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Zombies are savages, the ultimate "other".
March 4, 2014 3:50 PM   Subscribe

Zombies occupy a variety of liminal spaces wherein contemporary social tensions are reflected and refracted. These tensions, however, have historical and ongoing parallels with images of "Indians." Zombies reveal societal ambivalence about race, class, gender, ethnicity, political power, agency, and other aspects of social reproduction. In other words, zombies touch upon all the anxieties commonly associated with colonialism.
If you only watch one hour-long lecture on the Anthropology of Zombies today, then make it this one by Native American scholar Chad Uran.
posted by Rumple (71 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite

 
I always thought of Zombies as the embodiment of what Republicans think the welfare state looks like. I dislike Ayn Rand for lots of reasons, but I'll bet she could have written a kickass Zombie story.
posted by Archibald Edmund Binns at 4:20 PM on March 4 [5 favorites]


Before I invest an hour in this: is it basically arguing, as the pull quote suggests, that zombie fiction is an expression of colonialist anxieties?

Didn't we have an FPP a while back that beanplated the sociopolitical subtexts of slow zombies vs. fast zombies?

They're fictional monsters, people. And it's a vast and varied genre, created by an equally vast and varied assortment of storytellers. You could probably cherry-pick anecdata to support any thesis of the form "zombie fiction is an expression of real-world anxiety about X, and they would all be equally ridiculous.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 4:33 PM on March 4 [3 favorites]


I just thought of them as the ultimate loss of control. You can't reason with them, and if you turn into one then you are a purely compulsive being.
posted by autoclavicle at 4:34 PM on March 4 [2 favorites]


escape from the potato planet: the zombies may as well be a framing device, a way to talk about anthropology where the subject is a fictional creature, so a clumsy beginner anthropologist is less likely to be offensive. He draws heavily from the examples about zombies, but the interesting part is what he draws in, regarding race, difference, and culture.
posted by idiopath at 4:43 PM on March 4


I always thought of the particular zombie post-apocalyptic story thread to be about a wild swing to the de-alienation of labor. Your work ( staying alive) is now the most important thing going on and has a direct, powerful effect on other people.

I mean, I used to not buy this line of thought about zombies representing poor/others/a safe way to kill a whole bunch of people you don't like, cause I didn't think it was supported in the popular stories used as examples .... But then you start reading (some) people's responses and discussions about zombie fiction and it dawns on you ...if it wasn't intended, it doesn't matter cause that's TOTALLY how some audiences are taking it. zombies are totally used to talk about unhealthy paranoid violent fantasies of The Other in a socially acceptable way.
posted by The Whelk at 4:44 PM on March 4 [25 favorites]


I like zombies. I am going to continue liking zombies. I am not going to masturbate over whether or not it is problematic or some god-damned thing.
posted by codswallop at 4:48 PM on March 4 [9 favorites]


Zombies are a great blank slate - you can project whatever you want onto them. I think I'd like this guy, and he has a fun idea that zombies could be an interesting tool for anthropology lectures, but he lost me with many of the parallels he wants to project onto them; it seemed more like his personal beanplating rather than insight relevant to the broader cultural thing of zombies (ie my interest). Eventually I lost interest :/ (though I liked his historical context of what was happening when Night of the Living Dead was released).
I'm more in a 21st century zombie school - for me zombies "touch upon all the anxieties commonly associated with colonialism" natural disaster. If I think about zombies in terms of the parallels he chooses, I lose a lot of the primal response to them.
Zombies give to each his own.
posted by anonymisc at 4:49 PM on March 4


Yeah there a lot of things being projected into the zombie slate, the most interesting thing to me is the reorganization of society and like, pure practical how do you defend an apartment building stuff. Some people covet the lawlessness, or the looting, or the power fantasy stuff. The modern zombie is a very convient plot device for lots of purposes.
posted by The Whelk at 4:55 PM on March 4 [2 favorites]


You could probably cherry-pick anecdata to support any thesis of the form "zombie fiction is an expression of real-world anxiety about X, and they would all be equally ridiculous.

Or you could develop an argument to support many flavors of "zombie fiction is an expression of real-world anxiety about X," and many of them would be perfectly valid. I mean, we're all pretty clear on zombies as an expression of extreme consumerist/capitalist culture and/or its consequences; or zombies and other 19th-21st century monsters as an expression of anxiety about industrialization, science, and technology, etc., right?
posted by FelliniBlank at 4:57 PM on March 4 [5 favorites]


Yeah, I basically can't abide any "Zombie Apocalypse" pop culture nonsense anymore, after realizing it's a euphemism for genocide and the worst kind of white supremacy.

