Running is not an option. Zombies are clawing their way into our homes and getting to our brains. They have invaded comics, literature, TV, film, music videos and games. Now, barely a day goes by in which the internet doesn’t make reference to a zombie apocalypse. We’re all infected.
The Resident Evil video game series cum 5 sequel film sequence may be responsible for the latest uprising, although of course zombies have reared their heads at fairly regular intervals throughout history. The first recorded reference to the flesh-eating undead is in The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the most ancient pieces of literature still known, dating back to 18th century B.C:
“I will knock down the Gates of the Netherworld, I will smash the door posts, and leave the doors flat down, and will let the dead go up to eat the living! And the dead will outnumber the living!”
Zombies have been creeping up at us ever since, but it’s perhaps more recently that they have become synonymous with an apocalyptical dream (unless one sees Dante’s Inferno as apocalyptic, and Ugolino, who eats his own children in Canto 13, as a forerunner). It’s the combination of the two that appeals, and here’s why:
The zombie apocalypse may be a dystopia, a fictional dream of the destruction of everything we hold dear, which can then reinforce the way things are in reality, reminding us to be thankful we are not being eaten, et cetera, et cetera… But this is pretty uninteresting. What is more interesting is the quality of the zombie apocalypse which is utopian rather than dystopian.
“What do you mean there’s no government? There’s always a government!” (28 Days Later) As Cillian Murphy realizes here, in the zombie apocalypse, the forces that constrain us are removed. Existing government and infrastructure are done away with, making the individual feel liberated. The zombie apocalypse answers a longing for emancipation from the chains of capitalism, law and order.
But there is a more specific quality to the way in which the zombie apocalypse offers a way out of the problem of capitalism. It offers a way out of the anxieties we have about our own morality and ethics. Rather than morality going out the window with government removed, and opening out to chaos (as it in fact would) in the zombie apocalypse morality finally becomes definite: “You kill or you die, or you die and you kill.” (The Walking Dead). Knowing that the enemy must be killed removes the need for anxiety about our actions, quenching a thirst for blood and violence whilst acting in the for once unambiguously ‘right’ way.
Thus the zombie apocalypse plays a trick whereby in the very moment of seeming to be the most undesirable thing possible, it allows you the ultimate escapism, an escape from the anxiety that your actions in capitalism are ethically unsound.
This utopia of the zombie world is not a world opposed to ours at all, not one in which we do away with our social codes but one in which we repeat them, now ‘knowing’ them to be ‘right.’ Immediately the values at the foundation of the way we think are re-instated. The films invariably state the need to rebuild exactly what we have lost – only knowing this time that it was ‘right.’ The zombie apocalypse offers us only the dream of living as we do, without anxieties about the injustice of doing so. Shaun of the Dead draws attention to this, citing Bertrand Russell’s “the only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation.” The old theorists of the Western world hold the key to getting back to where we were.
In order to naturalize the values that come out when capitalism is removed, the zombie film codes this as a liberation of natural or primal impulses; “social de-evolution is complete” (I am Legend). In the zombie apocalypse we act as we want to in our own ideology, with the re-newed sense in which this is ‘natural’ and ‘right.’ A huge part of the zombie film’s popularity from the 60s was its relationship to Communism, taking us over one-by-one like an infection, but we can see now that it is as much about ‘righting’ capitalism as it is about ‘wronging’ communism. And the zombies are the ready-made masses, the Others, only an Other for whom we do not need to feel compassion or humanity, so that in the new world we can act as we do, and repeat the violence that our world generates, but be guilt-free about it.