Notes Toward Building the Zombie Community

The following was recently published, graciously, by the Rebel Doll Zine in my now native Indianapolis. I’m posting it here, now, because I also included the address of this blog in the zine and I’m hoping that one or two people may visit and give their feedback to develop the very brief (we were asked to limit our submissions to one page) ideas in the piece:

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What’s up with mainstream America’s obsession with zombies? If you ask a psychologist, they’ll probably tell you that it’s the result of some sort of identification complex, i.e., we find in the mass depersonalization and automation of zombies something that we see in ourselves, or in our culture. If you ask me, the explanation is a little more complex, and a lot more insidious. What if, rather than identifying with the zombies, viewers actually identify with the protagonists? That doesn’t sound so absurd; of course most movies are written so that we can understand and identify with the hero or anti-hero. What does this mean in the context of a zombie flick, then?

In the most classic and popular zombie film of all time, Dawn of the Dead, the majority of the action takes place in a shopping mall. What’s a shopping mall but the very epitome of late capitalism? The mall is at once a mass of stores and an appropriation and organization of public space, in the form of the mall building itself, to facilitate the movement of individuals, as on a conveyor belt, from one store to the next. In primarily classical Marxist analyses of Dawn of the Dead, it is argued that the zombies in the film symbolize the mall itself, that they are depoliticized objects embodying commodity fetishism. The Marxists read the film as a radical anti-consumerist aesthetic manifesto, as a warning against runaway consumer capitalism. Now, that very well may have been George Romero’s intention, in fact, I’m pretty sure he’s stated something like that at several points throughout this career.

But like most popular films that are on the surface anti-capitalist or anti-consumerist, we can also read Dawn of the Dead in terms of how the film affects our psyche when we leave the theatre. At the end of Dawn of the Dead, the characters make an escape from the mall, their bodies intact, touting a sense of accomplishment with their courage barely shaken. When we identify with these characters, we have the feeling that we too have fought against the zombie-like forces of capitalism; there is a burden lifted when the characters with which we identify do the work that the film proposes to us. In the case of Dawn of the Dead, Romero proposes a resistance to consumerism, we identify that as a task to be done, and as the characters on screen act out that resistance, we feel the same sort of accomplishment that we would if we were to act out that resistance in the real world (through mutual aid, cooperative living, corporate sabotage, &c.). We see the same effect in films like The Bank (2001), Salt (2010) or worst of all, Avatar (2009); these films are wildly popular, but do we ever see an influx in moral anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist or anti-State activism after the films come out? Of course not, they’re simply entertaining and give us a sense of accomplishment at even having seen the film’s theatrical acting out of our anti-consumerist fantasies.

The zombie film genre would have the effect Romero was going for if at the end of the film, the characters were killed and/or assimilated by the zombies. Terrible prospect for the characters, but probably at that point we would be forced to act out the fantasy ourselves, with real world consequences. What is more powerful than the unresolved tension of feeling an injustice, even on the big screen, and needing to bring about the denoument? This playing out could take many forms, one particularly zombie themed action was a mainstay in the place I previously lived, Asheville, NC (though it’s a national and even international event by this point): the Zombie Walk.

In a Zombie Walk, folks get dressed up as zombies and storm a capitalist stronghold (the Bank of America was a recurring target in Asheville). While at once throwing ordinary passersby off during their normal meanderings through the downtown business district and interrupting the flow of things as normal generally, the protestor/zombies hand out information about the environmental degradation that the Bank funds and facts about the absurd amount of money that Bank CEO’s have made over the last few years (hint: their salaries are going up as the rest of the world slips into debt and poverty). Why dress up as a zombie to do this work? Maybe its because we should identify with the zombies in popular films, but with the aim of creating a new kind of zombie, a new kind of ideology, an ideology of resistance. This machinic resistance is a reappropriation of the zombie community for our own revolutionary projects.

Capitalism is a monstrous machine, and small acts of resistance in big screen blockbusters is only going to grease its cogs. What we need is a new zombie, one that feeds on the brains of environmentally destructive corporations, one that eats out the heart of xenophobia and racism ripping communities apart, all the while building a community of autonomous singularities (the people participating in the zombie walk eventually take off their makeup and go play kickball in the park) with the aim of making real radical change in the world.

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