Much like the vampire, the zombie is a long-lived trope of the horror genre whose subtext has mutated alongside the contemporary fears of the audience. So what do current zombie movies and games say about our modern metaphysical boogie-men?
The Horror genre is a profoundly parasitical creature. Not only is it endlessly adaptable to cultural changes, but it also has a rare capacity to track sources of social anxiety and attach itself to them, mining our deepest fears and presenting them back to us in the shape of art – a cathartic form of art that helps us to overcome our fears by making us confront them in safe environments such as cinemas and comfy chairs [Cinemas are a safe environment? Not in this town, man. – Ed.]. Indeed, Joss Whedon owes much of his fame and following to the fact that Buffy the Vampire Slayer helped millions of TV viewers to overcome the traumas born of attending high school – traumas transformed by Whedon and his staff of writers into monsters physical enough to be defeated week in and week out by a small blonde woman and a gang of geeky side-kicks.
Of course, while Whedon may have popularised the cathartic nature of Horror, he did not invent it. For example, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) tapped into the virulent strain of anti-Semitism present in Germany in the 1920s by presenting the film’s audience with a vampire modelled directly upon stereotypical depictions of Jews : Crook-backed, hook-nosed, rat-like in appearance and eager for the opportunity to sweep down out of the Carpathian mountains, draining the life from a German nation already weakened by the Treaty of Versailles.
This is similar to the way in which George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) confronted the racial tensions present in 1960s America. As Brigid Cherry points out in her excellent Routledge Film Guidebook Horror (2009), zombie films that appeared prior to Romero’s (including John Gilling’s 1966 wonderful Hammer Horror film The Plague of Zombies) tended to have an explicit link to Haitian myth. Romero stripped out the Vodou iconography and replaced it with imagery drawn from not from slavery but from White opposition to the civil rights movement. Imagery including the killing and burning of Ben the protagonist (in a style reminiscent of the photographs taken of the burning of William Brown during the 1919 Omaha race riot) by a group of armed rednecks eerily reminiscent of the lynch mobs of old.
Of course, both vampires and zombies have changed with the times. Once an image of anti-Semitic terror, the vampire was reinvented any number of times before Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (1976) framed them as an embodiment not only of sexual ambiguity but also of the threats posed by sexually transmitted diseases. Indeed, the vampire’s emergence as a figure of sexual desire in works such as Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight (2005) and Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake novels arguably mirrors not only a changing social attitude towards the risk of STDs, but also a popular acceptance of a more fluid conception of sexual identity. The vampire is no longer frightening because the fears of the mid-1970s are not the same as those of the late 2000s.
Even if one limits oneself to the films made by Romero over a period of 40 years, one can see that the zombie has undergone a similar process of evolution, and – as you might expect from Darwinian selection – not all mutations have proved to be well adapted to their social climate.
In fact, despite a recent explosion in the popularity of the zombie film, few works have come anywhere close to hitting the same raw nerves as Romero did with his first two zombie films. It is telling that when Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg wrote Shaun of the Dead (2004), they looked not to Romero’s post-apocalyptic Reaganite call to arms Day of the Dead (1985), but rather to his 1978 attack on consumer capitalism, Dawn of the Dead. To this day, the enduring image of the zombie is a misanthropic one: a mindless slave to his desires, easily bamboozled and lead by the nose, the zombie chimes perfectly with a fiercely individualistic culture whose members are forever trying to distinguish themselves from the other people around them. To become a zombie is to become a part of the herd, and what kind of consumer-rebel wants that?
However, away from the cinema, the Resident Evil franchise has been quietly developing its own vision of the zombie based upon its own set of anxieties – anxieties born out of 90s Japan and a fear of the technologies that humanity seems capable of unlocking.