There are a few formative zombie movies I'm OK with wherein I'm pretty sure that's not the overriding metaphor. Night Of The Living Dead is about the Red Scare/Cold War, Sean Of The Dead is about slackers/failure to launch/modern consumer culture, 28 Days Later is... well I don't know maybe that one is racism.

Otherwise, though? The zombie walks, t-shirts, stickers on cars, and related cultural ephemera? Nope.
posted by Sara C. at 4:57 PM on March 4 [2 favorites]


after realizing it's a euphemism for genocide and the worst kind of white supremacy.


You realized incorrectly. I'm sure that if you find the right demographics and scenes, it's not hard to find such assholes, but the zombie enthusiasts I know, there's none of that. Zombies are pushing completely different buttons.

Don't let racists dictate what you can and can't enjoy.
posted by anonymisc at 5:02 PM on March 4 [11 favorites]


They're fictional monsters, people.

Yeah, but they've been such a pervasive theme of media over the last few years, in a way few "fictional monsters" are.

It's also weird to me how pervasive the idea of zombies being "real" is, and how easily the idea of a "zombie apocalypse" has sort of blurred into ideas about the Rapture, the 2012 Mayan Apocalypse, etc. It's not just like teen girls who want to fuck sparkly vampires, at this point.

And zombies are pretty directly mappable to the classic concept of "the mob" and all its icky implications. You can switch out which mob we're talking about, the proles, the savages, the sheeple, or whatever, but you can't really ignore that the symbolism is there.
posted by Sara C. at 5:03 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I basically can't abide any "Zombie Apocalypse" pop culture nonsense anymore, after realizing it's a euphemism for genocide and the worst kind of white supremacy.

As a fan of The Walking Dead and various other zombie fiction, I find this really offensive, because you've basically just told me that I get off on genocide and white supremacy. Perhaps latent and unconscious urges in that direction, but still.

If you're going to surmise that about me, knowing nothing more about me than the fact that I enjoy The Walking Dead...well, Jesus. There's probably no point in saying anything in my own defense.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 5:03 PM on March 4 [5 favorites]


Maybe it would be cool to discuss the content of the video. I'm 50 minutes in, and it touches on a lot of different theorists, media, and ideas.
posted by cashman at 5:05 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


Yes, I'm really enjoying it so far.
posted by FelliniBlank at 5:05 PM on March 4


Sometimes a zombie is just a zombie, my friends.

And yeah, is nobody else watching the video? Its quite interesting.
posted by Alonzo T. Calm at 5:06 PM on March 4


I feel about zombie culture the way I feel about Star Wars culture- WE GET IT. ENOUGH.

And I say that with a all due respect.
posted by tunewell at 5:08 PM on March 4 [4 favorites]


(Mira Grant's zombie books are good at avoiding all these negative aspects of the zombie story while being more about a world made completely paranoid and restrictive by them.)
posted by The Whelk at 5:10 PM on March 4 [2 favorites]


I love this important delineation Uran makes crystal clear between the approaches of colonizers to The Other: "exterminate or assimilate?" A telling binary that is all too visible throughout the centuries and of course embedded throughout the now.

Though always an object of observation to discipline and punish. Still other.

And the immensely rewarding meta-critique of that banal film, "Avatar."
"He's a threat. This leaves open the question of, 'How do we understand ["Day of the Dead" film character] Bub as a person, with volition, with will? I mean, after he fires the empty gun — if that's not a contradiction in terms, I don't know what is — fires the empty gun, then the military officer is threatening to shoot him and the doctor steps in the way and saves his life, right? So then Bub feels, you can see Bub feeling, gratitude for that and fear of death and he understands these things, which then begs the question of: 'Does Bub himself have inherent rights?' Inherent sentience? A bare minimum that is required to assign rights to anyone.

"And if so, then how do we, again, recognize and define those rights? And then what is the, the people in power, the state — here in this film ["Day of the Dead"] represented by the scientific establishment and the military establishment — what are the responsibilities of the state to uphold those rights, whatever they may be, however you define that?

"Lacking definition of those rights, the responsibility for those rights are unevenly met in 'Day of the Dead.' Right? They're treated poorly. They're killed outright. All these sorts of things. Their responsibilities are unevenly met by both the scientific and the military establishment and — ultimately — fail with the usual zombie chaos that ensues in the climax of all these films.

