[Here's the text of the latest lecture in my Studying Sociology through Film
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
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
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
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
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
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.
questions for discussion
- 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?
- 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?
- 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
- 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?
- 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]