Thursday, August 08, 2013

Zombies in utopia

[Here's the text of the latest lecture in my Studying Sociology through Film paper]

This week's movie is almost as old as the 'Atenisi Institute. The Last Man on Earth was released in 1964, after being made cheaply in Italy by the directors Ulbado Ragona and Sidney Salkow. The film is based on a novel called I Am Legend, which was published in 1954 by Richard Matheson.  

The Last Man on Earth has had a particular influence on what we might call zombie subculture. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries the zombie, understood as a grotesque, half-witted, flesh-eating creature, has been the anti-hero of scores of movies, books, comics, and video games. 

Modern zombies are typically a cause or at least a by-product of the breakdown of civilisation, and typically travel in groups. In films like Twenty-Eight Days Later, video games like Resident Evil, and television series like The Walking Dead we see them shuffling and swaying through the ruins of cities, muttering idiotic phrases and drooling blood, and searching for the sweet flesh of a handful of humans who have survived their awful fate. The remnant of healthy humanity barricades itself in a series of seemingly safe places - in malls, in schools, on remote farms, and even in prisons - and aims a variety of weapons - crossbows, high-powered rifles, mortars, machine guns - at the zombies, killing thousands of the creatures, and yet typically failing to stop the tide of undead. Zombies are moronic but relentless, pitiful but terrifying.  
It might seem odd for us to spend time considering zombies in a paper which is supposed to focus on sociology. Isn't the zombie a rather silly creature? More to the point, isn't the zombie fictitious? Shouldn't we be studying a real-life problem that twenty-first century human societies faces, like inequality or alienation or pollution, rather than the imaginary problem of a world over-run with zombies?  

I want to offer two answers to these objections. 

In the first place, I want to note the great and increasing popularity of the zombie subculture. In his recently published essay 'Locating Zombies in the Sociology of Popular Culture', University of Missouri sociologist Todd Platt notes that five billion dollars is now generated every year by forms of popular entertainment devoted to zombies. Over the last decade or so the zombie has become more popular than ever before.  

In the second place, I want to echo the great English historian EP Thompson, and argue that any aspect of a culture, no matter apparently frivolous, can act as a 'keyhole' through which we can see bigger and more important things. I think that, if we gaze through the 'keyhole' that is the zombie subculture, we can see some of the essential problems and obsessions of our era.  

The concept of the zombie originates in Haiti, where it is associated with the Vodou religion. Many Haitians believe that powerful Vodou priests have the ability to make the dead rise from their graves. The Haitian zombie is not a fearsome, flesh-eating creature, but a docile being which performs manual labour for its master.
In The Rainy Season, the book she wrote after spending years as a journalist in Haiti, Amy Wilfrentz argued that the zombie was originally a manifestation of the worst fears of Haitian slaves. Forced to plant and harvest sugarcane and other crops by their French masters, these men and women saw death as a release from their bondage, and looked forward to returning in spirit form to their African homeland. The prospect of being raised from the grave and forced to continue their labours was terrifying, because it suggested there was no escape, even in death, from slavery. The United States invaded Haiti in 1915, and remained in the country for two decades. During that time a number of American writers visited Haiti, and described the Vodou religion for their readers back home. Soon Hollywood was making movies with titles like Revolt of the Zombies and King of the Zombies 
In the 1960s zombie movies began to gain larger audiences and to be taken more seriously by reviewers. The Last Man on Earth was one of the first films to link zombies to the destruction of civilisation. As you will see, the film's hero, a scientist played by Vincent Price, has survived a virus which has turned other humans, including even his wife, into zombies. The film opens with a series of silent, lingering shots of deserted apartment complexes and motorway systems. These monuments of modernity have suddenly become as melancholy as the ruins of ancient Rome.  

The Last Man on Earth prepared the way for George Romero's very influential 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, in which zombies swarm across a contemporary American landscape, destroying civilisation one bite at a time. 

