The Null Device

Hobbes' zombies

The Running of the Dead, a longish but eminently readable and illuminating article by one Christian Thorne, examining the shift in zombie film tropes from the slow, shambling zombies of George Romero's original films to the fast zombies of "updated" remakes and films like 28 Days Later, and what it says about changes in assumptions about civilisation between the late 1960s and the Homeland Security age:
Slow-zombie movies are a meditation on consumer society—on a certain excess of civilization, as it were; and fast-zombie movies are pretty much the opposite. So the simple question: In the Dawn remake, how do the zombies look? And the simple answer is: They look like rioters or encamped refugees. If you say that zombie movies are always about crowds, a person might respond: Yeah, I see, the mob—but if you’re talking about George Romero and the slow-zombie movie, the word “mob” isn’t quite right, since white people in formal wear aren’t exactly the mob, and, casting a glance at Romero’s original Dawn, shoppers aren’t either, except on the day after Thanksgiving. Fear of the mob has usually been the hallmark of an anti-democratic politics. The phrase “mob rule” remains common enough; eighteenth-century writers used to call it “mobacracy.” And that’s not what Romero’s after. Romero is worried that the crowd isn’t democratic enough, and one of his more remarkable achievements, back in 1968, was to start a cinematic conversation about the dangers of crowds that ducked the problem of “the mob,” that bracketed that concept out. This couldn’t have been easy to do, since the one term substitutes so easily for the other. And the pokeyness of the zombies is central to this feat, because corpses that look like they’re wading through gelatin are going to seem grinding and methodical or maybe doped and so not like looters or protestors or the Red Cross’s Congolese wards. By making the zombies fast—or rather, by merely accelerating them back to normal human speeds—Snyder allows his dead to seethe and roil. Once the movie’s survivors decide they have to leave the mall where they’ve been hiding—once they head out, in armored buses, into the teeming parking lot—they have entered an American Gaza.
In short, according to Thorne, while Romero's slow zombie movies are inherently democratic, fast-zombie movies are fundamentally authoritarian, advancing Thomas Hobbes' argument: civilisation is a fragile thing, one step away from collapse, and must be upheld by arbitrary authority (which is to say, authority one cannot question, whose rightness or wrongness are not open to debate). Hobbes' argument (a cornerstone of right-wing authoritarian thought) is predicated on fear, and has been gaining cultural currency in the post-9/11 Long Siege; the pro-democratic, small-L-libertarian tropes of the cultural shifts of the 1960s seem impossibly quaint, almost Rousseauvian in their naïveté, and haven't dated well beyond being a period piece, a code for the somewhat goofy epoch of pot-smoking, group sex and poor personal hygiene we call The Sixties. Meanwhile, the Other—the terrorist, the inner-city looter, the paedophile, the ultra-ruthless foreign gangster—is at the door. The freedom that was liberating to our hippy parents and grandparents is positively terrifying, and perhaps we need more authority.

The rise in fear-driven authoritarianism has manifested itself in other places; the zero-tolerance culture in schools (at least in the US; your mileage may vary), brought in after Columbine and 9/11, is, as one author suggests, conditioning a generation of young people to unquestioningly accept and submit to authority, instilling subconscious values which will later assert themselves when future social contracts are thrashed out. Tomorrow's citizens will be a little (or a lot) more accepting of the encroachment of authority, less likely to question it, and more likely to dismiss anti-authoritarian arguments as invalid or irrational.

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