"[32m13s] This also has parallels to federal Indian policy, where the definition of the packages of rights associated with indigenous peoples often lack that kind of definition. And that lack of definition has led to a historical trajectory that seems to have gone back and forth and crossed between questions on how to deal with that difference — 'Do we exterminate them or do we assimilate them?' — playing itself out throughout the colonial encounter.

"And we also see, without that firm definition of the package of rights associated with a certain population, that — even in instances where that package of rights is guaranteed by law — you can still get arrested for spearing a fish. Or put in jail for trying to protect your lands. Those rights are often ignored in the case of expediency or to uphold the economic security of the colonizing state."
Chad Uran, "The Anthropology of Zombies: Frontiers of the Reanimated West"
Pop culture comes from somewhere, y'all.

That said, I'm still terrified of watching the filmic version of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road."

Excerpt begins at [30m09s].
posted by simulacra at 5:16 PM on March 4 [6 favorites]


You can switch out which mob we're talking about, the proles, the savages, the sheeple, or whatever, but you can't really ignore that the symbolism is there.

The symbolism is not there - you're bringing it to the table. (As is your right! That's what a blank slate is for! But it's a mistake to assume everyone is on the same page).
For example, for me the asymmetries of zombies are key, and they're generally the opposite of mob. Eg, the larger the mob numerically, the fewer resources the hold-outs have available to them and the more resources are marshaled against them, but with zombies, the larger the horde numerically, the more resources become available to the survivors, and the fewer resources are arrayed against them.
Mobs are loud and angry. Zombies are quiet and... sad. etc etc. I can understand why some people will see zombies as mobs, but for me, those two concepts just aren't related.
posted by anonymisc at 5:19 PM on March 4 [2 favorites]


As far as "The Other" is concerned, I prefer to think of zombies as perfect Libertarians, not taking orders from anyone or conforming to 'society's norms' but free to act totally brainlessly - while eating brains as a means to deny that's what they're doing. "The Libertarian Paradise" IS "The Zombie Apocalypse".
posted by oneswellfoop at 5:21 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


That said, I'm still terrified of watching the filmic version of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road."

FWIW this movie doesn't have zombies, it has cannibals. At least cannibals are people who are specifically morally corrupt, as opposed to just a faceless agency-free Other.
posted by Sara C. at 5:25 PM on March 4 [3 favorites]


Sara C.: yes, I'm terrified of having to see a visual representation of book passages burned into my brain, those passages of people in dark basements [spoiler alert] cutting strips of flesh off of human bodies to stave off starvation.

That's scary.
posted by simulacra at 5:27 PM on March 4


The symbolism is not there - you're bringing it to the table.

Possibly of interest, this 18th century engraving by William Hogarth.

Reading about the Gin Craze and seeing contemporary media about it was really where I started to realize the symbolic significance of zombies in modern culture.
posted by Sara C. at 5:27 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


If there are truly colonial undertones to the zombie genre, then surely the zombies are white. They come, unexpected, uninvited; they turn your entire way of life on its head; they are legion; they are immune to your magic and your technology; they will not stop until you are utterly destroyed, or assimilated; the only way to survive is to become one of them.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 5:34 PM on March 4 [7 favorites]


Regarding this video, the subject isn't zombies, it's colonial relations to natives. The zombies are a framing device, all of insights and all of the actual conclusions are about colonialism, and its elaborate justifications for the appropriation of native resources.

I wonder if the topic of the talk would be more likely to get noticed if zombies weren't so distracting, or would it be less likely to be noticed because nobody would even mention it if not for zombies?
posted by idiopath at 5:38 PM on March 4 [5 favorites]



after realizing it's a euphemism for genocide and the worst kind of white supremacy.


I don't see it that way. I just see zombie fiction as lazy (on the creator's part) and ultimately very disappointing to engage with ... because the bad guys just aren't interesting past the immediate level of being a threat. They're just generalized hunger/rage/whatever which exists to be annihilated in various crowd-pleasing ways by the good guys.

It feels immature ultimately.

