Survival horror and the zombie genre entertain us, but they can also teach us about contemporary and historical social issues. Instances of zombie media such as Get Out, a 2017 film directed by Jordan Peele, World War Z, a 2006 novel written by Max Brooks, Pontypool, a 2008 movie directed by Bruce Mcdonald, and Night of the Living Dead, a movie released in 1968 directed by George Romero, take advantage of certain aspects of the zombie trope to discuss issues of racism, nationalism, and the thoughtless crowd mentality of humans such as ourselves. This paper will use Critical Discourse Analysis to contextually examine these zombie narratives as a means of exploring their societal critiques. Ultimately, we find that the zombie genre is particularly well-suited as a vehicle for these critical commentaries.
Racial Issues in the U.S.
In 1860, the U.S. census registered almost four million slaves in the U.S. out of just over 4,440,000 Blacks.1 Until 1868, when it was overwritten by an amendment, it was constitutional law that slaves counted as only three fifths of a free person. This, in conjunction with the dominant worldview of the U.S. at the time, reduced Blacks to objects who could be stripped of their human rights and forced into slavery. Slavery was not seen as inhumane by the majority of White Americans at the time, at least not enough so as to warrant resistance to it, because Blacks were not viewed as human.2 These laws existed in the U.S. for well over a third of the its existence and were repealed only 150 years ago.
Years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Black Americans were (and still are) being treated as less than White Americans and as less than human. Beginning in the mid-1950s, the Civil Rights Movement sought to end racial segregation and discrimination against Black Americans. The movement also fought for legal recognition and federal protection for Black Americans who often went unrecognized as full citizens. Although other chapters of the Black civil rights movements had occurred in the past, beginning in the 19th century, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s utilized nonviolent protests and civil disobedience to address issues such as segregation, voting rights, and police brutality. This particular chapter of the movement ended with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, but the fight to end racial discrimination in the United States continues today.3
Racial Issues in the U.S.: Night of the Living Dead
George Romero’s classic horror film Night of the Living Dead (1968) follows the struggle of seven people surviving the night in a farmhouse, as swarms of zombies invade their rural Pennsylvania town. Throughout the night, tensions rise between the occupants of the farmhouse, especially between Ben, the only Black person, and Harry. Eventually, everyone dies or succumbs to the zombies except for Ben, who survives the night only to be mistaken for a zombie and shot by a group of men led by the local sheriff. Night of the Living Dead features distinct political commentary surrounding the racial divide and the treatment of Black Americans. The final scene of the film depicts Ben being shot by the group of White men and the sheriff, who are oddly casual and nonchalant about the entire zombie outbreak, which began no more than 24 hours before. They only see Ben from far away and do not hesitate to kill him even though it is not clear whether he is a zombie or not.
However, the most important part of the film’s ending is the continuing visual narrative played as background to the rolling credits, in which still images of the men disposing of Ben’s body are shown. The men first stand around Ben’s body and then drag him out of the house using meat hooks. This treatment of his body illustrates how the men see Ben as inhuman, a piece of meat to be disposed of.
What is compelling about a zombie film addressing racial issues is the parallelism that is constructed between the Black man and the zombie. Ben’s treatment by the group of White men can be seen as overtly racist, but it can also be argued that their actions were not discriminatory towards Ben because he was Black, but because they thought him to be a zombie. The film’s end is interpretable and relatable to the political and civil climate of the 1960s and draws attention to the discrimination and violence against Black Americans.
Racial Issues in the U.S.: Get Out
The 2017 mystery/thriller Get Out. directed by Jordan Peele, focuses on a young Black man, Chris, meeting his White girlfriend’s family for the first time. Things become uncomfortable when her relatives begin to objectify Chris and talk about his “natural athleticism” and “how capable he’d be in a fight”. Then, a blind White man named Jim Hudson says: “I want your eyes, man, I want those things you see through.” Finally, it is revealed that Chris has been lured to the house in order to have his body stolen and given to the highest bidder in an auction. His brain will be removed, effectively killing him, and then the brain of a wealthy White man will be put into the host, making it possible for the buyer to use Chris’ body. However, Chris will not be entirely dead; some small part of him will be alive and able to experience everything that happens to his body, but he will be without any control.
