The growing popularity of the zombie apocalypse genre represents growing elite anxiety about revolutionary insurrection, argues Gastón Gordillo.
The trailer of the Hollywood blockbuster World War Z forthcoming this summer is characterized by the dramatic appearance of huge masses of zombies that take over public space at staggering speed. Amid the rapid collapse of state power, the leaderless zombie multitude forces the global elites to retreat behind high walls or to desperately flee on helicopters onto ships out in the ocean. In the final scenes, Israeli soldiers shoot at massive avalanches of bodies that charge against them as if forming an uncontrollable flood of indistinct physical forms. The zombie multitude becomes particularly ominous in the trailer’s closing images, when it forms a monstrous protuberance that steadily climbs up the Wall of Separation protecting Fortress Israel. Yet what makes the trailer particularly eerie, and revealing, was the timing of its online release. At the exact time the gripping images of Israeli troops murdering uncontrollable crowds of zombies was going viral on YouTube in mid-November, the Israeli military was murdering and mutilating men, women, and children in Gaza and treating them, as in World War Z, as if they were part of a not-fully-human, dangerous horde that ought to be crushed at all costs.
“Everything in World War Z is based in reality,” said Max Brooks, the author of the book the movie is based on. “Well, except the zombies. But seriously, everything else in the book is either taken from reality or 100% real.” Maybe we should take Brook’s insistence about the reality of the zombie multitude seriously, and thereby examine in more depth what’s behind the growing obsession with a zombie apocalypse in popular culture. And this may require exploring this genre’s popularity as expression of anxieties about a world revolution. Am I reading too much into yet another zombie movie? Perhaps. Yet the fact that insurrections are mystified as the result of a “contagion” triggered by a “virus” that abruptly turns humans into uncontrollable crowds of zombies should not totally surprise us. This is how elites have always regarded insurrections: as pathological events inexplicably created by irrational hordes blinded by primitive, unsophisticated, impulsive desires. This is how Gustave Le Bon, the father of the “sociology of crowds,” responded to the uprising of the people of Paris in 1871: by claiming that radicalized multitudes are nothing but zombie-like, scary “hordes.”
Scholarly analyses of zombies tend to focus on the historical origins of this figure in Haiti, where the zombie as the living dead symbolized the body of the slave. As David Graeber reminds us, slaves are usually treated throughout history as humans that are already dead: as bare life that could be killed without breaking the law. In popular culture, zombies indeed often represent a state of un-freedom. But isn’t the zombie, in an ironic twist, also a body that cannot be affected and is, therefore, utterly indifferent to power, ranks, and hierarchies and that is consequently unbearably free? Isn’t this affective dimension key to any political reading of the current popularity of zombies? The author of World War Z emphasized that what terrifies him the most about zombies is, indeed, that they don’t obey rules and cannot be “shocked and awed.” “They scare me more than any other fictional creature out there because they break all the rules,” Brooks said in an interview. And he argued that this disobedience makes of zombies irrational beings comparable to terrorists. “The lack of rational thought has always scared me when it came to zombies, the idea that there is no middle ground, no room for negotiation. That has always terrified me. Of course that applies to terrorists. … Any kind of mindless extremism scares me, and we’re living in some pretty extreme times.” Brooks, on his own admission, is very scared of the world in which we live. He wrote his first book, The Zombie Survival Guide, as a call to arms to get ready for the coming planetary insurrection. His first lesson is, “Organize before they rise!” And “they,” lest we forget, are actually us: ordinary human beings that abruptly become something else: something profoundly menacing.
Zombies are menacing not only because they cannot be affected but also because they are not totally devoid of affects; after all, zombies are not dead but undead. Their lifeless bodies move, moan, and are guided by one raw appetite: the desire to eat living flesh, which magnetically attracts them to living bodies. In Brooks’ book, this desire makes zombies aggregate to form truly gigantic multitudes: “mega swarms” that roam the continents and are visible from outer space: “Truly massive, miles across, like the American buffalo must have once been.” These zombie multitudes are what Deleuze and Guattari would call uncoded desiring machines: lines of flow guided by desire, even if this is desire of a rudimentary nature. In Spinoza, Deleuze argued that a tick is guided by three basic affects: it is attracted to light, it is sensitive to the smell of mammals, and digs into the animal’s skin. The zombies’ rudimentary affects are very similar. Yet this affective condition makes them immune to the state and thereby has profound political implications. In the eyes of the state, zombies form insurgent multitudes because their undomesticated desires threaten the very fabric of state power.
