The dead rustle, the earth shudders (Apocalyptic notes, 2)
Even where reality finds entry into the narrative, precisely at those points at which reality threatens to suppress what the literary subject once performed, it is evident that there is something uncanny about this reality. Its disproportion to the powerless subject, which makes it incommensurable with experience, renders reality unreal with a vengeance. The surplus of reality amounts to its collapse; by striking the subject dead, reality itself becomes deathly[...]
Adorno, Aesthetic Theory
If it wasn't already apparent, the media flurry around Seth Grahame-Smith's forthcoming Pride and Prejudice and Zombies makes it conclusive: the zombie - at least in its often enoyable yet impotent, kitschy, "survival guide", Zombie Strippers and Shaun of the Dead form - has become the nightmare-image of the day. If salvagepunk is the dream-image vision of rust and bolts restructuring of the built world, the lurch and rot of zombie hordes is its seeming negation. The obscene persistence of the human animal shows itself, not built or builder. Salvagepunk's homo faber meets its homo superstes, defined not by how it refashions the apocalyptic world it inherits but by the bare fact of its survival (of its own personal world-ending event, its death), a survival that nevertheless signals the end of the collective world as we know it.
In other words, in the zombie scenario, the problem is not the immensity of what is to be done by the too few survivors, of how to make a world so as to avoid its trendlines toward systemic failure while still salvaging and repurposing the ruined tools of the "before." The problem, faced with zombies, is that there are too many survivors.
Albeit the wrong kind of survivor. In an echo of continued surging anxieties about overpopulation, the "planet of the slums", contaminated commodities from afar, and the ongoing degradation of the global south, the ongoing passion for all things zombie has the quality of a perverse, rather subversive joke. Rather than the production of corpses that results from capitalism's management (supported coups, ignored genocides, blocking of access to food and medication, destruction of ecosystems) of its unwanted poor, the production of corpses in the a zombie scenario becomes the production of more mouths to feed. World hunger at its most naked, the sick repetition of want let loose on a global scale.
Yet we need to think through the specificity of the recent period of zombie-fixated culture and its fixation with contagion. For in this wave, exemplified by Boyle's 28 Days Later films, the focus is less on the insatiable hunger of the zombie and more on the danger of the bite, of the transfer of the virus. To be sure, we might read in this continued fears about pandemics, AIDS, and other "literal" figures of contagion and transfer via the bodily act. But this would miss the crucial aspect at hand, namely, why the undead aren't even undead anymore.
The dominant logic of the zombie film from the 40's through the early 80's was two-fold: either the Haitian zombie who was not dead per se and actively controlled via voodoo...
or the shambling hordes, still bearing marks of their life before death, of Romero's trilogy (and others, such as Ragona's Last Man on Earth).
The latter won the day, as icon, as shot in the dark that founded a set of generic conventions, and as site of critique. Romero's own films tracked out their nascent logic, moving to the shuffling corpse mall shoppers in '78 to the factional military dwelling underground in '85. As a tradition, it found its extension into the aesthetic splatter and brutal decay of Fulci's films in Italy, ranging from the Satanic Surrealist genius of The Beyond to Zombie's island of fetid cadaverous cannibals. However, as a horror trope, the zombie film lost its mainstream cachet for a period, as the nameless, replaceable hordes were themselves replaced by the endless iterations of the big names (Freddy, Jason, Michael, Chuckie, etc) and the attempts to found series of continuing characters. More precisely, continuing locations of threat and menace in hard-to-kill, discernible individuals.
Such a tendency was equally hard to kill for the industry, as it continued (and continues) to churn out increasingly campy versions, with the kind of proto-mash-up format we can see in Freddy vs. Jason and Alien vs. Predator (those odd films that have distant ancestors in the sort of madcap goofiness that is Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein). In the two year span between '94 and '96, Wes Craven released Wes Craven's New Nightmare (which took the piss out of his own Freddy Kreuger series and, with a broad, post-modern gesture, took the legs out of 80's horror seriality) and Scream, which paved the way for imitators of its brand of knowing, black comedic, smug slasher moves and conventions.
This is all to say while the legacy of Romero's films never went fully away, the dominant logic in horror films became that of one-to-one violence: the antagonist kills one individual after another, not as a systemic event (suddenly all the dead rise) but a series of encounters (Jason kills another camper) that give the illusion of moral readability and localizable causality (revenge, individual pathology, the usual suspects).
Yet if we consider the preeminent expression of the contemporary zombie film, the Boyle films, as well as the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, with its significant difference from the original, we find a striking departure from the Romero gesture and its embedded politics.