This state of disempowerment can be interpreted as an analogy for the experience of Blacks in the U.S, historically and currently. Throughout slavery and the existence of the Three Fifths Compromise in the U.S. Constitution, Blacks’ lives were similarly valued to the main Black characters in Get Out, whose bodies were being stolen. Slaves were able to see and experience everything that happened to them, but had very little control over their own lives. Emancipation gave Blacks more legal control over their own lives but systems of oppression continued to deny them self-sovereignty in many ways, from denying them voting rights to unjustly incarcerating them. Get Out suggests that Blacks are still being forced to watch what happens to them from inside their own heads, with restricted control over their own lives. The unfortunate people who had already fallen victim to this surgical procedure, are effectively made into zombies. Their bodies are transformed into a walking corpse under the control of another person. Get Out takes advantage of this acute subhumanity of the zombie trope to communicate the lived experience of Blacks and argue that Blacks continue to be seen and treated as subhuman.
Nationalism and “Us versus Them”
World War Two represented one of the first, and quite possibly the largest to date, total war situation in human history. The threat of death and destruction spread to almost every corner of the globe and very few areas went unaffected. The ubiquitous threat caused people to band together in newer stronger ways, and also caused new divisions between people.
The constant threat of invasion and destruction created by the war instigated a banding together of peoples, often under a national flag, in order to survive the war. This nationalism caused countries to focus solely on the needs of their own people and disregard anyone of a different nation. Nations also began selectively excluding people within their own borders. In Germany, Jews were not included in the new national identity; in the U.S., Japanese-Americans were excluded and imprisoned within internment camps.4 Often the rights, sometimes even the lives of those excluded, were taken and this was justified as being for the good of those included in the nation.
World War Z (2006), a novel by Max Brooks presents a futuristic total war situation in which a zombie virus threatens to exterminate humanity. In a manner reminiscent of World War Two, this new threat spreads to every corner of the globe, uniting and dividing humans in their quest for survival. Within months the zombie apocalypse caused an almost complete societal breakdown with nearly every government failing, and millions dying. Although this narrative chronicles a zombie apocalypse, it primarily focuses on human nature. Brooks takes advantage of the ubiquitous threat and sensational nature of zombie media to show the ways humans can be devastatingly selfish, and unbelievably selfless.
Within the novel, when the zombie crisis begins, surviving humans band together, and and their loyalties narrowly pertain to their own groups. Iran drops a nuclear bomb on Pakistan in order to stop the flow of infected immigrants while many other countries close their borders. An ordinary American family migrating north first commits murder to protect their belongings and then later engage in cannibalism to survive starvation:
“There was this smell coming from the neighbors RV. They were cooking something, meat, it smelled really good. Mom and Dad were outside arguing. Mom said ‘it’ was the only way. I didn’t know what “it” was. She said “it” wasn’t “that bad” because the neighbors, not us, had been the ones to actually ‘do it.’”
These acts of desperation show that, when faced with a threat as enormous as a zombie apocalypse, humans become willing to commit previously unthinkable crimes in order to protect their own people. Whether they are grouped by nation, class, or family, people will always protect first those who they identify as their own people, even at the expense of others.
As the zombie outbreak rages, these divisions begin to disintegrate. In order for South Africa to survive, they create a plan that involves leaving a large portion of their population for dead and using them as zombie bait. In another example, a Chinese submarine decides to desert their country in its hour of greatest need to insure that some humans survive. Later, as humanity begins to turn the tide of the apocalypse, it is necessary for all of these boundaries to be broken down so humanity can work together to defeat the zombies.
Zombie media is particularly well-suited to explore these ideas because it centers upon a creature that creates fear but cannot be frightened; it can infect across dimensions of race, ethnicity, nationality, and gender, and yet, its horde is not divisible by any social means. The zombie is capable of destroying society without remorse, and this makes it all the more indestructible. In being entirely inhuman, the zombie creates an us-versus-them dynamic that can include all of humanity in the “us.” These features allow authors such as Brooks to focus primarily on humanity. The way that zombies can easily be made to destabilize human society allows Brooks and other users of zombie media to make extreme points without necessarily causing an uproar. If reanimated human corpses are destroying human society is the idea that Pakistan and Iran might not be as prepared to work together as some might think, or the idea of countries sacrificing their own citizens so extreme?
