Political Message of the Rising Zombie

January 21st, 2013   Submitted by Wendy McElroy

zombieZombies are in the zeitgeist; they are part of the defining spirit of our society as expressed through culture. Their popularity is soaring.

One reason is the political commentary that has been embedded into many zombie films since 1968 when the anti-establishment director and scriptwriter George Romero reinvented the sub genre. Romero is self-consciously political.

The social messages of a zombie apocalypse generally include: the government is entirely ineffectual or counter-productive; the media is useless; don’t trust the infrastructure; people must defend themselves; cooperation increases the chance of survival; and, the inability to cooperate is a fatal human flaw. It is a nihilistic, anti-establishment, cynical commentary with flashes of heroism and humanity set against a background of violence.

The zombies themselves are another message. The walking dead are metaphors for the American public which is programmed for deadness to everything but consumerism. The 1983 study Midnight Movies called Romero’s most famous movie “the most literal possible depiction of America devouring itself.” The ‘living’ are prey for the zombie public, and they must scramble to avoid becoming zombies as well. The Romero movies repeat the sentiment: “We are them, they are us.”

Zombie apocalypses are the ultimate portrayal of the masses rising up to annihilate the status quo. Alas, the masses remain unthinking and dead. In their rising, they make no distinction between the innocent and the guilty. They simply overwhelm and consume until the old reality is no more.

Marxists understand the analogy and its power but they over complicate the message by burdening it with unrelated doctrines such as the labor theory of value. Anti-consumerism is mistaken for anti-capitalism because the two terms are conflated. No distinction is made between crony or state capitalism and free market capitalism.

Claiming the zombie phenomenon is politically astute, however. The emotions evoked by art can reach where arguments and evidence cannot. Anyone who has been captivated by Rand knows that.

Statists sense the raw power of culture. The Nazi leader Hermann Goering is famously quoted as saying, “Whenever I hear the word ‘culture’, I reach for my gun.” Culture – as opposed to propaganda – is a free market, decentralized expression of people’s values and attitudes. Like thought itself, culture cannot be controlled by law or created through oppression. The state tries to stamp out whatever is too openly subversive but the attempt is like whack-a-mole; the harder they pound, the more of it pops up.

Marxist theorists are smarter. They reinterpret the art and, so, make it serve their political purposes.

THE MARXIST MESSAGE

In an article entitled “We the Living Dead: the convoluted politics of zombie cinema” (Reason, January 25, 2007), libertarian Tim Cavanaugh points to the 1979 study The American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film by Robin Wood. Wood described the cannibalism of zombies as “the ultimate in possessiveness…the logical end of human relations under capitalism.”

Cameron M. Weed’s thesis, “The zombie manifesto: the Marxist revolutions in George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead,” is typical of Marxist analysis. “[O]ne must view the films as an allegory for the class antagonism and revolution proposed by Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto. This thesis will analyze the representational fluidity of the zombie…through two distinct Marxist lenses — the proletariat revolt against the bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie revolt against the monarchy — while also exploring the implications of the representationally transferable zombie to the overall meaning of Romero’s long-gestating Marxist narrative.”

THE REAL MESSAGES

Romero did not invent zombies but he did lift them out of the merely horrifying and into the also politically relevant. He created the American zombie. His apocalyptic movies combine stark social commentary with appropriately cold shudders.
His message is not leftist but anti-authoritarian and a jarring cry out against the dehumanization of society through programming.

Consider a brief analysis of the movie that started it all: Night of the Living Dead (1968). Seven average people are trapped in a farmhouse with useless media info, no help from authority, and surrounded by mindless masses. The characters die to literally feed the rampaging zombies who are also average Americans. Why have the latter transformed into zombies? A casual theory of radiation is floated. But, ultimately, their brain-dead hunger is merely presented as a reality. It is also the portrayal of a political nightmare.

The movie was produced at the peak of the Vietnam War and in the wake of the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. A traumatized and disillusioned America was in the throes of a cultural revolution with the young railing against their parents’ consumerism; America struggled with simmering warfare between the races; it watched the senseless violence of Vietnam every evening on the news.

