The Undead Democracy Apocalypse

May 12th, 2013   Submitted by Davi Barker


“They crowd our imagination. They hide under our beds. They lurk within the dark recesses or our primal unconsciousness. You can’t run, you can’t hide – it’s going to get you. The beast, the ravager, the Lusus Natura. What is it, and why do we fear it?” ~Mark Rein Hagen

The best monsters are personifications of real fears, and the monsters that survive the test of time and cinema are those that evolve into psychological metaphors for something human. I want to put forward what may be an uncomfortable premise for some. I believe that the key to the success in the zombie genre lies in their ability to tap into subconscious and unacknowledged fears that democratic government isn’t working.

Vampire folklore began as a fear of the night, and disease. The original Nosferatu was a personification black plague. But with the advent of Anne Rice’s novels the vampire took on more human traits and largely became a metaphor for unrequited love, jealousy, and sexual passion.

Werewolf folklore began as a fear of the wilderness, but they also evolved into something far more human. Echos of the werewolf appear in characters like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or even the Incredible Hulk. They have become the embodiment of human rage, and the fear of losing control.

The popularity of both has culminated, and is I’d argue terminating, with the Twilight series. Jealousy and rage, locked in an eternal soap opera of teen angst. They are more human than monster now. We need new monsters.

What about zombies? We’ve seen a huge surge in the popularity of this genre. The record breaking series The Walking Dead won the American Film Institute “Program of the Year” award for 2010 and 2012. In 2010 the comic book the show is based on won the Eisner Award for “Best Continuing Series.” The zombie audio drama, We’re Alive was named “Best of 2012” in the podcast category by iTunes.

We’re also seeing mutations in the zombie mythos, growing pains as they change from literal fear to metaphoric fear. The Reavers in Firefly are an adaptation of the zombie aesthetic for space. The rage-virus of 28 Days Later and the T-virus of Resident Evil provide a scientific explanation. In Warm Bodies the zombie is adapted for romantic comedy, although I don’t think there’s enough glitter in the world to make zombies appealing to teenage girls. The point is zombies are searching for their metaphorical home.

The great thing about metaphors is that they are bigger than the artists who wield them. Like the price mechanism in a free market, the best metaphor will manifest as long as artists are free to play with the symbols.

To figure out where zombies are going, let’s start with where they are from. The canonical zombie is the creation of George Ramero in the classic Night of the Living Dead, but before that there was Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. The 1954 novel is credited as Ramero‘s inspiration, but unlike the 2007 film starring Will Smith, the original I Am Legend was about vampires, not zombies. That split in the taxonomic classification of monsters is where we’ll find the quintessential zombie.

So, zombies are cousins of vampires, but Matheson’s vampires are a kind of intermediary form between blood sucker and flesh biter. For starters, they were not supernatural. There is a pandemic causing vampire like symptoms, beginning the trend toward scientific explanation. But the primary innovation is apparent in Matheson’s first description of the monsters:

“Why do you wish them destroyed? Ah see, you have turned the poor guileless innocent into a hunted animal. He has no means of support. No measures for proper education. He has not the voting franchise. No wonder he is compelled to seek out a predatory nocturnal existence.”

Matheson was making a point about majoritarianism. In his story vampires are no longer solitary monsters, or small broods. They are the majority, and the protagonist Robert Neville is the minority. Even the name “I Am Legend” meant that Neville was a legend among the monsters, who were building the new world from the corpse of the old, not a legend among other survivors. In short, Matheson democratized the vampire and gave us the zombie.

Zombies are unique among monsters because they are a majority, enacting one of modern cinema’s most enduring themes: the triumph of the individual over the collective. Matrix, V for Vendetta, Hunger Games, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and virtually every story that rises to mythic proportion enacts this theme, and zombies bring it to the horror genre. Frankenstein is arguably part of the zombie family, except that the monster is the individual, dispatched by the collective townspeople. Without this theme, it’s just not a zombie story.

The old vampire personified natural disease like plague, but zombies are usually the result of a man-made infection. They personify the fear that governments are not only devising the biological weapons that will destroy us, but also that they are incompetent enough to release them accidentally. Further, the military and police in these movies almost always fail to protect people from the outbreak, and are usually cast as villains, further playing on a latent skepticism of government. But there are other parallels.