When I raise this objection with friends who are fans of something like Walking Dead, they say, yeah, but that just means the bad guys are other humans. Fair enough, I guess, but it still ceases to engage me. I guess I'm just tired of the whole post-apocalyptic option.
posted by philip-random at 6:07 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


Seems like a very predictable and stereotypical idea, which is, sadly, more and more academia's stock in trade.
posted by thelonius at 6:11 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


I think zombie stuff tickles the large fat "Fear of the Other" button that the Southern Strategy installed in people's brains. It started out as "I don't want to pay taxes if it helps the poor black family down the street" but these days it has simplified to "I don't want to pay taxes if it helps the poor family down the street".

And this is what motivates gun fetishism a bit too. It's a bit self-reinforcing. The paranoia justifies the gun, playing with the gun is fun, and when the government tries to take your guns away, that threatens your privilege and perceived power, which feeds the paranoia. Or something. Therefore anti-zombie bullets.

(I'm not saying this is the only reason zombie flicks are appealing.)
posted by sebastienbailard at 6:16 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


Unless this answers the "should they run" question....
posted by HuronBob at 6:19 PM on March 4


Yeah, I basically can't abide any "Zombie Apocalypse" pop culture nonsense anymore, after realizing it's a euphemism for genocide and the worst kind of white supremacy.

Yeah there a lot of things being projected into the zombie slate, the most interesting thing to me is the reorganization of society and like, pure practical how do you defend an apartment building stuff. Some people covet the lawlessness, or the looting, or the power fantasy stuff. World war Z


I'm not a huge fan of the zombie genre but I took a brief foray into it after having seen the film World War Z and then felt compelled to read the book it was based on. The last zombie book I read was Colson Whitehead's Zone One, which proposes the zombie apocalypse as more of a class issue than a racial one. He also provides an interesting depiction of how a makeshift civilian swat team would clear out prime office and residential real estate in Manhattan (mostly for the benefit of the new ruling class).

I always thought of Zombies as the embodiment of what Republicans think the welfare state looks like. I dislike Ayn Rand for lots of reasons, but I'll bet she could have written a kickass Zombie story.

That's pretty close to what I thought when I saw the World war Z scene where a horde of thousands zombies breach a fortress by climbing up each other's bodies. You'd like to think they were working together for a common goal but it was really just every hungry zombie for him/herself. Ayn would have been proud.
posted by fuse theorem at 6:30 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


Before I invest an hour in this: is it basically arguing, as the pull quote suggests, that zombie fiction is an expression of colonialist anxieties?

Here's another pull quote from the very beginning of the video:
A question I had for myself was how would I teach an Intro to Anthropology in a way that was fun, useful, and really got at some of the issues that still continue to bother me about the discipline of anthropology itself?

And then I had this epiphany... why not zombies? Let's use zombies as the object of inquiry or as the vehicle to sort of train students or get students thinking in anthropological terms using anthropological theory. But also, consider some of the consequences of those theoretical orientations.

Zombies especially fit because they're just zombies: no one cares. There's no zombie advocacy group or anything like that, no one's going to be offended by zombie mascots, and all these sorts of things: they're not real people.
posted by XMLicious at 6:32 PM on March 4 [2 favorites]


the most interesting thing to me is the reorganization of society and like, pure practical how do you defend an apartment building stuff

Yeah, this is the thing for me. I enjoy the intellectual exercise of "given a structure, how can it be reinforced to provide a zombie-proof haven?".

(Not gonna lie, though. Another part of it is the sheer instant gratification/stress relief of it all. No student loans to pay back and I can just walk into a mall and take whatever the hell I feel like? Awesome.)
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 6:33 PM on March 4 [2 favorites]


I agree with the sentiment here that zombies are a blank slate for our projections.

In my view on a sociological level, zombies are a dehumanized enemy. That's a key to conflict: dehumanize your enemy.

And on a personal level, I've always perceived zombies to be without emotion. No feelings. There's all kinds of people who aren't allowed to have feelings -- or feel safer not having feelings -- so there's where you'll find your zombie sympathizers.
posted by surplus at 6:40 PM on March 4 [2 favorites]


I'm just at the beginning of watching this but the basic notion really resonates with me: it seems like the equivalent of the pronouncement "It's okay that the good guy shot that other one - he's just a robot" which drew many nods of agreement and amounted to sage wisdom at my grade school lunch room table.
posted by XMLicious at 6:41 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


Zombies won't stay in their place.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:58 PM on March 4



That's pretty close to what I thought when I saw the World war Z scene where a horde of thousands zombies breach a fortress by climbing up each other's bodies. You'd like to think they were working together for a common goal but it was really just every hungry zombie for him/herself.


