For a small speech I'm delivering somewhere or other, I've been collecting references to zombies. Or, rather, I've been noting that we have been so inundated with zombies over the past few years that attempting a comprehensive survey of the phenomenon and reducing it back into the stable parameters of a cultural meaning would be an impossible labor. That impossibility is what intrigues me, though, and has been the starting point for my thinking about the explosion of zombie apocalypse dreams. They, along with the Occupy movement,* seem to be among the few means we possess at the moment of thinking ourselves out of the stalemate of the present. Zombies are weirdly forward-looking -- relentlessly forward-looking, in fact. They are the monster through which our dissatisfaction with the immediate past and the stultifying present are expressed. They have to be multivalent: as enjoyable to imagine and inhabit as to fight against and destroy.
Despite their apocalypse-obsessed futurity, zombies carry with them much that is unspoken about the deep past. That complicated undead temporality, visible in what I am calling loosely a "zombie aesthetic," will be the focus of my Orlando keynote. I hope to use medieval revenants (especially the Old Norse draugr or aptrgangr, like Glam in Grettir's Saga) to think about contemporary siblings.
The epidemic of zombies has of course led to a proliferation of scholarly work on their signification. Much of this criticism argues that zombies are monsters indigenous to capitalism: aren't the ravenous undead, creatures of pure drive, perfect figures for the consumer? Ever since George A. Romero's ur-zombie film Night of the Living Dead, creditors and debts and the relentless creatures have been intertwined -- a knotting only intensified by the shopping mall action of Dawn of the Dead. That allegorical function makes a great deal of sense, but I've long suspected it is not the entirety of the revenant's story. I was therefore pleased to hear about Juan of the Dead, a Cuban film in which the zombies are socialists. From the wonderful NYT write up:
“Juan of the Dead” tells the blood-drenched tale of a slacker who decides to save the island from an invasion of cannibalistic zombies. As the zombies turn Havana into a gory circus of flying limbs and severed heads, the nightly news anchors continue to calmly assert the government line, that the attacks are not the work of the undead but dissidents in the pay of the United States.
The film is scattered with allusions to traumatic moments in Cuba’s recent history: Cubans flee the zombies in makeshift boats that recall the raft-borne exodus of 1994; the darkened, shuttered streets, one character says, echo the “special period” of economic hardship after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“Cuban reality is so incredible that there are things in the movie that seem like you made them up, but in fact they are based on truth,” said Alejandro Brugués, the 35-year-old director, who was born in Argentina but grew up in Cuba. “I just put zombies in the scenario, instead of real people.”Cannibalistic food for thought.
So, what about you? Favorite zombies? Notable undead?
*Occupy might be the affirmative antidote to the cynical, zombified future. I'm sure the two phenomena are connected, perhaps with the former as the possibility-laden and hopeful vocabulary that the latter (more prone to comic cynicism and ultimately, despair) lacks.