Wall

‘Build That Wall!’: Studies in the 21st-Century Plague Zombie

[10 minute read]

In this month’s posts for Metathesis, I have been looking at how the metaphorical deployment of epidemic disease operates, and how we might understand the metaphorical function of plague zombies in contemporary texts. Why is it that the figure of the plague zombie features so prominently in the twenty-first-century imagination? If the plague zombie is a vehicle for addressing social issues, how have plague zombie narratives confronted the zombie threat? Of course, the traditional method for dealing with zombies is simply to kill them. While this method might work when zombies are a minority, when the zombies outnumber survivors, they can be dangerous and difficult to deal with. Often, the best solution for survivors is to find or build structures to separate themselves from the living dead. These structures are reinforced with the belief that those within are safe, and those outside are threats. This week’s post focuses on the construction and failure of such barriers, and their centrality to the plague zombie narrative.

This use of the zombie as a simple “vehicle” for larger social critique is central to many of the texts that comprise the explosion of “plague zombie” narratives in the new millennium. Some of the most acclaimed texts of this period include Robert Kirkman’s 2003 comic book series The Walking Dead and its AMC television series adaptation that began in 2010; Max Brooks’ book The Zombie Survival Guide, also published in 2003, along with its follow up novel World War Z (2006), which was adapted into a film of the same name starring Brad Pitt in 2013.[1] In each of these “plague zombie” universes, how survivors choose to socially respond to the zombie epidemic occupies the central narrative concerns of the text. In such stories, zombies themselves appear as deadly environmental hazards to be mitigated; they operate as a collective metaphor for existential threats to society and humanistic values in modern society, as well as threats to the lives of individual survivors.

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In both The Walking Dead and Max Brooks’ World War Z, as with many other zombie narratives, physical infrastructure is important for managing survivors and zombies alike. Zombies, for all their persistence, tend to have problems with doors and walls. In the AMC adaptation of The Walking Dead, Rick Grimes and his rag-tag band of survivors ramble about the Georgia landscape in search of architectural as well as social stability. In most cases, the former is prized over the latter. The Southern U.S. setting plays a prominent role in The Walking Dead, and the racial and economic tensions of the South are reproduced in the movement of Grimes’s migrant group. Whereas the urban center of Atlanta has been completely overrun by the dead, the plantation-esque farm is enveloped in a surreal calm.

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An overhead shot of the zombie-infested Atlanta streets in The Walking Dead Season 1

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The main residence of Hershel Greene’s Farm in The Walking Dead Season 2

This survivalist reimagining of the urban-rural racial and economic divide values isolationism and segregation. In season 3 of the series, Grimes and his group find sanctuary in a prison, whose labyrinthine walls provide layers upon layers of security from the zombies who stalk its fortified perimeter. However, after developing a feud with a nearby town of survivors, the prison becomes a constant reminder of the limits and dangers, as well as the constant state of isolation, that survivors face because of the outbreak.

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Survivors contemplating the prison in The Walking Dead comic series

This narrative inversion turns the prison from a place of punishment and entrapment into a place of refuge and freedom. However, when a flu outbreak within the prison coincides with siege from without by a competing group of survivors, the prison and must be abandoned.

The centrality of security to The Walking Dead’s exploration of the urban-rural/town-prison divisions underscores a key theme of zombie narratives: population control. The threat of the zombie isn’t just in its mindless cannibalism or its role as a vehicle for a deadly contagion – the zombies’ power, and their threat, is in their overwhelming numbers. The disease they carry, whatever its fictional genesis, harbors a nearly universal ability to transform individuals—people with their own individual lives and narratives—into singular, homogenous, monsters. The epidemic empties the infected person of their identity and replaces their individuality with the terrifying singular hunger of the zombie. Through this process, zombies become a figure of contagious otherness; they are the once-minority that has become the now-majority threatening the stability of society and the existence of survivors. The plague zombie becomes a way to play out the fearful tensions of a society terrified of being overrun by those beyond our borders.

This is especially true when ethnic and racial tensions are made an overt aspect of the zombie narrative. In Brooks’ World War Z, Israel’s controversial partition wall is reframed as a barrier against the zombie outbreak, and the Palestinian people are invited into the protected space of the settler colonial nation that once denied their political existence. In the novel, the significance of the partition wall is inverted. That which once stood as a symbol of division and colonial expansion quickly converts into a nation-encasing quarantine barrier, and becomes a symbol for unity and reconciliation.

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Survivors entering Jerusalem in World War Z (2013)

This is a condescending and problematic rendering of the Israel-Palestine conflict in that it places Israeli military-nationalism in a role to act as the benevolent saviors of the unprepared Palestinians. This unbalanced rendering is made more apparent and troubling in the 2013 film adaptation. During one of the film’s most dramatic scenes, the sound of singing Palestinian refugees incites the zombies outside of the wall to pile over and subsume both the wall and those it protects. The zombies construct their own structure, a sort of zombie-ladder, which allows them to quickly overrun the now-trapped citizens of the city. The organic, shifting, and adaptive structure of the zombie-pile is markedly distinct from the solid and immovable infrastructure of the partition wall, and attributes a certain vivacious, almost instinctual creativity to the zombie menace. The failure of the partition wall to stop the organic flow of bodies from one space to another is rendered as catastrophic, and the zombies themselves seem to move not as individuals, but as a massive singular organism.

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Enraged zombies form their own type of structure to climb the reimagined partition wall in World War Z (2013)

By imagining the racial and ethnic “other” as a zombie or potential zombie, these narratives illustrate the stakes of the social issues lying just below the surface of plague zombie narratives. If we understand plague zombies as vehicles for larger social issues, narratives like The Walking Dead and World War Z show us the problems that attend the safety of isolation and exclusion. The walls within these texts represent the faith our society places in structural safety –be that the division of nations and ideologies as in the partition wall of World War Z, or in the medical capitalism of the Umbrella Corporation in Resident Evil (see last week’s post for more about Resident Evil). When societies build walls to keep imaginary threats at bay, it comes at the cost of innocent lives. Taking another look at the plague zombie narrative asks us to consider the extremes to which society will go for an ultimately false sense of security. These stories also ask us to imagine how we might treat each other under the worst of circumstances, and how we might reimagine society differently in the wake of its collapse. Of course, these narratives also show us how visions of utopia inevitably turn into twisted realities of isolationism, segregation, and violence.

These texts show us how systems and structures designed to isolate us from the problems of the world may comfort us in times of existential crisis. But ultimately, the metaphorical and material walls appearing to protect us become the cages that keep us from moving beyond the boundaries of our own fears and comforts.


[1] I would also add that Danny Boyle’s 2002 film 28 Days Later played an important role in the revival of the zombie, but I won’t be discussing that film here.

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