The Cadaver in the Coal Mine

Why zombies –in their rancid, horrifying simplicity– are now The Only Monsters That Matter.

by Rick Emerson

November 17th, 2011

As the Occupy Wall Street protests have ramped up into something resembling...well, an actual occupation, we (my Zombie Economics co-author, CNN's Lisa Desjardins, and I) have fielded a growing number of questions about demonstrators' use of zombie imagery. Whole sections of lower Manhattan now resemble some hellish version of Yippie-style street theater – coordinated activism meets a Call of Duty bonus level. Like a telephone operator’s revelation that the threatening, after-dark phone calls "are coming from inside the house!", these staggering, funhouse-mirror images represent the too-late realization that we are facing mortal danger – economically, emotionally, and perhaps even physically. ("Health care, not wealth care" read one protester's sign.)

But (to paraphrase a famous tagline): Why here? Why now? Why...zombies?

The answer lays in the creatures’ very simplicity–zombies represent fear as an isolated, distilled emotion, unleavened by shading or gradation. In a time of increasing instability and uncertainty, their lethal purity has become their most resonant facet. Stripped of all nuance and subtlety, zombies are the apex monster.

To be sure, the undead-as-allegory idea is nothing new –zombies are, as my friend David Walker once noted, "the perfect blank on which to project any societal ill"– but as the global economy teeters ever closer to collapse, the redolence seems to be increasing. Throughout 2011, zombies have been the rule, not the exception, and the trend shows no signs of abating. AMC's The Walking Dead –already the cable network's biggest hit– began its second season with a ratings blowout, annihilating its Sunday night competition, while World War Z (starring Brad Pitt as a journalist who chronicles "the great zombie war") hits movie screens in early 2012. And what is Contagion –Stephen Soderbegh's late-summer depiction of a deadly, casually-spread infection– but a zombie film minus the actual zombies? With its unflinching depictions of panic and looting (as well as a stark agoraphobia-as-survival theme), Contagion seemed an unlikely candidate for box-office success. Opening at #1, the film has, to date, grossed more than 76 million dollars.

That the above projects share both bleakness and mainstream appeal is no accident, for in their grim and grey-scaled worldview, they underscore the reason for our current obsession with the living dead. Zombies are, after all, kitsch-proof.

Of the approximately nine billion zombie films, novels, and video games in existence, only a scant handful –most notably 1998's Shaun of the Dead– have been able to conjure up anything resembling humor...gallows or otherwise. And even Shaun (not unlike Left 4 Dead, Valve's massively entertaining, first-person shooter game series) finds most of its comedy in human characters; their reactions to the walking, decaying horror unfolding around them provide most of the film's true levity. (See also: Zombieland, in which even the accidental "killing" of Bill Murray is played for laughs–while the undead themselves remain relentlessly sinister.) Metaphorical zombies are, like their physical counterparts, resistant to ridicule, to anthropomorphizing, and to sexualization. No matter the context –be it suburban Pennsylvania or 19th-century England– the living dead themselves remain the same: implacable, unchanging, and stomach-churningly fearsome. For an age (and a society) drenched in irony, zombies are something refreshingly alien: a menace which is impervious to snark.*

*It is no coincidence that vampires –sparkling and otherwise– have found their recent applicability limited to soap-opera-style melodrama. To the list of items (garlic, crosses, holy water, etc.) effective against Dracula and company, we may now add another: camp.

Which brings us back to Wall Street, and the (living) hordes currently converged there. After three-and-a-half years of stock-market tumult, mass firings, and tunnels which lead only to more tunnel, the fear is now beyond real–it's in our bones, in our every waking moment. Lighthearted jokes about unemployment extensions have given way to a genuine and growing terror that we'll end up homeless (or, worse, living in our parents' attic). No one registers surprise at a friend's eviction or foreclosure...or their sudden need to sell a flat-screen TV for a fraction of its value. No one argues when a loved one takes offered overtime.

And no one expects it to get better next year...anywhere. Bank of England Governor Sir Mervyn King recently stated that "the world is facing the world financial crisis in history", his comments echoing those of Prime Minister David Cameron, who said, "we are at risk of losing an entire generation." To those who lived through similar proclamations in the Carter and Reagan years, such statements may sound like simple scaremongering, and perhaps they are. It may be true that things are bad but getting better. It is almost certainly true that media outlets have a vested interest in perpetuating fear of...anything. (We've also grown accustomed to such dire warnings, of course, which is why media outlets must amplify and re-amplify their message – our fear centers don't respond the way they once did.)

Our imaginations, however, don’t lie; they have a knack for externalizing what we can’t (or won’t) say out loud. Zombies –hideous, nightmare versions of our normal selves– are warnings from deep within our consciousness: The danger is real. The danger is growing. The danger is now inside the house.

Lisa Desjardins is a correspondent for CNN Radio who also reports for CNN.com and CNN television. She works -and spends a good deal of time employing survival strategies in- the US Capitol, where she has covered extensive financial issues, including the collapse of 2008 and the Wall Street reform bill passed in 2010. Lisa has also worked for the Associated Press in Washington, and WIS-TV and WBTW-TV in South Carolina.

Email: lisa [at] zombieeconomics.com

Media requests / interview inquiries: info [at] zombieeconomics.com

Rick Emerson is a radio and television broadcaster based in Portland, Oregon. He is the host of The Rick Emerson Show, which has enraptured/annoyed listeners since 1998, and of KRCW-TV’s Outlook Portland. He is also the author and star of the one-man show Bigger than Jesus: The Diary of a Rock and Roll Fan, as well as the feature-film of the same name, and has displayed his limited acting ability on such television programs as Leverage.

Email: rick [at] zombieeconomics.com

Media requests / interview inquiries: info [at] zombieeconomics.com

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