The first game (1996’s Resident Evil) opens with a brilliant attack upon traditional Horror iconography. The plot has it that, following a rash of brutal murders, the police department of Racoon city assign a specially-trained tactical unit to investigate. When half of the unit disappears, the second half track the survivors to a seemingly abandoned gothic mansion, which they discover to be infested with zombies. However, as the player explores the house they discover that, far from being a mansion, the house is actually the top floor of a vast corporate research facility. This wonderfully subtle shifting of registers from the gothic to the industrial and the fantastical to the science fictional stands as a testament to the ambition of the series creator Shinji Mikami. By moving past the gothic and into something new, Mikami is effectively clearing the slate for an all new iconography based upon a tangible fear of dehumanisation
This fear initially presents itself as a reaction to the loss of individual responsibility that comes with working for a large Japanese corporation. At first glance, this may appear to be just another iteration of Romero’s anti-consumerism, but the reality is rather more complex. The series’ first five games slowly unravel a corporate conspiracy that lead to the leaking of several deadly mutating viruses that cause their victims to turn into zombies (or worse). However, by the time all the facts are divulged in the 2002 prequel title Resident Evil Zero, it is clear that there was no conspiracy to release the viruses. Instead, the outbreak was caused by the systemic failure of corporate salarymen to take responsibility for their actions. Indeed, Mikami seems to see corporations as entities that strip people of their humanity – a humanity that is expressed through initiative, creativity and a sense of responsibility. These are exactly the characteristics he projects onto his cast of protagonists and, by extension, the players.
However, as well as the moral and psychological dehumanisation that comes from corporate assimilation, Mikami also fears the literal dehumanisation that might come from genetic engineering. Set a number of years after the first five games, Resident Evil 4 (2005) sees the dismantling of the Umbrella Corporation, a shift away from corporate politics and towards dealing with the spread of the creatures and the dangers they pose to the rest of the world. Indeed, the bulk of Resident Evil 4’s plot echoes Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) in that it focuses upon a religious cult that uses a genetically engineered parasite as a form of mind control. This idea is then carried over into Resident Evil 5 (2009).
The release of the trailer for Resident Evil 5 created quite a bit of controversy as it featured a white-skinned character being attacked by a gang of machete-wielding African villagers. While the game designers made enough changes to the final game to avoid accusations of outright racism, zombie fans with a sense of history might still feel uncomfortable. In the 40 years between Night of the Living Dead and Resident Evil 5, the audience seems to have moved from a point where they empathised with an unjustly murdered Black character to a point where they assume control of the kind of violent and heavily-armed thugs that might well have done the murdering in the first place. However, to worry about the racial content of RE5 is to ignore the grand sweep of the series and the bulk of the game.
While Resident Evils 4 and 5 may seem to be tapping into a fear of religion and a fear of Black people, their real inspiration seems to be a fear of technology that could allow humanity to free itself not only from disease and age, but also the constraints of human nature itself. The mutated creatures of the Resident Evil series are not only monstrous to look at, they are also monstrous in action. They are violent, aggressive, dangerous, prone to attacking anyone that goes near them. A product of Japanese society, Mikami seems to be asking that if becoming a part of a corporation can rob a human of accountability and compassion, what might happen if such a corporation gained the capacity to alter human nature?
By asking such questions, Mikami has made himself a part of the grand tradition of Horror authors: he has found a contemporary fear and forced us to confront it. It is not yet clear whether Resident Evil’s fear of a transhuman future will melt away like the sinister Jewish stereotypes of Murnau’s expressionist cinema or whether it will remain wedged in our collective throats like the mindless consumerism of George Romero. All that we do know is that the process of confrontation has begun and that Horror will keep step with society’s fears, regardless of what they might be in the future.
Jonathan McCalmont is a recovering academic with a background in philosophy and political science. He lives in London, UK where he teaches and writes about books and films for a number of different venues. Like Howard Beale in Network, he is as mad as hell and he’s not going to take this any more.
Jonathan recently launched Fruitless Recursion – “an online journal devoted to discussing works of criticism and non-fiction relating to the SF, Fantasy and Horror genres.” If you liked the column above, you’ll love it.
[ The fractal in the Blasphemous Geometries header image is a public domain image lifted from Zyzstar. ]