We haven’t entirely answered the question raised before: who, then, are the zombies? To proceed negatively…
They are not extensions of the capitalist injunction to consume. Or if they are, not because “purchasing unnecessary shit to bolster your social capital is like becoming part of a roving horde of undead cannibals.” To be sure, the real linkage is that of non-necessity. In the Romero vision of zombies, they physiologically need to eat like we physiologically need a certain brand of jeans: not at all. But the analogy ends here. For their consumption is not the will to possess, the momentary grasp of the New in the form of the passing fashion. It is a mode of consuming that is against all ownership, against exchange value, against reification, against representation itself. 
Allegorically, they are both the dream and nightmare of the ruling class, the motor that turns the gears of the system and the rotting wrench forced into those gears. In an era of overproduction and overcapacity, when they are both too many workers and too many factories, what are zombies if not the total fantasy of “creative destruction”, of clearing the ground of the dead weight of outmoded industry? Provided, of course, that the living eventually rid themselves of the pesky undead, the opportunities for growth, for rebuilding! As a character in the oddball Italian zombie film Nightmare City puts it, “It’s part of the vital cycle of the human race. Create and obliterate until we destroy ourselves.” Well, perhaps not “the human race,” but we know for certain that this economic regime cannot function without the cyclical destruction of whole swathes of productive capacity. Recalling our earlier discussion of the sadism of false necessity, the zombies serve another crucial function: they are the crisis which allows for powers that be to declare a “state of emergency,” to suspend the normal channels of legislation and to bring about drastic changes (the barricading of cities to “foreigners,” forms of martial law, etc). And as with the false necessity of but I had to, she was going to turn…, we should ask here: sure, but for how long were you waiting for the excuse to do these things?
And yet… even in that vision of creative destruction, of being the accidental tool of the order against which you rage, helping them do a bit of necessary clearing to allow growth and being the excuse to restructure the social order, the center on which the fantasy of the zombie hinges is the horror of that which cannot quit. For what has been trailing along but missing, hinted at but rarely brought forth, in our analysis should be obvious by now: it’s about labor. It’s never been about consumerism gone bad, but the lost heritage of the zombie film to be necromanced, the horror from the Haitian origins, of being forced to work, of the obscene truth of the “free labor” contract of capitalism, of knowing that I’ve never had a choice, that “choosing” to see one’s labor is a particularly nasty illusion of free will. If the surplus-life nightmare of zombies sticks with us, fascinates, and disturbs, it is because what has been brought to its logical conclusion isn’t the vapid barbarism of the consuming classes but the buried antagonism of the labor relation, of a world order dragging us from our rest incessantly, to do what “must be done” yet for which we will be blamed. The infernal position of workers, cursed for doing wrong what can never be right.
To be clear, if recent zombie films have involved a certain betrayal of the Romero trajectory and its ability to think how the abstractions of totality messily affect the local, the Romero trajectory – and with it, the dominant line of zombie thought – is itself a betrayal of a history that could have been. This is the lost heritage of those forced to work, raised from the dead to do the compulsory bidding of a master, to labor indefinitely. Yet in this “betrayal,” a word that should perhaps be cast out, we can register a powerful shift, one that ultimately has fidelity to the core of the voodoo inflected zombie model. The particularity of that nightmare form is distinctly postcolonial, the deep existential horror of being a slave still or once more, even after death, and the recognition that relations of domination and subordination have distinct faces: someone is doing this to me, particular actions had to be taken by that individual in order to control me as the hollow remnant of an individual. Power is personal, and so too the antagonism on which it uncertainly rests.