In 2008, a couple of scholars at Berkeley University taught a course called The Zombie Film. In their outline for the course, Jeremy Cheng and Cheryl Mark talked about the 'unpleasurably pleasurable' sensations that zombie movies give to their fans. Cheng and Mark used this awkward phrase to express the paradoxical fact that we find zombies revolting and frightening, and yet enjoy watching them swarm across movie and game screens. How can we understand the immense popularity of the apocalyptic zombie today? Why do so many of us enjoy seeing flesh-eating creatures rampaging through the ruins of our cities? 

I want to try to suggest an explanation for the zombie phenomenon by looking at some of the old impulses and ideas which lie, half-submerged, in this new entertainment genre.  

My son enjoys playing with the babushka, a Russian toy in which a series of dolls are hidden inside each other. My friend Adrian Price tells me that, during a visit to Russia a few years ago, he acquired a babushka in which the largest doll was painted to look like Vladimir Putin. After he slid open the doll, Adrian found Boris Yeltsin, Putin's predecessor as leader of Russia; inside Yeltsin was Josef Stalin, the old dictator of the Soviet Union. The person who carved Adrian's babushka was making a point about history. Inside the present, he was saying, lies the past. To understand the present properly we need to understand the past.  

Just like a Russian doll, one form of culture can have another buried inside it. I want to argue that the zombie subculture is a descendant of the utopian and dystopian literature which was an important part of European culture for hundreds of years. Some of you will have studied Plato's dialogue Republic with Maikolo Horowitz last year, and know that it offers, in a fair amount of detail, a blueprint for an ideal society. Plato tells us who should lead such a society - he wants, of course, philosopher-kings in charge - explains how discipline should be maintained, and even provides instructions for those who would farm the soil of utopia.  
From the beginning, the concept of utopia has been connected dialectically with the concept of dystopia. Just as we can't have the concept of wealth without the idea of poverty, so we can't understand the notion of an ideal society without being able to imagine its hellish opposite. Sometimes one and the same society can be a dystopia and a utopia. While some of Plato's readers have been impressed by his vision of the ideal society, others have found it nightmarish. The distinguished New Zealand classicist Ted Jenner, for instance, thinks that Plato's Republic would have been an awful place to live, on account of its dictatorial government and its ban on poetry. 

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries hundreds of books describing the outlines of the ideal or worst society were published in Europe and in the Americas. Some of them, like the English socialist William Morris' News from Nowhere, which described a society where class divisions had been abolished and where work was less important than pleasure, are still read today.  

The twentieth century saw a series of revolutions and attempts to establish radically new societies. After taking power in 1917, for example, Russia's communists tried to turn their country into a classless and atheistic society where the old influences of the church and the wealthy were absent. For many observers, revolutions like Russia's represented attempts to build utopias in the real world. These revolutions seemed to show that it was possible to change the world, and to make it better place.  

But the series of revolutions which broke out early in the twentieth century eventually disappointed many of their followers. The Soviet Union became not a utopia but a dull, repressive society, and collapsed in 1991. The end of the Soviet Union and other revolutionary societies in the early '90s encouraged influential Western politicians and intellectuals to claim that American-style free market capitalism was the only economic and social system which could survive in the modern world. According to them, the sort of radical change which the Soviet Union had once represented had been shown to be a dangerous illusion, and the stock exchanges, shopping malls, and sprawling cities of America provided the only real model for future human societies. Proponents of free market capitalism used the acronym TINA, which stands for 'There Is No Alternative', to justify their policies.  
More than twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, no new alternative to American-style capitalism has caught the imagination of the world's peoples. As we saw last week, the global financial crisis of 2008 has created ongoing economic problems in many nations. Even many people who have not been affected by the economic disasters of recent years still worry about other features of contemporary society. They fret about the danger global warming poses to the environment, or the impact of consumer culture, with its glorification of money and shopping, on the young.  

