Why zombies?













The current wave of zombie entertainment began with 28 Days Later, moved on to Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead, which spawned a remake of Day of the Dead, and, from George Romero, Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was a hit novelty book, and suddenly zombies were everywhere, culminating in The Walking Dead and now World War Z, which became a smash hit in spite of a wave of negative buzz.

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Why is this happening? I’d accepted the success of well-made zombie entertainment, but The Walking Dead and World War Z aren’t just hits, they’re phenomenons. Out of nowhere, “zombie holocaust” memes have sprouted all over the internet. People talk about it jokingly, but Americans have spent tremendous numbers of hours studying this hypothetical event, debating its possible causes, running a kind of fantasy-baseball game where they try to think of how best to prepare for one. “Zombie holocaust” is currently one of the defining terms of our culture. We are officially obsessed with zombies.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and then, suddenly, the answer struck me during the government shutdown. “Zombie Holocaust” is the game-plan for the GOP, and has been since George W. Bush was elected stole the election in 2000.

The thing that makes zombies terrifying, cinematically, is that they are everywhere, they destroy everything, and they don’t stop coming. Just when the protagonist has shot one in the head, five more burst through a door and grab his legs. The most well-laid plans in dealing with them fall afoul of their imperviousness to pain, their multitudes and their ability to just keep coming. And so, instead of rebuilding civilization, the protagonists’ time is all taken up with simply surviving, keeping everyone alive, defending the stronghold.

During the recent government shutdown, I realized that the GOP has been studying zombie movies to glean a viable attack strategy against the hated Democrats. Since the election of Bill Clinton, they have had no ideas for governance, they have existed purely for the sake of destruction. They didn’t like the results of the 1992 election, so they spent all their energy trying to reverse the results of it. In eight years of Bush II, they plundered the treasury, destroyed American infrastructure, squandered our resources and killed millions of people. When they didn’t like the results of the 2000 election, they fought to reverse them until it came down to Bush illegally petitioning the justices of the Supreme Court that his father has instated before he could “win.” When they saw that they were going to lose in 2004, they rigged the results in Ohio as well. When they realized they could no longer win any elections because there just aren’t enough racist whites left in the country, they redistricted all their states so that they could stack the deck of Congress while losing the popular votes.

Finally, in 2008, a black man was elected president by a margin so overwhelming that even the GOP had to concede defeat. They couldn’t take the 2008 vote to the GOP-purchased Supreme Court, so they’ve done the next best thing: turned into full-time zombies. They have no ideas, they have no plan for governance, they have no alternate vision of civilization, they wish only to destroy. They wish to destroy the presidency of any Democrat, and if they can’t they will destroy the government they were elected to preserve. In so doing, they gladly, enthusiastically harm their own constituents, oblivious to their pain, inhuman in their lack of empathy. They’re slow and stupid but they just keep coming, brainless, mindless, impervious to pain and incapable of even recognizing the harm they’re doing to themselves.

Horror movies have always reflected their times, brought the society’s deepest fears to light. Godzilla echoed the horror of the atomic bomb, the Body Snatchers evoked McCarthy, and now zombies impersonate the Republican party. It is the prime metaphor of our national moment.

UPDATE: The Political Omnivore, by the way, has another, equally valid, take on the phenomenon.


8 Responses to “Why zombies?”
  1. BenjaminJB says:

    One thing to add to this analysis: as you said, zombies are relentless and destructive–and, usually, they also used to be people we knew.

    Now, I don’t know the politics of your friends and family, but I can relate to that in some ways: the idea that people you know have turned into slavering monsters calling for the blood of the poor and the impeachment of Obama–that’s pretty horrifying.

    Especially with Thanksgiving right around the corner.

    • Todd says:

      I sighed and ground my teeth during the Clinton impeachment, I didn’t have that many friends who were secretly conservative. Bush being elected was a nightmare, and 9/11 was a nightmare too, but for me the lines weren’t drawn until Katrina, when suddenly I saw elected officials on TV talking about how the dead people in New Orleans only had themselves to blame, and how their now-destroyed homes should be bulldozed and the land given to developers to put up high-rise condos and hotels. That’s where the rubber hit the road for me.

      • Jim Galasyn says:

        I had the week off when Katrina hit New Orleans, and I watched the horror unfold hour-by-hour. By Thursday of that week, I was apoplectic with rage at Bush and “Brownie”, their blandishments, and their naked sociopathy. I wrote an LTE to the Seattle Times, demanding that our troops be withdrawn from Iraq to rebuild the Gulf and demanding impeachment of Bush (http://seattletimes.com/html/opinion/2002468147_sunlets04.html). Fat lot of good that did. I *did* get a threatening phone message saying that I should be “impeached as an American”, which was cool.

  2. OldSkoolGeek says:

    Another interesting take I’ve heard? Considering that the sole raison d’etre of zombies is to kill us (and thus Western civilization) via mindless and frequently suicidal behavior, there’s an analogue between zombies and our exaggerated fears of Islamic terrorism.

    There’s a reason why Israel was the set piece for one of WORLD WAR Z’s big swarm scenes.

    • Todd says:

      I remember going to see Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead in 2004, sitting down front in the crowded theater, and feeling dizzy and feverish during his effective and upsetting depiction of a suburb gone to hell overrun with zombies with chaos outbreaks everywhere. Then the movie cuts to the credits, which are a video montage of the world going to hell, and the very first shot is of a bunch of Muslims at prayer. Just in case we didn’t get the metaphor. In 2004 it certainly seemed like the world was going to hell, and it was certainly in the air that the country was secretly full of people who wanted to destroy us and take away our right to enjoy consumer goods in our own luxury shopping mall.

    • TheOmnivore says:

      After careful–and I mean careful–consideration, I think that WWZ’s Israel commentary is NOT particularly political in the Palestine / Israeli sense that most people mean it. It’s not a bad question but I believe the construction of the movie (vs. the book) leads towards simply “advancing the story” rather than “making a statement.”

      You can read the full political review here (The Omnivore does ‘The Politics of: X’ wherein I review the subject and then discuss, specifically, the politics of it):


  3. Alan Bostick says:

    I like The Political Omnivore’s take, but it makes me wonder: if their interpetation (the beleaguered rich surrounded by the slavering hordes of poor) is right, does that make Atlas Shrugged the root zombie narrative?

  4. Doug Orleans says:

    I posted a somewhat similar theory the last time you ruminated about zombie metaphors…

    But now I think The Political Omnivore is closer to the mark. People like to imagine being able to freely loot a mall full of stuff, while gunning down the mindless shuffling masses of “takers” who do nothing but get in your way. Notice how in these movies the government/military never survives, it’s pure anarchy– apart from small gangs, there’s no attempt to bond together in anything resembling a lawful society. It’s not that different from westerns, really, with zombies replacing indians as the inscrutable hordes who are only good when they’re (re)dead.