While heir to a long legacy of movies about zombie epidemics, the film World War Z is already being hailed as “The Mother of all Zombie Movies,” and rightly so. The film stands out, first, because of its planetary reach, which makes previous films about zombie outbreaks look purely local or regional (England in 28 Days or Atlanta and rural Georgia in The Walking Dead). But what is most distinctive about the zombie multitudes in the film is their staggering speed. This speed, in fact, sets the movie apart from the book, which follows the genre convention of presenting clumsy, slow-moving zombies, the walking dead. To the dismay of some of the book’s fans, on the film’s trailer the zombie multitudes charge at an overwhelming velocity, forming massive avalanches in which the zombies’ individual bodies create an undifferentiated torrent, an unformed thing-in-motion that overruns everything on its path. This vortex makes the allegory of revolution more haunting than it is in the book. Paul Virilio has long insisted that revolutions are processes of acceleration whose speed is qualitatively different from that of capital. “Revolution is speed, but speed is not revolution” (Speed and Politics). We got a taste of that insurgent speed in the staggeringly fast-paced wave of insurrections that shook North Africa and the Middle East in 2011, which in a matter of weeks engulfed multiple countries thousands of kilometers apart from each other. Some of the long-shot images of urban unrest on the trailer of World War Z, indeed, look like images of the Arab Spring.
Zombie epidemics and revolutionary situations share a similar spatiality: a territorial disintegration through which multitudes that do not take orders from the state dissolve state-controlled spaces. In World War Z and also on the hugely popular TV show The Walking Dead, the zombie multitudes create, through this territorial dissolution, an overwhelming spatial void that is first generated in urban centers and subsequently expands outwardly. As Lefebvre insisted, in an increasingly urbanized world the most radical insurrections are (and will be) urban phenomena. This is why the panoptic surveillance of urban space is a key priority of the imperial security apparatus, as Stephen Graham demonstrates in Cities under Siege. In The Walking Dead, the urban nature of the zombie insurrection is particularly apparent in the opening episodes, when the zombie takeover of the city of Atlanta forces survivors to flee to rural areas. In one scene, attack helicopters bombard the city with napalm, the epitome of counter-insurgency weapons. In subsequent episodes, the spatial voiding created by the collapse of the state acquires a particularly haunting presence. For months on end, the small band of survivors lives on the run, in hiding, always on the edge and with their weapons at the ready, suffocated by the spatial emptiness that surrounds them ---a voiding not unlike the one experienced by imperial troops in terrains controlled by local insurgencies, be that of the jungles of South America in the 1600s or the mountains of Afghanistan today.
In both The Walking Dead and World War Z, a key strategy to cope with this spatial disintegration is the production of walled, fortified spatial enclaves. Yet whereas in The Walking Dead these walled enclaves are created locally by scattered survivors who have no idea what is going on elsewhere, in World War Z they are largely the product of a globally-coordinated policy of counter-insurgency. Nothing makes Brooks’ conservative anxieties more transparent than the fact his book presents South Africa and Israel as the world leaders in containing the zombie insurrection because of their commitment to Apartheid-style policies. In South Africa, Brooks tells us, the author of the successful plan to contain the zombies through fortified spatial enclosures was a former official of the Apartheid regime who originally devised this plan to combat a human insurrection. “It was a doomsday scenario for the country’s white minority, the plan to deal with the all-out uprising of its indigenous African population.” In short, a human rebellion against a brutal, racist regime becomes indistinguishable from a zombie outbreak. Likewise, Brooks presents Israel’s Apartheid as efficient and humanitarian, for it opens its militarized borders to all uninfected Palestinians fleeing the zombies. And the Wall of Separation is rebranded, and whitewashed, as the object that protects generic humans from the zombie apocalypse. The recent bombing of Gaza by the Israeli military disrupts this fantasy of humanitarian colonialism to remind us that the current Israeli state would never act so kindly, for the Wall was built to contain not zombies but millions of Palestinians who have for decades lived under foreign military occupation.
The genre of a zombie pandemic is quite distinct within the larger genre of end-of-the-world scenarios that currently fascinates popular culture. This is the only apocalypse created not by natural cataclysms but, rather, by human bodies that stop obeying the state. In being guided by one unrelenting desire, zombies are human bodies that have been freed from hierarchies, conventions, consumerism, and indoctrination by the media; and this un-coding creates a collective, leaderless, and expansive occupation of space that makes the state crumble. Zombies have this unique power to destroy the state, primarily, because they are free from fear. Brooks was asked why he thinks we are witnessing a growing fascination with zombies, and he candidly replied that they represent anxieties about a world in turmoil and about “chaos in the streets.” And this takes us back to the power of fearless multitudes. The phrase “we are no longer afraid” was one of the most recurring sentiments uttered during the 2011 insurrections of North Africa and the Middle East. Those were, indeed, multitudes that could no longer be “shocked and awed.” That is the affect that terrifies Brooks and that made him fantasize about a global campaign of indiscriminate state violence against rebellious hordes.
But the fear of the coming zombie insurrection may also be a tangential, not-fully-articulated recognition of the zombie-like conditions that capitalism has long cultivated at a planetary scale. After all, the global grinding machine depends on turning billions of people into passive, depoliticized bodies guided (like ticks and zombies) by just a few rudimentary affects: working, consuming, and obeying. Maybe what makes World War Z truly terrifying is the hidden recognition that the insurgent multitudes presented as lifeless hordes have woken up from their zombie nightmare to become unbearably human.
Gastón Gordillo teaches anthropology at the University of British Columbia. This article was originally posted at the Space and Politics blog.