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We are Zombies

by Tomasz Konicz
Zombie movies are an apocalyptic genre, in which there is an inkling that the given social order cannot last & has reached its development limits. The first great wave of zombies hit the Western culture industry during the crisis period of the seventies of the 20th century, when the "Golden Age" of post-war capitalism, full employment and mass consumption, came to an end.
We are Zombies

On the occasion of the death of George Andrew Romero: A brief digression on the steep culture-industrial career that the phenomenon of the undead has enjoyed in recent years.

by Tomasz Konicz

[This article posted in 9/2017 is translated from the German on the Internet,]


online newspaper

Almost 400 million US dollars - that's how much the production and marketing of the zombie spectacle World War Z is said to have gobbled up. If Hollywood invests such a lavish sum in the exploitation of a cultural phenomenon that has been marginal for decades, then it must have arrived in the mainstream of the Western culture industry by now. Especially since this enormous investment apparently paid off in the end.

The zombies are everywhere. A veritable flood of undead cultural products is pouring over us, with dozens of zombie-infested movies and video games being published every year. The annual output of such cultural goods has long since reached new heights, even exceeding those of the first great wave of zombies in the seventies and eighties, when George A. Romero's classics Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978) gave the undead their first boost in popularity. According to the list of zombie films produced worldwide, which can be found on Wikipedia (yes, our Internet encyclopedia also keeps such essential lists), between 2010 and 2012 an average of 35 films were produced annually in which the undead play a supporting or leading role. In addition, there are numerous computer games in which the living dead have to be disassembled into individual parts in a more or less effective manner. In the seventies and eighties, however, the production output of the zombie industry never exceeded the mark of 12 films per year.

Not only is there a rapid proliferation of zombies in mass culture, the characteristics of the undead are also undergoing tremendous change. On the one hand, the scenario of the zombie apocalypse is increasingly being rationalized by attributing it to the spread of a dangerous virus or out-of-control military experiments (World War Z, 28 Days later). Moreover, today's early 21st century zombie, eager to keep up with the times, can hardly afford the sloppiness exhibited by its distant relatives in the second half of the 20th century. Beginning with the British zombie film 28 Days later (2002) and Zack Snyder's effective as well as flat remake of The Dawn of the Dead from 2004, the undead are becoming faster, more agile and also far more aggressive as individual specimens. Romero, on the other hand, relied fully on the mass effect - only in large groups do his undead develop their dangerousness. Instead of leisurely shuffling, the zombies of the 21st century, on the other hand, take to sprinting to grab their victims as soon as they locate them. The successful computer game series Left 4 Dead builds its entire gameplay precisely on this element of the undead constantly charging at the player, whose illusory existence between life and death could probably be attributed to excessive consumption of stimulants.

This undead hyperactivity was of course taken to the extreme by World War Z, where the zombies mutate into a furiously advancing and all-devouring human flood. Here, the victim bitten by a zombie needs around twelve seconds to transform into another representative of this species that expands with the speed of a bushfire - that's efficiency. World War Z also illustrates the compromises the zombie has had to make in its culture-industry career. This mainstream-compatible zombie film has had to forgo splatter effects almost entirely in order to reach the widest possible audience. However, this film genre has traditionally been the home of the excessive use of splatter and gore scenes, in which, after all, the (human) shreds literally fly. Hollywood created a sterile, quasi-family entertainment film here, robbed of an essential and at the same time controversial, subversive form of representation. The "infected" in World War Z no longer seemed to practice what zombies had always done: Literally devouring the (still) living before the eyes of the shocked viewer.

The decisive break with the (subversive) traditions of this film genre that World War Z makes, however, takes place on the level of content. Since The Night of the Living Dead, the groups of survivors facing the zombie apocalypse have been riddled with conflicts and contradictions, most of which escalate in parallel with zombie attacks. This is no longer the case with the film adaptation of World War Z, although the book by Max Brooks in particular engages in explicit criticism of police-state tendencies in the USA. Published in 2006, the book is structured like a series of seemingly genuine eyewitness accounts, depicting not only the zombie attacks, but also the arbitrary and brutal assaults by state authorities on bystanders. This fictional "oral history" of the zombie war reads at times like a sarcastic commentary on the scandalous police state excesses in dealing with the flood disaster in New Orleans. In the film adaptation, this subversive level has been completely erased; the security apparatus here makes a self-sacrificing effort to ensure safety. Moreover, we have to identify with the typical idyllic nuclear family, with the proverbial nucleus of society, whose cohesion was obviously far more important to the filmmakers dramaturgically than the atomic bomb blasts that interrupt the annoyingly stereotypical cell phone conversations between Pitt and his wife.