The zombie film, from Romero on, derails this particular emphasis on forced labor , and with it, the closer connection of the zombie and the laborer (in favor of the zombie and the consumer), yet in doing so, it nails something else. Not that class antagonism and its attendant anxieties are “about” consumption now: those fears are the underbelly of an older period, of postwar boom and new sectors of society getting to purchase in ways never before available to them. Rather, if the later films symptomatically capture something of the particular anxieties of the emergent post-Fordist/post-capitalism’s-golden-years period, it has to do with those relations of domination. For what it approaches, however darkly, is an awareness that the problem of the age is no longer the horror of being controlled by a discernible master but the indecipherability of those relations of domination, the lack of discernible masters at whom to aim. While the voodoo-inflected zombie film recoils at the thought of being forced to assume a direction dictated by your master, the Romero mode remains troubled by lack of direction: my God, what if I’m doomed to not get anything done, other than some reprehensible cannibalism, and worse, what if there’s no one I can blame for this? The powerful capacity of the zombie film to approximate totality is a consequence – if it is to be located historically at all – of 1) the violent foreclosure of organized resistance to global capitalism by counter-revolutionary state action, 2) the related dissolution of working class power and the very idea of working class identity, and 3) the emergent new planet-spanning structure of flows of finance, information, and goods. To be sure, these are trendlines that gain shape only in hindsight, but it is no stretch to see the torsion and tension of these massive shifts in the cinema of the long 70’s into the 80’s. And nowhere more so in the zombie film, particularly when we don’t simply mean films in which the undead eat the living. 
But to get a sense of that lost history that roils beneath the surface of the films from this period on, absently present in the ecstatic splatterfests and dystopian grim allegories alike, we should turn to a remarkable other beginning, the British 1966 Plague of the Zombies. If we imagine the openings and closures of different traditions and lineages, this is one that both continues and reworks the Carribean roots of earlier zombie productions (White Zombie, I Walked With a Zombie) while also blazing a path that was not to be followed, one of overlapping modes of production, the literal return of the postcolonial repressed “brought home” to solve labor shortages, and a peculiarly British awareness of decorum, class, and general nastiness towards others. We are speaking of a film, after all, in which zombies work as tin miners.
Released two years before Night of the Living Dead, it shares little with that genre forger. It’s a period piece in brilliant color, complete with cadmium paint blood, diabolical squires, and the other trappings of the Hammer Studios films in that period (recognizable actors, plenty of cleavage, an insistence on telling fully fleshed out narratives, even while they collapse under the weight of their own contradictions). It is not a “siege” film, thereby lacking the spatial ordering of inside barricading/outside threat. And most crucially, it features non-accidental zombies that require the active efforts of individuals: there is no zombie holocaust here, no threat of it spreading beyond the small town.
To summarize very briefly: Sir James, a retired professor of medicine, receives a letter from his ex-pupil, Peter, telling him that strange things are going on in his Cornish village. Sir James and his daughter Sylvia go to the town, it becomes increasingly apparent that the vague plague is in fact the work of voodoo, a skill picked in Haiti up by the local Squire Hamilton, who rules over the area with an occult-ring bedecked fist. Conditions in his tin mine had become too dangerous to convince laborers to work there, hence he started killing off and resurrecting members of the working class to employ as shambling corpses who require a lot of whipping to get any work done. Things go from bad to worse: Peter’s wife Alice is killed, Sylvia falls under the voodoo command of Hamilton only to be saved at the last moment from becoming a (presumably) virgin sacrifice by her father and Peter bursting in. They escape, the zombies catch on fire (their voodoo dolls were burned elsewhere), attack and kill their controllers, the tin mine explodes.
From the start, Plague develops a world of barbed pleasures, of getting to respond to your daughter’s exhortations with, “I don’t know why I put up with you at all. I should have drowned you at birth.” Unlike the sadism of false necessity, this is a world in which antagonisms remain conversational, with each character hell-bent on not giving others the satisfaction of feeling as if their satisfaction or happiness matters. That is, of course, with the exception of the class hatred on which the film turns, posing a striated world of landed aristocracy, non-landed but quite comfortable aristocracy, upper middle class educated doctors trying their hand at village life, the various government and police functionaries of the town, the farmers and working class, colonial exports brought to serve as butlers and “voodoo drummers”, and the tin miner zombies. (One should ask, in all seriousness, how the film positions the last two categories, the black servants and the zombies, in terms of who is afforded more respect.) Yet while the film makes very apparent this hierarchy, it cannot – at least on the surface – deal with its implications without fleeing into a certain language of transhistorical human nature and of evil. Consider the early exchange between Sir James and Sylvia, after Sylvia has witnessed, with great displeasure, the goons of Hamilton hunting a fox.
