Tuesday, April 13, 2010

I haz seen teh zombiez, and dey is us

Today's main task is to compose my paper proposal for this year's Canadian Association of American Studies (CAAS) conference. When the conference theme was announced as "Health/Care/Nation," my first thought was "Oh, I am TOTALLY writing a paper on zombies."

I've been working at the basic outline of what I want to write, which is going to be a reading of the zombie as embodying the "nightmare of excess" (working title: "The Triumph of Death: Zombies and the Nightmare of Excess"). My thought is that zombies have functioned as ideal ciphers in horror films: they always stand in for something else, be it creeping conformity, communist collectivity, rapacious mindless consumerism, viral pandemics, or stoned slackerdom.

Zombies, in my reading, exert the fascination they do because they are the ultimate embodiment of what theorist Julia Kristeva figures as "abjection"—the abject, she says, is that "which is not-I," something inescapably Other, that which is excess to us. A key example of what she means is our squeamish relation to our own bodily fluids: blood, mucus, excrement, pus, saliva, etc. As long as these are out of sight and contained, we are fine with them; revulsion is however our principal reaction when they become exterior to us, a reaction ramped up even further when they happen to belong to other people. We try to maintain an out-of-sight, out-of-mind relationship to such detritus at all times, and are discomfited when presented with the reality of our own excess—be that our own excrescences or the waste we produce simply as a matter of consumption. Kristeva makes the argument that the ultimate expression of abjection is the corpse, and the more obviously dead (i.e. mutilated or decayed), the greater our fear and revulsion.

Thus, the zombie exemplifies the abjection of excess—and given that excess is the product of consumption, the zombie's mindless drive to eat the living is the ultimate act of consumption designed to transform us into more excess. With this in mind, I have to wonder if zombies have ultimately come to be less ciphers for other fears than simply being the thing themselves. By which I mean they are what my fellow Americanist David Evans at Dalhousie (speaking of trash) calls a "stubbornly senseless singularity"—what Slavoj Zizek terms the "indivisible remainder" and Lacan would probably figure in some terms of a horrifying and inescapable Real (Lacanians, help me out on this one).

This isn't to suggest that they don't also represent all that other stuff I mentioned, but the very profusion of zombies in popular culture recently—an excess of excess, if you like—itself makes this reading rather more convincing. In the last eight years or so, we have reached a critical mass of the zombie genre: the Resident Evil franchise, 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later, the Dawn of the Dead remake, George Romero's own recent contributions Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead, and of course comical takes like Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland. On television, BBC produced a remarkably good miniseries titled Dead Set, in which the sole survivors of the zombie apocalypse are the contestants on the set of Big Brother. There have also been such films as I am Legend, Quarantine, Carriers, and The Crazies, which may not be strictly zombie films but certainly employ the standard z-film tropes; and of course there have been the hugely popular Max Brooks books The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (with the latter currently in film development).

And these are just the mainstream examples. Out of curiosity, and to make sure I wasn't making a claim that simply wasn't true, I found a list of zombie films made since White Zombie premiered in 1932. Keeping in mind that this is a Wikipedia list and thus not ironclad, the numbers are nevertheless staggering. Between 1932-2001, there were 216 zombie films produced, which averages out to about three a year; from 2002-2009 there were 317. Three hundred and frakkin' seventeen! Which means, to put it in perspective, that in those eight years, fifty percent more zombie films were produced than in the sixty-nine years previously—an average of forty per year.

Several things leap out at me here. First and foremost is the timing: when I break down the 2002-2009 by year, I find that 2002 had a paltry eight films, which is of a piece with 2001 (eleven), 2000 (nine) and 1999 (six), while 2003 jumps to twenty-six (with numbers more or less climbing every year to the sixty-four that came out in 2009). Taking into account the time it takes to get a film into production, film it, and release it, this makes the zombie explosion pretty emphatically a post-9/11 phenomenon. As discussed in my previous post about terrorism on the large vs. small screen, Hollywood has largely eschewed representations of terrorism, instead sublimating such spectacles into films like Transformers and War of the Worlds. Do we also now lump zombie films into the morass of post-9/11 anxiety?

