Who, then, are the zombies? What are the ideological and political echoes of those unwilling survivors doomed not to die?
On a superficial (and perhaps more resonant level), they are “us,” the everyman and woman, regular Johns, Janes, and all between. The genre takes deep and recurrent pleasure in raising the zombie “types,” so that the viewers get the game of spotting the shambling incarnation of “what they were before”: zombie clowns, zombie hare krishnas, zombie cheerleaders, zombie bike messengers, and so on and on… And one effect of this, beyond the mild chuckle, is indeed a sense of the zombies as the underbelly of the everyday. Not merely the manifestation of how we react to global shifts – in that doubled void of the representation of reaction examined earlier – but also the detritus that persists through any of those shifts, in the surprising perseverance of what will surely end in decay. If the apocalyptic New has yet to be fully revealed, it is in part because the old not only refuses to die, it also keeps doing, with an uncanny sense of fidelity, what it used to do.
Including, apparently, go to the mall and hang out, wander aimlessly without really buying anything.
In Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), arguably one of the century’s greatest, cruelest, and darkly funniest films, that’s just what they do, thereby inaugurating the endlessly recycled line of embedded critique: in the society of the spectacle, here in its vaguest sense, we already live like zombies. The zombies are us, in all our cowed ignorance, shambling through the motions of an impoverished existence. They are “unaware”, stupid, and easily tricked, barely able to navigate an escalator, reeling in the perma-shock of the always new, the glossed bounty of the commodities displayed.
Yet of course, they are also threat, “monstrous otherness” made uncanny by its proximity to normal textures of everyday life. Their specificity and threat is to be found in the particular fantasmatic position they occupy: an impossible triangulation between 1) concrete structures of dominance and exploitation in capitalism, 2) capitalism’s abstract form of valuation and antagonism, and 3) all those who populate this system, the full range from those too abject to register to those who reap profit from its infinitesimal fluctuations.
Any materialist account – or just any account capable of thinking beyond internal genre shifts – must be conceived roughly along these lines, passing back and forth from what and how zombies threaten to who they are (rather than just who they were), all mapped onto the specificity of the envisioned world. And it goes without saying that this envisioned world is, with notable and powerful exceptions, the emergent late capitalist world: shopping malls and suburbs, postcolonial islands and teeming metropoles barricaded and eaten away from within.
What (or who) and how do zombies threaten? One influential account, best known in the version advanced by Robin Wood, is that the zombies threaten all that is not compatible with advanced capitalism: their cannibalism is consumerism in literalized reification overdrive, a desire to consume and possess not just objects but the bodies of fellow citizens. However, this consumption has a particular edge and articulation in that they dominate and destroy the “Other” of American society: persons of color, women, homosexuals, anyone vaguely or explicitly countercultural. As such, the zombies stand as the swarming enforcers of a social order familiar to us all, even in a vision of the end of that order.
This account is quite flawed and feels oddly unmoored from the texture of the films themselves: if zombies remain capitalist subjects, they are surely not capitalists per se. Capitalism works concretely through a small number of capitalists exploiting the labor power of hordes of workers, with the attendant threat and pressure of the industrial reserve army hungry for access to jobs. Zombies may be many things, but managers they are not. This is not to misrepresent Wood’s point: his argument is subtle and recognizes that it isn’t an issue of what the zombies think they are doing but how and to whom the violence is done (an all-out assault by the many on a smaller group of individuals largely coded as marginal to mainstream American society). It isn’t a model of intentionality but of the creation of cinema in which we witness men of color and (primarily white) women struggle for their lives against the white men locked in the houses/malls/bunkers with them and against the rainbow coalition of the undead outside. (That said, it’s difficult to truly argue that it is the zombies who are the ones “targeting” these Others, even within the Romero films: it is the redneck cops at the end of Night, dead boyfriends and biker gangs in Dawn, and coked-up/adrenaline-fuelled military macho men in Day.)
The bigger problem with the argument is its conception of possessiveness and consumption. The collective hunting and enjoying-wrongly – the fact that enjoyment is no longer mediated through the value-form but through a deep, gory mining of the potential hunger-sating use-value of one’s friends and neighbors – point, if anything, to the fact that individual possession has nothing to do with it. While hunger may be the symptomatic absence that gives truth to consumption, possession is merely a misconstruction of what happens. They move en masse, they work together, they rip and tear, and move on. If anything, this is closer to a model of mutual aid or collective goal oriented hive mind than atomized life in the face of market relations. They do not own what they kill, and they do not care. One could begin to imagine how different the films would be if this were the case, something far closer to a vampire film, in which the one who has bitten and “turned” you has a position of ownership and control, or at least stands as more ancient, and hence more legit. In a zombie film, this would produce an endless chain of pseudo-ownership and authenticity, but this would thereby undo the very core of the films, the glimpse of a totality that affects everyone. There is no original, and certainly no aristocratic glamour even if one could be found.
