‘Oh Lord, we’ve got zombies.’

The exclamation made in the title of this piece belongs to HISHE’s (How It Should Have Ended) sketch of World War Z (2013), and it addresses quite nicely the sudden influx of the ‘zombie’ into popular culture; in film, books, video games to name but a few. A quick search on ‘Ngram Viewer’ reveals the steady incline of the term zombie in books alone, but you hardly need me to tell you that zombies are appearing on the screens and pages at an incredibly fast pace. The zombie is not the living dead, but, perhaps more aptly, the animated dead; they’re not sexual or social beings (as the vampire has increasingly become)… they are not the living dead; they are not social characters, but a good old zombie apocalypse sure as hell tells us a lot about what it means to be human (or at least what scares the human).

ngram zombie

Simon Pegg protests that ‘ZOMBIES DON’T RUN!’[1] and the appearance of his character of Shaun (from Shaun of the Dead) in HISHE’s sketch, ushering Gerry Lane and his family onto the helicopter as ‘non-essential personnel’[2] before standing amongst a host of other ‘zombie fighting heroes’ certainly embeds and compounds his criticism into the context of the film World War Z, whose zombies do, of course, run (inhumanly fast). Pegg argues that ‘[t]he speedy zombie seems implausible’ on account that ‘[d]eath is a disability, not a superpower’.[3] Pegg reads zombies as analogous to the fear we have of our own deaths; ‘[z]ombies are our destiny writ large. Slow and steady in their approach… the zombie relentlessly closes in, unstoppable’.[4] In World War Z, the figure of the zombie, quite literally, avoids those already dying from a fatal illness; their fate is sealed, the zombie/virus desires a healthy host in which to infect in order that the virus can survive for longer. Either way, the human is consigned to death, and in the latter instance, it demonstrates the colonisation of the human by the virus. So, yes, the figure of the zombie in World War Z does, for the human, represent an inescapable fateful death, but it is also a colonising force; the virus has a survival instinct, and the humans fight them by injecting themselves with that which would bring them closer to death, deconstructing (or perhaps accepting) the fate that Pegg suggests the zombie symbolizes.

Perhaps, then, it is not so much the physical death which we should be concerned with in World War Z. The acceptance of an inevitable physical death perhaps serves to further deconstruct (at the end of the film) what we are confronted with (at the beginning of the film); not the living dead, but the animated dead. In World War Z ‘the person does not even die before turning into what is now being described as a zombie’, but instead inhabits an ‘interstitial state of being between life and death’, or ‘bare life’.[5] Jon Stratton suggests that zombies ‘express our anxieties over the relationship between bare life and the modern state’[6] which I take to be that of simulacrum. Jean Baudrillard states that ‘the characteristic hysteria of our time [is] the hysteria of production and reproduction of the real. The other production, that of goods and commodities… no longer makes any sense of its own’.[7] The idea that zombies/ bare life is not so much an analogy for the fear of our own death, but the fear of our loss of the self in the flux of a commercially based simulacrum is something that was addressed in a lecture I attended a few months ago, by Matthew Charles (Westminster University). Charles suggested that the influx of apocalypse narratives was due to it being easier to accept the end of the world, as opposed to the end of commodity; there is a dependency on capitalist society. To demonstrate this, Charles casts the character of Neville in I am Legend (2007) as, not the last man, but the last capitalist, as he drives his car (as a commercial symbol) through the lonely streets.[8] To inject yourself with a deadly virus, as Gerry Lane does in World War Z, is to accept the end of the world (as we know it)… to dispense with the simulacrum.

And this is where the film begins, as the audience is confronted with this commercially orientated simulacrum, the animated dead, in the opening credits of World War Z.

The title ‘WORLD WAR Z’[9] appears, fragmented, over the top of the images in the opening credits, before eventually forming a readable title. It splices and angles clips, having a direct, physical impact on the societal scenes that the clips depict, and further affects these snippets of society by blurring the image on the screen in fragmented sections. This affect both serves to show how our image of society is filtered, cut and, edited… a simulacrum, as well as super-imposing the title that signifies the ‘zombie’ onto this simulated society. What is even more chilling is the fact that we digest these images, fragmented by the title, without realising that is being super-imposed over these images, until we see the bigger picture. The entire edited sequence figuratively, and literally cuts the viewer off from the bigger picture, the destination of a commercially orientated life. This life is constructed from talk shows, and the stock exchange, is a bare-life; we are already essentially inhabiting the destination that the film, through the actual zombie, metaphorically suggests.

Commercial life is a distraction… a simulacrum: images of festivals, and work, talk shows, and applauding audiences, are edited to appear besides images and discussion of unexplained health crisis’s and CO2 emissions. The world is edited and viewed just as it is literally displayed on the screen. At one point a distinctive voice states that ‘all this talk about the doomsday is a hoax’;[10] the doomsday is fake and, by extension zombies are fake, but so is the film, which, itself, is a commercial construction. We watch the film and ingest the edited images on the screen, and the music (Muse, ‘Isolated System’), and the credited actors; the whole system is a commodity that can be bought and sold. The film implies that, actually, the doomsday is not a hoax, it’s happening right now; it’s simply disguised by the very thing that it is: a simulacrum. As a man upon the screen directs his camera phone directly at the screen, straight as us, the audience, we realise that to say that there are no zombies in the title sequence of World War Z would be a lie; we are the zombies.

A disclaimer: this is a brief, microscopic analysis in view of (the opening of) the film, World War Z. It is not written about the novel and does not have any intentional/ direct bearing on the book.

[1] Simon Pegg, ‘The Dead and the Quick’, Guardian, 4th November, 2008 <http://www.theguardian.com/media/2008/nov/04/television-simon-pegg-dead-set> [accessed 13/12/13] (para 2 of 12)

[2] HISHEdotcom, ‘How World War Z Should Have Ended’, 29th October, 2013 <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ow2Uh51IMh4> [accessed 13/12/13]

[3] Pegg (para 3 of 12)

[4] Ibid (para 4 of 12)

[5] Jon Stratton, ‘Zombie trouble: Zombie texts, bare life and displaced people’, in European Journal of Cultural Studies, 14 (2011), 265-281 (p.267)

[6] Ibid (p.277)

[7] Baurillard, Jean, ‘Simulacra and Simulations’, in Literary Theory: An Anthology, ed. by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, 2ndedn (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), pp.365-77 (P.374)

[8] Matthew Charles, ‘“Not Even the  Dead Will Be Safe”: The Catastrophic Function in Contemporary Culture’, 16th October, 2013, Lancaster University

[9] Marc Forster (dir.), World War Z (Skydance Productions, 2013)

[10] Ibid

About Rachel Fox

I am currently a PhD candidate at Lancaster University, having completed a BA in English Literature and an MA in Contemporary Literary Studies. My provisional thesis title is: Voicing and Visualising Identity: The Discursive Figure of ‘Woman’ in Contemporary Poetical and Polemical works of Literature arising from Western Asia
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