Which in turn reminds me of the scenes in the Lord of the Rings movies where Orcs just relentlessly assault the more civilized fortresses. Orcs are basically just zombies, but reading the Lord of the Rings as a zombie movie makes its fundamentally racist world view even clearer.

Remember how the first of the new Lord of the Rings movies was being seen as a parable for western supremacy against the death-loving Muslims, iraq War, Afghanistan, bin Laden, etc.
posted by Rumple at 7:19 PM on March 4 [9 favorites]


Metafilter: masturbate over whether or not it is problematic or some god-damned thing.
posted by Renoroc at 8:03 PM on March 4 [4 favorites]


The symbolism is not there - you're bringing it to the table.

This is true of all symbols ever without exception. Our general inability to avoid bringing things to tables is what makes this shit work.
posted by LogicalDash at 8:13 PM on March 4 [5 favorites]


Is there anything which isn't about "race, class, and gender"? I bet if I asked a true believer they'd tell me that Calculus is about raceclassgender.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:28 PM on March 4 [2 favorites]


Zombie etymology is steeped in the resistance of enslaved peoples against their captors, and from the nightmares of enslaved peoples who died or feared dying as property in a lived reality of chattel slavery.

Also, this:
While there's a long history and fascination with animated corpses in American literature and cinema, zombies aren't originally a product of the American imagination. The undead corpses actually trace their roots to Haiti and Haitian Creole traditions that have their roots in African religious customs.

According to Haitian folklore, the book "Race, Oppression, and the Zombie" recounts, zombies are the product of spells by a voudou sorcerer called a bokor. The word is believed to be of West African origin and was brought to Haiti by slaves from that region. The concept of zombies would evolve further with the creation of the voudou religion.

In an essay for the New York Times last year, University of California, Irvine, professor Amy Wilentz called zombies a "very logical offspring of New World slavery." According to Wilentz, because slavery in colonial Haiti was so viciously brutal, death was the only real escape and seen as a way to return to Africa or lan Guinée (which translated means Guinea). As she writes:
"Suicide was the slave's only way to take control over his or her own body ... And yet, the fear of becoming a zombie might stop them from doing so ... This final rest — in green, leafy, heavenly Africa, with no sugarcane to cut and no master to appease or serve — is unavailable to the zombie. To become a zombie was the slave's worst nightmare: to be dead and still a slave, an eternal field hand."
The earliest references to zombies in the United States were closely associated with slavery and connected the word to African traditions. The word "zombi" — which for years was spelled without the "e" at the end — first appeared in print in an American newspaper in a reprinted short story called "The Unknown Painter" in 1838.
Lakshmi Gandhi, "Zoinks! Tracing The History Of 'Zombie' From Haiti To The CDC"; NPR, 2013
posted by simulacra at 8:31 PM on March 4 [6 favorites]


the sheer instant gratification/stress relief of it all

Speaking as a child of the 70's... yeah, maybe that's what annoys me about the whole zombie thing. Y'all's apocalypse of choice is faker than hell!

We had real worries, and sure it would have been fun to be Mad Max or whatever after the War, but we would have had to also feel guilty (Us maniacs! We blew it up!)

Now get your undead asses off my barren wasteland lawn.
posted by hap_hazard at 9:44 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


I think the recent popularity of zombie themed television shows, movies and internet memes is more closely associated with a fear of the homeless. Um, because that is more likely to be experienced by most people. I don't mean to discount other theories.

There is plenty of overlap in zombie symbolism.
posted by vapidave at 9:45 PM on March 4


If you watched it and thought "Dr. Uran reminds me of someone...hmm" and couldn't figure it out? Bill Hicks. The speech patterns, the humorous delivery, the knowledge-dropping, and even Dr. Uran's demeanor. It's also notable that Uran taught this as a course at UDub, so there is a lot more content beyond this lecture. Thanks for posting this Rumple.
posted by cashman at 9:46 PM on March 4


Yeah, this is the thing for me. I enjoy the intellectual exercise of "given a structure, how can it be reinforced to provide a zombie-proof haven?".

That's a part of what I like about zombie stories, but the good stories don't just play that game with our physical realities, they do it with our social realities, too -- which is why I love/hate the section of "28 Days Later," when they finally get to the safe military base and the men can't stop fantasizing over turning the women into sex slaves, and it's inhumane somehow that they keep a zombie chained in the yard to practice their fighting skills on.