SIR JAMES: “Men have always hunted.”
SYLVIA: “For food, yes, not for bloodlust.”
At that point in the film , we are intended to side with Sylvia, in supposing that there is indeed something qualitatively different here. Yet this difference is not that of new historical forms of cruelty and micro-barbarism. Rather, it is coded as a throwback to a blood-dimmed pastoral of aristocratic rule, of incontrovertible laws and superstition. If there is an explicit arc to the film, it is the movement toward Sir James’ position away from that of Sylvia: men kill because that’s what that do, but there are some who are pathological in what they do, in how they combine bloodlust with greed. And they do so because they missed the news about the Enlightenment and the solid rationality of the British middle class: they are brutes and haughty elites, superstitious fools and sadist perverts. The most explicit formations of class antagonism function in this way, as a battle between modernity and the bastions of country life. When Peter refuses – because he is unable – to give the villagers a satisfactory account of just what the hell is going on, he couches it in terms of a betrayal of his principles of scientific rationality: to give them a lie to appease them just wouldn’t be “good enough.” To which, in a moment that would likely elicit a cheer from not a few readers, one of the “working class” men responds, “You’re not good enough for us!” However, the champions of “local custom” hardly far better from our perspective. As given in the film, the range of their positions range from sullen anger and inability to question the social structure of the feudal/pastoral to the canny nastiness and calculation of those in positions of power, well aware that the world is changing but equally aware that capitalizing on it requires an insistence on preserving the status quo. As we are reminded, “This isn’t London,” and it is hard to grasp this as anything other than a condemnation. That said, similarly to Lucio Fulci’s brutal masterpiece, Don’t Torture a Duckling, Plague is largely about a battle between “modernity” (London/science) and “backwardness” (Cornish village/superstition) in which neither option appears worth saving, in which it is precisely the contagion, slippage, and fraught intersections between the two in which violence emerges most viciously.
What the film approaches, yet remains unable to fully comprehend, is the particularly capitalist – and distinctly not retrograde – nature of the wrongdoing. To be sure, Plague paints a world in which that edifice of landed gentry and all its social codes still has sway. But it is out of sync with the progress of time: the voyage to the Cornish village is a voyage to a backwater, an earlier organization of feudal life confronted with the peculiar new horrors of capitalist accumulation. (In this case, the grinding horror of knowing that just because a job is too dangerous for workers doesn’t mean that workers will not be forced to do it.) If one of our preoccupations here is the question of combined and uneven development/apocalypse, of overlapping regimes of production and accumulation, of pockets of Hell and infernal circuits of capital, Plague captures this out of the corner of its roaming eye. Literalizing all those vague allegories of undead labor, of the black magic of drawing forth value from nothing, of undermining the natural order in the name of profit, Hamilton’s “disgusting” enterprise is an oblique, parodic freeze-frame of a moment in the unfreezing of capital via advanced techniques, imported from afar and brought home to mine the heart of the empire.
This first becomes evident in the assumed opposition between science and superstition. In the bravely immoral new world of Hamilton, the rational calculations of profit margins and labor affordability turn to esoteric, “magical” means. It is the scientific application of non-scientific techniques: even Sir James, upon reading on voodoo methods in the priest’s library of occult volumes, declares that, “it’s all clearly scientifically stated.” The film here actually differs from a majority of “men of science vs. supernatural occurrence” horror movies, in which the enterprise of Enlightenment critical thought is abandoned in the face of that which cannot be explained, complete with the requisite invocations of faith and the failure of those men of science to adequately become men of action, to stop theorizing and just pull the trigger. Conversely, what we see in Plague is an indeterminate zone, in which the problem of the zombies is that they are not supernatural: they are the result of hard work, ingenious arcane methods brought to bear on a ruthless drive to reopen that abandoned tin mine. Hamilton preserves his status as the squire of the region by adopting fully the mechanisms of that new social structure which will displace him. In struggling to cling to the vestiges of authority granted by feudal order, he overleaps the logic of that order. Of course, he keeps this all quite literally underground. For he is the emergent product of a mode of domination in which nothing is sacred, a saturnine hack Nietzschean who insists on raising the dead only when the living become too expensive. A moral debate between science and superstition matters not at all. It is at that point, when the cost and difficulty of obtaining labor “scientifically” ( a calculation of wages, resources, proto-industrial reserve army, etc) as an extension of the feudal mode that Hamilton turns from science, at least in its Western conception. When you can no longer squeeze a profit from your workers, the point is not to squeeze harder. It is to change the nature of the work. To change the nature of the workers, of the structure of exploitation itself.