I want to argue that, because a credible alternative to capitalist society has disappeared, we are increasingly inclined to use movies and other forms of entertainment that show an apocalyptic future as locations for discussions about the problems that beset us and about what might be done to solve these problems. Since we cannot imagine the society in which we live being changed radically by political action - by voting, or street protests, or a general strike - we imagine it changed by some catastrophe like the arrival of an army of zombies. The post-apocalypse story has become today's equivalent of the utopian and dystopian writings of the nineteenth century, or the discussions about the Soviet Union and other revolutionary societies which were such a part of the twentieth century.  

There have always been utopian and dystopian elements lurking in the post-apocalypse story. In John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids, which was published in 1951 and has become one of the most popular of all post-apocalypse stories, inspiring a film, a television series, and a radio play, the vast majority of humans have been turned blind by comet-like objects which flashed across the sky one night. The sighted humans form small groups which advocate different models for the rebuilding of civilisation. One group, whose leader is a left-wing radical in the tradition of the Russian revolution, wants to treat the masses of blind people and the sighted minority as equals. Another group is led by pious Christians who look to the Bible for solutions to the world's crisis. Yet another group proposes returning to the Middle Ages, and recreating a feudal system where the sighted lord it over the blind. Wyndham uses his novel to outline and discuss some of the different ways in which a society can be organised.  

Kim Paffenroth would probably agree with my remarks about zombie movies. Paffenroth, who lectures at a Christian college in America, uses his book Gospel of the Living Dead to argue that the zombie film has evolved in recent decades into a form of social criticism. Movies like Night of the Living Dead offer us, Paffenroth insists, a 'chilling moan from our conscience'. They show us what is wrong with our world, and sometimes suggest how new and better worlds might be built.  

British director Danny Boyle's Twenty-Eight Days Later is perhaps the most popular of all twenty-first century zombie films. The heroes of Boyle's story are a man and a woman who travel across England pursued by hordes of zombies infected with a 'rage virus' created by scientists. After forming a de facto family by adopting an orphaned girl, the couple encounter a group of soldiers who have formed an all-male, hierarchical, strictly disciplined mini-society in a barricaded country mansion. The soldiers have managed to hold back the zombies, but their macho world collapses when they encounter the wandering family. Twenty-Eight Days Later plays on British fears about the misuse of science by the state, the creeping militarisation of life in the aftermath of 9/11, and the breakdown of the family. Boyle shows the militarised world as a dystopia, and the tiny world of his heroes' improvised family as a fragile utopia.  

But it seems to me that the popularity of the zombie subculture can't only be explained by a desire to imagine an alternative reality, where American-style capitalism has come to grief and alternative social systems must be created. The tremendous violence of zombie films calls for an additional, darker explanation. The mass slaughter of zombies in films like Night of the Living Dead and Twenty-Eight Days Later has given audiences pleasure, as a visit to internet forums where zombie fans chat demonstrates, and the popularity of the Resident Evil games, which allow their players to become zombie-killers, speaks for itself. 

It seems to me that, for twenty-first century audiences uncomfortable with the killing of large numbers of humans in the action flicks of earlier eras, the zombie movie offers a guilt-free gorefest. While the victims of James Bond and Rambo were human, even if evil, the zombies who die in movies like Twenty-Eight Days Later suffer from a virus which has turned them into a different and inferior species. To kill them is mercy, rather than murder. It is hard to see the blood and body parts of zombies flying about without remembering Freud's claim that the id - the pleasure-seeking, unempathetic, irrational part of the human mind - seeks continually to escape from the control of the civilising part of the mind he called the superego.  

The Last Man on Earth is an important film partly because it not only raises the question of how to build a new society but confronts audiences with their desire to dehumanise zombies. The hero of the film eventually comes into contact with a young woman who appears to be free of the virus which has turned the rest of humanity into zombies. After taking a sample of her blood, though, he discovers that she is infected with the virus, and she confesses to belonging to a group of sufferers who have learnt to overcome some of their symptoms. These semi-zombies are attempting to build a new, post-human society, and they eventually put the hero to death. In Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, the doomed hero accepts his fate, acknowledging that, as an uninfected human being, he is the symbol of a bygone world, 'a legend' in the making. In The Last Man on Earth the hero dies angrily, shouting "You're all a bunch of freaks!" at the part-zombie post-humans, but his status as the last member of an outmoded species is acknowledged.  

