Dead is in,” proclaims a Halloween poster outside my local thrift store.
Case in point, consider the record ratings for the recent season premier of AMC’s The Walking Dead, which now boasts the largest viewership in the 18–49 age group in the US.
Driving the success of The Walking Dead is a doomsday fascination with zombie apocalypse. In the face of crumbling cities, soaring job loss, decaying social services and ecological destruction, impending doom can seem not only inevitable, but even preferable to the slow death march of late capitalism.
But the global economic slump that began in 2008 sent the popular infatuation with the undead truly viral. As millions entered the night of the living dead of mass unemployment, zombies invaded popular culture, prompting Time magazine to declare them “the official monster of the recession.”
In a social order haunted by death and decay, it is little surprise to see films, video games, YouTube clips, and a store (in Las Vegas, naturally) all bearing the title, Zombie Apocalypse. Even the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have gotten into the act, with a tongue-in-cheek riff on the undead in the form of a booklet called “Preparedness 101: Zombie Novella” — all in an effort to get us ready for the next plague.
It would be hard to take self-parody farther, however, than a Detroit entrepreneur‘s plan to build Z World, a theme park in his devastated home town where participants are to be chased through abandoned factories and ruined houses by a horde of zombies eager to bite into new recruits. “It turns perceived liabilities into assets,” says promoter Mark Ziwack of his plan to capitalize on industrial ruin, social decay and urban blight. Call it zombie capitalism.
The problem with prevailing images of apocalyptic zombie capitalism, however, is that they have lost sight of its most subversive underside: the zombie laborer.
The zombie laborer emerged in Haiti, at one time the world’s largest slave colony, assuming its quintessential form during the period of American occupation (1915–34), when US marines, wielding violence and terror, deployed forced labor to build roads and other infrastructure.
As I document in Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism, it was in modern Haiti that zombies acquired their unique meaning as the animated dead, mere flesh and bones, bereft of memory and identity, toiling on behalf of others. This view of the living dead, which entered the American culture industry in the 1930s and 1940s, carried a critical charge: the notion that capitalist society zombifies workers, reducing them to interchangeable beasts of burden, mere bodies for the expenditure of labor-time.
But the idea of the zombie as a living-dead laborer was displaced in American cultural production in the late 1960s by that of the ghoulish consumer. While this cultural shift can be bitingly satirical, as in George E. Romero’s 1978 zombie-film, Dawn of the Dead
While images of insatiable flesh-eating can cleverly lampoon a late capitalism choking on its own excesses, these satires too readily lose sight of what the Haitian image of the undead grasped: that all this manic consumption is impossible without the millions of workers who feed the machinery of profit with their labor.
Worse, where zombies are seen as the crazed “others” who threaten us, and zombie apocalypse the order of the day, mere survival often seems all that can be hoped for. Such post-apocalyptic bleakness pervades The Walking Dead. Nothing better encapsulates the show’s grim survivalism than the decision of its core group (in the season three premiere) to take refuge in a prison — the West Georgia Correctional Facility, no less.
“Perfect,” the group’s leader (ex-cop) Rick Grimes intones on seeing the site. Perfection seems to have taken a few bruises when it’s defined as being trapped in a relic of a hardcore, racist penitentiary under siege from crazed zombies.
Yet mere survival is often the best that many working-class people can hope for in hard times — at least when labor and social movements are in retreat, leaving people feeling exposed and vulnerable. But in times of social protest and insurgence a new specter emerges: the zombie rebel.
Intriguingly, zombie protests have proliferated in recent years in response to the global slump and the age of austerity. Multiple marches of the undead took place during the Occupy movement, including a zombie invasion of the New York Stock Exchange.
In Wisconsin last year, demonstrators used a zombie march to protest the right-wing policies of Governor Scott Walker. And more recently, University of California students used the tactic as part of a “Rise of the Living Debt” protest against tuition hikes and student indebtedness. Revolt by the undead warns that the zombie laborers who sustain the twilight world of late capitalism might awaken and throw off their chains.
These images offer the true counterpoint to the gloomy survivalism of the zombie apocalypse. In zombie marches and protests we glimpse a non-apocalyptic scenario in which the oppressed awaken from their zombie slumber, rise up, run amuck through the streets, terrify polite bourgeois society and turn the world upside down.
Now, that’s the zombie event I’d like to see in Detroit.