A related analysis, one manifested on the surface of the films themselves, figures the zombies as consumerism run amok, the barbaric forces underlying the management of commodity culture unmasked for all to see. Mindless consumers from life to undeath, they have simply moved from a slavish devotion to buying plastic trinkets to a slavish devotion to swallowing the flesh of the living. Folded into this is the vaguest sense of apocalyptic immanentism, something worth guarding even if its articulation is the worst form of critique: it’s the apocalypse, man, we’re already mindless zombies, it’s all ideology and spectacle, and we’re just thoughtless drones watching the world burn… Crucial to note, however, is that in this vision, stressed in both cultural responses/parodies/reloads and the films themselves, the zombies are still “consuming subjects.” They may wander without buying anything, staring glassily, yet the stress is put on their consumption as a continuation – at most, a slight perversion or unmasking – of how they consumed before the apocalypse. They are not the poor or the homeless, or at least not truly lumpen. The first zombie/“ghoul” we see in the Romero films indeed is coded as a homeless drifter, a man down on his luck, but in Dawn and in its echoes reaching far beyond zombie cinema per se, the zombie becomes the “good” consumer simply gone too far, an indictment not of a system that lets people “fall through the safety net” but which encourages decadent, selfish, barbaric behavior. Hence if we accept the argument presented in Dawn, that the zombies return here because they came here in life, with as much critical gravitas as it seems intended to have, we also accept that their remembrance establishes them as the continuation of “correct” consumption, even as they learn to consume wrongly. 
What, then, are the ideological consequences of this, the dominant mode of reading zombie films (i.e. zombie films are about the anxieties of late capitalism, with particular focus on the consequences of excess consumerism, individual greed that, taken as a whole, threatens communities, and a decline in individual critical thinking in favor of shared consumption of mass ideology)? More specifically, if there is indeed a “critical” connection between the consumption of the zombies and the general consumption of commodities, what is it?
Everyone can save
The ideological operation at work is a division of the world into two:
- There is “everyone,” the mindless masses of consumers, regular folk hoodwinked into accepting the impoverished world of commodity-centered life. (This “everyone” is a universal that functions by undermining its own claim. It explicitly does not mean everyone: rather, it serves to designate who is allowed to count as part of the everyone, a pseudo-encompassing claim that excludes all those who do not or cannot work, who very well might like to participate in excess consumerism but who have been cast out of the ranks of the purchasing classes, the truly poor, the homeless, the lumpen. It is an “everyone” that negatively illuminates what it means to be beyond the pale of normal life.)
- Those who know better than everyone, who don’t buy into buying, who escape the clutches of mass ideology and who could save us all if the herd of slobbering consumers learned to listen. The vanguard of clarity in a foggy age, fittingly also those who survive the zombie apocalypse. This, it should be clear, implicitly includes all of us, the viewers in on the joke, who “get what it’s all about.”
Taken as a whole, the zombie film – insofar as it not only is misrepresented in this manner but also fosters this ideological construction – is a fantasy of just such a division, of being on the right side of the divide. And that fantasy does not go by the name of Romero or Fulci or any director. It goes by the name of cynical reason.  And by passing through the door of supposed anti-consumerist left political critique, it smuggles in the self-disavowing illusion of standing outside of the system and the self-sustaining fantasy of freedom of choice. As such, what is really at stake here is the cynicism of master knowledge that claims to act so as to “make the unthinking think,” to help the cowed sheep of the post-proletariat stop rampant consumption and to cure the bourgeoisie of their false consciousness. Put otherwise, to face the anxiety about the unknown that lies beyond the illusory stability of capital and to confront the possibility of acting otherwise. Hidden in the critique is the formulation of the critical speaker’s position, as the one who can bravely push through anxieties toward the new horizon.
Indeed, this question of anxiety is the crux of the issue: how does it function and what is the particular anxiety of which the zombie film is a manifestation and to which it contributes? Who do we imagine to be anxious and about what?