And change this he does. Not however, because the workers are technically dead and hence mindless slaves. (As we see, they require a fair amount of coercion – i.e. constant whipping – and remain capable of striking back when their moment comes.) Rather, because his enterprise represents a radical innovation in the shape of the colonial enterprise, folded back upon itself. Free labor is no longer to be extracted from the colonies by the intellect, will, and brute force of its colonizers. Rather, the colonial heritage comes home to roost: the repressed truth of empire returns to corrupt and innovate its tired home market, the blocks to increased productivity and profit. Black plagues strike indeed, but from afar. In short, the innovation – and perhaps the undergirding horror – is not just “how horrible to be killed and brought back to life as a slave” but: what if our past is never forgotten? Not remembered by historians or marked into the very landscape and bodies of the colonies, but smuggled back in, dark knowledge too powerful to be lost and too tempting for imperialism to ignore.
To be more specific: it is black knowledge, wielded by a white man. The racial composition of the film – and its portrayal of value creation – needs to be considered. A rich white squire left England to travel abroad. In Haiti, he was somehow educated in the arts of voodoo. (Foreign currency opens a surprising number of surprising doors.) He returned to find his father dead, the stable hold on the content of landed aristocracy in crisis. Worse, the rich vein of tin running below their lands could not be mined; the white townspeople refused to engage in that work. They refused the equation of the compensation offered for work that would possible kill them, in an approximation of worker power that is necromantically overcome. As such, he employs Haitian drummers (and, in one of the more compelling minor roles, a black butler) to aid him in the rites which kill, raise, and control the townspeople.
Here, however, is the crucial question. In what possible way is it economically advantageous to create zombie laborers? (And more, zombie laborers out of those same white villagers who turned down the work in the first place?) The film seems to say, obviously, because they are mute slaves who work for free, they just ceaselessly mine and turn a profit. But in one of those remarkable moves in which what the film is “about” and what actually happens become unmistakably divergent, it becomes unmistakably clear that maintaining an army of undead miners is a lot of fucking work, particularly for wanna-be overlord Hamilton. (What also becomes apparent throughout the film is that the only real reason for him to be doing all this is because he quite enjoys it, that he gets off on being “beyond morality,” on getting to put on his voodoo mask and robes, and mess around in graveyards at night.) He does not simply dig up corpses that come to un-life to work for him. No, he has to find a way via clumsy subterfuge to cut each future zombie, surreptitiously gather a bit of that blood, perform complicated rituals, wait for the “plague” death of the individual, and dig him or her up. And it doesn’t stop there.
In the establishing shots of the tin mine, we notice two things. First, the zombies require a lot of whipping to keep moving. Even though it is the sadistic stooges of Hamilton who do the whipping, they don’t seem particularly to be enjoying it, as we might imagine, asserting their position in the hierarchy of masters. They seem genuinely worn out from constantly trying to goad the shambling dead into action. And when they do “work,” it seems startlingly ineffective, some pathetic approximation of human labor. Raising the hammer weakly to let it fall. They may work for free, but they surely don’t work very well.