The 2008 Canadian horror film, Pontypool, chronicles the outbreak of a deadly zombie virus that is spread through auditory language, specifically the English language. The film’s main characters interact almost entirely within the recording studio of a local radio station, while zombies are only pictured on screen once - or within a narrow sequence. The protagonists’ only knowledge of the viral outbreak comes from outside accounts of the epidemic provided by their weatherman, Ken Loney, and listeners to their radio broadcast who call in to the station while the characters are on air. The virus is later described to them during their live broadcast in the recording studio by Dr. Menendez, a local medical doctor who theorizes that the virus is being spread through language:
“If…if the bug enters us, it does not enter by making contact with our eardrum. No. It enters us when we hear the word and we understand it. Understand? It is when the word is understood, that the virus takes hold.”
The idea that a virus could be spread through a language –especially a language as widely spoken as English– speaks to the capability of language to transmit and spread harmful and chaotic ideologies. In the world of Pontypool, much like in our own world, language and communication can be used to incite chaos, violence, and terror. It is important to note that within Pontypool, Dr. Menendez emphasizes that the virus is not spread through language alone–it takes hold once a word or a phrase is understood by the infected person. Therefore, it is not just the act of hearing a word or phrase, but it is when someone understands and accepts it that the virus can wield any power over them.
Once the virus starts to spread, the uninfected become just as mindless and violent as the infected. Ken Loney, the radio station’s weatherman, calls into the live broadcast from an unknown outside location, as an eyewitness to the as yet unidentified outbreak to offer a play-by-play description of what he sees as a crowd of people attempting to escape: “Jesus! It’s an explosion of…of…of people! Oh, my God! People are… are… they’re getting trampled. These people are getting killed down there.” The scene Ken’s character constructs is one that has become central to the zombie horror narrative, a free-for-all in which people desperate to survive will do anything to get to safety. Ken’s descriptions of masses of fleeing people causing just as much destruction as those infected exemplify the dangers of a crowd mentality. It emphasizes that the completely uninfected populace can be as equally mindless as those who are infected by the virus.
By analyzing works of zombie media including Night of the Living Dead, Get Out, World War Z, and Pontypool, we find that the zombie genre is well-equipped to make critical commentaries on the state of the world. A Critical Discourse Analysis of Night of the Living Dead reveals the treatment of Black men and the view that they are more meat than human. Similarly, Get Out communicates the lived experience of Black Americans and their treatment as subhuman. World War Z emphasizes the divisive power of nationalism while Pontypool addresses the ability of language to spread harmful ideologies and create chaos and the dangers of crowd mentality. Our analysis proves that zombie media is more than just entertaining; it is uniquely positioned to explore social and political issues.
Brooks, Max. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. New York: Broadway Paperbacks, 2006. Print.
Cone, James H. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2011. Print.
Frail, T. A. “The Injustice of Japanese-American Internment Camps Resonates Strongly to This Day.” Smithsonian Magazine Jan. 2017: n. pag. Web. 3 May 2017.
Get Out. Dir. Jordan Peele. Perf. Daniel Kaluuya and Alison Williams. 2017. Film.
Gomez, Michael A. “Time and Space.” Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South. Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina, 1998. 17-37. Print.
History.com Staff. “Civil Rights Movement.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 2009. Web. 02 May 2017.
Night of the Living Dead. Dir. George A. Romero. 1968. DVD.
Ponypool. Dir. Bruce McDonald. Perf. Stephen McHattie. 2008. DVD.
Gomez, Michael A. “Time and Space.” Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South. Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina, 1998. 17-37. Print. ↩
Cone, James H. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2011. Print. ↩
History.com Staff. “Civil Rights Movement.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 2009. Web. 02 May 2017. ↩
Frail, T. A. “The Injustice of Japanese-American Internment Camps Resonates Strongly to This Day.” Smithsonian Magazine Jan. 2017: n. pag. Web. 3 May 2017. ↩