Elsewhere (11)

Cheap and Nasty

Tim Cavanaugh recently noted the tradition of grafting highbrow socio-political subtexts onto lowbrow zombie films, often regardless of the film makers’ intentions. As, for instance, when the film historian Sumiko Higashi saw the Vietnam War lurking somewhere among the zombies and wrote that although “there are no Vietnamese in Night of the Living Dead... they constitute an absent presence whose significance can be understood if narrative is construed.” Or when cineaste Robin Wood informed readers that the zombies’ cannibalistic tendency “represents the ultimate in possessiveness, hence the logical end of human relations under capitalism.”

I’m not a great fan of the zombie genre and a little flesh-eating goes an awfully long way. But it seems to me that with a couple of exceptions, most notably Homecoming, such lofty critiques are misplaced and say more about the critics and their politics than the films being discussed or the audience that watches them. Even the more, er, distinguished zombie films, including George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, are at best a kind of coarse nihilistic satire, in which all values are upturned with adolescent glee.

Shannon Love offers a less grandiose explanation for the lingering appeal of the walking dead: 

I think most modern literary criticism seeks to exploit the analysis for political purposes instead of seeking to understand why and how the artist chose to tell the story as he did. The critics avoid trivial but true explanations and instead grasp at exotic but false ones solely to gain attention for themselves and their pet causes. Why would anyone need to presume that people find zombies scary out of some broader contemporary social or political phenomenon? The modern zombie created in George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead encapsulates many core human fears. Fear of the dead. Fear of a painful death. Fear of decaying flesh. Fear of contagious disease. Fear of betrayal. Fear of a loss of social order and support. Is there any social or political milieu or even any culture ever in which masses of nigh-indestructible ambulatory dead people trying to eat people alive is not a frightening thought? Even cultures that mummify the dead and keep them around would find the idea that grandpa’s corpse could come alive and eat the family disturbing…

Zombie stories (and most survival horror or science fiction) also appeal to us as parables about cooperation. Beyond the physical excitement of the zombies themselves, a zombie story’s main drama evolves out of the conflicts between the survivors. The beleaguered survivors must organize themselves and cooperate to escape the zombie menace and all zombie stories spend most of their time examining that process.[…] 

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and a zombie is just a zombie. People like zombie movies because zombies and the apocalyptic you’re-all-on-your-own setting they come with is genuinely horrifying. You can easily write interesting variations around the basic theme. Financially, zombies are cheap monsters and isolated farm houses are cheap places to film. Cheap, horrifying monsters explains the appeal of zombies for both film makers and their audiences, not tortuous allegories or appeals to zeitgeist.

As if to prove the point about shoestrings, British director Marc Price has apparently been turning heads at Cannes with his ultra-low budget zombie film, Colin. Price’s production company, Nowhere Fast, recruited aspiring zombies via Facebook and assembled the film over 18 months and for a mere $70. If you’ve a taste for lumbering reanimated flesh, by all means watch the trailer.



"Price’s production company, Nowhere Fast, recruited aspiring zombies via Facebook..."

Well, where better to look...? ;)

James S

Maybe someone could make a film with flesh eating students shuffling around saying "zombies represent consumerism and false consciousness... capitalism is baaaaad…."


Zombie students... Hm, I like that idea. I like it a lot.


I've never been a big fan of the zombie genre either but have, for some reason, had many, many nightmares about them - man and boy. And every time the most horrifying thing is that they're just unstoppable - both in terms of them individually lurching towards you and in their greater growth. My nightmares usually end with me basically giving up the fight because to carry on fighting seems so utterly futile. But that's me all over.

The recent Marvel Zombies series capture that unstoppableness very well - although, of course, it's all a bit daft.


“…although, of course, it’s all a bit daft.”

You mean you don’t buy Robin Wood’s claim that the zombies’ consumption of their victims represents the repression of “the Other” by a relentless capitalist bourgeoisie? Or that this alleged subtext is why audiences *actually* pay to see zombie films? :)

The appeal outlined by Shannon Love seems rather more plausible, and I think Romero acknowledged that Night of the Living Dead wasn’t actually a Marxist critique of bourgeois consumerism, but was basically just a riff on Richard Matheson’s novel, I Am Legend.


Don't know about Zombie movies but it is no surprise that many horror movies are set in the suburbs. It seems that every film maker wants to expose the true terrors that hide behind the twitching net curtains. I imagine that most film makers are urban dwellers with no kids and the full set of clichéd prejudices regarding those who might choose to live on an estate.

God forbid!


The grafting of social critique onto zombie films sounds a lot like art bollocks. Zobie bollocks, maybe?


I'm pretty sure Shaun of the Dead has some gentle prods at U.K. (drinking especially) culture.


I felt that 28 Days Later, directed by Danny Boyle, certainly had a political subtext: that civilisation and all its institutions are a hollow sham, liable to instant collapse when things go wrong. We're only four weeks into a zombie attack yet the army has turned into a gang of survivalist nutters who are luring survivors to their compound in order to impregnate the women by force. Frankly my reaction to this was ... 'bollocks'.

I suppose this might come under the heading of 'coarse nihilistic satire, in which all values are upturned with adolescent glee,' as you say. Except I felt the glee was lacking and the subtext was in earnest.


28 Days Later didn’t do it for me either. Some reviewers seized on the opportunity to hail the film’s “powerful message” about “car-addicted, computer-dependent, urban life” and “anger at call-centre queues,” and its wasteland “littered with the useless ephemera of consumerism.”* (Oddly, the characters still rely for their survival on a great deal of this “useless ephemera.”) I found it monotonous and lost all interest about halfway through. It became very difficult to care whether anyone survived. Though the scenes of deserted London were eye-catching and I did like the idea of the nightmare being unleashed by the staggering stupidity of animal rights activists.

* http://www.channel4.com/film/reviews/film.jsp?id=109016&section=review&page=2#reviewnav

Boyle’s “Sunshine,” which in a way goes zombie towards the end, is a much better film.


Zombie movies aren't about fear of the Other, they're about snobbery and self-loathing. They are indistinguishable from ordinary people -- they just aren't as attractive or intellectual as the good guys. Sound familiar? It's standard-issue liberal attitudes. We heard endless variations on this during the late campaign, only they called the shambling undead "Republicans" instead of "zombies." Sometimes they even called Republicans zombies.

And of course the smart, attractive protagonists are perfectly justified in mowing down hordes of ordinary-looking people. Zombie movies are the liberal fantasy scenario: killing everyone who doesn't have the Correct Opinions.

Coming soon to a civilization near you...

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