The Rise of Zombies, The Fall of American Politics

“Zombie cinema represents ‘a stylized reaction to cultural consciousness and particularly to social and political injustices.’”1

It is not difficult now to find blood-splattered, graphic t-shirts, romantic comedies about the undead falling in love, or zombie apocalypse memes. There is no denying the growing interest in zombie culture, one that, not unlike a zombie, has risen from the dead in recent years. After the shocking release of Night of the Living Dead in 1968, many followers came along to ultimately construct the zombie as what we know it as today: a reanimated, flesh-eating cannibal. Here, we will bring in some of these so-called followers, particularly The Walking Dead and Santa Clarita Diet in order to analyze the different lenses in which we view the “zombie” and how accepting we have become of the undead. Comparing this change in opinion and progression of our zombie acceptance, we will then discuss the parallel seen in our current political climate, shocking in its proliferation of scandals. The language used by the recently inaugurated Trump administration, and its seeming parallel to the decrease in empathy of the American public, mirrors the humanity that viewers put aside when they are entertained by onscreen narratives involving people literally eating other people.

The politicians of the 1960’s parallel the more family-friendly and less violent popular culture norm of the same time period. America elected John F. Kennedy, a young and charismatic man, and his sophisticated, fashionable First Lady into the White House. Americans were ready to vote against any candidate that advocated for war, and in the coming years emerging support for Civil Rights crossed into mainstream discourses.

There was also a formal separation between political figures and the American public. Political speeches before the 2000s were quite formal as linguist Deborah Cameron shows in her chapter “Hidden Agendas.” With attention to the British context, Cameron describes the speech the Queen gave after Princess Diana’s death, an excerpt from which reads, “I hope that tomorrow we can all, wherever we are, join in expressing our grief at Diana’s loss.”2 Though this speech was given in England in 1999, it is similar to American politics throughout the 1900s as well. Richard Nixon, who was elected in 1968 and again in 19723 shows a similar formality as the Queen in his inaugural speech that was representative of the political language during the 20th century:

“Greatness comes in simple trappings. The simple things are the ones most needed today if we are to surmount what divides us, and cement what unites us.”4

As Cameron further shows, the American public gradually gets tired of this formal language, as she says “some hearers found the Queen’s performance too composed, and equated her measured rhetoric with a lack of deep and sincere feeling.”2 Soon afterwards, also in 1999, ungrammatical or nonstandard remarks on Princess Diana’s death were delivered by Tony Blair. These remarks were accepted as more sincere and relatable. This conversationalization of political language in England in the late 1990s is also reflected in present day American politics.

As with the gradual increase and proliferation in zombie media in the time between 1960 and present day, there was a concomitant shift in politics. Elected in 1969 and again in 1972, Richard Nixon signified a shift to the right in American politics. Just a few months into his second term, five men were caught breaking in Democratic party headquarters at the Watergate complex and were linked to his administration. After a series of events surrounding missing tapes that could indicate his knowledge of the break-in, Nixon was alerted that he had far fewer votes than he would need to avoid impeachment, and he resigned the presidency on August 9, 1974.3 This disgraceful event, known as the Watergate Scandal, was one of the biggest political scandals in American politics at the time, and had wide political and cultural reverberations, including “-gate” becoming a popular colloquial suffix for further scandals, law reform surrounding campaign finance, and the election of several democrats in the 1974 Senate and House elections.

There were several political scandals in the coming years, including probably the second-most famous Lewinsky scandal, where Bill Clinton had an affair with Monica Lewinsky and perjured himself by denying it, leading him to later resign. As Chris Cillizza stated in The Washington Post,

“The Lewinsky story broke that ground — and either created a hunger among the public for those sorts of stories or simply filled a hunger that had always been there but was never sated.”

If nothing else, there is a correlation between the increase in zombies in popular culture and the increase in political scandals and in the acceptability of colloquialism in the formal political arena. This correlation really heightens with the huge spike in zombie talk when the popular graphic novel, The Walking Dead, was made into a television show in 2010, and continues through present day with the campaign and election of Donald Trump.

