By Colbey Emrerson Reid
Zombieland, Ruben Fleischer’s 2009 contribution to the cinema of zombie apocalypse, resembles many recent contributions to the genre in its stylization of the undead into a political allegory. The film’s opening voiceover describes the collapse of America into Zombieland, a construct of post-nationhood in which American citizens and governments have perished in the chaos caused by a virulent strain of mad cow disease that turns people into sponge-brained monsters.
Fleischer’s zombies are a cautionary tale against the American lifestyle, whence the over-consumption of fast-food hamburgers causes epidemic hyperglycemia as the country is overrun by people who are grouchy, indiscriminately ravenous, and too fat to run away from danger. The reinvention of America falls not to lawmakers, since cops on their lunch break are some of the first to fall prey to the disease, but four oddballs whose circumstantial rendering as post-American even before the apocalypse equips them to survive in their country’s wasteland. Besides being physically fit, they’re all loners divested of a conventional sense of family and belonging.
Two of the characters are sisters who seem to be runaways, one has lost his son, and the other has parents whom he suspects don’t want him. Their survival is juxtaposed against vignettes of Americans dying in the midst of families and communities: weddings, backyard barbeques, suburban car pools, public restrooms. Mothers who sentimentally hesitate to blow the brains out of their frothy-mouthed children are at particular risk, illustrating the serious necessity of eschewing traditional family values during a zombie apocalypse.
The protagonists, recognizing that their mutual predisposition to alienation has been keeping them alive, sustain that condition once they all join forces by using their destinations as names so they don’t get too attached to one another. Thus “Tallahassee,” “Columbus,” “Wichita,” and “Little Rock” are all Americans first articulated through conventional standards of national identity, describing themselves as places to which they are tied by the habits and associations of the past. But ultimately each place name becomes detached from a fixed location as the person affiliated with it realizes that the place no longer exists as anything but a private fantasy of returning to the way things used to be.
Thus the cities, taking the form of people, wander and move as they construct a fundamentally mobile post-nation. The ensuing narrative explains what “America” might be when it no longer exists as we know it, with Fleischer arguing that the country isn’t its geography but the relationships fostered between its people. The characters, who realize that they love each other more than the places and people whom they were expected by the logic of authenticity to affiliate themselves with in the past, reconfigure into a postmodern family that works as a metaphor for global citizenship: four nomads forging a unit of emotional rather than tribal ties as they quest not to rediscover their respective spaces of origins but rather try to dream up new destinations to inhabit together in a totally undetermined future.
Where they all go matters very little in the borderless America they inhabit because every place is identical; all distinctiveness must now belong to the individual citizens of Zombieland, who are revealed to possess quite colorful personalities as the film progresses. For example Tallahassee, literally eye-catching in his animal print jackets, is a human Texas in cowboy boots, a trunk full of machine guns, and a hankering for Twinkies. Rather than destroying him the Zombie apocalypse brings out the unique talent his mother always told him he would find: “Who’d have thought it’d be killing zombies?” he muses, before dismantling a pack of undead in impressively creative ways.
The very denotation of Zombieland thus changes in the film, from a globalization nightmare depicting a horrifically dismantled nation into a space of amusement. The literal amusement park, called Pacific Playland, on which our heroes ultimately converge in the mistaken belief that the park will provide a zombie-free place to return to the innocence of pre-apocalyptic America, turns out to be riddled with zombies, a sign that there is no going back. The four characters thus move forward, turning Pacific Playland into Zombieland by troping zombie-annihilation as various amusement park games: Tallahassee holes up in a shooting booth and slaughters the undead with effortless exuberance, and Columbus hits a zombie clown head with a hammer in a carnivalesque test of strength featuring the prize of the endangered Wichita’s safety.
As Zombieland transitions from a space of desolation into a space of enjoyment, the film shifts genres from horror to romantic comedy. The moment of grave danger, Playland surrounded by masses of zombies, resolves into happy carnage as Columbus wins Wichita’s heart and Wichita finally tells Columbus her real name. Tallahassee gets his Twinkie, and Little Rock finds her childhood, screaming with faux-fear on a ride that hoists her up high and then drops her—into a pack of hungry cannibals that never can quite get to her, as Tallahassee has taught her just to relax and shoot their brains.