In the big budget 2007 movie I Am Legend, though, the ending of Matheson's book and its 1964 film adaption is fundamentally changed. The hero, who is played by Will Smith, produces a vaccine which turns zombies back into normal, healthy humans. Smith is killed by zombies near the end of the film, but his vaccine resurrects human civilisation, and the film ends happily. It can be argued that, by restoring humanity to health, the 2007 version of I Am Legend tries to evade some of the big questions about societal crisis and society-building that other post-apocalypse movies raise.
Some possible questions for discussion
  1. Do you find it hard or easy to imagine the society you live in being radically reshaped, either by a natural disaster like the outbreak of a deadly disease or by political action? A recent study reported by Islands Business magazine and the Matangi Tonga news site concluded that a tsunami could easily wipe out almost the whole of Nuku’alofa, and therefore leave Tonga without a functioning government and without most of its industries and shops. Do you think that such a disaster could lead to the breakdown of the ordinary rules of life in the country, and the appearance of the sort of savage behaviour shown in zombie movies?
  1. Do you think it is useful to think about utopias and dystopias, or are fantasies about the ideal society and the worst possible society unhelpful distractions from reality? In other words, was Plato wasting his time when he composed his Republic?
  1. How do you feel when you watch a zombie movie, or play a game like Resident Evil? Do you experience the contradictory ‘unpleasurably pleasurable’ sensations that Berkeley University scholars described? In other words, do you feel frightened, but enjoy being frightened?  
  1. Does violence towards zombies, either on the movie or the game screen, seem to you different than violence against humans? Would it be appropriate to mourn the death of a zombie?
  1. How do you feel about the way in which a failed human society is superseded, at the end of The Last Man on Earth, by the new species created out of the virus which has swept the world? Is the ‘last man’ justified in condemning those who replace him as ‘freaks’?
 [Posted by Scott Hamilton]




Anonymous Anonymous said...

A Brazilian teenager killed his police officer parents, his grandmother and his great-aunt, and then, after a full day at school, took his own life.

The five bodies were found before dawn on Tuesday inside two houses located on the same property in northern Sao Paulo, they said.

"Everything seems to indicate that (13-year-old) Marcelo (Pesseghini) killed his parents and relatives," Itagiba Franco, of the Sao Paulo Civilian Police's homicide department, told a press conference.

Forensic examinations were under way but police said the teen's parents were killed late Sunday or in the early hours of Monday.
Mr Franco said Marcelo had told a friend he wanted to kill his parents and become a hitman.

He always told me he wanted to become a hired killer.

He had a plan to kill his parents during the night, so that no one would notice and escape in the parents' car and live in an abandoned place," police quoted the unidentified friend as saying.

The teen was found dead, with his father's police-issue service revolver nearby, Sao Paulo police commander Benedito Roberto Meira said.

A second gun, a .32 caliber revolver, was found inside the backpack the teenager had brought to school on Monday, Mr Meira added, saying "there was no sign that someone broke into the house".
The police commander ruled out "an act of revenge by a criminal group" against the teenager's father and mother.

6:52 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Scott - I haven't read this post but I'm commenting as I want to send this specific URL to my son as I think he may play Resident Evil.
I'll be back when I've read it all through...

9:29 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

You didn't mention Thomas More who wrote the original book "Utopia".

The main thing that Plato and Socrates developed was a systematic logic. A kind of early Sherlock Holmes method! It's still worth reading Plato though. The Socratic dialogues make for interesting discussions.

To the social systems there may be a third. Or there may be many. There is no inevitability in any "system" but history also shows that many forms of Government and social structures change.