Another thing I like about zombie stories is the question that always comes up: what do you do with the infected (or if you're infected) before they're zombies?

To become a zombie was the slave's worst nightmare: to be dead and still a slave, an eternal field hand.

That's fascinating, and I wonder about how much that taps into what people's fears are now. Zombies aren't just an Other -- they're something that you might be, too, and a lot of their drives are human (to move, to eat, to keep going). They're people, but without the humanity.

I agree with the people above who say that they might be the colonizers just as much as the colonized -- they're the assimilated maybe, the Kool Aid drinkers.

In some ways, it's easier to be a Zombie than not.
posted by rue72 at 10:55 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


which is why I love/hate the section of "28 Days Later," when they finally get to the safe military base and the men can't stop fantasizing over turning the women into sex slaves

Which is why my favorite shot in 28 Days Later is the red dress running into darkness against the copy of the Lacoon in the hallway, you know the statue about a story of cannibalism and madness, so the last bastion of civilization and culture is just as much a cannibal freeforall as the zombies in London., just, you know, with napkins and rationalization.
posted by The Whelk at 11:07 PM on March 4 [5 favorites]


I think it's significant that zombies eat brains. They're not just generic cannibals. They don't go for hearts or genitals or livers in particular. They're unthinking creatures that attack our organs of thought in particular.

Also, they're individually easy to defeat, but dangerous because of their numbers.

Compare them to Count Dracula. He's an elitist, an aristocrat. To defeat Dracula, the heroes typically must band together, enter his castle and ancestral vault.

Zombies are rarely defeated altogether. The heroes usually are aiming just to retreat somewhere safe.

Zombie fiction seems more pessimistic than vampire fiction, and to represent the menace of the masses, rather than the elite.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 12:35 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


Also nobody jerks off to the idea of becoming a zombie.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:08 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


Confession: haven't watched the video, haven't read half the comments. Also, haven't watched Walking Dead, so am unaware of this contemporary iteration of the theme.

Oh! Just noticed Pope Guilty's comment above, really relelvent to what I'm about to say. Last zombie fic I was introduced to is Bruce LaBruce's Otto, Or Up With Dead People. Here the zombie represents the gay subject (and all the zombie's are really really good-looking.) Film ends in a zombie orgy.

I don't think this harnessing of such a powerful (and fearsome) symbol of sickness, victimisation and alienation - and degradation - as the zombie to portray a particular subjectivity is all that foreign to the concept of zombies. That is, I'm saying that ever since zombies became a thing, the zombie has been used, super-subversively, to portray not the Other, but the Self. Traces of this occur even in the very mainstream I Am Legend. And it's like too obvious to mention in stuff like Thriller. That zombie/self theme has been there in popular culture all along: and it is deeply embedded in what you might call the Western proto-zombie fiction, Frankenstein.

Scuse my clumsy language here, hope I've managed to say what I intended.
posted by glasseyes at 2:43 AM on March 5


Having now read comments, simulacra, hi-five.
posted by glasseyes at 2:54 AM on March 5


I think one of the things that zombies can represent is a cerebral fear of the appetites and emotions.

Apart from the brains, a typical zombie movie moment is when the band of survivors is confronted with the zombie of a loved one. If a minor character succumbs to emotion and doesn't dispatch that zombie in time, that character is bitten and infected. A critical survival skill in a zombie movie is making sure your brain can overrule your heart.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 3:36 AM on March 5


Speaking as a child of the 70's... yeah, maybe that's what annoys me about the whole zombie thing. Y'all's apocalypse of choice is faker than hell!

I'm a child of the 70s too, for what it's worth, and I enjoyed my fair share of post-nuclear apocalypse films that were popular when I was growing up. I think that one of the reasons I possibly enjoy zombie fiction more is that it's more interesting to watch civilization decay relatively slowly instead of falling apart in a single day.

(That, and it seemed like every single post-nuclear film was shot in the damned desert. The color palette gets kind of boring after a while.)
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 3:42 AM on March 5


Pope Guilty, that is a rule 34 violation
posted by thelonius at 4:00 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


Orcs are basically just zombies

Actually, orcs were Brummies.
posted by srboisvert at 5:13 AM on March 5


Remember how the first of the new Lord of the Rings movies was being seen as a parable for western supremacy against the death-loving Muslims, iraq War, Afghanistan, bin Laden, etc.