It seems an unavoidable thing. The question is, and what I throw out to my loyal readers, is this: what is it about post-9/11 fear and anxiety that inspires this "nightmare of excess"?


Stephen Lethbridge said...

I think we North Americans have been inundated with fear-mongering of all types since 9/11. Following the terrorist attacks, I noticed a pronounced rise in the amount of scare stories on news stations, locally and abroad. And it wasn't just "Why you should fear your muslim neighbour" stories, it encapsulated everything from what we put into our bodies, what we take out, what we wear, what we read, watch and so on. Basically, what we consume.

Health crises since the 9/11 attacks, and even so far back as the AIDS scare of the 1980's, have always made for great news show fodder. One study is released saying that mosquitos in Japan carry a strain of Malaria and it gets turned into "DEATH GNATS FROM THE ORIENT '06!" This is because if something scares us, we are more likely to take it seriously and thus, more likely to tune into local news to get more information on it. We want to know what the ailment does to our bodies, which of the foods/animals/sports drinks/whatever will give it to us and what we can do to stop it.

So, today we have a conscious fear of sicknesses. For example, every 50 feet on campus, there is a Purell dispenser. The "outbreak" side of the zombie legend is the thing that plays most on our fears and makes zombies the seem so frightening. We have been living in a world where every couple of years, another epidemic is here to kill us all. What could be scarier than an epidemic that turns your girlfriend or mother or mailman into a pus-dripping, rotting cannibal?

Stephen Lethbridge said...

So, basically, the opportunity to play on one of society's most common fears has lead to this outbreak (heh heh) of zombie movies in the last year. I think Zombieland did it best, using the very real Mad Cow outbreak as a catalyst for its zombie apocalypse.

Paul S. F. said...

Looking at the costing of zombie films, blockbusters notwithstanding, they can be done on a fairly lean budget. I would imagine that that has something to do with z-film's refusial to die.
The director of 28 Days Later said that "every generation gets the zombies it deserves." Perhaps we looking at a quanity-over-quality affliction.

Nikki Stafford said...

Hmm... this is fascinating. Perhaps during the last election too many filmmakers saw what Sarah Palin's audience looked like... and that image just sort of stuck with them. So they made a zombie film.

Dave Reynolds said...

I'd just like to say that the World Health Organization just issued a public admission that they misinformed the public about the severity of the Swine Flu. You could cite the H1N1 media frenzy, policy fiasco, and public hysteria as evidence of the zombie phenomenon considering the theme Health/Care/Nation.

Shaun Coady said...

