in systems, systems far more desperate than Soderbergh’s. Picture Sophie’s Choice repeated again and again on a mega-death scale around the globe. Each nation making that choice in its own way.In the book humanity's survival hinges on the “Redeker plan - a strategy so grim that Brooks imagines the man who invents it as being driven mad by the horror of what he’s done. Not exactly the stuff of a conventional star vehicle. But then again, until relatively recently, who could have possibly guessed that Zombies would become the stuff of mainstream TV and Hollywood blockbusters?

Looking back at the zombie genre, I found myself dividing it into three distinct “ages.” The zombie pulp of the prewar period beginning with the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft and others, peaked with the prewar B-movie fare of films like White Zombie. Borrowing a term from Joshua Glenn, I’d call this period the zombie’s “Radium Age.” In an excellent post on zombies in film, Scott Hamilton explains that those early visions of zombies weren’t cannibal fiends, they were docile horrors:
In The Rainy Season, the book she wrote after spending years as a journalist in Haiti, Amy Wilfrentz argued that the zombie was originally a manifestation of the worst fears of Haitian slaves. Forced to plant and harvest sugarcane and other crops by their French masters, these men and women saw death as a release from their bondage, and looked forward to returning in spirit form to their African homeland. The prospect of being raised from the grave and forced to continue their labours was terrifying, because it suggested there was no escape, even in death, from slavery. The United States invaded Haiti in 1915, and remained in the country for two decades. During that time a number of American writers visited Haiti, and described the Vodou religion for their readers back home. Soon Hollywood was making movies with titles like Revolt of the Zombies and King of the Zombies.
The Radium Age is marked by overt racism and xenophobia. It ended with the first film of the “Golden Age”: George Romero’s 1968 cult classic Night of the living Dead. Until recently I had no idea I had lived through the Golden Age of the cannibal corpse. Certainly I had no idea that was what was happening at the time. Because when I was in high school, not even my Zombie loving friends could have predicted that zombies would enjoy a “New Wave” era. The Golden Age petered out during the 90, and that might have been that, if it weren’t for 28 Days Later. With Danny Boyle’s low budget masterpiece the zombie New Wave erupted, fully formed, like Venus from the foam.

Even after zombies jumped to the mainstream, it was only after the second $100M+ blockbuster that I realized zombies had undergone a sea change. And it was only after reading World War Z that I realized that the Zombie Apocalypse isn’t just a REALLY big zombie outbreak, it represents a change of kind rather than of quality. While Hollywood has made us all experts on how to fend off a Vampire, and survive a zombie outbreak, Hollywood can’t teach us is what zombies mean. The zombie zeitgeist is in no way stable over time. Lots of other people have lots of smart things to say about zombies as metaphors for consumerism, disease, ecological degradation, and even email. In my essay I don’t discuss Radium Age or Golden Age zombies, I stick to the New Wave, and even there I had to choose my battles (I don’t discuss the Hotlanta zombies, Rom-Com zombie, the recovering zombie, rapey zombies, or zombie superhero (much less zombies vs superheroes) - I pretty much stick to a few of the most popular films and books.

Addendum: In his post, Zombies in Utopia, Scott Hamilton comes to a very similar conclusion as me, and while I benefited from reading his ideas, I had finished the first draft of my Political Economy post a month before I saw his post. Quick shout-out to William Powhida, Arvind Dilawar, Dru Jay, Sarah and Dan Knight, as well as Jennifer Bostic - they, and plenty of others, helped this not-zombie guy make sense of zombies.

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