Because there are swarthy men assaulting the fortresses of the west? And Saruman could be "Old Europe", somehow, because if you're not with us, you're against us? It can't work as a parable because Sauron has greater military might than all the West combined and he's undone by West's plan to destroy the most powerful weapon at their disposal.

The geopolitics of LOTR are Roman fanfic. Osgiliath and Gondor are Constantinople (look at the map). They are assaulted from the mountains of the east by people over whom they used to hold sway (Asia Minor) as their own strength started dwindling. A former stronghold of the kingdom (Nicaea) is used as a base to attack them. The Western Empire (Arnor/Rome) has long fallen to enemies, and Gondor lacks a true king. In this case, he comes from the Western branch, but the topic of the rightful emperor is common in post-1204 Byzantine history and the Return of the King emperor is a common post-1453 trope. The Shire (England) used to be in contact with Arnor (Rome) but no longer is. The fantasy elements and the plot are laid on top of that.

It's not a perfect analogy, but it works way better.
posted by ersatz at 5:23 AM on March 5 [2 favorites]


Zombie stories aren't about zombies. They're about how people fuck up. How every good plan or system eventually collapses because one guy didn't do his job or took a shortcut or couldn't handle the stress anymore or just flat-out made a mistake. The zombies are just window dressing, making "Stu forgot to brace the south wall" more dramatic than "Stu forgot to fill out his TPS reports." It's still about Stu and how everyone else deals with his fuckup, not the zombies.
posted by Etrigan at 5:34 AM on March 5 [3 favorites]


autoclavicle: I just thought of them as the ultimate loss of control.

There's a bit more to them than that. About 11 minutes into the presentation, there's a slide that covers the other aspects of zombies. They are: thelonius: Seems like a very predictable and stereotypical idea, which is, sadly, more and more academia's stock in trade.

I was a bit dismissive at first, but it's a really thoughtful presentation. As Uran says in the beginning of the presentation, the use of zombies is a good "current" stand-in for other cultures, and specifically in this case for native cultures. It allows people to discuss aspects of anthropology as it relates with living cultures, without having to dance around any sensitive or hot-button topics, because as he said, there are no pro-zombie support communities who will defend their depiction in media.

Also, remember that he's using this as a way to engage students to an introductory level of cultural anthropology. In any intro class, the professor has to get creative to capture more of the student audience beyond those who are really interested in the topic and are just taking the class for required diversity general credits or whatnot.

In short: watch the video. You can even ignore the video and listen to it, because Uran doesn't rely on the slides too much.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:31 AM on March 5 [4 favorites]


And regarding zombie pop culture as "a euphemism for genocide and the worst kind of white supremacy," where did this come from? I ask because this is honestly the first I've heard of it. Mind you, I'm not involved with any real-life or online zombie discussions, but I've watched a ton of zombie films and TV shows, thanks to my wife who is a zombie fanatic. She's also a good deep-viewer, picking up on cues and clues that I overlook, and this has never raised a flag for her.

I am now tempted to start reviewing zombie media with a critical eye for the possible subtext. In a lot of the low/no-budget zombie horror, I think it is safe to say a zombie is just a zombie, however poorly made up or costumed, but there are a lot of interesting discussions about the more elaborate productions, and I am not intrigued to look for more. For instance, I never picked up on the "early humanoid" zombie(s) from Day of the Dead that Uran shows at 25 minutes into the presentation.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:42 AM on March 5


Also nobody jerks off to the idea of becoming a zombie.

[shuffles awkwardly; tries to look nonchalant]
posted by escape from the potato planet at 7:52 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


Vampire fiction is left-wing, zombie fiction is right-wing.
posted by acb at 9:31 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


The undead corpses actually trace their roots to Haiti and Haitian Creole traditions that have their roots in African religious customs.

It's worth noting that the authentic Haitian idea of a zombie bears basically zero resemblance to the modern pop culture idea of zombies.

The modern version is much closer to the fear of "the mob" you see in the literature of the elite, especially things that started to spring up in England during the earliest parts of the Industrial Revolution. Suddenly there's a large, urbanized mass culture of non-elite people, unbound by the traditional feudal social contract. They need to be controlled for the sake of "civilization".

It's almost too easy to map this modern elite fear of the faceless unwashed refusing to stay under the thumb to the 21st century zombie craze.
posted by Sara C. at 9:41 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


Also, Marx and zombies.
posted by acb at 9:54 AM on March 5


And regarding zombie pop culture as "a euphemism for genocide and the worst kind of white supremacy," where did this come from?