Namely, in these films, the zombies are not the dead risen: they are simply the infected living. The Rage virus in the Boyle series, the rabies-like contagion in the Dawn of the Dead remake. The Wikipedia entry on the remake spells out the gap:
"In the original, as in Night of the Living Dead, all 'recently dead' are reanimated by an unidentified source. Zombie bites seem to somehow induce rapid death, and subsequent reanimation, even though death by any manner will result in reanimation of the dead as well. The cause is never fully elaborated upon, but news reports in the first film imply that the cause is radiation from a space probe to Venus that was destroyed and landed back on Earth. In the remake, it springs up worldwide overnight, and is definitely blood or saliva-borne, relying on zombie bites for transmission (like rabies). In the original, anyone who dies for any reason returns after several minutes (so long as their brain is intact). In the remake, only those infected return and after a period of less than a minute after death."
In short, the specificity of the zombie - as the global condition that repeats endlessly, the ceaseless getting back up of the corpses - is abandoned for a scenario that combines the one-to-one logic of the slasher, the subject-turning bite of the vampire/werewolf film, and the fear of the thoughtless, rabid masses (although who are less concerned with sating hunger than with biting, in a blind fury of species propagation).
What is consequently abandoned is what gave the nightmare vision of the zombie its stomach-turning potency: neither the unthinking rage not the poisonous bite of the contemporary non-undead, but the lumbering want of consumption (hunger beyond shame) and the inexplicability of rising up once more. We lost the critical vision of the conatus gone haywire.
In a strange twist, when the contemporary zombie film approaches something like the massification of the vampire, it is a contemporary vampire film proper that comes closer to the blow to thought of the Romero gesture. Let the Right One In, the superb 2008 Swedish film, gives us a bleak sight of hunger-beyond-reason and homo superstes, although with a vital distinction: Eli, the permanent pre-pubescent vampire of the film, is constituted around her fundamental fact: the ontological trauma that comes from being fully aware of one's hunger, of reason apprehending the non-reason of drive. A symptom already traversed still yearns. As such, it is the proper dialectical twist of the relation to want and thought in the Romero world.
The Cotard's delusion (that turns out to be no delusion at all, unlike the sublime indeterminacy of Martin) of Eli finds its negation in the bare hunger of Night of the Living Dead's Karen, seen here eating her father. The shot is remarkable: the door opens, a crack of light reveals her, not in shame at the act but with the sudden stillness of one caught eating at the open refrigerator in the night. The absence of the shame is filled by our revulsion, perhaps not at the tasteful black and white gore of the moment but of her misrecognition.
This is the misrecognition of one who has risen without reason, not compelled to rise for a purpose beyond the mere repetition 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. What is the world condition that occurs? It is clearly not that all the dead who ever died rise. It is not even 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, the evental shift that only becomes evident in its after-effects. In this way, the Romero films are not about the dying world. They are about surplus-life, the new logic of excessive existence: something has given all too-much-life, an inability to properly die, a system that no longer knows how or when to quit. The non-undead of the contemporary zombie reveals, in odd relief, that the classical undead are themselves just a continuation and modification of the human animal in its perseverance.
But the shuffle of the risen dead speaks radically, of those not even rudely awakened, but rudely going-on, the obscenity of that which can rot but which never goes away properly. A world of refuse, of unnecessary surplus-life that's forgotten how to speak.
Why, in the contemporary climate, of the consecutive fever-pitch and clusterfuck of the neo-liberal order, has the zombie at once become our definitive nightmare-form and betrayed its particularity? What undergirds this new vision of the undead who were never dead? And what will the next vision be, after the death throes of the infected? These are questions to be borne out further in thought and far further in the geopolitical and cultural consequences to come in the next few years. Yet the lines from Adorno with which we began give a crack through which to think.
The surplus of reality amounts to its collapse; by striking the subject dead, reality itself becomes deathly.
The point here, both frightening and expansive, bleak and bright, is to take fully onto ourselves this endgame of the "surplus of reality," of the symbolic, political, and economic overdetermination of all the things of the world under capitalism. Out of this surplus, this overwhelming of the subject capable of speaking and intervening in the world that was, the dead things and soon-to-be-dead bodies of the world, now the basic truth of the system, find tongues. As in the infinite corpse-strewn wasteland that concludes Fulci's The Beyond (one of the few films with the courage to stick to its properly apocalyptic guns) and as in Debord's proposition that reality explodes in the heart of the world made unreal, the task might be, at least figuratively, to stop searching for the nostalgic beating heart that brings radical thought to a standstill, in its frozen image, and to start from the fundamental deadness of that world. This is neither conciliation nor reconciliation. It is an exposure of the already-was and no-longer.
For what if we bring the plague, not just of surplus-life bound to spin its decaying wheels in the corner, but to the deeper dead? A structural condition - and what is this if not a better way to speak through the dead and to make history say what it should - that goes back further, against the grain. The long dead rising, rustling in their coffins, awake and restless and buried too deep, but thinking again. Scattered bones in killing fields sweating and shuffling. The whole earth shudders.