As a PhD Candidate studying zombie narratives, I feel compelled to begin with the end—I mean this both literally and metaphorically. In the literal sense, I wish to respond to a question posed by my friend and fellow English PhD colleague, Michael Cameron, who ends “Revisiting our Fascination with Disaster” by asking, “How do we mobilize the dystopian products of our imaginations toward the achievement of utopian ends?” My short answer is that we should consume (so to speak) more zombie narratives!
Okay, perhaps I need to elaborate.
I don’t actually have an answer to this question…yet (sorry, Michael); indeed, this question is quite large, complex, and dependent upon our ideas of “utopian ends.” I watch a lot of zombie films, and I read a lot of zombie literature, so I think we can agree that a search for utopian ends is likely not my forte.
Consider this, though, in March 2020 when many provinces in Canada were entering their first lockdown in response to Covid-19, Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film Contagion was the most watched film on Netflix. It seems that many might share my fascination with contagion narratives. This fascination is due, in part, because of the parallels between Contagion and Covid-19. Therefore, contrary to our long-standing idea of film as escapism, the heightened consumption of Contagion during a real-world pandemic suggests a search for understanding—how do we understand and live alongside Covid-19?
Okay, so Contagion is not a zombie film, but how different are they really?
Kyle William Bishop, who specialises in Zombie Studies (yes, that’s a thing), argues that zombies do a lot of “cultural work.” What this means is that they are more than merely monsters; they embody a culture’s fears and present ways in which to work through those fears. The representation of the zombie changes depending on how our cultural fears mutate. For example, George A. Romero’s 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead, gave birth to what we call the modern zombie—the one that consumes human flesh. While never made explicit in the film, there are suggestions that the zombies are a result of radiation. America was in the midst of the Cold War and fear of nuclear weaponry and radiation was on the rise when Romero’s film was released; thus, Romero’s early zombies are an embodiment of that fear.
The zombies from Neil Druckmann’s 2013 videogame, The Last of Us, embody rising concerns about climate change. Unlike their predecessors, the zombies in The Last of Us are infected by a fungus called Ophiocordyceps, which is a very real parasitic fungus that conveniently turns insects into “zombies.” Druckmann’s use of Ophiocordyceps for his zombies represents the moment when zombie narratives merged with eco-horror to critique our role in climate change.
Therefore, we can look to our zombies to better understand our fears, and maybe, work through them.
In Revolution in the Dead, Anthony Anderson elucidates that we must continue to “resurrect” our monsters “to confront and challenge our histories, our socio-cultural inequalities, and, ultimately, our traumas.” Thus, if we are to ironically mobilize our zombie narratives toward the achievement of utopian ends, it means “we cannot allow the zombie to rest in a world where the dystopian apocalyptic landscapes imagined by so many zombie narratives seems readily at hand” (Anderson). Essentially, we need our zombies if we are to understand the larger issues confronting our world today—this means not only learning how to live alongside Covid-19, but to understand larger questions of systemic racism (zombie counter narratives), environmental crises (zombie insects), and even misinformation (sometimes called zombie science).
I invite you to join me and the walking dead over the next year as we shamble through some desolate landscapes in search of a potential utopia.