The real problem with this cynical reason/consumer model is its short-circuited leap that conceives zombies as at once über-consumers – the blind, ideologically determined subject – and as the monstrous other. In short, doubly overdetermined as the subject who doesn’t know better, who just does these things for no rational reason. Worse, for those of us who do know better, is that there are a lot of them. We are quite outnumbered. As such, what is on trial is the block to rationality of the consuming masses, with the critique falling firmly on “what they were before death”: one tends to assume that zombies are beyond reform, therefore the source has to be located in the kind of people inhabiting the kind of world in which these things happen. And it is their anxiety that seems to be the problem, a crippling anxiety at the prospect of the world becoming something unrecognizable, impossible to navigate, an anxiety so massive that it leads to complacency, clinging to the edifices of ideological certainty, the gloss of the safely new, new objects to purchase that reinforce the perpetuation of the same.
Hence, the general anxiety about the “decline of the West” finds a blameable source in the particular anxiety of the masses toward the New, their incapacity to envision modes of life that exceed the shining forms modeled in the shopping mall. To be clear: in the schematic of the cynical subject , anxiety emerges for the masses at the prospect of the New which terrifies them, and the role of the critic/artist is to produce texts that call into question the inability of the unthinking ones to see beyond themselves to these horizons of possibility. As such, the alleged power of Romero’s Dawn as a cultural object is not that it shows how “we are all like zombies” but about how we, the knowing subjects, need to be vigilant in our attacks upon them, upon the blind consumers.
You’ve had it coming…
And isn’t that the heart of the pleasure we see taken and we take in watching? No more cultural mediation and propaganda, no more trying to convince someone that there is a better life beyond the circle of work and consumption. Years of failed arguments replaced with the simple clarity of a gunshot or the libidinal outpouring of a chainsaw: you dumb fucker, how could you not see? This is pleasure of enlightened false consciousness, the trademark of cynical reason, those who know very well, but nevertheless… Who know very well that they cannot themselves change anything or escape the ideological network, but who make this knowledge of impotency the very condition for their claiming to know better than the rest. The deep cancerous form of smug resignation, of letting the world burn while you repeat to yourself, at least I know that there wasn’t anything I could do about it.
"where they came in life..."
Like all false consciousness, self-knowing and self-disavowing or not, this needs to be dismantled. On two fronts. First, we should reject a causal chain of the fait accompli, a bad reasoning that goes as follows: Dawn has been enormously influential and popular, part of that influence has been the embedded social critique, that critique (and the horror of which it was a part) struck a nerve with contemporary anxieties, therefore the anxieties represented in the film – rampant consumerism produces the kind of world that ends this way – are the underlying anxieties of an audience and their historical moment.
Against this we should insist that just because it has an “anti-consumerist” tone, and indeed was has become such a classic in part because of that bent, does not mean that the real anxiety underpinning. This is not to claim that fears of a general trendline toward societal decadence, due in large part to consumerism and a naturalization of the capitalist life world as the only option available, are absent, or that the film did not savagely capture some of those fears. Rather, it is to claim that if we speak of the anxiety of an era, the film must be thought of as a mediation, of a perfect storm of contradictory tendencies, a working-through of subcurrents and patterns of fear and desire that cannot be simply represented. What remains powerful about Dawn isn’t that Romero put his finger on a “widespread anxiety,” but rather that the film represents a particularly messy and canny constellation of factors and influences in which we can detect what is missing – think here again of the conspicuous absence of hunger - and on which we can see the cynical logic we project as a way of protecting ourselves from having to admit our deep complicity with this late capitalist world.
The second, and more important, attack on thinking zombie movies as “about” consumption, is the model of anxiety it employs. It is the common notion of anxiety, that we get anxious at what we do not know, when we have a lack of knowledge and don’t know if the New will be a pleasant or unpleasant surprise. We feel unmoored and uncertain, and anxiety is the affect of that inability to predict the New. It is an obstacle to action, pushing us to remain content with what is certain or to find other, safer ways to get the shock of the New without exposing ourselves to all the risks of undoing the assurances of this world order (or relationship or housing situation or pattern of behavior, and so on).
