[Thoughts on the zombie apocalypse template kicked off by Night of the Living Dead, the construction of the tropes and clichés that show us what it looks like for the world to end at the hands and mouths of the stumbling dead.]
But no, in these films, a man’s house – or any house secure enough to hole up in – is indeed a castle, and a castle exists for protection and siege, for shoring up the splintered remains of a distinction between private spaces and public spaces, between zones for family bickering and zones for all-out war.
Unfortunately, things aren’t much safer inside. The consistent lesson across Romero’s films seems to be: what divides us from the them, the rational humans trying to survive from the zombie hordes? At least zombies won’t stab you in the back or constantly pull guns on you during an argument. Toward the later films, Land of the Dead in particular, they will learn how to pull guns, but there it is in the service of a developing solidarity the petty and hysterical living can only envy. (Not to mention the amazing moment when Bub, the semi-domesticated zombie of Day of the Dead, learns to wield a gun and looks like nothing so much as John Wayne, in the halting bowlegged shuffle gait: the zombie as honorable stoic old West hero, the undead last bastion of noble American masculinity.)
The humans, though, prove to be your real enemies, unpredictable, stressed, and cowardly, who, again and again, get everyone killed in trying to save their own skin. Romero’s films, like those of fellow social critic horror director John Carpenter, have been from the start about the clusterfuck that is group dynamics and a deep, lingering awareness of the damage we remain uniquely capable of inflicting on one another. It may be the zombies who we are supposed to shoot in the head, but that won’t be nearly so satisfying as blowing away the jerks who have been making the apocalypse so unpleasant and dangerous.
Therein lies the darkest, and simultaneously most joyous, heart of the zombie film: the consummate bad faith of the savagery you’ve been wanting to inflict all along. It is bad faith because it veils the basic desire under the sign of necessity: I had to kill her, she was going to “turn”. It is the flowering misanthropy of everyday life, the common desire to just stop talking things through, to stop biting your tongue, to unload on your friends, neighbors, siblings, and parents. And even more, on the stranger, on the human body we don’t know.
This is analogous to the response to Columbine and other “random” public massacres: so much of the horror and shock was due to the eruption in “real life” of what was supposed to remain a secret communal fantasy of nastiness toward our fellow human. The point here is not that there are certain pathological populations who are the bearers of this wrong urge. The pathology is structural, shared by all social beings, or by all those who have successfully become good citizens and people, all who have learned that conflict and urges are mediated by and disseminated throughout all language and discourse, that massive horizontal net of rules and conventions. In this way, the zombie film lets us bares our open secret and celebrate in it, watch an endless sequence of strangers shot in the head, the audience cheering at particularly “good” kills.
However, it keeps this bloodlust on a tight leash, via that blind of necessity, and thereby replicating all the more the structures of what is and is not allowed. In a line repeated across the genre with minor variation, “that was before… nothing is the same anymore.” This is marshaled most often before or after killing a comrade/mother/friend who has been bit and may “turn.” The question it raises, obliquely, is how long you’ve been waiting to do this, before the zombie apocalypse gave you an excuse.
And apocalypse should be stressed here in its proper sense, as the revelation of the hidden. Namely, what is apocalyptic about the walking dead is what they reveals about the conditions of the living, the deep, rutted grooves of antagonism and violence, the seething undercurrents of anger and repression. The open secrets of an economic totality, at once the violence of abstraction (the brutal consequences of shifting patterns of valuation) and the abstraction of violence (this is just business, folks, nothing personal).
However, the zombie apocalyptic fantasy is that of a world in which just such abstraction is destroyed, producing all the utopian possibilities and ideological pitfalls of a world beyond value. In a desperate echo of salvagepunk, the world of zombie hordes is a radical contraction of what is desirable to possess: if it can’t kill, heal, feed, help escape, burn, or barricade, then it only slows you down. Exchange-value rots even faster than the bodies, leaving behind objects in their naked utility and hardness.
Yet the vision of the zombie apocalypse is never a post-apocalyptic vision, not a single event and revelation out of which we regroup and attempt to rebuild. Rather, they are the mapping and figuring of apocalyptic duration, the crisis that will not quit and the ceaseless work of slaughter, partition, burying, and moving on. So too the content of the revelation, the hidden re-revealed again and again, from the deep inheritances of racial and class prejudice to lingering models of erotic possession and familial structure, from the deep and cathartic pleasures of corporal savagery to the sinking realization it was never the zombies who made this world unlivable. They just give the subjectless catastrophe of this century a necrotic, yearning form.
In the fundamental non-progression of this apocalypse, stuck and skipping like a record, doomed – like the genre itself – to mutely repeat what we have known all along against our intended ignorance, the full recognition and mobilization of what has been revealed remains impossible. This is both on the level of the diagetic content of the films – what’s going on in their worlds – and the films themselves: in neither case can anyone get past the personal. The trauma is of the species itself, but the survivors – and the supposed critique internal to the films – cut themselves off at the knees by their resolute inability to think anything close to totality. To hearken back to the “missing question” of transmission, they lack the capacity – or, more frequently, refuse the consequences of such a thought – to fathom how the global transmits to the local.
As such, one faces two options. You can abandon whatever community to which you temporarily belong and get the hell out of town, preferably to the wilds of Canada (the deeply reactionary end of Land of the Dead) or a Carribean island (the oddly unconvincing end of Day of the Dead). Or you refuse to keep moving and establish your stronghold, whether mall, house, bunker, farm, prison, or factory. (A zombie apocalypse scenario set in a factory doesn’t exist, to my knowledge. But it really should: something like a Meyerhold gasworks drama meets The Grapes of Death.) Which essentially means, given the less than rosy view of what we do to each other, staying in one place long enough for the worst tendencies of the human animal, post-capitalism, to come out. Therein the deep social nihilism of the genre: stay with a group of other survivors, and soon you won’t be a survivor, falling victim to what inevitably happens when you’re trapped in one house with too many guns and an entire social order worth of antagonism.
Above all, the films institute a cycle of passages between these visions of fixity and flight. Their texture and tempo is precisely this gap: one gets to rest, but only uncertainly, with the awareness that the idyll is a calm before a storm that never stops. And just as these passages are stunted, thrown off course and kilter, rendered hectic and abortive, the passages of thought from base to superstructure are themselves messy and precise in their failure.
No, the government will come, there must be a rational explanation for this, we aren’t the kind of people who do this, coupled with the permanent flight, both in thought and action: we need to keep moving. All those forms of resistance that foreclose the possibility of real resistance, all the mental and social immobility that ends where it starts, back in the arms of the dead.