Grand Ambitions

Always Aim for the Head

Further to this post on the alleged political subtexts of zombie films, it seems the debate refuses to die.

In The American Prospect, Paul Waldman argues:

[A]t heart, the genre is a progressive one. It’s true that fighting off the zombie horde requires plentiful firearms, no doubt pleasing Second Amendment advocates. And in a zombie movie, government tends to be either ineffectual or completely absent. On the other hand, when the zombie apocalypse comes, capitalism breaks down, too - people aren’t going to be exchanging money for goods and services; they’re just going to break into the hardware store and grab what they need…

But most important, what ensures survival in a zombie story are the progressive ideals of common cause and collective action. A small group of people from varying backgrounds are thrust together and find that they can transcend their differences of age, race, and gender (the typical band of survivors is a veritable United Nations of cultural diversity). They come to understand that if they're going to get out of this with their brains kept securely housed in their skulls and not travelling down some zombie’s gullet, they’ve got to act as though they’re all in it together. Surviving the tide of zombies requires community and mutual responsibility. What could be more progressive than that?

Over at Ace, Mætenloch takes a different view:

[F]irst of all common cause and collective action are hardly unique to the left - most of the difference between the left and right is how collective action should be implemented - top-down or bottom-up, government-based or strictly voluntary. And furthermore insofar as zombie movies actually have a political viewpoint, I would argue that it’s more a conservative one. As Margaret Thatcher once said, “The facts of life are conservative,” and the facts of the zombie apocalypse seem even more so.

Most z-movies end up with a small band of survivors holed up with guns fighting off zombie hordes, planning a way out to safety with no assistance from authorities. At the very least this suggests that conservatives and libertarians would be the most prepared to survive a zombie-filled world. Even if you’re not into guns, it’s good to have at least one neighbor who is, just in case. And while most movie plots revolve around a collective plan to escape, the emphasis is on individual action and responsibility. Z-movies usually contain a mini morality tale where a weak character through cowardice or distraction allows zombies to get through and kill other characters. Personal responsibility is not a virtue unique to the right, but it’s something that you generally only see celebrated in conservative-themed movies.

But the most telling point in favor of zombie movies being conservative is how they view the zombies themselves. The movies don’t bother focusing on their back story, motivations, or how or if they feel. The zombies are an implacable force that must be destroyed. Sure they may have been human friends and family once full of love and life, but now they are the undead who hunger for human brains or flesh. No moral equivalence here. And while occasionally a character expresses some sympathy for the zombies, no one ever tries to negotiate or find common cause with them. It’s pointless. They’re zombies, they’re hungry, and they have to be destroyed.

Readers keen to deconstruct the politics of cheesy horror films are welcome to sit through Boris Sagal’s 1971 offering, The Omega Man, based on Richard Matheson’s novel, I Am Legend, in which Charlton Heston struggles with the technophobic undead on the streets of Los Angeles:  

Parts 1, 2345, 6, 789, 10.

There’ll be a test on Friday.