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ZOMBIES ‘R’ US

By Michael Hampton.

The current proliferation of zombie themed literature and film such as Seth Grahame-Smith’s mash-up Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, 2009, the US zombie apocalypse television series The Walking Dead and the reviled blockbuster World War Z, demonstrates that contemporary representations of zombiedom be they either in rural Hertfordshire as gothic pastiche or emerging ominously from the bottomless netherworld of post 9/11 America, have mutated, and the syndrome come to function as a black mirror in which consumerist behaviours are distorted into an abominable endgame, not so much a dance but a shambolic lurch of death; medieval skeletons replaced by cadaverous bogeyman. No longer a traditional baddie and ghastly product of indigenous Haitian belief the zombie and zombie plague has spread out unchecked via play station games, comic books, novels and films with the stealth and vigour of a lethal airborne pandemic such as SARS, ie one that anyone might catch regardless of nationality or belief-system, every brain-dead victim a ragged sucker that needs to be eliminated on the spot and without mercy.

In Grahame-Smith’s unlikely bestseller, the zombie horde are referred to whimsically as ‘unmentionables’ and ‘dreadfuls’, their speech balloon eructations ranging from ‘Shunk’ to ‘splut’ to ‘skree’ and ‘burrghh’ as they get nonchalantly despatched by the aristocratic Bennet girls empowered with deadly Shaolin martial arts skills. The author has commented

That was what was so funny to me about this idea, is the fact that these
people in Austen’s books are kind of like zombies. They live in this bubble of
extreme wealth and privilege, and, and they’re so preoccupied with the
little trivial nothings of their lives –who’s dating who, who’s throwing this
ball, or having this dinner party. As long as there’s enough lamb for the
dinner table, they could care less what’s falling apart around them?

The point is well made, and the allegory effective.

Historically the zombie only started to migrate beyond the confines of Haiti in the period between the Wall Street Crash, and the outbreak of the Second World War, infecting Hollywood in such films as The Magic Island, 1929, White Zombie, 1932 and Revolt of the Zombies, 1936. As a non-European monster, the zombie was used here as a convenient, faceless type of otherness, which though temporarily shorn of its 19th century cannibalistic associations, become a scary stand-in for the dispossessed underclasses of dustbowl America, and a racial threat to civilised white women too. The plastic evolution of the figure reveals how

The established ability to play with the rules of the zombie genre may
have contributed to the radical break with the Voodoo-style zombie enacted by
Night of the Living Dead, as with it, zombies moved from being automatons,
used as slave labor to being mindless killers.

Plus ça change for the zombie outlaw then, as in George Romero’s celebrated 1968 movie (cited here), they regain their appetite so to speak, scavengers successfully blurring the distinction between them and us, in an orgy of wanton death and destruction. But comedic treatments of zombie outbreaks have come along too. Is it possible to be unmoved and yet also not titter with amusement, at the sight of that quintessentially English gentleman actor Bill Nighy nursing a fatal bite in the cult movie Shaun of the Dead, 2004, before dying in his sons arms and rapidly turning nasty, his identity change into a zombie, irises rolled back, made all the more striking for its being quarantined inside a locked car, snarling impotence tightly contained.

In fact containment and wipe-out are the twin aims of uninfected society as it tries to deal with the dawning zombie threat

The zombie horde is like a force of nature –a persistent and unified threat
-and scenes of zombie hordes tend to play out much like disaster movies.
Perhaps more accurately, the horde seems to act according to what biologists
call a “taxis” –an innate behavioural response causing an organism to move
towards or away from some particular stimulus.

This makes the zombie hard to distinguish from High street shoppers on a Saturday afternoon expedition to Westfield, Stratford City or the Manchester, Trafford Centre, both cadres, rule-governed humans and their posthumous double, condemned to move about inside the deterministic bubble of their different trances. Little wonder then that zombie walking has become perhaps the most successful form of flashmobbing, since its psychological reach is dangerously close for comfort, its theatricality irresistible; (on 29 October 2006, 894 zombies in Halloween drag turned out at Monroeville Mall, Pittsburgh for a mass crawl).

Chalie Brooker’s short series The Dead Set, first appeared on E4 in the autumn of 2008, six weeks after the end of Big Brother. It spoofed the reality TV show, chronicling a zombie outbreak, with the BB house turned into a redoubt. The episode screened on 28th October, 2008, guest starring Davina McCall, had both the classic storyline and locations, managing to effectively squeeze out every bit of televisual schlock

Riq hides from zombies in a petrol station, where he is rescued by another
survivor named Alex. The two set off for the coast in her car, which
eventually breaks down. Riq attempts repairs while Alex stands guard,
occasionally shooting approaching zombies. The sound of them arguing attracts
a large group of zombies, forcing them to leave the car and escape on foot.
They take shelter in an abandoned country house.

Increasingly the zombie has come to figure as a fateful symbol for the mass of subjectiveless techno-humans under capitalism, lumpen, nightmarish non-beings whose otherness has been completely internalised, then smoothed out and returned minus interest as soulless entertainment; not so much undead as hypermediated and alive under severe globalised constraint; couch potatoes sorely afflicted by ‘breathing corpse syndrome’ or ‘partially deceased syndrome’. Hypocrite voyeur do you recognise yourself?

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For Charlie Templeton, the hipster protagonist with a liking for Eurosleaze, who gives a psychological focus to Stewart Home’s new novel Mandy, Charlie and Mary-Jane, 2013, disillusionment with his lot as a Cultural Studies lecturer at the City University of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne (CUNT for short), is offset by a reverie about writing the script for a pojected film to be called ‘Zombie Sex Freaks’, in which the zombie is visualised in an Jungian, performative way too

Water has no shape and in my subconscious I connect this element to the
undead because they are lumbering corpses in a state of putrescence.

