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Undead capitalism

Zombies are big business, with more games and films coming out every year cashing in on the idea of the walking dead. Will Walsh looks at why our society is so zombified

AMC’S THE Walking Dead has taken the world by storm. Based on the graphic novel of the same name, the series follows a group of survivors as they have made their way across a desolate zombie filled wasteland. The second season has now come to a climatic end with the next season scheduled for next year. The Walking Dead is part of the recent obsession with all things zombie – from dressing up for the ‘zombie apocalypse’ to the large number of zombie themed computer games, what is the fascination with the living dead?

The Zombie economy
There has been a spate of articles and books talking about zombie capitalism, zombie corporations and zombie nations. The zombie theme refers to the living dead nature of capitalism, not only a system that refuses to die, but has in a sense already died, the life has come out of it and now it just feeds on the flesh of the living. It also specifically refers to the bail out of banks and companies around 2008 which saw them resurrected from the grave, but not to see renewed life in the economy, simply to stop it from complete collapse.

Nouriel Roubini, a mainstream economist who was pretty accurate in his predictions of where the economy was going a few years ago – argued that high debt levels “have created zombie households, zombie banks, and zombie governments”. This is how we live today – suspended between the old life and the new one, a world waiting for revolution that has not yet come.

Zombies in films
To really understand what the ideology behind zombies is I think we need to analyse what a zombie really is and what it culturally represents. Monsters throughout the years have always mirrored society’s issues and most of all fears. From the beginning of film in the early part of the 20th century the fear was the ‘outsider’ (xenophobia) so we have films such as Birth of a Nation, a pro-KKK movie set in the US civil war. As movie developed horror films began to be made in the 30s and 40s with adaptations of classic gothic literature such as Frankenstein and Dracula, the former being about the fear of technology and science and the latter being the fear again of the ‘outsider’ but also sexual awakening and homosexuality. Japan, with their own specific national trauma  of the atomic bombings in 1945, invented Godzilla, which represents the fear of nuclear energy, weaponry and mutations. The list goes on.

Zombies are different. They have represented different fears over the many years they appeared in film. Of course it is easy to see zombies as a metaphor for sickness and disease – an epidemic, but what if there is something else? George A. Romero’s Night of the Living dead (1969), released just after the civil rights movement, shows a clear metaphor for racial tension in the deep south of America – one scene has the police/establishment opening fire on an unarmed black man, an event that was not uncommon then – or today. In fact Romero often uses the police or the army as the ‘survivors’ in his films, although he often shows them being incompetent and overrun by the masses of zombies. It could be argued that Romero is using this as an anti-establishment metaphor. In the 1970’s Romero releases arguably his greatest work, Dawn of the Dead, which is an obvious analogy of consumerism in America. The undead return to the shopping mall and walk its halls with drooling abandon as the survivors hold up on the roof. “What are they doing, why do they come here?” asks one character. “Some kind of instinct, memory, what they used to do” is the reply; “This mall was an important place in their lives”.

Zombie riot
A running theme through all zombie films though has always been social ‘disorder’. One of the reasons why the zombie is the most popular monster of our time is that we are seeing real life uprisings and revolutions all over the world. It’s arguable that zombies are the ultimate anti-capitalist monsters as they represent a punishment to us when the excesses of our society reach fever pitch. The fear of mass disorder by apparently mindless individuals mirrors the kind of response the establishment has had to the Occupy movement. In zombie films, the reaction of the survivors is often worse than the zombies themselves in these films (robbing the dead of their jewellery and killing each other to steal a car or food).

The Walking Dead shows the decay of the American dream along with capitalism. The first season showed the characters in an urban decaying sprawl, husks of tanks litter the streets, shops and buildings stand in disarray as the zombies shamble all around. “Zombies represent America hitting a very low bottom, as we witness the spectacle of consumer capitalism transforming itself into a feudalistic dance of death,” said the cultural critic David J. Skal.

Zombies can be seen as the ultimate ‘have-not’s’ and the survivors ‘haves’. It’s not hard to see zombies in the films White Zombie and Plague of Zombies as displaced workers, the latter is even set in a Cornish tin mine. We see clear parallels of the zombie-as-proletarian in Alfred Metraux’s book Voodoo, set in Haiti. “The zombie is a beast of burden, which his master exploits without mercy, making him work in the fields, weighing him down with labour, whipping him freely and feeding him on meagre, tasteless food.” Whilst  vampires are synonymous with Aristocrats who suck the blood of the peasants, zombies are the ‘beyond the grave’ trade unionists marching collectively on the few.
Really the Zombies are about you and me, the united collective against the real evil (capitalism, corporations, and our government).  They represent the fear of the mass, the multi-million, and express the fear of the capitalists that society might collapse into disorder.

To get past the undead capitalism and escape a zombified world, we need to rise from our acquiescent graves and unite – but we won’t be mindlessly eating people – we will be striking, occupying and resisting.

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