The gory special effects in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead were new to the cinema in its initial 1968 release and horrified both the parents and the children they dropped off at the theater under the impression that it was a kid-friendly science-fiction movie. It was received with mixed critiques, with one critic naming it “one of the most gruesomely terrifying movies ever made– and when you leave the theatre you may wish you could forget the whole horrible experience…”.5 In fact, it even “coined the term ‘splatter cinema’ to describe those films that revel in physical violence and maiming.”6 Michael Jackson’s feature-film format music video Thriller was then released almost two decades later, marking a watershed moment for the music industry and a reexploration of the zombie genre. The music video features the undead rising from their graves and breaking into the famous dance number behind Jackson. The music video has since been inducted into the National Film Registry and named the most influential pop music video of all time.7 With several unforgettable representations of the zombie now in the popular media, The Walking Dead was able to make a smooth entrance, unlike its predecessors, onto the AMC cable television network in 2010. In fact, Simon Abrams from Slant Magazine gave the show a stunning first review:

“To say that Darabont [writer of season 1] has kicked his series off with a bang would be a serious understatement…[he] has fashioned a fully realized alternate reality and it’s a thrilling thing to experience.”8

The Walking Dead television series premiered on October 31, 20109 as an adaptation of the popular comic book series of the same name. The show had unprecedented success - beginning with its third season it attracts the most 18- to 49-year-old viewers of any cable or broadcast television series. Alongside its huge success, it also brought about a huge change in violence and gore on television. Particularly in its later seasons, it becomes one of the most gory shows on television with no fear of showing gruesome deaths onscreen. Clearly, there has been a massive shift in public opinion regarding zombies and violence since the premiere of Night of the Living Dead. According to a study conducted in 2013 by researchers from the University of Augsburg, Germany, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “people are more likely to watch movies with gory scenes of violence if they feel there is meaning in confronting violent aspects of real life.”10 Therefore, one could argue that the increase in the public’s acceptance of violence in media can be correlated with the increase in violence around the world, whether that be wars or everyday crime, both of which have increased since the ‘60s. Given that, can we also conflate the themes of a loss of humanity throughout The Walking Dead with a similar loss in empathy of the American public?

The theme of loss of humanity is a thread that runs throughout the entire series of The Walking Dead. Throughout the first few seasons of the series, the characters become desensitized to killing zombies, but still struggle with killing other humans. As the show progresses, however, they come across more and more violent groups of human survivors that threaten their safety. The show’s main protagonists also become more and more comfortable with killing other humans. This culminates in the season 4 finale, “A.” This episode consists partly of a group of survivors, “The Claimers,” threatening some of the main protagonists (Rick, Carl, and Michonne) with sexual assault and murder. Faced with this threat, and with the image of one of the men on top of his child, Rick bites out the neck of one of the men, claiming his adversary by saying, “he’s mine,” and then stabbing him in the throat and body repeatedly, even after the assailant dropped his weapons and pleaded for mercy.

Later on in the episode, Rick’s son, Carl, also reveals, “I have these thoughts, I’m not what he thinks I am - I’m just another monster, too.” Each of these instances illustrates the loss of humanity that the survivors of the apocalypse have faced - they have lost so much of their empathy that they can kill people easily, and even call themselves monsters and rip out people’s throats, just like the zombies they are trying to fight against. This loss of humanity in apocalyptic Atlanta can be mirrored by a lack of real-world, American public empathy for others leading up to and in the 21st century, especially in politics, but also in audiences’ preferred television interests.

The Walking Dead, now in its seventh season (2017), has effectively paved the way for a new generation of zombie-focused television shows and movies. In particular, Santa Clarita Diet premiered all ten episodes of its first season on Netflix just this February 2017. Unlike The Walking Dead, which takes a survivalistic and dramatic approach to the genre, Santa Clarita Diet is billed as a horror-comedy. In fact, the first episode begins with Sheila and Joel, our two realtor protagonists, talking about “pounding one out” in bed and the couple’s dysfunctional family in the small, cookie-cutter town of Santa Clarita. The depiction of Sheila’s “transformation” into a zombie is probably the greatest tell of the how the show wants to be received: Sheila violently throws up a comical and ghastly amount of yellow liquid and what seems to be an organ, while showing a house to two prospective buyers. The ten episodes in the series’ first season progress in much the same manner, portraying the killing and eating of people as “necessary” and “acceptable” because they are only targeting terrible people. This is where the blurring between real and fake begins, and we as viewers suspend our humanity for the sake of a few laughs.

We laugh when Sheila implies that maybe the shellfish she ate last week was what made her turn into a zombie; when Sheila and Joel’s marriage is saved because of their collaborative killing sprees; when they try to hide a dead man from their nosy neighbor. What does it mean when we look at a zombie and laugh when she brings a smoothie made of body parts on her morning jog? This doesn’t imply that any of us are starting to accept the idea of cannibalism, but it does signify a broad change of heart since the debut of Night of the Living Dead. There is no way that ten years ago, much less fifty years ago when Romero’s film was released, anyone would have been able to find humor in a couple trying to stuff a dead man into their new refrigerator, one specifically designated for keeping the people they kill fresh. Still, the effortlessness in which Sheila (of Santa Clarita Diet) was able to adapt to eating humans is frightening. The ease of her transformation can be interpreted as echoing the incredible willingness of the American public to believe everything they hear, especially as conversationalization creeps its way into American politics.