World War Z thus robs the zombie film of its subversive, critical dimension. The zombies are made into the Other, the stranger par excellence, lurking outside the seemingly unopposed society and family idyll - and thus embodying its threat from external forces that are to be kept out by (Israeli, US, European) walls and border fortifications. This externalization of the zombie into an external threat forms the fundamental, reactionary rupture that the film commits vis-à-vis the film genre. For, of course, the clashes among the survivors in the classic zombie film only point to the fact that the undead embody something that lies dormant deep within our own society-something that currently remains in a state of latency, but which could become manifest.

We are the zombies

The conflicts in the group are an expression of a society full of conflict. And it is the escalation of these conflicts that turns the survivors into the monsters that actually lurk outside the group in the form of the zombies. Whether it's the question of the right defense strategy in The Night of the Living Dead, the threatening rape of a minor by soldiers in 28 Days Later, or the battles with marauding gangs in Dawn of the Dead; escalating conflicts within the survivors always lead to the zombies being able to break through their defenses. Telltale's adventure game based on the popular zombie TV series The Walking Dead has developed these very conflicts between the "survivors" into a central game element. The player always has to take sides in the quarrels between group members, in which human lives are often at stake. "Where are the real monsters, in here or out there?" - a survivor asks when party members holed up in a grocer's store want to throw a child to the zombies because they believe it has been bitten.

"They are us." - "They are us," one of the protagonists in Romero's Dawn of the Dead says of all the zombies that incessantly stream outside the shuttered mall where the survivors have made themselves at home. The zombies, that's us. The undead visualizes in the end all the mutilations that life in late capitalism inflicted on the individual until it passed over into dissolution, was completely erased in the culture-industrial continuous bombardment. The zombie only visualizes "what the world has made of us," as Adorno put it in reference to the deformed subject in Beckett's absurd theater. Here, in the undead, the culture-industrially deformed "stumps of people, these people who have actually lost their ego," (Adorno) are made visible. The damaged interior of the mass-media mutilated, the "reduced" modern human being, who, for example, confuses consumption with freedom, finds its expression and visualization in the figure of the zombie.

The zombie is what the system makes of us. The main character in Romero's Land of the Dead (2005) expresses this zombie-ness of the reality of life of postmodern social atoms in late capitalism when he observes the zombies' selenium- and thoughtless imitation of everyday tasks: "Isn't that what we do too, pretend to live?" This sense of total alienation, of empty "illusory life" in late capitalism, can also be found in contemporary literature, for example in the recently published novel "The Clown Without a Place" by Thomas Martini: "The times are so devastatingly empty that we lack the air to breathe, let alone to shout or protest. Everything is just a facade, pale shiny necessity." Is this not the adequate description of the inner life of a living dead person? It is our inner mutilations that the zombie expresses in the form of its external features.

In unprecedented perfection, this subversive potential of the zombie film, where ultimately the mirror is held up to the viewer, was exploited in Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978). In many scenes, the film draws clear parallels between the undead in the shopping mall and ordinary consumers, especially since the survivors in the film also get into a real shopping frenzy. The mindless consumption to which we are animated on a daily basis finds its perfect parody in the shopping center zombies.

Consumer Zombies

The zombie functions here as a walking allegory of the alienated, "emptied" and mentally mutilated consumer, the "consumer zombie" who believes he can express his individuality by means of the correct choice of brands. This subversive moment also appears in the computer game for The Walking Dead, when a puzzle involves turning on the televisions in the display of an electronics store in order to distract the zombies in the street.

The figure of the zombie, however, not only conveys a critique of the mass media, the omnipotence of the ubiquitous culture industry, and unrestrained consumerism. In many zombie films, parallels are drawn between the undead and the power relations in authoritarian groups and social spheres in which individuals are literally trapped - in a dialectic of subjugation and authoritarian excess: On the one hand, members of the military and police apparatus in zombie films repeatedly allow themselves to be drawn into bestial acts of violence (Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later); on the other hand, gangs and militias in zombie films repeatedly act with particular brutality (Dawn of the Dead, Land of the Dead).