Second, this would be fine if we imagined a real horde of them, hundreds of fumbling, ineffective, rotting hands pulling shreds of tine from the earth. But Hamilton’s tin mine is woefully understaffed, with no more than fifteen to twenty of these workers. And hence we can only ask: how does he turn a profit? The presence of the Haitian drummers and butler immediately raise the seeming obvious solution, exporting cheap labor from afar. If the townspeople are not willing to work in the mine, Hamilton surely knows that there are those more desperate who would throw – or more realistically, be thrown – themselves into this situation at the prospect of escaping crushing poverty and famine. The other solution, one that again is more obvious than it appears, is to make the mine safer. Put in some structural reinforcements, draw workers back with minimum wages and the assurance of non-collapse, and start drawing tin from the earth at a rate far faster than that of your “free” labor. Put your very able-bodied thugs to work not whipping zombies or digging up corpse, but mining some tin themselves. If living humans won’t work there, consider not just inhuman labor but non-human labor: the shadow of the real historical development, of automated machinery, looms large over this film.
If there is an answer to this question, it is in part simply that the film couldn’t be this kind of film without this intersection of the occult, the murderous, the witty class-based barbed jokes, the lust and loss. In short, it couldn’t be a horror movie, and that was what Hammer did consummately well. And yet, we need to clarify what kind of horror movie. More precisely, what is the horror that the film purports to be about? We know what kind of horror movie it is, in a way: lightly bloody, pseudo-surreal, atmospheric, one that splits between a whole lot of carefully scripted talking and moments in which one cannot talk, the mute fear and shock of watching your wife die a second time. In this way, it is a horror movie with intended scares every so often (the seemingly dead man threw down her corpse! Sir James just cut off her head! Hamilton is about to rape/stab her!), with a generally atmosphere of creeping unease. But what about the horror it depicts, rather than the terror/unease it hopes to provoke in us? First, there is a sense of the horror of everyday relations and their minor exceptions that merely cut away the fat to show the nastiness that lays below. Like the other Hammer (and, in a sense, the Romero inflected zombie lineage) films, equal stressed is placed on the problems caused by vampires/reanimated corpses/daughters of Jack the Ripper and by those who have to deal with them but who are plenty capable of inflicting psychic and physical damage on their own, mobilizing the external threat to justify what must be done.
Second, the horror of the “natural order” being disturbed, that doing this with corpses just goes against nature, coupled with the sense of disturbing the peace of the dead. Yet as a character in the film wonders: “peace… what is that?” And further, what is so wrong about any use of the dead? We should briefly interrogate this attachment, even from within a framework of the capitalist reproduction of life and wealth. For we could easily imagine a form in which we wouldn’t care, in which we would happily sell our posthumous labor. That is, if we were properly remunerated for it. That is the true problem lurking behind the blind of meddling with the natural order of things. In a conservative form: well, if I’m not getting paid, there’s no way I’m working for someone else. And in a radical form: if we refuse work, if we refuse to accept a system in which I should put myself at risk for minor recompense, if we refuse to play the game, we refuse to be brought in against our will, black magic tricked into participation. In short, the seething anger at the prospect of not having a choice. The true underbelly of “freely selling one’s labor,” the realization that it has been a non-choice from the start.
And out of this anger, lurking along the surface, something bursts through, intermittent at first before truly exploding at the end. Its first real expression is not one of labor betrayed, at least not in the form of masculine mining labor. It is an expression of desire that the staid middle class-ness of the film’s world cannot fathom.
Peter’s wife Alice, voodoo-seduced and killed by Hamilton, is to join his dead work force. (A rather odd plot conceit, given that the miner-zombies are resolutely male and that when he gets Cynthia in his clutches, his interest seems primarily in threateningly molesting her before pulling a sacrificial knife. We might question just what he has in mind and the ways in which this indicates how much Hamilton does this things for pleasure and the reassurance of knowing that he can.) When Peter and Sir James interrupt her dis-interring by Hamilton and his masked crew, they witness her skin and hair go gray before she rises. And walks, with a look of direct lascivious lust, or perhaps a proper graveside smile of some knowledge of other horizons, the likes of which has no place elsewhere in this film about men and the things they enjoy talking about. If there is a return of the repressed here, it cannot be separated from this instance as easily as her head is cleft from her body.