Romero’s classic opens with a shot of an American flag trembling in the wind from a cemetery. It reaffirms a status quo in which chaotic violence suddenly and irrevocably bursts like a dam. Night immediately breaks stereotypes; for example, a black man is the hero in an otherwise all-white cast. After an epic battle for survival, he dies from a gunshot delivered by white ‘redneck’ types who mistake him for a zombie. Over and over, stereotypes are both broken and bitterly reinforced. The ultimate message: authority and mass mentality are the enemies. But the world has gone so far off a cliff that independent thought and action do not guarantee salvation.

In Dawn of the Dead (1978), Romero’s survivors retreat to a mall as a stronghold with needed supplies. This is his most explicit assault on mindless, modern consumerism. A main character explains why the zombies are thronged at the mall’s glass doors. He says, “Instinct. Memory. It’s something they used to do. It was an important place in their lives.” In short, the walking dead are doing the same thing as they did as the walking living. This glimpse of voracious humanity is all the more horrifying because it contains truth. The movie’s ultimate clash, however, is between two gangs of humans and it leads to a lethal assault by opportunistic zombies.

In Day of the Dead (1985) survivors are stranded in an underground bunker. They consists of military, scientists and support civilians. This is Romero’s commentary on the conflict between militarism and science, and the inability of both to address social reality; it is also the conflict of militarism and science against the average person as expressed either through zombies or the civilians. The scientists themselves battle over the purpose of research on zombies. Ultimately, a suicidal member brings disaster into the bunker when he opens a platform door to the outside.

In Land of the Dead (2005), the survivors live in a city bounded by water and electric fences. This is Romero’s analysis of class conflict. Among the living, a sharp distinction exists between elites who live in a luxury high rise and prols who exist on the streets and maraud surrounding areas for supplies. Between the living and the dead, zombies come across as an oppressed class that is evolving its own consciousness. In several scenes, Romero openly sympathizes with the dead who eventually occupy the city.

CONCLUSION

Romero is one of the most chilling critics of American culture and politics. Those who see only gore and senseless violence in his work do not altogether miss his themes. The gore of America – both psychological and actual – is a core aspect of Romero’s message.
As the narrative arc of his four zombie movies progresses, the line between the living and the dead begins to blur. At one point in Land of the Dead, a character declares of the zombies, “They’re pretending to be alive.” The hero replies, “Isn’t that what we’re doing? Pretending to be alive?”

The arc of Romero’s zombie apocalypse begins with the living visiting the dead in a cemetery. It ends with the few who are still alive fleeing from an awakened zombie mob that captures a city for its home. Here Romero’s nihilism is at its deepest. The ancien regime has been swept away; another form of human order has risen from chaos and ashes. Will it fare better? Can it do worse?

29 Responses to “Political Message of the Rising Zombie”

  1. So…how many zombie fans are out there? How many Romero fans? Although I have been keen on the horror genre since childhood, I have leaned heavily toward the “classics” and away from gratuitous gore. In this tendency, however, zombies were always the exception in that I enjoyed the sub genre and accepted the gore without wincing. It was not until I consciously realized the themes being carried by the violence that I understood my reaction. It was akin to liking sex scenes that are necessary to the plot or characterization rather than disliking ones that are thrown in to cover up a lack of plot and characterization.

    • Oscar MiloNo Gravatar says:

      Wendy, the Zombie genre has been my favorite since early childhood when I first watched ‘Night of the Living Dead’ in 1991. I’m glad I’m not the only Anarchist who doesn’t wince at the zombie violence. I have to say, I think the ’28 Days/Weeks Later’ movies did a better job. The Rage virus is a much more realistic possibility (though not necessarily realistic). It makes me think of a mutated form of Rabies. That is what makes me shiver while watching. It also says much about the violent rage that seems to flow through many at times. Going blind with rage, no amount of reasoning can stop the person in their tantrum before they tire themselves out. It’s creepy. Mankind gets into ‘depraved mode’ where this group is the enemy, and so we are going to demolish them without mercy or thought. They are the only two movies that ever gave me nightmares.

