[a more full explanation of the concept of surplus-life first raised in my original apocalyptic notes]
We shouldn't disavow the critique – of race, class, nation, gender, etc – embedded in much of the zombie genre, Romero first and foremost. Indeed, the vague, and often misleading, Leftism of its perspective constitutes the texture and tone perhaps as much as the relations between interior/exterior, fixity/flight, and care/brutality. And it remains, from its incipient moments on, capable of real moments of vitriol and shock: the sinking stomach feeling drops in freefall in the total horror of Ben’s death (when redneck zombie hunters "mistake" him for a zombie). But, as raised earlier, the on-the-surface social critique is the least interesting part of the films, particularly from a political perspective. If there is a sharper turn of critique and thought, one not caught in the abortive passage bound to the personal trauma, it can only lie in the zombies themselves, the real protagonists of the films.
Not since Eisenstein’s films have we witnessed such a startling construction of the mass subject: the slow pained birth of the new group from the wreckage of the everyday. Not class consciousness per se, but the wracking formation of something that, like all revolutionary movements, starts from the universal – not what is common across individuals but what is the universal principle under which those of a historical period exist – and lurches, however ineptly, toward its negation. Stumbling and swarming, single minded and mindless, they are the unhalting drive toward toward the destruction of the world that exists and all it stands for.
That said, they might be rather surprised to learn of this role of eschaton made flesh. In the Romero films, they are surprised to learn, period. And so before considering what it means for the “irrational” to develop a sense of what they have been doing all along and of the advanced tactics of how to do it better, we return to that dual core of what they do without “meaning to”: they consume, and they do not die.
What do they consume? Despite the endless LOL-zombie level jokes, it wasn’t always about “Brains…”. That particular iteration, with all its monotonous staying power, comes from Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead (1985), (which I'll write on shortly). No, for Romero and the meat glee of his SFX man Tom Savini, it is flesh, ripped from the bone, and it is entrails, the sickly wet thup of the unraveling guts.
But even aside from the fact that consumption does not answer hunger, the very eating and hunting practices were never about filling bellies, of persistently butchering the living to get every last bit of protein from them. Instead, they absent-mindedly snack and, more crucially, they are distracted by the fresher living, the not yet touched by zombies. Pragmatically, they should stick with the kill they’ve already made, not waste energy chasing new prey that will very likely turn out to kill the hunter. Of course, none of this matters or applies here, for there is that odd doubling: they don’t need to eat, yet it is just what they do. And not yet to turn the living to their side, not a quick bite to convert the uninitiated and add to the ranks. (It can’t be good for the effectiveness of your zombie horde to have a significant number of them missing large chunks of muscle and connective tissue.) They are consumers, pure and simple, the unaware manifestation of consumption compulsion hitting its joking stride in the mall wandering slack-jaws of Dawn of the Dead.
Night of the Living Dead, the basement door opens to reveal “zombified” Karen – one of those holed up in the farmhouse - munching away on her father. The shot is remarkable, an entire case-study of familial tension and libidinal investment in a single moment: her mother opens the door, a crack of light reveals Karen, and she freezes, mouth full of Daddy. Not in knowing shame at the act, but with, at most, the minor embarassment and sudden stillness of one caught midnight snacking in the harsh glow of the open refrigerator. To hijack a Freudian moment, this is something approximate to, Mother, can’t you see I’m eating?
But the absence of her shame is compensated for by our revulsion, that knowing laughter and shudder. However, we should insist, our laughter/horror is not a response to the “body horror” (the tasteful black and white gore details are restrained, even for Romero), but at her fundamental misrecognition. This is not the misrecognition of eating your father by accident, not even of being unaware of how awkward a situation appears to one who stumbles into it. It is the fundamental misrecognition of zombies and of our attachment to them.
This is the misrecognition of one who has risen without reason, compelled to rise for no purpose beyond the mere repetition, consumption, and imitation of life. For the basic fact of the true zombie gesture, in its occluded form, is not the animation of the dead body but the over-animation of the living body.
To make this less cryptic, we might ask: how do the dead “rise”/“walk” in these films? And which dead?
As explained, these are not movies about transmission, at least in the explicit sense. You don’t become a zombie by coming into contact with one. Being bitten may hasten the process (an unbrushed, rank, rotten meat reeking mouth plus a jagged bite will likely lead to a nasty infection), but it isn’t the cause. The cause is an irrevocable change, something that, echoing Joyce, descends upon all the living and the dead.