The Soviet Union was more or less one of the first in the 20th to attempt large social change. Surrounded by enemies and with people not really ready in psychological and other ways, and with internal contradictions: the USSR and China transformed into something state-captialist states.

Not all that happened was bad though. It is part possibly of an overall historical development.

It is possible the Zombie-killing and the apocalypse "jag" everyone is on is a symptom of a kind of depression.

One thing is for sure, if you spend hours obsessing over all the "bad things", it all seems quite hopeless - and this is something one can learn from history - the Romans for example, at various times would cry:

'O tempores! O mores!' Bewailing the terrible times. There are no guarantees now but there were none the neither and we are still in existence, tsunamis, global warming, or the "Greenie we cant do anything you need to worry about the fact we cant do anything even if such worry is completely useless because to worry about everything shows you care about the coming Apocalypse - please send $100 for our Misery Activists", or whatever.

In other words, there is no need for Brazilian teenagers or anyone else to despair. Of course it is hard sometimes for the young to see the many possibilities.

Contra the Greenies, Zombie killers, and others: Where there is life, in other words, there is hope.

10:12 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like George A Romero's zombie films and I probably do feel a bit of a guilty pleasure in them. Dawn of the Dead is the one most often cited for its social critique (of consumerism). Zombie movies, like most cinema, relate in some way to the concerns of the day, as you alluded. The early ones, White Zombie and the like, were set in the Caribbean and had the "voodoo zombie" as the monster. As US direct occupation of Haiti dropped from the public gaze, so interest in the zombie fell away. "I Walked with a Zombie" is an exception (and a very cool one), being in essence a retelling of Jane Eyre set in the Caribbean. There were a few other pretty weak zombie movies between the 30s and "The Last Man on Earth" but significantly, the only really important one after that to feature voodoo was "Plague of the Zombies", bringing everyone's favourite West Indian monster to sunny Cornwall. After that, it was "Night of the Living Dead" and the flesh-eating apocalyptic zombie was established.

What brings on the zombie plague is interesting though. In "Night", it's unclear, but possibly a meteorite, which fits with the scifi preoccupation of the 50s and 60s. In later films and games, especially from the 90s on (28 Days Later's Rage virus and Resident Evil's T-virus), it is the military-industrial complex and genetic engineering that brings on the apocalypse. So there has been a change from the "Something out there" fear associated with the space race to a pessimistic view of humanity's perceived propensity to hubris and self destruction, which mirrors the rest of society.

And of course there are already zombie movies premised on a more sympathetic view of te zombie itself, the most recent is "Warm Blood" but there have been others before that - there are short films on YouTube seen from the zombie perspective, and there has been at least one full length feature film, the name of which I've forgotten, which documents the gradual decay and disintegration of a (largely sympathetic) zombie protagonist.
John Edmundson

10:19 pm  
Anonymous Zombie Survival Guide said...

The Zombie Survival Guide, written by American author Max Brooks and published in 2003, is a survival manual dealing with the fictional potentiality of a zombie attack. It contains detailed plans for the average citizen to survive zombie uprisings of varying intensity and reach, and describes "cases" of zombie outbreaks in history, including an interpretation of Roanoke Colony. The Zombie Survival Guide was also featured on The New York Times Best Seller's list.

8:27 am  
Anonymous Zombie Survival Guide said...


8:30 am  
Anonymous Pete said...

Interesting. There's also another position that posits the zombie trend comes out of anxiety over technology.

9:26 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

video games ruined my life...good thing I had 2 xtra lives hahahahahahahahahahahahahaha

3:49 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

6:45 pm  
Blogger Paul Janman said...