From dickheads. It really is a thing in survivalist circles -- thinly veiled references to "those people" are perfectly fine when you start making it about zombies. Zombie Squad (a slightly tongue-in-cheek survivalist/preparedness movement) spends a fair amount of effort keeping that shit out.
posted by Etrigan at 9:55 AM on March 5 [3 favorites]


yeah I don't think the stuff is in the texts itself but shitheel groups and the like are bringing it to the stuff and ruining it for everybody.
posted by The Whelk at 10:03 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


And regarding zombie pop culture as "a euphemism for genocide and the worst kind of white supremacy," where did this come from?

From dickheads. It really is a thing in survivalist circles --


Which (beyond the just-being-tired-with-the-lack-of-imagination-in-it complaint I leveled above) gets to my deeper concern with the the whole Zombie Thing. Whatever the details of a particular scenario may be, whatever the tone (straight up dramatic, darkly humorous etc), it is always ultimately a survivalist fantasy -- gritty, resilient survivors caught up in an ongoing holocaust of societal crash and burn.

I can understand how this appeals to a younger, adolescent demographic (it certainly did to me at that age) -- the thrills inherent in functioning society (and all its complexities) breaking down into something simpler, more black and white, setting up a scenario where the truly heroic can strut their stuff. But it's ultimately just fantasy, and for me at least, one that utterly misses the most fascinating theme of our time -- living within apocalypse as it unfurls in all its weird, wild, complex, convolutional, evolutionary energy.

How do we steer all this toward some graspable future that's the opposite of survivalist fantasy? That's what interests me.
posted by philip-random at 10:52 AM on March 5


Zombie etymology is steeped in the resistance of enslaved peoples against their captors, and from the nightmares of enslaved peoples who died or feared dying as property in a lived reality of chattel slavery.

According to Haitian folklore, the book "Race, Oppression, and the Zombie" recounts, zombies are the product of spells by a voudou sorcerer called a bokor. The word is believed to be of West African origin and was brought to Haiti by slaves from that region. The concept of zombies would evolve further with the creation of the voudou religion.

"Suicide was the slave's only way to take control over his or her own body ... And yet, the fear of becoming a zombie might stop them from doing so ... This final rest — in green, leafy, heavenly Africa, with no sugarcane to cut and no master to appease or serve — is unavailable to the zombie. To become a zombie was the slave's worst nightmare: to be dead and still a slave, an eternal field hand."


Oh, yeah. The most memorable and scariest scenes in the 1932 film White Zombie are the ones where we see the undead Haitian workers still toiling away as they did in life, soulless, almost faceless, often shown completely in silhouette as if they were Balinese shadow puppets and not human bodies at all. I know a lot of modern eyes and ears can't get past the dated dialog scenes or Lugosi's stage eyebrows, but those worker scenes are powerful, powerful stuff for any era.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:19 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


How do we steer all this toward some graspable future that's the opposite of survivalist fantasy?

Neil Strauss's Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life is an interesting story of how Strauss tried to become super self-sufficient as a means of preparing for the end of the world, but ultimately came to see that all of his preparedness training tied him more and more deeply into society.
posted by Etrigan at 12:02 PM on March 5 [1 favorite]


Whatever the details of a particular scenario may be, whatever the tone (straight up dramatic, darkly humorous etc), it is always ultimately a survivalist fantasy -- gritty, resilient survivors caught up in an ongoing holocaust of societal crash and burn.

This is why I actually do (semi-)like The Walking Dead in spite of its various problems: it seems to be presenting the narrative as an inexorable extinction event rather than the usual "how do we survive and rebuild civilization" deal.
posted by FelliniBlank at 12:53 PM on March 5


Pope Guilty: Also nobody jerks off to the idea of becoming a zombie.

Don't tell Tina that, she's already self-conscious enough about her budding sexuality as it is.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:14 PM on March 5


One point that many of the best writers working in the ZA genre make is that, come the zombie apocalypse, race is no longer an issue. As Bulworth put it,

"All we need is a voluntary, free-spirited, open-ended program of procreative racial deconstruction. Everybody just gotta keep fuckin' everybody 'til they're all the same color."

In zombie apocalypse fiction, that color is grey.
posted by Otaqueen at 9:52 PM on March 5


come the zombie apocalypse, race is no longer an issue

maybe
posted by hap_hazard at 11:16 PM on March 5


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