  2. gdpNo Gravatar says:

    Hi, Wendy — Would you view the upcoming movie Warm Bodies as an attempt to “mainstream” the “zombie apocalypse” trope in the way that the “vampire” archetype has been “mainstreamed” by True Blood?

    (Warm Bodies has been summarized as “Romeo and Juliet” between a zombie and a human in the aftermath of a “zombie apocalypse,”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warm_Bodies_(film)

    The director has been quoted as hoping that zombie fans will be “open-minded” about the “liberties” he has taken with the zombie genre. Given the content of the trailers and articles, the film does not appear to be portraying zombieism as an “alternate lifestyle choice” the way the TV series “Ugly Americans” does, but more as an “addiction” that one might “recover” from.)

    • Hey there gdp:

      Interesting that you bring this movie up. The same subject arose recently with my nephew who is a graphic novelist. He was appalled by the idea of a warm and cuddly zombie as the entire ‘horror’ of the zombie is his voracious consumption of human beings. I think it is a betrayal of the entire sub genre and I hope it bombs spectacularly. As for the alternate life style choice…I don’t think that prey can afford to enact nondiscrimination policies through their natural predators.

      BTW, you and I may disagree on the proximate cause of the warm and cuddly vampires that are emerging. I think the Twilight book and movie series are far more to blame than True Blood, which is objectionable enough on several other grounds.

      • gdpNo Gravatar says:

        Hi, Wendy — Actually, I am in total agreement RE: “Twilight” being at fault. By True Blood “mainstreaming” vampires, I was more referring to the idea of vampires “coming out of the coffin” as an “alternate lifestyle” instead of remaining a “hidden subculture.” (Even the “Sparkly Vampires” of “Twilight” still maintained the “hidden subculture” trope and the “passing for human” trope; the “Twilight” vampires and werewolves did not “come out.”)

        RE: “nondiscrimination policies,” that is exactly the premise underlying “Ugly Americans”: A hellmouth opens in New York City, and the “Politically Correct” city administrators respond by creating a “Department of Integration” whose social workers are tasked with helping the influx of demonic and supernatural immigrants to “assimilate” into New York culture, complete with PR campaigns and “group therapy” sessions for the immigrants, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ugly_Americans_(TV_series) (Not surprisingly, demons make perfect city bureaucrats… :-T)

        RE: the “Sparkly Vampire” trope and how it undermines the entire “horror” element of the Horror Genre, the team at “RiffTrax” may have provided ultimate sarcastic comment on this subversion: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TM4rcjjKYVU

        See also http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/OurVampiresAreDifferen t

        • Interesting. I agree that True Blood made the “lifestyle alternative” theme part of its narrative arc…and the series made humans who disagreed with that alternative into racist bigots. Frankly, that was the point at which the series started to lose my attention. If the movie Warm Bodies is a satire or sarcastic take on the PC approach to nondiscrimination, then that’s the first thing I’ve heard that piques my interest. It would be interesting to see the demand for nondiscrimination taken to absurdity but, on the other hand, I have lost most of my confidence in reductio ad absurdum argumentation. I think it was through watching utterly insane TSA policies being swallowed and accepted whole by most of the American public.

          BTW, it sounds as though you have seen Warm Bodies. If so…does it have any redeeming qualities?

  3. Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

    I’m not too well versed in zombie movies. This guy Romero made all four movies you mentioned?

    • Yes. He made all four as well as others, including an active involvement in a remake of The Night of the Living Dead.

      Part of my agenda in discussing Romero is to highlight the importance of pop culture and fiction in the spread of ideas. Romero (espeically his earlier work) is wonderfully anti-authority, anti-government, anti-establishment. And, yet, like so many advocates of freedom in the pop culturw\e realm, his contributions are either ignored or dismissed. Even heroes of mine who describe themselves as libertarian, like L.Neil Smith, are next to never given their due by institutes or from the acknowledged luminaries of libertarianism. It is as thought fiction is beneath their notice or respect. The socialists and Marxist do not suffer from a similar blindness to the importance of raw culture in the spread of ideas…and this gives them a tremendous advantage.

