911 The zombies are coming!

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.


See! Just a scratch

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.


11 comments on “911 The zombies are coming!

  1. samuelosullivan says:

    I had never really thought about zombie movies in this way, but it does make sense, particularly the Zombies in movies like Dawn of the Dead where they represent a mindless destructive other and when you look at how people have spoken about terrorists as simply being mindless. brainwashed and violent you can see the media parallels. Also I think the idea of the sleeper cell can be seen, in those movies where someone has been infected but no one really knows until they turn and begin attacking people highlights a particular paranoia about terrorist methods. All in all its really interesting to think about these movies in a different way.

  2. jessicamunro2014 says:

    Love this topic. Its a really creative and relevant concept to the current ‘zombie’ like obsession that seems to be going on. I like the idea that it is linked to this fear of the ‘ radical other’ taking away from the common fears that current society seem to be consumed by, such as terrorism. The concept that the zombie obsession has been brought on due to the anxiety that 911 triggered. I never though to look deeper at the zombie metaphor, but reading this makes me realise that it is so much deeper than girls have the opportunity to show off their makeup skills. I would be interested in reading the whole paper – the movies however i may steer clear from.
    =] JM

  3. Ben Bushby says:

    Wow! This is such a unique and interesting topic! I wish I had thought of it. You also wrote it in a very engaging way (I loved the grandpa Simpson reference). I had noticed zombie/horror style movies were becoming increasingly common but I hadn’t put the dots together with the 9/11 attack. Popular culture in history really is very interesting to study and I bet you enjoyed ‘researching’ this topic!


  4. Greta Gale says:

    Your line ‘Mila Jovovich in leather’ honestly made me burst out laughing, but, jokes aside, this is such an interesting issue! Although I’m not personally a fan of zombie movies, I can really understand how they could have been used post 9/11 to tap into fears over an ‘other’. I went on exchange to America last semester, and one of the courses I did was American racial history. Over the semester it became (quite quickly) very clear that American national identity was largely created through unifying against an ‘other’ – whether it be African-American slaves, Japanese citizens (mid-WWII) or Mexican illegal immigrants. It really made me start thinking about how, in times of hardship, nations seek solidarity through identifying against a clear enemy. I love how you’ve linked that issue to the film industry’s love of zombies after 9/11 – it’s definitely something I’ll keep in mind next time I watch a zombie movie!


  5. This is a very engaging topic to read about (and watch). What I really love is the idea regarding the ‘Other’ concept. It seems to me that no matter where one looks in society (politics and the media for example), there is always some discussion regarding the ‘Other’ – why we should fear them, the detrimental effects they could bring to us, and how our lifestyle could be changed due to this group. These anxieties peddled by influential groups in society seem to manifest almost subconsciously in the form of zombies, and the prevalence of zombies in video games, books and film in particular show how hugely influential fearful societal groups can be. Another reason why I really like this topic is that it mirrors some of the things I have been researching over the past year, in regards to Europe and the growing backlash and fear of Islam and Muslims. As you mentioned, the almost ‘infectious’ nature of some of the radical jihadist ideas (as is believed anyway) has led to a growing paranoia – resulting in many governments passing bills which impede on civil liberties and freedom of speech in order to protect against the Islamic ‘Other’ and their dangerously ‘infectious’ ideas.

  6. christopherneville1 says:

    Your focus on the Zombie as an interpretation of the ‘other’ in society really seems to fit societies view of potential threats. 9/11 caused much fear in society as it broke the belief of many people believing they were sake from malevolent threats of mass destruction, as this would only happen in places of conflict like Somalia or Pakistan. The use of the zombie as a metaphoric tool helps in understanding this fear of people loosing all the positives expected of society from a destructive threat. This paranoia that takes the ideal of the Zombie being former comrades, friends and family fits in quite well, as this greatly propagates of everyone being a potential threat through the comparison of zombie transformation and indoctrination. I do have to say however that possession type horror movies fit better with this paranoia of the close threat. Its to bad however that this change in the zombie genre happened; I miss the classic zombie calling for brains.

  7. alanabowler says:

    I found this to be a really interesting concept. As someone who doesn’t tend to watch horror, it was a very insightful topic. The idea that this media is being used to raise issues about fear of the ‘other’ post 9/11 was something I hadn’t previously considered. Your arguments were very interesting, particularly your point about juxtaposing the young girls innocence with violence. I’m wondering if this same idea carries over to the gaming industry, particularly because players are given control and make decisions in games involving assessing and responding to threats.

  8. First of all great topic, I love anything to do with zombies. I think the concept is really interesting and while I think it’s nothing new that we use zombies to represent our enemies or people we see as ‘other’ I had never really thought about how the fear of bio warfare fits into it. Looking at how zombies are shown is a great way, I think, to track what we regard as problems or enemies. For example how Romero’s zombies in Dawn of the Dead are a representation of rampant consumerism. The bio warfare angle is very interesting though and has made me re-think a couple of movies. For instance I was thinking about I am Legend. Where you have pointed out that the Resident Evil franchise brings the bio warfare angle to the front I think a movie like I Am Legend uses this to depict the fear 9/11 conspiracy theories created in the government. I also think the representation of zombies as terrorism, as you have pointed out, can help explain the differences between the World War Z book, which had slow zombies, and the movie, which used fast.

  9. A really good read! I think you managed to turn your capstone topic into an extremely digestible blog post that posed some interesting questions. Certainly in the present context we are presented with this idea of us and (a mysterious) them, in the case of tension in the middle east. With the increasing fear of a faceless enemy (ISIS) fear is definitely being used as a tool in the media to engage the population. The trope of a zombie apocalypse reminds me of what CNN or Fox News would envisage as the decline of western (capitalist) society. I’d be interested in reading your actual essay to see just how far you explored this idea. Also I enjoyed how there was some exploration of textual techniques to illustrate the idea of unknown enemies and the constant threat that exists around us. Definitely some elements of a multidisciplinary approach towards unpacking the question you posed. Well done.

  10. This is a very interesting topic that looks at popular culture in the context of the modern midset in how we ‘fear’ certain cultural creations, such as the zombie. I did not think a topic focused on zombies would be possible, however this is brilliant. You link the feelings of fear towards bio warfare and paranoia very well, and your reference to the feelings they illicit is presented in a clear manner. I remember watching dawn of the dead years ago and being terrified of such an outbreak occurring in the real world. Overall a very interesting topic, and impressive blog post.

  11. Marisa you legend, great topic, well written too. Popular culture is an excellent and entertaining look into what a society is thinking and the things that make them nervous. I can imagine how hard the research was (just kidding, watching all those zombie flicks would have been awesome) but you’ve linked it all well and used great examples to express your point. Would love to read the full essay as I believe this topic couldn’t possibly be boring even in the formal text.
    Iv done a similar essay on the sci-fi alien flicks of the 1950s around the anxieties of the Cold War, would be awesome to compare the two contexts and the reflections in the aforementioned genres.
    Great post, keep it up!

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