Significantly, the only black survivor of Night of the Living Dead is shot by a white militia member. The soldiers securing an estate against the approaching undead in 28 Days Later seek to rebuild "civilization" by dressing up the women present as sex slaves. A racist SWAT member runs amok at the beginning of Dawn of the Living Dead, while militia members hunt zombies. Zombie films thus feature not only a critique of the "consumer zombie," but also of the subject in uniform, the police and military zombie who attempts to compensate for submission to a strict command regime with excesses against subordinates.

And it is precisely this reflection of unleashed power structures that is highly topical in view of the permanent police-state erosion of democratic standards and the rapid proliferation of "failed states. In the zombie film, the threatening crisis-induced erosion of the process of civilization is depicted between the millstones of a degenerating police and surveillance state, on the one hand, and gang and racketeering rule, on the other, which is rampant in times of crisis in areas of economic civil war and collapse. The zombie can thus express the powerlessness of individuals in authoritarian or heteronomous social structures that turn them into seemingly will-less drifters.

Indeed, some members of the hopeless militias and gangs that establish an anomic reign of terror in many "failed states" exhibit downright zombie-like brutality. Notorious, for example, is the case of the "Cannibal of Kusair," an Islamist leader in the Syrian civil war who ate the heart of a slain enemy on camera. In this perverse act, which marks the lowest point so far of brutalization in the wake of the disintegration of the Syrian state, the horror film seems to merge with the horror of the capitalist systemic crisis.

Zombies and class struggle

Added to this is the fear of revolt, the blind rage of the masses of people declassed and marginalized in late capitalism, which is processed in the zombie film. The zombie also stands for the hatred of all those who are actually excluded from the malls - and whose frustration is sporadically articulated in ghetto riots and looting. It's "28 days later" out there, was a popular saying during the youth riots of 2011 in the UK, when marginalized kids harassed by the security forces began to simply take all the unobtainable consumer products whose acquisition is drummed into them every day on all channels. In the zombie, therefore, can also be personified backward-looking, reactionary fears of the middle classes of the overthrow of existing conditions, of the masses of the declassed and marginalized. "It began with riots." This is how the initial phase of the zombie apocalypse triggered by an infection is actually described in 28 Day Later.

In its symbolic ambivalence, however, the zombie can also be stylized as a revolutionary subject. The progressive examination of class contradictions and the increasing social antagonisms in late capitalism was taken to extremes in Romero's Land of the Dead (2005). In no other film are the zombies as "human" as in Land of the Dead. They can use tools, they go about their original occupation, they communicate, they are capable of learning - and they can organize to overthrow the oligarchic system that the rich upper class of a city surrounded by rivers and electric fences has erected. In this only superficially concealed plea for class struggle and anti-imperialist solidarity, the rich upper class is devoured while the survivors from the city's ghettos make a kind of truce with the zombies, find a coexistence: "They just want to live somewhere in peace, like we do," declares one survivor, who refuses to fire missiles at the departing undead.

Nazi zombies must die!

Not only can the zombie function as an allegory of increasing social division and escalating class struggle in late capitalism, with the figure of the Nazi zombie the genre created the perfect cinematic commentary on the crisis-induced rise of neo-fascism and right-wing extremism. Nothing symbolizes the resurgence of an archaic, inhuman Nazi ideology better than the walking corpses of decaying SS men and Nazi soldiers that, for example, pounce on a group of young students in a remote forest cabin in the Norwegian film Dead Snow. Apart from the Norwegian film Dead Snow, in which the Nazi zombies are associated with the German occupation of Norway, the shooter Sniper Elite - Nazi Zombie Army currently has undead Nazis charging at the player.

And, of course, zombie movies are an apocalyptic genre, in which there is an inkling that the given social order cannot last and has reached its development limits. The first great wave of zombies hit the Western culture industry during the crisis period of the seventies of the 20th century, when the "Golden Age" of post-war capitalism, characterized by full employment and mass consumption, came to an end. The zombie apocalypse was thus part of a production of apocalyptic and dystopian cultural commodities that increased in times of crisis, in which precisely the increasing crisis-related social dislocations were processed - this is just as much the case in recent years as it was in the seventies and early eighties of the twentieth century.

The zombie apocalypse

But the outbreak of the zombie apocalypse also visualizes the fears of the loss of capitalism's ability to integrate, of the disappearance of the libidinous bonds (Freud) that hold the social formation together - and which are constantly being undermined by the late capitalist system. The zombie attack represents the moment of panic, when all social bonds between individual and group disappear and the latter turns into disintegration - for example, when panic breaks out on the emergency landing plane, or when people in a crowded stadium start trampling each other to death. Moments or periods of panic can also occur after natural disasters, such as the flooding in New Orleans.

