Then [Nothing] Changed: On The Zombie Genre

Some might argue that the well of zombie survival-horror started drying up long ago. Filmmakers continue to create speculative fictions using Romero-style undead, but clever movies like Shaun of the Dead (Wright, 2004), Planet Terror (Rodriguez, 2007), and Dead Snow (Wirkola, 2009) are the exceptions. Most zombie-movie makers (better: zombie movie-makers) approach the genre’s tropes with all the imagination of a wedding band covering “We Are Family.”

We are family.

We are family.

What happens to groups in zombie-apocalypse narratives? They fail. The first are the apparatuses of the state: SWAT teams die, armies disintegrate, and politicians run for their bunkers. Then commercial institutions collapse, as looters overrun shops and kill each other over consumer goods. Finally, the nuclear family goes, as children devour parents, and brothers drag sisters into the waiting hands of the undead. Groups that remain functional do so by preying on survivors (e.g. the rogue military unit that becomes “worse than the zombies”).



New, ad-hoc groups form, in shopping malls, in military redoubts, or in sport-utility vehicles, but these groups collapse, too. Individual vices–lust, greed, bravado–lead to an unlocked gate, an exposed window, or an infected bite. Those who survive do so by rejecting groups as both ineffective and inherently dangerous. Not only is every uninfected human a potential zombie, but every uninfected human is also a potential thief, addict, bigot, horndog, coward, liar, or fuckup. In these 21st-century Robinsonades, lucky characters end up more isolated than before, while unlucky ones end up dead. Nearly always, the idiotic hunger of the zombie horde is the only clear winner.

The trope of the contagious, incurable bite suggests political surrender: if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. As in the discursive world of neoliberal self-congratulation over the victory of capitalism over socialism, in the narrative world of zombie plagues, most people can’t “beat ’em.” What they end up “joining,” however, is not an organized army of the undead, which works together to accomplish goals, or which treats an injury to one as an injury to all. Instead, one joins a swarm of individuals trampling one another as each grabs for something to eat, and who acknowledge no commonality. The zombie horde radically negates the social and the political. The horde can overcome the defenses of the living by only accident, not by deliberate cooperation. When enough zombies smell prey, their sheer weight can crush the barricades erected by the living.

Slavoj Žižek has noted a tendency in the imaginary narratives that circulate in late-capitalist culture:

“Thirty, forty years ago, we were still debating about what the future will be: communist, fascist, capitalist, whatever. Today, nobody even debates these issues. We all silently accept global capitalism is here to stay. On the other hand, we are obsessed with cosmic catastrophes: the whole life on earth disintegrating, because of some virus, because of an asteroid hitting the earth, and so on. So the paradox is, that it’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism.” (Žižek!)

Žižek does not mention zombies by name, but the zombie-apocalypse narrative is part of this cultural moment. Our movies can imagine the living dead overrunning a mall; they cannot imagine a mall’s living employees organizing a union or turning the space into a cooperative.

Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I am Legend, midwife of the zombie-apocalypse genre, tells the story of Robert Neville, an ex-military man who barricades himself against the vampires who besiege his house every night. These undead are victims of a plague, and now, like junkies desperate for a fix, they are too sick and stupid to work together. By day, Neville scours Los Angeles for useful goods, and destroys any sleeping vampires he finds. He eventually learns (SPOILER ALERT) that a small group of infected have discovered a drug that allows them to control their disease and thus retain their intellectual and moral faculties, though they cannot venture out in daylight. The novel culminates when this new society sends a paramilitary squad to arrest Neville for his crimes against their diseased friends and relatives. Neville acknowledges that he has become their Count Dracula, their legendary monster that sheds their blood as they sleep. The recent film I am Legend (Lawrence, 2007) was the first adaptation to use the novel’s title, but this Will Smith vehicle balked at Matheson’s radical ending: a functional, law-governed society of the infected.

Occasionally, zombie movies since Day of the Dead (Romero, 1985) explore the notion of a single, extraordinary zombie that can (re-)learn to behave socially, but the “smart” zombie is one of a kind. This rendering of zombie personhood as unique reflects America’s ideology of individualism and exceptionalism for an era of union-busting, increasing corporate exploitation of popular culture, and diminishing security for all but the most wealthy. We each root for the one “smart” zombie, identifying with him or her while congratulating ourselves for being the one who doesn’t just follow the horde. When working-class people dress up as zombies to participate in “zombie walks,” they make play out of real but historically specific feelings of isolation, precariousness, hopelessness; their quirky and individualistic cosplay mocks he real condition they loathe to recognize. Zombies are free from all social obligations, but they are free only to stumble along in search of food.

Bub, Robert Ball, 16 June 2012.

Bub, Robert Ball, 16 June 2012.

Thus the notion that in a zombie apocalypse “everything” changes actually inverts the fundamental narrative of these movies, where the only thing that changes is the rate at which American sociality decays. Zombie-apocalypse movies are not radical visions of disruption and revolution, but visions of continuity during an accelerating (d)evolution. Robinson Crusoe presented an allegory of Thomas Hobbes’s theory of human society, in which the state is the aggregate of covenants made at the point of a musket; similarly, zombie-apocalypse tales present a neoliberal allegory of a human “nature” that is fundamentally anti-social, selfish, and anomic, and a human future in which tomorrow will be worse for everyone but the plucky loner. A zombie movie in which the dead or the living established worker-owned factories, or built public schools, or brought manufacturing back to the United States from overseas-that would be a zombie movie where “everything” changed.


Ezra Claverie is a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His dissertation examines the ideological and industrial conditions driving Hollywood’s turn to comic-book superheroes, and the role of these blockbusters in convergent media franchises. His other work explores the intersections of discourses of authorship with the changing circumstances of US media production and reception, as well as the politics of fan speech communities. His work has appeared in Intensities, Literature/Film Quarterly, and the blog Kritik.

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