What about the obvious interpretation - zombies are symbolic of mass indoctrination to soporific consumerist ideology... One of my best finds of recent year was 'Juan of the Dead' - obviously a take off of the American 'Shaun of the Dead' except it's set in modern day Havana. The film uses all of the visual tropes of Cuban revolutionary propaganda - the same colour scheme and postures of photos of Castro and Guevara speaking to crowds etc except that they crowds have become zombies and the 'great leader' is a chainsaw wielding zombie killing hero. Is he killing off the masses of numbskulls who sold out the revolution or is he killing off the masses of numbskulls who have succumbed to a watery, pragmatised Marxism? You decide.

9:14 pm  
Blogger Paul Janman said...

Here's the trailer:

9:15 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It’s not about pretty its about efficiency. A lot of folks run for the gun cabinet but the truly savvy go looking for the most blunt and effective way to destroy the brain. That is anything from a baseball bat… to a toilet lid! Kill with Efficiency… don’t use weapons that need something else ( like bullets ) to work. Use weapons you can swing over and over and over since you don’t tend to run into one zombie at a time.

3:27 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alonzo, my mate who has just finished this Bilders video, told me that as he was sapling images on the internet, he started to wonder whether they were authentic or not. COuld it be that some of the war images he chose to use, were actually staged using Zombie film technology? Please don't watch if you will be offended by images of recent M.E. & African violence. Cheers, Bill D.

8:00 pm  
Anonymous Edward said...

A post about Vampires and Zombies, as a horror fan I feel spoilt.

I think you have hit upon some interesting points about the role of zombies in modern culture. Both in terms of an imagined post-apocalyptic society ("what would happen if it all just fell apart?") and in terms of a base desire in some of us for guilt-free violence. As a fan and avid player of the Resident Evil series, for me, this is true on both counts. I've always found the idea of a lack of order and a rise of chaos both horrifying and intriguing. I have no taste for the imperialist and misanthropic such as 'Call of Duty', but can't help but enjoy zombie-murder. Maybe it reflects a deep sense of cultural malaise - the dissaffected 'y' generation.

A new 'horror rom-com' called 'Warm Bodies' touches lightly on the concept of zombies having their own culture. In the end they learn to co-exist with the surviving humans. I found the concept interesting.

12:22 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

‘I believe that the catastrophe story, whoever may tell it, represents a constructive and positive act by the imagination rather than a negative one, an attempt to confront the terrifying void of a patently meaningless universe by challenging it at its own game, to remake zero by provoking it in every conceivable way’ – J.G. Ballard

12:08 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

Thanks John, Richard, Paul, Edward and Bill for those very interesting comments. Here's another interesting comment on the political economy of zombie films, which somebody gave me when I posted a link to this post on facebook:

I think that there is something sinister underneath the current (US) obsession with all things zombie, at least in certain quarters. The zombie 'threat' is now being used to market some pretty exotic weaponry to both gun nuts and survivalists. Even brands like Remington are producing versions of their police and military firearms in lime green camo to cash in. In the past, US survivalists would talk in barely coded terms about the 'deterioration of the urban situation', or even more telling, would refer to potentially threatening refugees collectively as 'the urbans'. So, while it is no longer acceptable or sane to stockpile weapons for a race war, it is somehow perfectly acceptable to possess an arsenal designed to rapidly mow down crowds of imaginary reanimated corpses:

4:10 pm  
Blogger Marty Mars said...

Interesting post - I've just watched World War Z - I've never been a zombie fan but the ones in that movie were pretty endearing - I liked that they moved fast (much better than the shuffling undead) and it really showed the panic situations where those fast-movers start biting, quite well or perhaps how I imagine it would be. As I watched I couldn't help but think of those zombies as consumerism in the extreme. The masses of zombies running around reminded me of video I've seen of infestations of mice. The ending is poor (the whole movie is not that good imo) but I did like the fact that being dead is the only solution - take that damn zombies!

5:57 pm  
Blogger starwarsmodern said...

Hey I really enjoyed this post, but am a little confused about authorship. Is there any way to contact you all via email?

11:24 pm  
Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

All the posts here are by me, John - alas, my partners Skyler and Muzzlehatch deserted me years ago! You can contact me at

11:22 am  
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