Currently the highest grossing film at the box office, it’s easy to see why: Zombieland reconfigures a globalization dystopia into the kind of affectively-forged utopia that would make Martha Nussbaum proud, explaining to Americans what they are now that they aren’t the United States of America in any of the same old ways, and how to take pleasure as opposed to terror from that status.
Fleischer’s use of the zombie narrative as a political allegory is not a new conceit, and in fact I would argue that the zombie subgenre is the primary contemporary locus of democracy mythology, particularly producing narratives of crises in democracy. Tallahassee’s mantra, also the tag line in Zombieland posters, is “nut up or shut up,” and this could be the tag line for all zombie movies insofar as they are about the necessity of taking revolutionary action in a crisis of suppression that is, if not literally orchestrated by the government, a sign of the state’s ineptitude in guarding against it. In the zombie genre action is taken through armament, but figuratively the reference to silence, or “shutting up,” as the alternative to “nutting up” posits guns as a metonymy for the “voice” that is granted democratic citizens through enfranchisement.
Etymologically the zombie derives from West African voodoo folklore and describes a person magically stripped of an independent will and therefore controlled by a sorcerer; in the Afro-Caribbean context zombies were slaves, stripped of will insofar as they are divested of citizenship. In more contemporary forms the association with colonization disappears, but the notion of the mass suppression or willing abdication of democratic agency remains. Consider Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (Great Britain 2004), for instance, where zombie infection depicts western democracy as plagued by a wasting illness, with the ordinary mindlessness of contemporary life blossoming from the banal into the horrific.
Facets of the pre-apocalypse produce the apocalypse: working the same dead-end job day after day, success at which demands a high tolerance for stupor and herculean bouts of inactivity; riding the bus staring vacantly into space, returning home to stare vacantly at the television; subsisting in passionless relationships produced by a society whose proper function demands nothing more than acquiescence to boredom. The foundational gag of the film is the absurdly long time that it takes for Shaun to notice that he’s surrounded by zombies because they so closely resemble non-zombies, including Shaun himself.
A parody of the title character at the beginning of the movie include shots of Shaun waking up, stumbling out of bed, yawning—and looking exactly like the slow, stumbling, moaning undead already conquering the British Isles. Shaun’s task, once he realizes what’s happened, is not only to evade the zombies but to keep from becoming one (which is to say, remaining one) himself. He therefore is driven to become a “man of action,” as the film tropes democratic agency as action heroism (“nutting up”) and records Shaun’s awakening as a great community organizer able to inspire other survivors towards revolt.
Shaun fails, however, to awaken anyone but himself, his girlfriend, and one of their friends, all of whom he finally leads to safety in an armored van driven by government special forces. These three live happily ever after, while the tamed zombie population simply continues the inert lives of ticket and toll collectors that they always led. “Shaun” is a tale of democratic revolution in which the status quo is maintained by those who refuse mobilization, Britain divided into new social classes distinguishing those who know, are awake, and join in a participatory democracy from those relegated by their own obliviousness to sleepy servitude.
In Bruce McDonald’s similarly politicized Pontypool (Canada 2008), a Quebecois village is plagued by wild packs of flesh-eating locals whose first symptom of illness is the compulsive repetition of whatever words and phrases they spoke at the moment of infection. The film is narrated by radio talk-show hosts who discover that language is dangerous, and not just figuratively. Certain English words host a virus that infects and kills anyone who speaks them, and since they don’t know which ones to avoid the protagonists speak (bad) French. The detachment of signifiers from signification yields particularly eerie zombies, rendering something ordinary—“dead language”—unfailingly creepy. Pontypool, the first post-structuralist zombie movie, critiques the mindless use of language and contrasts it with the strenuously invigorated rhetoric employed by a pair of daring radio hosts who eventually figure out the source of the virus and do their best to reinvigorate language in order to survive.
They broadcast a tour de force of “living language” to the desperate village population until the government tells them to shut up. When they won’t, they’re branded terrorists and bombed, thereby darkly concluding McDonald’s allegory of zombification through the consumption of mystified ideological jargon. Though the radio hosts’ refusal to “shut up” doesn’t end happily, the allegory of democracy as ailing through its citizens’ failure to exercise voice, to exert a popular will discrete from that imposed by the state, could not be more baldly drawn.