The capitalist system, which is in agony, constantly produces panic - not only in the abundance of doomsday movies and other apocalyptic cultural products. The system constantly strives to erase all ties between people that are not based on competition and market relations between commodity subjects. The Hartz IV reforms are a prime example of this. The anti-social Hartz construct of the "community of need" was introduced specifically with the intention of forcing the social atomization of wage earners, who in the future are to be careful not to get involved with anyone in a "community of need" who could become a financial burden. Such atoms of society, driven into all-round competition, successively lose their libidinous ties to the society that has been turned into a merciless system of competition; they become susceptible to panic - to the moment when all internalized social ties dissolve and the members of society turn into blind flight, blind struggle of all against all.

Zombies and the culture industry

The most interesting aspect of dealing with the products of the culture industry is precisely that they ultimately refer to the society in which they were created. The contradictions, anxieties, and obsessions that crisis-ridden capitalism produces manifest themselves in the commodities of the culture industry, albeit in an unreflective and fractured form that requires decoding. Good reviews dealt precisely with this social subtext of a film. The plot may seem dull, the aesthetics dull, and the actors wooden; nevertheless, the machinations of the culture industry unknowingly express the production conditions under which they were made.

An example: The hectic pace or hyperactivity described at the beginning, from which many zombies are currently suffering, is an expression of a general tendency toward social acceleration in late capitalism, as described, for example, by the sociologist Hartmut Rosa: "Rosa distinguishes between technical acceleration, the acceleration of social change, and the acceleration of the pace of life," Spiegel-Online explained.

The increasing "acceleration" of the social metabolism, which the sociologist states, is of course only an expression of the increasing crisis competition, in which working hours and work intensity are increased, as well as product cycles are shortened. The hectic pace of work, which is driving more and more employees into burnout, has thus also taken hold of the zombies, whom the culture industry does not want to allow a breather, a rest, even after their demise. The zombie of the 1970s could still be immobilized with consumption and commerce, but the zombies of the 21st century are marked by increasing crisis competition.

The zombie as a crisis phenomenon

The undead with its changing characteristics thus represents a visualization of abstract social phenomena and contradictions, most of which are not addressed in mass media published opinion. The genre of the zombie film can reflect not only certain selective social undesirable developments and contradictions that are currently rampant due to the crisis - such as de-individuation, alienation, racism, escalating class antagonisms or social disintegration tendencies. The figure of the zombie, by virtue of its apparent living state alone, has a quality that makes it the perfect allegorical representation of the current state of late capitalist social formation. Even the "sterile" zombies, as are massed in World War Z, convey a sarcastic commentary on the current state of the entire capitalist world system.

The zombies, of course, live in an apparent living zombie system. Similar to the rapidly multiplying zombie banks that simply carry on despite de facto insolvency, the overall system has long since lost its basis for business. The basis of capitalism, of the capitalist "labor society" is wage labor - but it is precisely this substance of capital that is visibly being lost to the system as a whole, as illustrated by the explosion of unemployment in Southern Europe, for example. It is as if, with wage labor, the system were losing its lifeblood. It is breaking down because of its escalating contradictions, caused by a level of productivity that explodes the capitalist relations of production and leaves behind mass misery and barbarism.

And yet, normality seems to exist alongside the collapse. While civil wars rage in the Arab world and almost two-thirds of young people in Spain or Greece are unemployed, in the Federal Republic, for example, the facade of an ideal working society is still maintained. This precarious illusory life that capitalism still ekes out in the centers of the system is due to the degenerating debt in the past decades. Credit, the fictitious valorization of capital in the financial markets, replaced real capital accumulation in commodity production as the central driving engine of the system. The mountains of debt piling up everywhere are only an expression of this crisis of capitalist labor society, in which the undead system with credit is devouring its future in the here and now because it no longer has one.

The zombie literally embodies this state of crisis, in which the system based on the exploitation of labor power is already dead, but can still pretend to be alive by means of credit - the anticipation of an imaginary future. The premonition that we live in a seemingly living zombie world is sweated out by the culture industry in the current zombie inflation. This zombie-like nature of late capitalism is taken to the extreme in the Federal Republic, which has outsourced the debt processes necessary to maintain the healthy working society façade in this country by means of the enormous German trade and current account surpluses. Without the mountains of debt that make the German current account surpluses possible in the first place, the Federal Republic would have sunk into recession years ago. Nowhere, therefore, do the zombies of the decaying labor society seem more alive than in this country.
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