Mention the word zombie and your ear drums are likely to be perforated by the collective scream of those around you asking “Oh my god have you watched the Walking Dead!?”. Television, games and film the zombie appears to be the dominating supernatural aspect of popular culture. However the zombie and in particular the zombie film has more to offer us than apocalypse fantasies, blood, gore and Mila Jovovich in leather.
Our engagement with film relies upon its ability to reflect our fantasies, our hopes and our fears. Subsequently aside from serving as an excellent procrastination tool films can enhance our understanding of society and its historical events. The events of 9/11 shook the foundations of American civilisation and resulted in the emergence of a collection of new anxieties. The attack on a perceived superpower brought into light the potential vulnerability of America and brought to the forefront a wave of fears that although rooted in history were new for the current generation. Fear of a racial ‘Other’ that intends destruction on a way of life, an ‘Otherness’ that is contagious and fear of the ironic invisibility of ‘Otherness’ arose as underlying fears and assumptions of terrorism. Rather than deal with these anxieties explicitly filmmakers used the zombie as a metaphoric tool. Filmmakers translated the above assumptions and fears of terrorism into the defining tropes of the zombie genre: fear of bio warfare and bioweapons, fear of a terrorist ‘Other’, paranoia and societal collapse. Since time or rather word count is of the essence I’ll explore two of the above mentioned fears/tropes (lest this turn into a Grandpa Simpson style rant).
Fear of bio warfare and bio weapons
On Tuesday September 18 2001 (one week after the September 11 attacks) the U.S. experienced an attack of anthrax. Letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to news media offices and two U.S. senators causing the death of five people. Within the contect of the 9/11 attacks the anthrax attacks added fear of bio warfare to societies anxieties. Citizens became concerned with how a nation could cope with the attack of a bio weapon and what it meant for the survival of the everyday person. U.S. funding for bio warfare research and preparedness increased exponentially. In 2004 Congress passed Project Bioshield which allotted $5.6 billion over 10 years for the purchase of new vaccines to fight agents of bioterror. Films such as the Resident Evil franchise translated this fear in their films. Resident Evil (2002) introduced the audience to the T-Virus, a highly contagious and weaponized virus created by a bioengineering pharmaceutical company known as the Umbrella Corporation.
Resident Evil: Extinction (2007) depicted the potential destruction a bio weapon could create. One scene showed a destroyed Vegas with attractions such as the Statue of Liberty, the Great Pyramids and the Eiffel Tower dilapidated and buried in sand. With images of the destroyed Twin Towers still etched in the mind of the U.S. this shot of destroyed national symbols expressed the social anxiety surrounding the potential devastation of bio weapon terrorism.
Those involved in the terrorist attacks were visually unidentifiable until they revealed themselves through their actions. Fear and suspicion became the prevailing emotions as society struggled with the idea of an unrecognisable enemy. Airline security changes became the predominant reflection of this fear. Multilayered security measures such as explosive trace detection were brought in aswell as pre screening of all passengers flying weekly to, from and within the U.S. against government watch lists. Paranoia over the anonymity of the terrorist ‘Other’ also extended to fear of the contagious nature of terrorist ideals or ‘Otherness’. The zombie virus stands as an expression of this post 9/11 paranoia. The virus and its transmission are a symbolic representation of radical brainwashing. Anyone can become infected (or conditioned) and therefore everyone is a potential threat.
Dawn of the Dead (2004) portrayed this idea by presenting the audience with their first zombie in the form of a little girl. Dressed in her white nightgown the girl appears in the bedroom doorway of neighbour Ana covered in blood with a…slight facial wound.
Concerned she is injured Ana’s husband rushes to the girl’s side who repays his act of concern by ripping out his throat. The juxtaposition of the innocence of the young girl (shown through both her age and the symbolic purity of the white nightgown) against her violent actions resonated with the post 9/11 paranoia that anyone is a potential threat.
In the context of 9/11 it’s not hard to witness the connection between perceptions of the terrorist ‘Other’ and the zombie. An ‘Other’ whose actions aren’t based on reasonable thought, an ‘Other’ that is more monstrous than human and an ‘Other’ that doesn’t discriminate in its victims. Essentially the antitheses of humanity.
Whilst I’d love to suggest watching every zombie film ever made the films below present some of the strongest examples of the use of the zombie as a metaphoric device of post 9/11 anxieties.
Anderson, Paul W.S. “Resident Evil.” Screen Gems, 2002.
———. “Resident Evil: Retribution.” Screen Gems, 2012.
Boyle, Danny. “28 Days Later.” Fox, 2002.
Mulcahy, Russell. “Resident Evil: Extinction.” Screen Gems, 2007.
Snyder, Zack. “Dawn of the Dead.” Universal, 2004.
For those interested in further reading of this topic:
Birch-Bayley, Nicole. “Terror in Horror Genres: The Global Media and the Millennial Zombie.” Journal of Popular Culture 45, no. 6 (2012): 1137- 51.
Bishop, Kyle. “Dead Man Still Walking “. Journal of Popular Film and Television 37, no. 1 (2009): pp.16-25.
———. “Raising the Dead.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 33, no. 4 (2006): 196-205.
Mayer, Ruth. “Virus Discourse: The Rhetoric of Threat and Terrorism in the Biothriller.” Cultural Critique 66, no. 1 (2007): 1-20.