23 April 2009

Fascist Zombies

Braak at Threat Quality Press asks the hard questions: What exactly ARE zombies for? I'm always a sucker for cracking the syntactic chocolate shell of a genre and getting into it's semantic nougat center, so I'd recommend this.
This yields two basic kinds of horror from the zombie story–one makes it kin to Rhinoceros: it’s about the rise of fascism/nazism/&c. Formerly intelligent, independent, real human beings lose their self by becoming infected with [zombieness], and become part of a mindless horde that regularly engages in activities that individuals would before have found horrific. It is a metaphor for the mass, irreedemable loss of the minds of those one loves. (And this is the nature of horror: losses must be irredeemable. If you are in for a penny, you need to be in for a pound.)

The second is less about the psychological contagion and more about individual alienation: that the world is full of things that look human but behave atrociously drives home the idea that the individual is lost in a completely hostile world. Here the point is to set the hero, or heroes, at odds with a universe that is both familiar-looking and also completely alien. (Interestingly: the death of the main character in Night of the Living Dead, despite not being a zombie-related death, actually supports this theme; why? Because the movie is not about ZOMBIES, it’s about what zombies mean.)
I've never much liked the wave of zombie infection = rise of wicked ideology theme. I'm not disputing he's right about zombies being used that way, but it's always seemed to miss the point to me. Part of what makes it so scary when previously normal people do horrific things in the name of a cause is that they don't become irredeemable inhuman. When Zimbardo and Milgram's subjects finish up they go back to being normal undergrads; when Colonel Saito wasn't running POW camps in Indochina he was probably playing with his kids and taking walks with his wife and worrying about going bald, just like the rest of us.

It's exactly the ability of normal people to do monstrous things without becoming monsters that is so scary to me. It's easy to justify a world in which Bad Things are done by Bad People, it's much more difficult to accept that Bad Things are done by the guy who sings in the choir and calls his mother every Sunday and brings donuts into the office to share all the time. ((1) Yes, that's a reference to Dexter, which relies on this phenomenon and the fact that we're still undecided about vigilantism, and (2) No, I'm not saying there are no truly Bad People, just that I don't think they're frightening in the same way or as good of an referent for zombies as "normal" folk who behave badly.)

In zombie fiction you're always hearing things like "No, he's not your brother anymore. Your brother is dead, that's just his body, let it go." I don't think that's a good analog to someone who's joined up with the blackshirts or what have you, because one day that guy won't be a blackshirt anymore, and he'll probably go back to being normal in most respects. But as we know, you can't go back from being a zombie. The fact that people can compartmentalize so well that they can go and do evil things and then come home when the war or revolution or whatnot is over and go back about their lives is what makes evil in the service of a cause (as opposed to evil in the service of psychopathy or ego) so frightening.


  1. I think you're exactly right on this. We've had access to Arendt for a long time now and so I don't think that's ever been why zombies "work" for us as a movie genre.

    For one thing, zombies are only human-like. In most zombie movies, the zombies are rotting and horrible. One has to include zombie-like films like body-snatcher movies to get to the point your linked-to author is getting...and those are only zombie-like if one presupposes that analysis 2 is a good one as well.

    I think it has far less to do with alienation and a lot more to do with our fears that free will is an illusion and that something like a human hive-mind has clear evolutionary merits and that the loss of individual identity might in any way prove desireable.

    Which is an analysis that allows us to see Firefly's reivers (sp) and the Star Trek's Borgs to be more accurate zombie analogs--and for that matter--certain robot movies (wherein someone previously human discovers that they are actually robots: Bladerunner, the new Terminator). I think that that analysis holds up better thematically both as a plot device and the appeal it makes to our perpetual crises of identity.

  2. Well, there's two things about this: in the first place, I want to be clear that I'm not saying that the best way to write about fascism, or individual alienation, is with zombies. I'm saying that, of the stories that you can tell with zombies, the one about fascism is probably the best way to do it.

    In the second place, I don't disagree with you about the implications of Milgram and Zimbardo's research. But, one of the things that I think is important about horror is that it abjures nuance. Purposefully, I think--not every story is best told with an eye towards layered complexity. Horror is not about making a serious or compelling argument, it's not even really about warning the population against a real danger (which is why Invasion of the Body-Snatchers--which, JimPanzee, I generally would put in the same, or at least an adjacent, category with zombies--turns farcical once it becomes a parable about Communism).

    The purpose of horror is to seize on a primal fear and to evoke it as thoroughly as possible--zombies as a metaphor for fascism is less, I think, about making the point that any human being can become a monster with relatively little provocation, but rather more about the actual experience of being a person in Berlin in the 30s, and one day realizing that you didn't know anyone who wasn't a Nazi. The feeling of seeing your friends turned against you and suddenly unreasonable is what's at stake here.

    And I think that's why zombies, as the living dead, are so resonant. We've already got a naturally reasonable fear of our dead--they're unsanitary, they're kept out of sight all the time, this makes them frightening and enigmatic. Moreover, zombies are often not rotting and horrible, as JimPanzee suggests--they were only eerily inhuman-looking in Night of the Living Dead, for instance, and they weren't zombies at all in 28 Days Later.

    Ultimately, of course, the sense of being in a place in which your friends have all turned into unreasonable monsters is one of many senses that can be evoked. I wouldn't go so far as to say that all art should evoke that sense, or even that all horror should evoke it, or even, unless I was really pressed, that all zombie stories should evoke it. I just think that, as far as results go, that's the one that zombies are best suited to.

  3. I am admittedly way over thinking this issue. Braak is right that horror movies are about evoking emotions and not providing detailed allegories of social movements.

    I only brought all this up because for me the 'banality of evil' is the thing we need to address in order to understand totalitarianism. Of course maybe horror isn't about understanding the things we fear, it's about experiencing them.

    So I guess where this leads me is that if you're going to use zombies, Braak is right that a good possible use is to invoke Nazism, but I don't think it works the other way around. If you're trying to write about Nazism there's a lot of other syntactic sugar I'd choose before zombies.

  4. Well, and I think you're right that I could've been a little clearer. I don't mean to say that zombies are a good allegory for Nazism--in fact, I kind of feel like, despite the fact that Nazis are one of the handful of groups that we can invoke in art without any obligation to bother humanizing them, horror is better served by not being so specific. The second you talk about Nazis, or blackshirts, or totalitarianism in particular, you're now stuck with having to explain yourself more thoroughly.

    Also, I'm suddenly digging on the idea of post-zombie outbreak, after some guy has found a cure for zombieism, and people are returned to their regular lives with full memories (partial memories? Video of themselves?) of how they behaved while undead. That could be interesting.

  5. Also, I'm suddenly digging on the idea of post-zombie outbreak, after some guy has found a cure for zombieism, and people are returned to their regular lives with full memories (partial memories? Video of themselves?) of how they behaved while undead. That could be interesting.I like that idea a lot.