Notably, Pontypool takes place in Canada, where “nutting up” isn’t an option. It’s hard to imagine an American Zombie movie where the military are the only ones with guns, and indeed in Zombieland Tallahassee and Columbus discover a hummer filled with machine guns and a pair of disembodied hands gripping the steering wheel. Tallahassee’s cry—“Thank god for rednecks!”—makes it clear that protecting the Fifth Amendment would pay off in a zombie apocalypse.
Norwegian zombies resemble American, British, and Canadian zombies in their association with mindlessness that can only be vanquished by a democratic man of action who is posited as the heroic antithesis to political torpor. Tommy Wirkola’s 2009 Dǿd Snǿ, for instance, takes the natural next step in the association of zombies with fascist tendencies—their proclivity to enact mass violence once the capacity for independent thought and therefore resistance to political “sorcery” is removed—by literally featuring Nazi zombies chasing German medical students while they are on spring break in the Alps.
The Nazi Zombie sub-subgenre was popular in the 1970s, to wit Amazon’s extensive Undead Reich! DVD collection, so Wirkola’s invention isn’t the Nazi zombie so much as the retro Nazi zombie, a category of zombie that caters to contemporary political scenarios that international configurations of the political Left like to compare to fascism. Hannah Arendt, in her discussion of the Eichmann trials in Jerusalem, has linked fascism to the “banality of evil,” that chronic intellectual apathy which can become cataclysmic in mass cultural forms.
It is a small leap from Arendt’s implication that fascists are like zombies to the sub-subgenre’s reconfiguration of Nazis as zombies. In Dead Snow, contemporary German medical students are attacked by (and therefore themselves become) Nazi zombies because they disturb hidden Nazi treasure and try to keep it for themselves, unwitting until it is too late that the reason the dead fascists have become reanimated is because they see the contemporary students as their likeness. Hence Wirkola’s thinly veiled critique of the contemporary German professional class, which enjoys a moral distance from the fascist past while harboring its “blood money,” a metonymy for the paintings and other German cultural treasures featured in the recent media as stolen from persecuted Jews during the Second World War.
Wirkola further implies a relationship between economic stability and bygone atrocities in the figure of a frolicking German bourgeoisie who brings snow mobiles and other signs of prosperity to the haunted Alpine graveyard. Here Dead Snow is analogous to Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead (U.S.A. 2004), where survivors barricade themselves against a zombie epidemic in a Milwaukee shopping mall. They are ultimately unsuccessful at saving themselves there, thus demonstrating Americans’ misguided efforts to tourniquet the plague of apathy with the artificial stimulations of consumption.
In both Snow and Dawn, the man of action attempts to forge a resistance against the zombies and appears at first to succeed. But these films, two of the many twenty-first century zombie films in which everyone dies by the end, illustrate the ideological pervasiveness of capitalism in that neither the German medical students nor the assorted group of refugees in the mall can find a space of true resistance to the zombies. All spaces of resistance are depicted as infected by capitalism: the German students become “men of action” without realizing—with deadly obliviousness—that they have been fighting over the same thing animating the Nazi zombies; the mall refugees also become action heroes to fight their way to what they hope is a deserted and uninfected island only to discover that there is no oasis so remote that the ideology they’re metaphorically fighting can’t get to it.
Indeed, the notion of oasis—on a series of uncharted islands as in Lucio Fulci’s Zombi II (Italy 1979), or at Pacific Playland—is a pivotal part of zombie films’ registry of globalization as a crisis for democracy. In a zombie apocalypse, there is no oasis because the world has become too small to sustain spaces ungoverned by somebody.
The various Zombielands of the films I’ve discussed all signify citizenships dismantled by apoliticism, and seem to argue for the necessity of reinvigorating western democracy through heroically-posited post-Enlightenment ideals of agency and rationality disentangled from the post-Industrial trappings of consumption which offer an illusion of reinvigoration that actually only leads to another form of “reanimation,” a cipher for the living dead.
Zombieland’s Columbus, for example, is a nerdy college student who used to spend his time studying but becomes a rifle-toting adventurer with useful analytical abilities. Throughout the film he jots down rules for zombie survival garnered through his practice of the scientific method, rules like doing lots of cardio, killing zombies twice to make sure they’re really dead, always checking the back seat, and avoiding bathrooms.
