People sometimes ask me why zombies are so popular.
Back in the seventies and eighties, zombie flicks were disreputable trash, little better than pornography. Nihilistic gore-fests shelved at the back of the VHS rental store alongside other 'special interest' titles. Hiring Zombie Flesh Eaters was a furtive and shameful act.
These days, zombies have gone mainstream. Brad Pitt is filming World War Z. Walking Dead is a hit TV show. It's like the nerdy kid showed up at a class reunion with a hot babe on his arm and a Ferrari. What the hell happened? How have zombies captured the public imagination?
Well, let's not overlook the obvious. Doomsday carnage lends itself to CGI. Big budget Hollywood movies are sold, round the world, on spectacle. Collapsing skyscrapers are equally popular in Johannesburg, Osaka, Santiago. Call it the Esperanto of Armageddon.
But there is more going on beneath the surface. Something about the imagery of cities gone to ruin seems to capture the spirit of the times.
I have a theory.
Survivalist tales are parables of resilience in the face of social upheaval. The debt-fuelled prosperity of the past couple of decades is over, and we have entered an indefinitely prolonged period of austerity. But US TV is still dominated by talent shows, forensic procedurals and lavish period sagas on HBO. The working poor are ignored by media determined to pretend consumers still revel in the complacent affluence of the Clinton/Blair nineties. Their struggles are not fully reflected in mainstream popular culture.
The TV show Walking Dead features a disparate group of survivors negotiating the desolate highways of zombie-ravaged America. They travel in a convoy headed by a battered RV. Each night they camp by the roadside and cook over an open fire. The imagery is vividly reminiscent of Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, his depression-era saga in which bankrupt farmers load their possessions onto trucks and head west looking for a new life.
Theoretically, these two tales are miles apart. Steinbeck's story is direct polemic, gritty social realism. Walking Dead is fantasy horror for geeks. Yet, at heart, both sagas depict the same situation. Shattered communities. Social dislocation. Families struggling to find refuge.
Let me give you three examples of apocalyptic imagery with deep economic resonance.
Automobiles have become an oppressive economic burden. The average US household consists of two wage earners, each battling to keep a car on the road, each living in dread of mechanical failure. Apocalyptic fiction reflects this apprehension. Highways clogged with immobilised vehicles. The life-or-death struggle to keep engines running, to secure a full tank of gasoline.
The sight of prosperous housing developments over-run by zombies echoes the real-life landscape of mass foreclosure. Streets depopulated by bankruptcies, left padlocked and boarded. Mailbox lawns reduced to tumbleweed desolation. US news channels have chronicled the aftermath of mass displacement; Ballardian tales of urban foragers: impoverished families harvesting food from the over-grown gardens of their evicted neighbours.
Battlefield medicine is one of the reoccurring tropes of zombie fiction. Characters often patch bullet hits or hack off an infected, zombie-chewed arm. They frequently battle flesh-eating mobs as they liberate painkillers and antibiotics from abandoned hospitals.
TV medical dramas have always been popular. But most of these shows pre-suppose access to health insurance, an assumption that many viewers, in the US at least, cannot take for granted. Plenty of Americans watching the deductive brilliance of House could not afford his care. Those with coverage pay a big chunk of income for the privilege. Health care is a costly and precarious thing.
As Barbara Ehrenreich pointed out in her excellent Nickel and Dimed: Undercover in Low-Wage USA, most of the service class have no health cover or sick pay. They self-diagnose, tough-out jobs as waitresses, telesales and cleaners, while enduring back pain, poor eyesight and crumbling teeth.
And what of zombies themselves?
Fifties horror movies were parables of nuclear dread in which rural American towns were repeatedly stomped flat by colossal mutant insects. Seventies sci-fi gave us Malthusian eco-nightmares, like Soylient Green and Silent Running.
What do zombies say about our current state of mind?
Zombies are us. Our friends, neighbours and relatives.They are not a threat arrived from overseas or outer space. They are our own communities turned monstrous and hostile, folks we pass in the street re-cast as deadly predators. Nightmare imagery of desolate streets, cannibals hoards, barricaded homes under relentless assault, is our everyday word viewed through the lens economic desperation.
That's the paradoxical appeal of apocalyptic fiction. We may suppress our fear of poverty, our dread of downward mobility. But the science-fiction/fantasy genre acts as a collective subconscious. Our anxieties become monsters, and chase us in our dreams.