Notes on a Political History of the Zombie (Part 2)

[This is a long post, and few people will probably read it.  But, I wanted to close off the zombie thread and at least commit some ideas to electronic print before moving on to other matters.  The post really began when I started noticing how zombie movies represent the “swarming” undead.  So, the real center of things here is the little video mashup I composed – – found about two-thirds of the way down the page.]

Zombies emerge within popular culture of the 1930s at the intersection of labor and imperialism.  Yet by the post-war period, zombies have largely been relegated to the margins of mass culture, seeking shelter from the cold war within the vivid pages of E.C. Comics and its variously delicious titles  – – Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, The Haunt of Fear – – or lurking deep within the genre codes of science fiction, as in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Last Man on Earth (1964), or The Thing from Another World (1951) .

It wouldn’t be until the 70s, especially after Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), that the zombie would once again shamble back into the pop culture spotlight.   While Americans struggled to make sense of Vietnam, an imperialist sequel to Haiti, and American workers struggled within and against the crisis of Fordist capitalism (at places like Lordstown and Detroit),  zombies exploded across drive-in movie screens.   Cheap offshore productions like Night of the Sorcerers (1971), The Swamp of the Ravens (1972), and The Devil’s Cross (1975) from Spain competed with Lucio Fulci’s Italian “zombi” oeuvre ((Zombi (1979), City of the Living Dead (1980), etc.).  American b-movie producers responded with Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972), Garden of the Dead (1974), Shock Waves (1977), and Romero’s follow-up, Dawn of the Dead (1978).  All of this capped by Sam Raimi’s zombie parody, The Evil Dead, in 1981.

The next real fluorescence of the zombie would come in the wake of 9/11 – – 28 Days Later (2002), Resident Evil (2002, 2004, 2007, 2010), Shaun of the Dead (2004), the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, Romero’s Land of the Dead (2005), Max Brooks’ zombie books, a plethora of zombie-killing video games, and most recently, The Walking Dead  (2010).

It would be pretty easy to line up zombie-trend and historical-trend: e.g. zombie movies proliferate during periods of capitalist crisis – – whether the ugly breakup of Fordism in the 1970s into the 80s or today’s ongoing crisis.  And, there’s probably some truth here.  But, this kind of correspondence begs the question of: why zombies?  Even if base and superstructure are so tidily expressive, why is it that zombies seem a preferred mode of socially symbolic narrative?

There are plenty of ways of “reading” zombies, one of the most popular being zombie as consumer redux.  (Mark Dery presents a nice take on this idea; and, Lisa Wade offers a quick survey of the “sociological image” of the zombie.)  This strain of zombie-decoding is largely inspired by the mall setting for Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and so tends to read the zombie narrative through Romero’s pretty ham-fisted sociologism.

Another strain within zombie-decoding draws its inspiration from Marx’s various, gothic characterizations of capital, labor, and machinery.  For instance, from Capital, Vol. 1, Ch. 10: “Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.”  Alternatively, a la Marx, machinery or fixed capital also represents “dead labor,” e.g. living labor power materialized within the means of production.  Chris Harman borrows this idea for the title of his very readable and concise summary of neo-liberalism’s current crises: Zombie Capitalism: Global Crisis and the Relevance of Marx.  Even “post-Marxists” like Negri find this connection (capital and gothic monster) strangely attractive.  Here’s Negri from one his best books/collections, Labor of Dionysus: “Why not, in any case, operate scientifically on this plane, reconstructing the dynamics of domination, the functioning of the State and law, as functions of the absurd and wretched machinations of that which is dead? Vampires and zombies seem more than ever the appropriate metaphors for the rule of capital.”

Given the origins of the pop cult zombie in the horror genres of the 1930s, this kind of “labor” reading makes sense.  It also makes sense existentially – – who hasn’t felt “like a zombie” after a hard work day?  Ironically, these two readings of the zombie focus on the two great poles of capitalist economics: production and consumption.  Zombies are either disfigured emblems of the masses as consumers or grotesque symbols of capitalist labor’s alienation and de-humanization.

Compelling as they are, what both readings tend to miss however is the engine that drives the contemporary zombie flick: the fear of engulfment.  Today’s zombies – – especially compared with the early Hollywood zombies – – pose no danger individually; fear comes when our protagonists – – be they hunkered down in shopping mall, skyscraper, or pub – – are confronted by wave after wave of zombies.  In today’s zombie movie, numerosity counts!  Zombies are the ultimate hydra-headed threat – – they multiply indiscriminately, they coalesce into angry swarms, and they keep on coming.

There is here, I think, a deep connection to the imperialist history of the zombie.  “Exterminate all the brutes,” Kurtz writes in his own epitaph in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  And, from machine-gun toting video gamers to ghurka-knife-wielding Milla Jovovich, the sheer mass of mindless, threatening undead in today’s zombie narrative elicits a similar sentiment and license.  From Haiti to

Vietnam and beyond, the imperialist machine translates cultural difference into not just the less human, but the anti-human.  The zombie genre’s meticulous attention to the means of extermination – – think of Max Brooks’ careful anatomy of anti-zombie weapons in The Zombie Survival Guide or the super-militarized “Dead Reckoning” vehicle in Romero’s Land of the Dead – – reflects the worst of imperialism’s ugly pleasures.

The historical connection between zombies and labor is, perhaps, even more important to the current boom in undead narratives.  In their infinitely pluralizing and massed bodies, as in “Flock of Zombies” above, we can see the zombie as one of today’s most popular avatars of the multitude – – from the streets of Cairo to Seattle and backward in time to San Francisco in 1934.  Today’s zombies flock, pullulate, horde, and swarm.  They are Legion: “Perhaps,” Negri writes of the multitude, “the real threat of this demonic multitude is more metaphysical: since it is at once singular and plural, it destroys numerical distinction itself.”  And, indeed, cross-cutting between the parody of Hitchcock’s Birds (1964) in Resident Evil: Extinction (2007), various zombie hordes, and contemporary street uprisings, we can see that each is fascinated by the image of emergence – – the process whereby complexity emerges from simple and singular behaviors.  The undead thirst for living flesh, and this desire animates, organizes, and creates the agency of the multitude.

This represents more than simply a fear of the crowd or the mob.  The mob’s danger lies in its chaos and irrationality; the zombie multitude’s danger lies in its purposiveness, its implacable ambition.  Mobs radiate and disperse; zombie hordes concentrate and enclose.  Mobs are contingent; zombie masses are inevitable.

The fatality of the zombie multitude implies an even more fundamental connection to capitalist labor.  John Holloway succinctly describes the central antagonism within capital’s relation to labor this way:  “Capital, by its very definition, flees from insubordinate labor power in pursuit of more wealth, but can never escape from its dependence on the subordination of labor.”   In other words, capital both fears and needs living labor.  Even as it produces alienated labor – – mindless, repetitive,  and meaningless, capital flees from the living labor it can never finally enclose and contain.  As in the original zombie flick, White Zombie (1932), capitalism’s ideal worker is the zombie, but zombification can never be complete.  And, so, capital is trapped in a dialectic of fight and flight, subordination and insubordination, that drives it across oceans and continents.

This is the central structure of feeling in today’s zombie narrative – –  the proliferation of zombies grinding against the desperation to escape.  Zombies are not symptoms of consumerism.  Zombie narratives are transcripts of capital’s nightmare of labor, the multitude in their most demonaic aspect.


One Response to Notes on a Political History of the Zombie (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: Prisoners of the Page: Or, Pity the Fate of the Poor OP | Babylon Is Burning

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