The Political Economy of the Living Dead: The evolution of zombie consciousness

Curator's Note

There are all kinds of Zombie movies. There are movies about slow zombies, movies about fast zombies, movies about monstrous mutated zombies, and even movies about zombies in love. Yet, one filmmaker, more than any other defines the genre. George A. Romero’s zombie movies have been lauded by critics for both his mastery of suspense and his commentary on society. The narrative arc of the franchise pits the continuously developing zombies against humans shackled by the specters of late capitalism in order to shine a light on humanities monstrous impulses. Romero’s critiques of capitalism and greed are most visible in Dawn of the Dead and Land of the Dead.

In Dawn, Romero sets the film inside a shopping mall allowing the protagonists not just anything they could need, but also anything they could want. Despite the excess, the humans begins to divide, the zombies break in, and the group must escape their sanctuary. The zombies, drawn to the mall through a mindless avarice make mockery of our own consumer culture. As the protagonists flee for their lives the zombies aimlessly ride the escalators, moving through the mall on an endless quest to satisfy a hunger that can never be sated.

 In Land of the Dead the zombies have taken over the world. Humanity’s survivors have regrouped inside a walled city. The very rich live in luxury but everyone else must struggle to survive. During a supply raid the zombies attain a kind of consciousness and attack the walled city. As the zombies cooperatively move closer and closer towards something resembling class solidarity, humanity’s greed, selfishness, and paranoia continue to produce their own gravediggers. In the end, the zombies overrun the city’s defenses devouring rich and poor alike.

Romero’s work inspired a host of copycats, but Romero films are great because they recognize that even surround by a horde of undead, humanity is still its own worst enemy. The “Of the Dead” franchise is a blood-splattered reflection on the best and worst humanity has to offer. Thank you George, thank for making the world a more interesting and terrifying place.

Comments

Kyle Christensen's picture

A Community of Monsters

Antonio, as I was reading through your curator’s notes, I was struck by your description of the zombies in Land of the Dead as “cooperatively mov[ing] closer and closer towards something resembling class solidarity.” I find this notion of solidarity amongst these monsters intriguing in that it might move us beyond the discussion of class/consumption and zombie narratives that you have concisely addressed here, and toward other discussions regarding how community is represented in these films. To be sure, the Living Dead series has always explored what happens when particular human communities are invaded by the undead (even the strangers trapped in the farmhouse in the original Night of the Living Dead begrudgingly become a sort of community, and by extension, a microcosm of the issues affecting larger society). Likewise, as your reflection suggests, human beings also create narrow communities based on their shared value systems (including, again, their mutual class values).

I wonder if there is an argument to be made about the existence of community amongst zombie populations, as well. On one hand, these monsters do work together as a united front in order to invade each new locale they stumble across, something that they could never do if working alone. On the other hand, communities are also purposefully constructed, negotiated, and enacted, which the Romero zombies (devoid of any propensity for logic and rational thought) are perhaps not capable of achieving. Maybe the question is not whether the zombie horde would “count” as a community as it is traditionally defined, but whether zombies radically alter and threaten our understandings of community as we currently know it. Thanks for a great post that now has my wheels turning…

Antonio De La Garza's picture

Undead subjectivity

Hey Kyle, Thank you for the comment and the question. I think Romero’s theory of community might be very well developed and of particular relevance now. First and perhaps most apparent is his critique of the formation of community based on the exclusion of “others.” The zombies’ “unlife” could serve as an allegory for “bare life.” Zombies are identifiable, interchangeable, human enough to represent an existential threat, yet stripped of enough humanity to make any act of violence against them easy to justify. The survivors, on the bases of their common enemy, forge a community based on the principles of us vs. them. And yet, Romero shows us just how destructive and violent that form of community can be.

Even as the zombies seem to parody the consumer rat race, they also don’t actively work against each other. Each Z is out for its own sake; they might impede each others progress but there does not seem to be any malice in a zombie, just hunger. This leads me to believe that the zombies lack any coherent notion of community until Land of the Dead. Land is different because during one of the human raids into occupied territory, as zombies are being killed indiscriminately, zombie subjectivity is born. This is the first time that the audience sees zombies experience the deaths of there own kind as a loss. The zombies become grievable subjects, if only to each other. In the Land of the Dead the sense of community based on shared precarity ultimately triumphs over the community based on exclusion.

Andrew Spieldenner's picture

What do zombies reveal?

I’m struck thinking about the roles of zombies as antagonists. The horror genre antagonists and protagonists provide social commentary about our world. They reveal cultural constructions of power, social norms, and fears. They become signifiers for the moment they emerge from.

What, then, do zombies do?

Zombies circle humans. They hunt, they feed, they shamble, they riot, they rot… they do these things, but they do it by circling humans - whether together or alone. Zombie narratives, then, become all about humanity. What does the success of zombies in the past two decades - their proliferation throughout popular culture - indicate about us? Are they a response to a narcissistic need to make it “all about us?”

Ben Ogrodnik's picture

violating boundaries of inside and outside

Good post.

One transgressive aspect of the zombie, which I think the discussion has touched on, is their violation of a spatial division of inside and outside, in both physical and cultural terms.

Day of the Dead’s military bunker and Night of the Living Dead’s farm house represent defensive spaces, and defensive conceptions of identity, that fall apart under the swarm of zombie masses.

This idea of containment against the zombie Other, and the desperate (ultimately hopeless) struggle to preserve divisions of outside/inside as they fall apart, are aspects of Romero’s zombie franchise that have re-emerged in recent, socially conscious horror films.

I’m thinking of Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room (2015) and Trey Edward Shults’s It Comes at Night (2017). Both films - like the Dead franchise - are based around spatial divisions and the bloody destruction of a sense of identity built around keeping the alien Other outside at all times.

It is obvious how relevant Romero’s ideas have become in our own time where the US political culture is increasingly isolationist, self-destructive and paranoid about being contaminated by all kinds of outsiders…

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