As an extended piece of pulp modernism Mandy manages to parody the campus novel (from Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim,1954, to Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man, 1975, from Michael Wilding’s Academia Nuts, 2002, to Tom Wolfe’s I am Charlotte Simmons, 2004), touch base with Home’s enduring obsessions such as his mother’s brush with the so called Jack the Stripper murders of 1960s London, pour scorn on wild conspiracy theories that may or may not surround the 7/7 bombings, and reference various iconic scenes from the archive of zombie cinema, particularly Lucio Fulci’s oeuvre. One sequence in particular, that has become a popular graphic for T-shirts at horror conventions, haunts him

a zombie under the sea is attacked by a shark. Now this is not one of those
stupid mechanical sharks that you see in a crapola ‘mainstream’ film like
Jaws, this is a real shark filmed with a real stuntman in a water tank in
Rome. Presumably the shark had been fed a lot of doped meat before the
stuntman jumped in the water with it, but even so, seeing the zombie swimming
about with the shark and knowing the shark is real, is something else.

Written in short flash fiction type bursts (with the jarring wheeze of built-in textual typos) that seamlessly integrate the Gysin/Burroughs cut-up technique, Home, who’s brow is the lowest imaginable, and who’s been described by Hestia Peppe as ‘a troll writing in the idiom of fanfiction’, seeks to deceive the reader, establishing a scene of non-writing, or rather deferred fantasy. Yet the unmade film script ‘Zombie Sex Freaks’ slowly becomes a reality, as Templeton’s predicament worsens daily due to memory loss, his institutional lifestyle feeding a sociopathic condition which cannot be relieved either by the scapegoating and expulsion of one of his most able students, the hapless Kevin Ramsay, drop-taking à la De Quincey, or the deadly pornographisation of intimate spousal relationships. Inside a highly unreliable narrative structure, almost as prone to discontinuity and meltdown as the deliquescent biological status of the zombie, Templeton’s off-the-cuff philosophising represents a last-ditch attempt to rebuild a stable self when faced by the threat of engulfing madness.

Yet despite this turbo-driven bricolage, he is still a mere character, according to Home’s design, shifty and unknowable, a hollow man under sentence of death. All this is pretty arch stuff, taking place in a hall of mirrors, barbed against ‘all those Marxist art historians who are actually very conservative’ as Felix L Petty notes in Port Magazine. For Edward S Robinson in Paraphilia, Home ‘turns at least some of his attention to the contradictions of Capitalism within the corporatisation of education’, while for blogger Rev Michael Roth at the Opsonic Index, Home’s fictional surrogate and all-round shyster ‘Charlie navigates what he believes is a not so glorious afterlife’. It would be equally valid to say death in life. But ultimately and as ever in Home’s novels the reader must salvage what meaning they can from his slo-mo car crash. Mandy, Charlie and Mary-Jane is opera buffa, a critical romp from beginning to end, and a chance for Adorno’s ‘powerless subject’ to regain some their power if only through diabolical laughter.

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Using the backdrop of Aldershot barracks for some scenes, World War Z has absurd global pretensions, and was succinctly derided by Private Eye as ‘the pricey mega-mess at a multiplex near you’, and in the Evening Standard as ‘beautiful, blood-free and banal, its perfect for under-10s’. Such puffery succeeds in making this Brad Pitt saves-the-world fiasco sound only marginally less frightening than Stanley Spencer’s painting The Resurrection, Cookham 1924-7, his dumpy villagers just given a darker, more terrifying hue. Frankly though it is George A Romero’s Diary of the Dead, 2007, that deserves the real plaudits, a nightmarish vision in which he rubber stamps once and for all his credentials as undisputed king of the zombie flick, and the whole zombie outbreak phenomenon reaches a notable apotheosis. Contrived as a shaky hand-held home movie within a movie, a stylish blog that owes much to the Blair Witch Project, 1999, Diary of the Dead is a sophisticated road and buddy narrative rolled into one, that manages to be a ghoulish homage to the auteur, and the morally compromised business of shooting film per se. In a world convulsed by a permanent state of emergency where the concept of a mainstream has vanished off screen, and border controls have relocated to the point between biological order and disorder, Romero’s multi-layered plot riffs on fear and loathing, love and betrayal. Here the figure of the zombie is a representation of a thwarted desire for immortality, en masse a spectacle in which the crowd becomes the consumer of its own woes, caught between the poles of life and death, undead, unheimlich, unrequited, but crucially still being videorecorded for posterity. So tabbed as a former person the zombie is no longer capable of giving anything concrete back to our world, as their very faces and therefore identity are in decay, life force drained, days numbered. Externally therefore the zombie and zombiedom are only obnoxious adverts, the logical, proleptic extension of Bennetton clothing’s anonymised indeed anodyne fashion label, or Naomi Klein’s No Logo campaign blownback from a simple means of global dissent into the ultimate street faux-pas of brandlessness, equalling economic secession and exile from marketplace chic altogether.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Hampton is a London-based art critic, poet and commentator whose work has appeared in many magazines and journals including Art Monthly, Frieze, /seconds, The White Review, Geschichte etc. He has a particular interest in destruction in art, and is currently writing a revisionist history of the artists’ book for Colin Sackett’s Uniformbooks series. In partnership with Christina Mitrentse, Hampton recently won the commission to design a new flag for Swedenborg House.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, February 12th, 2014.