For as before, the question is one of apocalyptic fantasy. And this should be stressed in its particularity: apocalyptic, in the sense of the revelation of what was hidden all along, and fantasy, in that it is a mode of narrative that consists of frozen captures, a distorted way of organizing desire  so that it can approach what it “wants” while prohibiting ever reaching it, without having to confront the shock of drive’s blind repetition. For what are all these films and cultural objects, political theories and ideologies if not series of crystallized desires, ordered to avoid the real apocalyptic confrontation, which is that of the anxiety of the same, of realizing that the emergent new – the end of days punch line – has been hidden in plain sight all along? Hence, to speak of return and repressed is misleading, for these things have never left. Shunted to the side, caught at the edge of our vision, perhaps, but only because we so resolutely turn from them, again and again.
And in this case, none more so than the colonial past repurposed in Plague, a bloody, teeming site of experimentation and innovation, brought back to break the impasses of stagnant capital. But like the attempts to manage and control these pasts, fantasies slip and fail, symptoms overwhelm, the never-left comes back wrongly. It’s just a matter of time before your undead miners get their shit together. Here the occasion is perhaps an accident (the burning of the voodoo dolls that preserves their control), but what happens is striking. Because when the technics of control and animation are destroyed, the dead don’t just go back to being dead. We might imagine that the destruction of the instruments of plague, the willful sickness that put them to death to put them to work, would be the end of the zombies, now just lifeless corpses in an abandoned mine. But no. The plague persists and turns back on its source. The zombies, some on fire in psychic bonds with their voodoo dolls, swarm and attack their whipping overlords. It is a plague that cannot be separated from its victims: they are nothing but the embodiment of this sickness to be given back, in full ferocious rage, to all who have capitalized on it.
And so the film ends consumed in flames, consuming the site of their condemned labor. In the particular history that could have been, of which Plague is the outpost, the zombie film writes the full apocalyptic obscenity and frivolity of this scenario: you are raised from the grave to perform the work of digging the grave of the world that brought you back. Yet we should stress this is no impossible imagining relegated to schlock horror. However hyperbolic, this is the plague of capitalism. The point is to learn how to give it back, to become infectious. Following Italian Marxist Mario Tronti, we begin to grasp that the development of capitalism is not a story imposed from above, of new technologies and modes of accumulation and circulation, of a constant drive forward against which workers struggle, like harpooning a leviathan that drags us forward and casts us off. For Tronti, capitalist development must be understood from below: it is because workers struggle, because they refuse to freely give their power to production, that capitalism develops. It innovates, becomes stronger, more flexible precisely because workers resist the world and wages it offers them.
Class antagonism – and its expressions in riotous moments and long grinding struggle, in the gulf between bourgeois ideology and proletarian theory – is not the secondary consequence of the drive to profit. It is the motor that drives the whole ungodly enterprise forward. And as this trajectory of films shows us, when the condemned and damned, plagued and unwanted begin to act in concert, when hell isn’t just full but mined for its innovations, the dead won’t just walk the earth. They will share that hell with us, one and all.
 It’s hard to imagine a zombie film in which zombies felt ashamed for consuming wrongly, although I’d love to see a version in which the zombies collectively shame one of their own for hoarding flesh, rather than sharing with the collective hunt, for consuming wrongly “wrongly.”
 There are, of course, exceptions, and the 2006 film Fido, on which I'll eventually write, raises the question of zombie labor again. However, it is telling that in that film, it is an issue of capitalizing on the already zombified, fitting them with control collars, in the arch-entreprenaurial move, making money out from something that nobody wanted.
 The insistence on “not giving” satisfaction shows itself clearly here, in Sir James’ further response: ““I have not come all this way to interfere with local customs and antagonize the people just to satisfy your sensitivity about the welfare of wild animals.” Perhaps, but he shows little hesitation in that interference and antagonism when it’s on his terms.
 Desire here should not be thought of as the act of wanting what you really wants but rather the structure that allows for the simultaneous approach to and endless deferral of reaching those objects of desire. Desire self-reproduces in its inverted ladder of pleasure, where pleasure is taken in the negotiations with the Law of prohibition.