The recent election of Donald Trump is a perfect example of the public’s collective loss of humanity appearing to connect with an adjuvant decrease in political standards, all the while zombies have become increasingly more popular. Conversationalization is arguably the first way that Trump was able to appeal to the masses, in that his casual language was similar to that which Americans use everyday, while the vagueness of his statements allow voters to fill in the gaps however they see fit, making him broadly relatable, but also suspect. As the Trump campaign continued throughout 2016, there were many scandals that just 50 years ago would have for sure knocked him completely out of many voters’ minds. In his campaign announcement speech, he referred to Mexicans, saying, “they’re rapists.” He has continued to make degrading statements about women, including in a video where he brags about sexually assaulting women. Over the years, several such women, including his ex-wife, filed lawsuits claiming he sexually assaulted or harassed them. He has either said or tweeted several other statements that are offensive to many other communities some of which can be seen here.11

The fact that a man who has said such defamatory statements toward so many marginalized groups was able to win over enough American voters to win the presidency shows a wide decrease in political standards and loss of empathy for others. This is further reflected by the American public’s recent support for damaging military action toward other countries, such as the Iraq War,12 the Syrian airstrikes of April 2017,13 and continued disregard for human rights violations in non-American conflicts, as in the enduring apartheid in Israel and Palestine.14 In a way, the onscreen zombie-fighting characters of The Walking Dead can be interpreted as a metaphorical window into an widespread loss of humanity.

Up until recently, zombies represented the things that people feared at the time or critiques of current society, whether it was the Haitian zombi of the 19th century that responded to the fear (of White Americans) of slavery being outlawed,15 or a contemporary critique of racism and the Vietnam War in Night of the Living Dead. More recently, zombie culture has shifted to also respond to a zombified American public. So, we ask, is the American public’s recent fascination with both zombies and sensationalist politics and media new, or has it “simply filled a hunger that had always been there but was never sated”?16

  1. Platts, Todd. “Locating Zombies in the Sociology of Popular Culture.” Sociology Compass. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 May 2017.

  2. Cameron, Deborah. Working with Spoken Discourse. London: SAGE, 2001. Print. 2

  3. “Richard Nixon.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 30 Apr. 2017. Web. 01 May 2017. 2

  4. Richard Nixon: “Inaugural Address,” January 20, 1969. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.

  5. Kael, Pauline. 5001 Nights at the Movies. New York: Henry Holt, 1991. Print.

  6. Grant, Barry Keith. The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film. Austin: U of Texas, 2015. Print.

  7. Cannady, Sheryl. “Michael Jackson, the Muppets and Early Cinema Tapped for Preservation in 2009 Library of Congress National Film Registry.” The Library of Congress. N.p., 30 Dec. 2009. Web. 01 May 2017.

  8. Abrams, Simon, and Elise Nakhnikian. “The Walking Dead: Season One.” Slant Magazine. 26 Oct. 2010. Web. 01 May 2017.

  9. “The Walking Dead (TV Series).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 01 May 2017. Web. 01 May 2017.

  10. Rangela, Renu. “‘The Walking Dead’: Why We Love The Gore And Violence.” Health Aim. N.p., 15 Feb. 2016. Web. 01 May 2017.

  11. Claire, Marie. “30 Of The Most Outrageous Donald Trump Quotes.” Marie Claire. N.p., 28 Apr. 2017. Web. 01 May 2017.

  12. Gallup, Inc. “Seventy-Two Percent of Americans Support War Against Iraq.” N.p., 24 Mar. 2003. Web. 01 May 2017.

  13. Pavlich, Katie. “Poll: Vast Majority of Americans Support Recent U.S. Airstrikes on Syria.” Townhall., 12 Apr. 2017. Web. 01 May 2017.

  14. Telhami, Shibley. “American Public Attitudes Toward the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Brookings Institution.” Brookings. Brookings, 28 July 2016. Web. 01 May 2017.

  15. Moreman, Christopher M. and Rushton, Cory J., eds. Race, Oppression and the Zombie: Essays on Cross-Cultural Appropriations of the Caribbean Tradition. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011. p. 15-30.

  16. Cillizza, Chris. “How Monica Lewinsky Changed Politics.” The Washington Post. WP Company, 20 Oct. 2014. Web. 01 May 2017.