The obscene stillness of the empty same
Let us offer another model, one drawn from French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Following and moving out from Lacan, we could say that anxiety is never about the radically new but rather about the horrible possibility of the same persisting. Lacan refers to this as the “lack of a lack”. In short: what’s worse than Mom’s breast not being there when I need it? Mom’s breast always being there, forever. Anxiety emerges with the creeping realization that there may be no lack, no space in which to move, leaving us crushed by the awful possible certainty of knowing how things are and knowing that they will remain that way. Mass anxiety, in this way of thinking, arises in and fixates on a world without a clear directionality or progress, a world in which the self-same repetition of drive – or the self-same accumulation of capital – is king.
So if it is indeed the case that Romero “put his finger on a widespread anxiety” about the state of life in late capitalism, is it not the case that the real encounter here is not about the knowing critique of political art pointing out the anxiety and resistance of those who don’t know better and must be woken from their slumber, but precisely the inversion, that the real encounter is the rendering comprehensible of the zombies? Not the difficulty of getting “them” (consumers, zombies) to comprehend but the sudden opening up of our thought beyond the deadlock of cynical reason? This is not a rendering empathetic, not of simply understanding that we don’t really know better, that we are still subject to mass ideology. Rather, these the first steps toward a traversal of irrationality. Precisely not by claiming, we’re all just like zombies, but rather that, zombies are all like us. And not to further generalize, of seeing that we’re all in this together, but locating in them the emergent possibility of something truly wrong, beyond feeling that they are beneath our conceptions of morality and proper decorum. The real difference emerges: not between us and the zombies but between us as bourgeois subjects (those who know better) and us as we are in all our situated messiness. What disappears is that everyone, that universal category which allows the exception of the cynical subject and demands the exception of those who can’t be included without rupturing the category’s capacity to restrict the meaning of being one of everyone to a limited range of acceptable thought and action.
The anxiety proper to zombie films is the deep horror of something not being different, of everyone remaining as limited a category as we know it to be, of the same persisting, of the end of death and lack. In this way, the consumerism account very much identifies the “problem,” namely, the pseudo-new of late capitalism, the foreclosure of revolutionary possibilities and the contraction of experience to petty alternatives of which color of car upholstery or which centrist president. But what it misses is that this situation isn’t the result of an anxiety about the New. The situation is the very source and site of the anxiety, the awareness that this may be all that there is. People are not capitalist consumers because they are unthinking, ignorant, and scared of change. They are unthinking, ignorant, and scared of change because they are capitalist consumers.
Target practice: shooting mannequins in lieu of zombies, or vice versa
More than that, the zombie is not the simple manifestation of this anxiety, not the monster that makes clear the “truth” of consumerism. They are not the problem but a blood-spattered possibility, still nascent, still reeling from the shock of undeath, still learning how to speak. What should be taken aim at is not those who don’t know but this entire stress on “purchase politics,” on thinking that that the real problem is to be solved by more sustainable, informed ways of buying commodities. The whole reduction of critical thought to the facile move of claiming that some people consume wrongly, while the consumption deemed “wrong” in that schematic is precisely the kind of consumption needed to keep the system afloat. One who supports capitalism as a system cannot speak of those who “consume wrongly.” It is purely an aesthetic and moral condemnation, of saying that the uncultured should be more subtle about their participation in the reproduction of wealth.That is, until you get to those who really do consume wrongly. Therein lies the zombie: the obscure, decayed-from-the-start vision of something beyond, something really outside the systemic logic, something truly wrong. Not bad taste but bad hunger. A spreading shadow making darkly clear that even our attacks on those who can’t think beyond the degraded world of consumption are expected attacks, just demands for more subtle degradation. That is the injunction of Dawn, against itself: to make the dead talk clearly, to take on and talk from that position, to hear the unseen speak rationally out of the irrationality of managed life, and to force everyone to take on a very different meaning. It is an injunction that will be answered, but never by zombies and always uncertainly.
I’m still waiting for the most cringe-worthy meta moment to arrive, when a film will show Halloween party-goers (or zombie flash mobbers) dressed as zombies turn into real zombies, already fake decayed before the fact sets in. There is a different tradition worth noting, of avoiding detection by “playing” zombie, from the incredible sequence in Zombies on Broadway in which the trained monkey mimics a zombie walk to the moment in Shaun of the Dead when they practice their zombie lurch before successfully “fooling” the horde. This points more broadly to a crucial question throughout the genre: how exactly do the zombies know who to attack? What, exactly, separates the living from the undead?
To be clear: not ancient Cynical philosophy. Here cynicism - of "enlightened false consciousness" - is the distinctly modern version outlined by Peter Sloterdijk, from whom I borrow the phrase "cynical reason."