Columbus’s alienation from popular culture and therefore from its modes of consumption is represented first by his romantic isolation and social awkwardness—his ongoing fantasy of getting close enough to a girl to brush her hair off her face, and then by his nerdy cluelessness about how to be hip—as when Tallahassee pours him a shot of whiskey and Columbus tosses the booze out the window before “drinking” the shot. Several critics have complained that Jesse Eisenberg, who plays Columbus, is too wooden in delivering his lines, but I would argue that his stilted passionlessness is essential to the allegory; Columbus is an anachronism, Benjamin Franklin wandering the highways, gas stations, and strip malls of the twenty-first century.
Lest zombie democracy, in its valorization of the man of action, appear to be not only as rationalistic but as sexist as those embodied in the societies of our eighteenth-century past, we should note that contemporary zombie films dramatize the growing prevalence of female politicians as the protectorate of a democratic tradition. In Zombieland, Wichita and Little Rock are a teenage girl and her little sister, and they repeatedly rob and take hostage the two male characters. Wichita’s costume of black boots, tight jeans, dark eye makeup, and wild hair recalls the figure of Alice in Resident Evil, a 2002 American zombie movie featuring Milla Jovovich as the resident ass-kicker and whose many sequels posit women’s bodies as the next evolutionary step and the source of the salvation through adaptation of humankind.
I suppose one could argue that the real heroes of Resident are the teenage boys who play Biohazard, self-identifying with Alice in the video game on which the film is based. But even so, their ability to become virtual men of action depends upon identification with a female character, and specifically the capable female body of the game and movie’s heroine. In Andrew Currie’s Fido (Canada 2006), women conquer zombies not by killing them but by emasculating them in a 1950s-esque parable of domesticity. The emasculation is not misogynistic; in Fido, it is male aggression that has to be tamed by housewife Helen Robinson and her little boy, Timmy; ultimately, they replace their violently angry husband and father with a gentle zombie named Fido and live happily ever after.
In many contemporary zombie films a woman or effeminate male is the last left alive (I would count Columbus as one of the latter), rendering the democratic action hero less a restrictively gendered fantasy than an explicitly western one. For a genre devoted to the creative production of exquisite gore, the Japanese have been relatively silent on the subject (too eastern), as have the Chinese (not interested in democracy), though at least one Top Ten Zombie Movie list online cites two Japanese zombie films made in 2000 that I haven’t seen.
Specifically, it is the western woman, biologically a symbol not of viral replication but complex organic reproduction and correlating complex possibilities for action, which is at the center of films ranging from Resident Evil to Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (UK 2002). The title of the latter refers to the lifecycle of the virus infecting all but a few immune survivors, but also to the female menstrual cycle, and it is no accident that the film features the attempted rape of two female survivors who are in this case grotesquely posited in their capacity to become mothers of an immune race as the future of humanity.
The women (or more accurately, girl and woman) in 28 Days escape from their would-be rapists, and in all of the original endings planned by the director (if not the ending presented at the film’s debut, in which one of the women’s lover also lives) they are the only survivors. Since 28 Days does not portray a worldwide infection but only a quarantined England, the survival of the women without any men does not indicate an end but a new beginning.
The woman of action is the ultimate antidote to the crumbling democracies across the spectrum of Zombielands not merely because of her body, but her mind. Female zombie warriors are female intellectuals, who enact on and with their bodies the forms of unconventional thinking that tend to elude male action heroes in the zombie genre. Wirkola, for instance, posits Columbia as departing from his brainy past during the zombie apocalypse, becoming physically capable (both sexually and athletically) under the tutelage of his mentor, Tallahassee. Wichita and Little Rock, however, trump physical strength by outwitting their more “powerful” male cohorts.
When they first meet, neither of the women have weapons. Wichita begs helplessly for their assistance, taking them to a weeping Little Rock who pretends to have been bitten and infected by a zombie. She asks Tallahassee to shoot her, and he agrees—but at the last moment Wichita asks if she can be the one to kill her sister. Tallahassee hands her his gun, and the sisters rob the men of guns and vehicle. To demonstrate the absence of brains in all of Tallahassee and Columbus’s brawn, the two men fall prey to the hoaxers again when the women’s stolen car runs out of gas several miles down the road. Thus the woman of action figure delineated in narratives of resistance to the totalitarian authority of the zombie-state emphasizes the importance not only of revolution (troped as a masculine form of resistance) but of innovative thinking (troped as female).
Female characters represent the ultimate antithesis to zombies’ physical and mental anaesthesia in their mobilization of the mind, the creative function of which is frequently (as in “Resident Evil,” where Alice is not only some sort of über-black belt but a genius) projected onto the body in the form of extraordinary physical prowess.