Indeed, we should stress the living aspect of this. In the graphic novel The Walking Dead, which gets to expand the moves, tropes, and themes of a Romero film into a long, unfolding narrative, the central character Rick realizes, upon discovering that the “roamers” include those who happened to die without being bitten, that if “they revived without a bite – that means we’re all infected. Or could be. That means we’re just waiting to die before we come back as one of those things.” Later in the series, as the death toll mounts and the survivors turn more and more ferociously against each other, he delivers the titular line, pointing out that “WE are the walking dead”: it isn’t us the living against the animated dead, but the remapping of the entire world into the fields and enclosures of the already dead, the apparently living just biding their time before becoming what cannot be avoided.
In other words, it is not dying that makes you a zombie. It is not-dying that does, already present in you as you fight off the hordes you will someday join. It is the fact that you don’t, can’t or won’t – in the varied inflections of will and non-agency of each option – stay down. All that is know, the one certainty after the tectonic shift that can’t be repaired, the “world revolution”, is that the dead will rise, because they never really die. Hence while the effects are personal (the pathos of the family consuming itself, the existential angst at the certainty of becoming a zombie), the cause is not.
Romero’s own comments about this, and the relation of his film to Matheson’s I Am Legend, are instructive:
"I thought I Am Legend was about revolution. I said if you’re going to do something about revolution, you should start at the beginning. I mean, Richard starts his book with one man left; everybody in the world has become a vampire. I said we got to start at the beginning and tweak it up a little bit. I couldn’t use vampires because he did, so I wanted something that would be an earth-shaking change. Something that was forever, something that was really at the heart of it. I said, so what if the dead stop staying dead? ... And the stories are about how people respond or fail to respond to this. That’s really all [the zombies] ever represented to me. In Richard’s book, in the original I Am Legend, that’s what I thought that book was about. There’s this global change and there’s one guy holding out saying, wait a minute, I’m still a human. He’s wrong. Go ahead. Join them. You’ll live forever! In a certain sense he’s wrong but on the other hand, you’ve got to respect him for taking that position."
One could say much about how Romero articulates the origins and trajectory of his project here, but for the moment, three comments. First, the sense that it was never really about the zombies: they are representations – more precisely, the external embodiment – of how people respond to a global shift. In a strange doubling back, they are nothing but the registration of the response to them, an echo chamber with a hollow void at its center (you are just our response to what you are). Second, the slippery question of at what point you are still human. The Matheson schematic of obstinance and refusal to adapt, for which we all do have some respect indeed, is perhaps less aon the level of his unwillingness to become something other and more the problem of one who doesn’t realize that he is already a consequence and product of that change.
Or, we should insist, at least the Romero reload of Matheson achieves this: if the zombies are a projection of how we respond to “earth-shaking change,” such a projection is needed because we lack the ability – or willingness – to read ourselves for the signs of such changes, to grasp what has befallen us all. Third, and most crucially, is just that sense of tectonic shift, of that “global change,” which provides the injunction to start from the beginning. However, to show the “beginning” of this revolution is not to locate a false origin or precise cause. The radiation loosed from the exploded probe may be “to blame,” but what is never explained, through any of the series, is how it is to blame. Like all evental shifts, there is a gathering storm of overdetermination, a blur of intersecting influences and pressures. All that we can witness is the emergent, the point of no return.
And indeed it is a point of no return. For what is the world condition that occurs? It is clearly not that all the dead who ever died rise. It is not even just those dead with enough connective tissue and meat on their bones to stand and shamble. It is those who died after the new set of rules came to be, after the radiation has spread, the evental shift that only becomes evident in its after-effects. In this way, zombie films are not about the living dead, at least not in any direct way. They are about the undying living. They are about surplus-life, the new logic of excessive existence: something has given us all too-much-life, an inability to properly die, a system that no longer knows how or when to quit.
If there is an infection or viral model here, it is of a systemic change that infects all, demands of you that you not die, just the continuation and modification of the human animal in its furious and unnatural perseverance. The instinct to survive turned against itself in parody, the conatus gone haywire. And more than that, the end of the sovereignty of not just the subject but the working body, now given a task that you can’t finish, a job from which you don’t get to punch out. In this way, both on the micro scale of the world of each body and mind compelled to stop minding and just keep going, and on the global scale, the zombie apocalypse is not the end of the world: it is the “end of the end”, the world never ending.
That's what is so horrifying. Not the possibility of it ending this way, in plague and rot and terror, but in the drawn out sigh of the thought, my god, what if it never ends... And worse, the possibility that this may be so central to the dominant logic of our age that it no longer is capable of horrifying, the soft whimper of protest drowned out in the roar of the self-same.