      Odd, when you think about it. After all, how many of us arrived at libertarianism or anarchism through reading the novelist Rand?

  4. pinkNo Gravatar says:

    We the Living was made into a film? I can’t find it on imdb.com.

  5. Kurt ThomasNo Gravatar says:

    The quote you cited from “Land of the Dead” regarding zombies trying to act like the living reminds me of the movie “Shaun of the Dead”. The main character encounters the outbreak of a zombie apocalypse without even noticing it or altering his routine for almost an entire day. The movie was absurd and campy but at the same time wonderfully subversive.

    • Wendy McElroyNo Gravatar says:

      Kurt…interesting comment. Upon reading it, I immediately flashed on the closing scene from “Shawn” where the main character is in the shed out back with his now-zombie friend, playing a video game with him as they had done so often when the friend was non-zombie. It is as though nothing has changed. Again, rather harsh commentary…happily tempered with humor.

  6. RichardNo Gravatar says:

    Wendy,

    Where you say:
    “No distinction is made between crony or state capitalism and free market capitalism.”

    Do you think that the use of the term ‘free market capitalism’ may color your meaning (in an adverse way), since free market, presumably means literally ‘free’ market, while capitalism carries with it the connotation of capital formation and privilege?

    I am not questioning your understanding of it, just the conflation of the concept of – tax-privileged capitalist, with the concept of – practitioner of free enterprise. The two terms seem to be mutually exclusive.

    This question is not bait for you. It’s an honest question.

    Thanks,

    Rich

    • Wendy McElroyNo Gravatar says:

      That is an important question. From time to time, I altogether abandon the word “capitalism” because:

      1) it is too closely associated with corporations that enjoy state privilege. Indeed, without such privileges as limited liability and tax breaks, I am not sure what a free-market corporation would look like…tho features such as selling stock would remain consistent with laissez-faire;
      2) fundamentally, my political goal is not any particular economic arrangement, as capitalism is, but the freedom for people to accept any economic arrangement that’s peaceful, including communes and anarcho-syndicatist factories.

      The reason I return to using the word “capitalism” from time to time is that it is the economic arrangement that I personally prefer. I don’t think it is necessarily connected to corporations in the state-crony sense…that is, I am convinced that some of the basic structure of corporations would continue in a free market or, as you prefer, under free enterprise. (Stephan Kinsella is rather good on this issue, BTW) But when I use the word, I try to couple it with an adjective that distances it from standard usage: laissez-faire capitalism, anarcho-capitalism, free-market capitalism. Frankly, I am not sure it is useful to continue using the word. I’m not even sure how to measure usefulness in this context. Instead, “to use or not to use” is probably a subjective value call that depends largely on the audience being addressed.

      • ShawnNo Gravatar says:

        It’s worth pointing out that, whatever connotation one has of the word “capitalism,” its actual definition is simply a system in which goods of value are transformed into different goods of value, in the hope of a higher return for the investor. That is: capital is merely an item of value, and a capitalist is someone who trades and/or uses that item to make something valued by others to the extent that the capitalist profits. A “free market” can consist simply of people trading about without any net advancement of wealth, or it can (and almost certainly would) have some amount of individuals willing to risk existing capital in order to create personal wealth. I know I’m explaining something we all already know and understand, but I feel that knowledge sometimes gets lost in the muddied waters of modern connotations of capitalism, particularly crony capitalism in which the “capitalists” risk little but yet gain so much in return. It’s not just taxation, but also the fact that so much of modern “capital” comes from “middle class” retirement accounts instead of the pockets of the people looking to gain from those investments. The risks I take when I’m investing my own money will very likely differ from the ones I will take when investing yours, especially when I don’t really even have to be held accountable for losing your investment. :-\

        My point is simply that capitalism is neither good nor evil, only that it is a tool that can be used for good or evil ends. And it’s a part of virtually ANY economic system, but its nature changes depending on the user.