Even the female antidote to zombie apocalypse is problematic, however, insofar as the genre questions the extent to which having an “independent mind” (the hallmark of the western woman) is ever possible. Patricia Chu’s deceptively bland-sounding Race, Nationalism and the State in British and American Modernism (Cambridge UP: 2006) is a well-disguised example of zombie scholarship that also positions the genre within narratives of citizenship and nation-building. Chu’s first chapter contends that the first zombie movie, Bela Lugosi’s White Zombie (USA 1932), was a cautionary parable about the insidiousness of the forms of agency promised by democratic enfranchisement in the era of expanding state administrations; she uses the film as a theoretical framework with which to identify other aesthetic and philosophical versions of the same dilemma, which is to say that she considers zombies the fundamental building block on which twentieth-century civilization is built.
In White Zombies, which takes place in Haiti, enslavement can happen in all of the obvious ways, as when colonizing nations oppress individuals by divesting them of the status and rights of citizenship. But it can also take place in insidiously just ways, as when governments configure “choice,” “freedom,” and “having a voice” as garnered through citizens’ willing obeisance to the state. Chu offers a context in which we might question the plausibility of the “woman of action” figure in her reading of the marriage scene in White Zombies, in which a beautiful young woman is hypnotized by a rich plantation owner who has been generating wealth for himself by using voodoo to turn Haitians into zombie-slaves.
As Chu points out, the woman’s role in the wedding while in a state of zombie-like hypnosis is indistinguishable from a normal wedding. Her “choice” and “voice” are over-determined as acquiescence and repetition of the decisions and words orchestrated by government, church, and social institutions. White Zombies, Chu argues, was the first in a series of modernist aesthetic testimonies to anxiety about agency as it is generated through enfranchisement. Her reading demonstrates the lack of differentiation between zombie and democratic agent, the notion that the man of action as posited by Enlightenment political theorists never has existed, not only for recognizably disenfranchised groups but for white men.
The zombie is a western white male nightmare of democracy’s failure to deliver on its promises, its inability to proffer agency and independence as anything other than submission. The alternative to being a zombie, insofar as it is attained through democracy’s heroic ideal, is a mirage. Zombieland, which concludes, like a classic comedy, with a synecdoche for a wedding (Columbus kisses Wichita), gestures towards the wedding scene of White Zombies, illustrating that the hope of extricating oneself from zombiedom is artificial since one form of submission is merely substituted with another.
In Zombieland the state no longer exists, but Columbus and Wichita mime its existence in the absence of another model for agency. The analogy of weddings to zombie-citizenship is the premise for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Grahame-Smith 2009), where the infamous premise that “it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man possessed of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” becomes “it is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.” In each case, weddings become a theater in which to enact the ineptitude not only of masculine revolutionary action but of female rational agency to posit an antidote to the zombie-state.
Henry James, referring in 1909 to the valorization of action embraced in the pragmatist construction of democracy delineated by William James and John Dewey, critiqued in the preface to his plotless sprawl of a novel, The Golden Bowl, the conversion of America to a “religion of doing” (James’ emphasis). The emergence and proliferation of zombie narratives in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries suggests a crisis of faith in the ontological possibilities proffered by democracy. In the zombie myth, at the level of plot (the narrative locus of action) there is little possibility for physical or mental opposition to the encroaching zombie apocalypse. However, as is suggested in Rick Popko and Dan West’s journey into the grotesque, retarDEAD (USA 2008), zombie mythology may suggest another avenue through which to conceptualize democracy within the figure of the zombie itself.
In Popko and West, a mad scientist transforms students into zombies at the Butte County Institute of Special Education by injecting them with a hyper-intelligence serum. Thus the zombie is presented as a site of radical experimentation, the features of its own brain and body yielding the hidden antidote to the anxiety of mass anesthesia posed by the institutionalization of democracy insofar as the retarDEAD signify a perversely living mind through the figure of the corpse.
In Part 2, an “Apology for the Undead,” I will therefore explicate the potentiality for an alternative construction of democracy that is theorized within zombie aesthetics, the narrative unconscious of the genre.
Colbey Emmerson Reid is Assistant Professor of Modern Literature Department of English and Humanities York College of Pennsylvania. She can be reached at email@example.com.