Mr. Lethbridge has made a very valuable notation in the fact that the envisioning of an outbreak that is both unknown and seemingly unstoppable plays into the fears of all inhabitants of the world. We then gorge ourselves of familiar things to create a sort of sanctuary, such as food; or delving for information, both locally and internationally to better educate ourselves against the growing unknown. So this need for consumption is an almost primal safeguard of our sanity, and the result is nothing more than a zombesque creature that knows only to feed to sustain itself, though more out of fear than any real survival function when you apply it to us as a society, and even as an individual.
One of the other things I noticed in the much later films from 2002 onwards is that the zombies begin to become more rapid, more aggressive, as if the act of consumption must be done in heat of violence and almost feral like rage (Dawn of the Dead remake, 28 days later. Could it be that allusion is that soon our fear with be replaced with animalistic violence and the most base drive to defend our selves from all threats. This does follow the post 9/11 fears, with the extra security, the weapons research boom, and the rise in consumption of good in America. As you watch the later films from Romero, you notice the amount of firepawer that they "soldiers" carry for protection and extermination. Yet there is no mention of any real research being done to stop the plague, Even in Day of the dead they were trying to find a way to train the zombies to be soldiers, which is a horrible allusion to the depths of darkness some will go to win a war. You watch Night of the Living Dead, even Dawn of the dead, the movements are slow, and there is an almost hypnotic swagger to it as they reproduce the most basic of functions, there is no malice, no hatred, simply a drive.
Then you get to the remake of Dawn, and you see speed, rage, and power behind this drive. An evolution of the creatures even if not in the higher functions of the intellect. Then in Land of the Dead, you see them evolve yet again wielding weapons, attempting to re-enact certain concepts (I refer to the zombie with the gas pump). these zombies too are more rapid in movement, and more enraged,as if the soul was trapped inside cursing the still living.
what I find most interesting about the idea of the fears involves the media aspect of Diary of the Dead, in which the filmmakers become mindless automatons in their search for "truth" filming even when trying to flee the plague. This representation of media and the loss of humanity I find most relevant to to the people of today, we watch the news, see the death, the unnecessary destruction, the greed, and simply change over to the prince is right and wish we could win that new car!
The last thing I would like to mention is the Return of the Living Dead, parts one and two only tough, where it is mans excess which causes the outbreak. The most poignant scene in the comedy is when the zombie is on the table talking to its captors about why it is has to eat brains, and the response is one of the most basic anyone can understand. "Makes pain go away." The reality of that is that we all have a way to deal with pain, be it physical or psychological, and though it does assist us for a brief time, the pain always returns, and we must consume more and more to trigger the same effect, be it cocaine, viacodin, or even gravol to sleep. One of our greatest fears is found in the anticipation of pain, and more importantly the anticipation of its return, in which we tell ourselves that it will gain in momentum and this time it will be like the agonies of hell, so we consume more to dose it before it reaches us, and this cycle continues until we only know one thing, and can only do one thing, and we become that which we fear without even seeing our skin rot or our entrails fall by the wayside.

WJM said...

i can has brains?

Chris in NF said...

@Stephen: Very true, I think -- looking back over the evolution of the z-film, from the 30s and through the 50s, zombies were principally the creation of dark magic. Then Romero comes along and it gets murkier (the suggestion of radiation is common), but we also see the introduction of the mad scientist figure, who plays effectively the same role as the magician but with a Frankenstein vibe. You're spot on in identifying the fundamental shift, especially since 28 Days Later, to viral paranoia.

@Paul: Maybe. I do think there is a tendency of popular tropes to self-propagate, but I do think the numbers speak to something a little more substantial than just budgeting -- I mean, it is over a ten-fold increase in production.

@Nikki: HAHAHAHA! Too true -- but I think you got it backwards. I think Palin's audiences saw some zombie films and were inspired by the slack-jawed zombies moaning "BRAINS!" The question is whether they heard that and thought, "Yeah, I'se got to get me some of those!" or were just raveningly jealous of Obama's brain. Six to five and pick 'em, I think ....

@Dave: And SARS ... don't forget SARS.

@Shaun: Yeeeaaah, I think I'm gonna have to come back to your comment later. ;-)

@WJM: You can haz all the brainz you like!

Danika Barker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Danika Barker said...

I was so excited when I saw that you'd written about zombies. I've been looking for a good article for my media class on this topic for a while now, but... well I'm lazy. I like it when I don't have to do any leg work.

What do you make of the popularity of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? Is it just more of the same? I'm curious about this fan-fictiony trend of reinventing the "classics" in our own image.

I think I speak for all zombies (since they can't speak for themselves) when I say you have a very tasty brain. Guard it carefully.

Dallas said...

Um, where is this year's conference? I would love to hear you deliver this paper!

Chris in NF said...

@Danika: Glad to be of service. :-) Is this a class you're taking or teaching?

@Dallas: This year we'll be in Windsor. Failing your making that trek, I'd be happy to send you a copy. And hey, congratulations on the engagement!

WJM said...

nom nom nom nom nom

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