  7. Richard OnleyNo Gravatar says:

    Government was clearly on to the zombie phenomenon from the word “Go!” I tried to find a copy of Senator Margaret Chase Smith’s December 1967 READER’S DIGEST article “Sick Movies” (which I read contemporaneously), in which NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is Exhibit A. I’ll see if I can find it next time I go by the campus library.

    • PatNo Gravatar says:

      Wow…I remember reading a Readers Digest article in the 60s about NOTLD (don’t know if it was the same one). It described the movie in detail & the stunned audience it left behind. The takeaway, as you might expect, was “there oughta be a law…”. (At 11 years old, it simply made me want to see the movie all the more!)

      • Wendy McElroyNo Gravatar says:

        NOTLD appeared before there was a rating system that classified movies as to “age” appropriateness. It was also before graphic violence and gore were commonplace in film. The result: many children went into Saturday matinees and emerged so frightened that they had nightmares for some while. I am not pro a government rating system, by any means, but the movie caused such a backlash that some have ascribed the emergence of the system to NOTLD. And, yes, the backlash did nothing but increase its audience. The fact that the copyright notice was inadvertently dropped off the film on its release also promoted popularity as it was thrown into the public domain.

  8. macsnafuNo Gravatar says:

    Sorry, I’ve never been a fan of the more modern zombies or zombie movies. To me, they exhibit utter futility and hopelessness. I found an earlier zombie movie, “White Zombie” (1932, Bela Lugosi) much more enjoyable. In White Zombie, the zombification process is reversible, so there’s hope for redemption.

    • Wendy McElroyNo Gravatar says:

      macsnafu….if you are so inclined and moved to watch a Romero movie, then I would be interested in your response in the wake of this thread. I wouldn’t enjoy his movies either without an appreciation of the embedded messages. Which doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with simply not liking them. After all, we are talking about zombies.

  9. deanneNo Gravatar says:

    I love that wrote about this from the libertarian perspective! I was a horror and Romero fan long before I was a libertarian; maybe before I even knew the word ‘libertarian’. I too was originally drawn to the older, less gory monster and scifi films. But I came to really like Romero. Zombie stories make me reflect on my growing comfort with mere survival when excellent living is an option.

  10. Wendy McElroyNo Gravatar says:

    Wow Deanne. You nailed the message of Romero’s social commentary. I am also a big fan of the political commentary. Like you, I never was drawn to the slasher or gore type of horror, and I used to be puzzled by why the Romero zombie series was such an exception. I finally stumbled over Marxist reviews of his movies and I had strong, mixed reactions. The mixed part: “they got it all wrong!” BUT they saw deeper themes than I was picking up on. Amazing. Because when you watch the zombie narrative arc with your political radar up…the themes hit you over the head.

  11. Frlitz KneseNo Gravatar says:

    Hi Wendy. I do not care much for horror flicks and zombie ones in particular. I can get horror on the evening news thank you. I must admit I never considered zomblie fllicks as political statements before. They are obviously anti-establishment, but I would think that is mostly to attrract young people. I prefer sci-fi flicks with a anti-government lean like V for Vendetta.

  12. Longnine009No Gravatar says:

    I hope Daybreakers turns out to be an
    anology of how things end for socialists and crapitalists when there are no more producers left to suck on.

  13. MichaelNo Gravatar says:

    Love this article…. Nice to see intelligent words affirming my own ideas that the bulk of zombie films are actually scathing socio-political observations regarding the world around us.

    I’m a huge fan of zombie… Particularly comics based on the genre! Anybody read “the walking dead” yet… Arguably one of the best series I have read!!!

  14. Wendy McElroyNo Gravatar says:

    Glad you like the article Michael. I have read the graphic novel series “The Walking Dead” and I found it more compelling than the TV drama, of which I am a fan. Some of the differences come down to an inability to translate the explicitness of the novels onto the screen — e.g. the legal need to avoid explicit sex scenes.

    If you have never read interviews with Romero, then you should give yourself a treat and seek some out. He is quite clear about the politics of his movies.

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