Fundamentally, democracy is a means by which the majority live at the expense of the minority, by force if necessary, just as a zombie horde “lives” at the expense of the survivors. Zombies perfectly obey the majoritarian ethic. The old adage that democracy is two wolves and a sheep deciding on dinner is literally realized in these stories. We know this is a strong parallel because every election cycle we see political cartoons portraying grassroots supporters as zombies. Search the internet and you will find supporters of every campaign photoshopped to look like the undead. Intuitively we know that every democratic movement seeks to impose its will on others by force, and we fear being ruled by the mob, especially the stupid masses.

Reading cannibalism as a symbol for collectivist violence, the rest of the metaphor becomes clear.

The zombie outbreak is always worse in cities, where government is strongest, and the best movie survivors are always rural prepper types, the gunnies and stockpilers who avoided reliance on government. Not to mention, the character who holds out for government rescue is often among the first to die… or turn.

Another interesting trope is the emotional turmoil of dealing with infected family members. How do survivors deal with loved ones who in all likelihood will eat their face off? Well, we few fringe radicals who actually reject democracy know full well how emotionally taxing it is when our own family actually advocates violence against us if it be the will of the majority.

Similarly, a common defense in recent zombie movies is for survivors to disguise themselves and walk among the zombies, until they are discovered. Many anarchists choose this strategy to get by in democratic society, preferring to keep quiet and blend in, rather than face aggression and horizontal discipline from those who accept the ethics of majoritarianism.

By far the strongest parallel between the zombie genre and democratic society is the apocalypse scenario. Zombie stories are not just about monsters, they are about the complete breakdown of government, utilities and commerce. They are about surviving when the entire infrastructure of civilization disappears overnight. Just as the zombies must eventually starve to death, nation states that subsist on ever increasing debt must eventually collapse. We even call financial institutions that operate this way “zombie banks.” The political model of promising constituents ever increasing public consumption is a recipe for an apocalypse scenario, and we all know this on some level.

If I am correct that the success of the zombie genre is a reflection of an unacknowledged public fear that democratic government isn’t working, than the zombie movies that will succeed are those that capitalize on this metaphor. More importantly, if this is why the triumph of the individual over the collective is such an enduring theme, that means that latent voluntaryist principles are more widespread than we imagine, but they are manifesting in our art and storytelling instead of our politics.

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20 Responses to “The Undead Democracy Apocalypse”

  1. Michael HendricksNo Gravatar says:

    Interesting premise.

    Survival Max just took on a whole new light to me…

  2. HReardenNo Gravatar says:

    Wendy McElroy posted a piece about this subject earlier this year.

    • Davi BarkerNo Gravatar says:

      Wow! I missed that one somehow. Great minds run in the same gutters I guess.

    • Davi BarkerNo Gravatar says:

      Excellent read! I think Wendy’s piece is sufficiently different from mine in that she’s mostly analyzing Ramero and I’m speculating on the future of the genre, but she writes a passage that fit some pieces together for me. She wrote:

      “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.”

      I’ve been wondering for a while why there’s a conspicuously naked person at the beginning of almost every zombie movie and why writers and directors continually reference zombies with nudity, because it’s clearly not the sex appeal. If there’s homage to the Vietnam war happening in the early zombie movies, I wonder if random naked zombies aren’t references to Kim Phuc, the infamous “Napalm Girl.”

  3. Great one, Davi! Wendy McElroy’s similarly-themed piece was excellent too, as per usual. My only constructive criticism is that the vampire as a sexualized creature far precedes Rice, and is traceable back to at least Bram Stoker and DRACULA.

    Incidentally, I’m a horror author myself, and if you’re interested in finding out more, please go to

  4. Yes, Christ Jesus was already using several “zombie” type metaphors for mindless souls nearly 2000 years ago, when He said things like, “Let the dead (spiritually) bury their own dead (physically), but you (potentially alive) come follow Me (the Creator of “all things” before His Incarnation). ”

    And there was an Apocalypse, aka, “The Coming of the Son of Man” which He prophesied at His Olivet Discourse (Mat. 24 and elsewhere), which would destroy the Mosaic World, Jerusalem, and the Second Temple (right down to its very foundation) before the passing of that very generation, with some still alive to see it all happen. Of course, it all did happen in the exact time frame He called for, 70 A.D., and to the gruesome degree that He warned. It was only the Christians still at Jerusalem that heeded His warning, by fleeing to Pella, across the Jordan River, when the three-and-half-year Siege by the Romans let up, only briefly. Everyone else was slaughtered, starved, committed suicide, or were taken to Rome as slaves, just as the Arch of Titus that still massively stands in Rome depicts, with these events displayed in its relief renderings for anyone to see.

