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The Slow Apocalypse

Our Zombie Season progresses with this, David Varela‘s socio-political reading of zombie narratives. The 21st century living dead may be a warning – and we’re letting them creep up on us…

1968 was a big year. It saw student protests in France, race riots in America, the Prague Spring, the death of Andy Warhol and the most heated fighting of the Vietnam War.

It also saw the creation of the modern zombie, filmed for the first time by George Romero in Night of the Living Dead. While there was some resemblance to the reanimated corpses of Haitian voodoo, these zombies were an entirely new breed.

Romero didn’t even call them zombies. In the early drafts of his script, they were referred to as ‘ghouls’ and it was only later that the Z-word was co-opted. Romero had good reason to make his zombies novel and distinctive adversary. He admitted that his film was a rip-off of Richard Matheson’s 1954 story I Am Legend (later popularised in a Hollywood movie starring Will Smith, who was also born in 1968), and to make the imitation less obvious, he needed to replace Matheson’s vampiric beasts with something original.

Romero also said that the core theme of both his film and Matheson’s story was revolution. They’re about the whole world changing and then the hero’s stubborn refusal to follow the crowd. They’re about the One against the Many.

Against the backdrop of 1968’s race riots and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, the political message of Night of the Living Dead can be seen much more clearly. In Romero’s movie (SPOILER ALERT), the African-American hero Duane Jones survives a long night of zombie slaying only to be shot by a posse of redneck policemen in the final reel. Their unthinking violence is directly compared to the aggression of the zombie horde. Unquestioning prejudice makes you little more than a zombie.

If the 1968 film was about political revolution, then the 1978 sequel, Dawn of the Dead, was a revolt against capitalism. Set largely in a suburban shopping mall, the mindless zombies this time are consumers – and their behaviour doesn’t change all that much whether they’re consuming cheap electronics or human brains. Capitalism, Romero is saying, has brainwashed the majority of people into a mass of purchasers who unquestioningly obey the consumerist messages they’re fed through the media. Tellingly, Dawn of the Dead’s zombies are much more dangerous in the nation’s commercial centres than in rural farming communities, where the contagion is less virulent and some degree of sanity has been preserved.

By the time Shaun of the Dead comes round in 2004, the satirical target has changed but the zombie still proves a potent metaphor. Here, the topic isn’t political homogeny or mindless consumerism – it’s social apathy. Shaun has been in a dead-end job for years, he still lives with his best mate from school, and he’s too emotionally stunted to maintain a decent relationship. His life is moribund.

When the zombie apocalypse comes, it creeps up on him because it looks so like his everyday life. Commuters drop to the ground and nobody goes to help. Neighbours grunt rather than hold conversations. There’s another global crisis on the news – change the channel. Shaun, like so many modern Londoners, is self-concerned to the point of paralysis, and it’s only when the threat literally reaches his own backyard that he decides to take action.

But Shaun isn’t like Duane Jones or the lone hero of I Am Legend. Shaun’s act of resistance is not to stubbornly protect his insular lifestyle but instead to stop being a loner. He actively reaches out to his ex-girlfriend, his mother and his despised stepfather, dragging them all to safety in that ailing stronghold of social life, the pub.

In the twenty-first century, the ultimate act of revolution is to talk to your neighbours. Today’s zombie horde is a multitude of individuals disengaged from society, never speaking to or caring for each other, too concerned about checking their Klout score to look up from their mobiles, take off their headphones and really connect with people.

So this is the apocalypse. All this time, we’ve been guarding against a sudden violent outbreak, but the real zombie threat to civilisation is much more insidious. We’re all in danger of turning, not because of a virus but through complacency, through prejudice, and through a lack of empathy for our fellow human beings.

Our only defence against this evil? Our brains.

A good education teaches us to think independently and question received ideas. That means questioning authority. And that can lead to revolution.

A cynic might say that the best way for a government to avoid revolution and ensure zombie-like conformity is to make education unaffordable, reduce empathy (by eliminating the arts), and make individual citizens so concerned about their own financial wellbeing that they won’t worry about each other’s welfare.

The threat is real, but it looks so like everyday life that we’re letting it creep up on us. Maybe we need to revive the spirit of 1968 – before we wake up and find ourselves surrounded by a slow-moving, homogenous, inarticulate population unable to handle new ideas.


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