    It’s the true, historical Zombie Apocalypse story that Hollywood and state-incorporated “churches” never tell.

    God was on the side of the Zombies, as that ancient Judean culture had a long history of killing the Prophets sent to them, and they ultimately handed-over and asked pagan statists, who dominated them, to kill The Son of God for them, as their High Priest declared “We have no king, but Caesar!”

    70 AD: The Movie!

    Of course, the Book of Revelation talks about Old Jerusalem and the Temple (calling it the Synagogue of Satan), right before they were destroyed and a plow was run across the whole city by the Romans.

  5. PeterNo Gravatar says:

    Interesting article; viewing zombie stories as being about the individual standing against the collective is an interesting take I hadn’t considered.

    I’m no expert on horror movies or the symbolism behind them; frankly I find most of them uninteresting with certain exceptions that I’ve liked since childhood for whatever reason.

    That said, my take on vampires and werewolves differs from yours and I’d be curious what your response is.

    Vampires: These creatures generally live in the large manor/castle on the hillside and the vampire feeds on the life’s blood of the locals. I have always thought these stories to be a commentary on feudal life, with the vampire playing the part of the feudal lord that taxes the local serfs’ goods. Like the vampire, the feudal lord can only consume so much before the locals rise up and put a stake through his heart. Like the vampire’s victims, the serf’s relationship to the lord is usually costly and detrimental, but a small percentage of serfs will be elevated to the status of lord (or servant thereof), thereby escaping his serfdom by becoming the monster that has been feeding off him thus far.

    Werewolves: These creatures are appear to be average townspeople to those around them, but once in a while they will turn on everything around them and attack anyone and anything without discrimination for friend, or foe. This seems to me like it is saying something of the way good people, when working for the state (soldiers, the goon squad of local cops called in by the authorities, along with snitches and informants), will do things they never would in their private conduct. Like the werewolf, a soldier may live a good and decent life, but once in a while that full moon will come out, and the good and decent townsperson will transform into a creature that will kill and destroy for reasons he doesn’t even try to understand or explain. Like the werewolves’ victims, the other townspeople begin to look at each other with suspicion, never knowing which of their neighbors will transform into a soldier, goon, or snitch and bring that destruction their way. Like vampires and lords, werewolves and soldiers usually take lives and livelihood from those they prey on, but every now and then more creatures must be created just as more soldiers, goons, and snitches must be.

    The vampire is the lord that lives off the people; the werewolf is the thug that enforces the lord’s will; and after reading your article, I’d say the zombies are the starving mob that literally feeds on the ‘survivors’ when the vampire/lords and werewolf/cops reproduce too prolifically.

    Like I said, I’m no expert on this stuff, but I’d be interested to see what you (and/or your readers) have to say …

  6. RagnarNo Gravatar says:

    Nice article. I would argue, though, that as much as the plebes voting themselves larges at my expense resemble cannibalistic, mindless, monsters, that is not the metaphor that scares people. More and more, regular people are beginning to fear the eminent collapse of our present, un-sustainable system. I’m not talking about a smooth transition to a stateless society, I’m talking about a violent and chaotic breakdown in civil order.

    Zombies are a metaphor for the ill/un-prepared have-nots who form mobs and gangs of looters and thugs. They’re the ones who trample your budding vegetable garden on the way to steal and eat your (egg laying) chickens. They’re the ones who use their last gasoline making Molotov cocktails to burn down the house full of resources in order to steal a corn field. They are the starving, desperate, typical Americans, who have collected no food, no land, no tools, no skills, no precious metals… But they own a gun… And they’re hungry. Their children are crying in their ears from the pain of empty bellies, and there is only one large, edible animal, easy to catch, roaming the landscape.

    • Davi BarkerNo Gravatar says:

      I believe the point is that those two groups are one and the same. The present system is un-sustainable and due for collapse precisely because it is a democracy. The plebes are un-prepared precisely because they’ve spent the years they needed to prepare voting themselves larges. It’s all the same metaphor. Gangs of looters, and blocks or voters are one in the same.

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  8. AlexanderNo Gravatar says:

    These creatures generally live in the large manor/castle on the hillside and the vampire feeds on the life’s blood of the locals. I have always thought these stories to be a commentary on feudal life, with the vampire playing the part of the feudal lord that taxes the local serfs’ goods.

  9. AngeloNo Gravatar says:

    Thanks for everything Davi…. you are awesome!

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