The aim of this essay is to answer the following questions: Why is the zombie genre so pervasive in American popular culture; Why is the Zombie utilised as a narrative device for exploring decaying social norms; What does this tell us about America’s cultural condition; and What dominant images, icons, values, and discursive formations are utilised in the film(s) of my choice. The films chosen for this essay is Zombieland and Warm Bodies, even though both of these films are part of the zombie genre, they obviously share some common attributes, but they also differ from one another and this will all be discussed later in this essay. The zombie is a surprisingly interesting symbol and metaphor in American popular culture which will come to light very soon. Before doing all of this though, the following quotation by Balaji (2013) will be discussed shortly before engaging with the essay completely.
“The ‘zombie industry’, as it has become commonly known, is now generating upward of $5 billion a year (a conservative estimate), thanks to the expanse of media and cultural products offered to hordes of eager consumers. However, the implications of this consumption go far beyond just audiences, the commodification of the undead and the perpetuation of global capitalism. There are social and psychological ramifications as well, particularly as they relate to our fear of Others, insecurities over self-reflection and the deep-seated paranoia over the possibility of an apocalyptic event. Some have even opined that the obsession over zombies is rooted in the temporality of the white-collar workforce in an age of economic displacement and the cementing of the divide between the haves and have-nots.”
The quote above by Balaji touches on many different elements of what the zombie could signify for various people. Some see it as social decay, a simple psychological fear of the dead/undead, fear of a potential apocalypse, or that the whole zombie genre is a commentary on American politics and economics. All of these elements will be discussed in the next section of this essay.
Zombie films and other forms of popular culture the zombie genre form a part of have most if not all of their origins in The United States of America and it soon enough became some sort of an obsession for the Americans, but to an extent also to the rest of the world but not to the same extent. It can be argued that the zombie craze is not only linked to America culturally, but also politically. The statement of it being political for America will be discussed further later in this essay. Zombies and what they symbolise and mean will be discussed in more depth later, but for now it can be said that the zombie genre is definitely omnipresent in American popular culture as a form of political propaganda.
The zombie genre is also a form of new historicism and cultural materialism. A simple definition for new historicism is that it is a approach based on the parallel reading of literary and non-literary texts, usually of the same historical period. New historicism refuses to ‘privilege’ the literary text (Barry, 2009: 116). Cultural materialism can be described as ‘a politicised form of historiography’. It can also be described as a foreword as designating a critical approach which has four characteristics, it combines an attention to: historical context; theoretical method; political commitment; and textual analysis (Barry, 2009: 121-122).
The zombie’s origins began in the form of some sort of voodoo and is part of old folklore associated with Africans and Native Americans. This is what makes the zombie a cultural phenomenon in part. Voodoo zombies are taboo and this contributes to the popularity of the monster (Bishop, 2010: 64). In the 21st century the zombie genre became an individual genre as it no longer fell under the horror genre. The zombie took over all forms of media in popular culture, not only literary but also non-literary media. The first person to make zombies truly popular was Romero who’s first zombie film was called Night of the Living Dead, but it can be argued that there were earlier forms of ‘zombies’ in novels and films. Romero moved the zombie away from voodoo and folklore and made it more gothic and supernatural like most other popular monsters that form part of popular culture (Bishop, 2010: 94).
Every few years a new ‘boss’ monster takes the spotlight in American popular culture, it started with ghosts, aliens, vampires and werewolves and now it is the zombie. In comparison, the attractive vampire that came before it, the zombie looks revolting and seems extremely tedious. Most of the older monsters were terrifying in some way, but the zombie appears to be no real threat because it is slow and stupid. What makes the zombie scary though is the fact that they rise from the dead, kill and eat living human beings and this makes them mindless killing machines regardless of their speed (Gomel, 2013: 31).
Zombies are basically human corpses raised from the dead in some or other way, but the repercussions of this is that these zombies instinctively have the urge for human flesh and/or brains. Zombies address fears inherent to the human condition and specific to the time of their resurrection (Platts, 2013: 587).
After the occurrence of 9/11 in America things began to change as the Americans became more anxious and fearful of not only other counties, but also other people. If anyone looked suspicious in any way people would steer clear of them in fear of their presence. Zombie narratives after 9/11 aided in expressing these American fears without audiences even realising it at times. Not only is it the portrayal of fear of the monster and violent death associated with it, but it is also accompanied with post-apocalyptic conditions, the collapse of infrastructure, survivalist fantasies being activated, and the general fear of other human beings (Pricehorn, 2015 :12).
The aftereffects of war, terrorism, and natural disasters, as seen and portrayed by America’s experiences closely resemble the scenarios of the zombie genre’s representation in the media (Platts, 2013: 548). Zombies have become phantasmal replacements for Islamist terrorists, illegal immigrants, carriers of foreign contagions, and other ‘dangerous’ border crossers that enter The United States of America on the pursuit of destroying the country from the inside out (Saunders, 2012: 80).
There are many theories behind what the zombie represents with regard to America, but one that often comes up is the following: it is the portrayal of fear experienced by the ‘superior’ white race in America being threatened by a possible overpowering by the ‘inferior’ black race in America. African Americans are seen as savage cannibals because of their roots in ‘dark’ Africa. The zombie can also represent people from ‘hated’ races, genders and religions (Cassells, 2015: 37).
From an evolutionary perspective, zombies produce generate terror because of a deep-rooted psychological fear of infectious contagions, loss of independence, and finally death. Culturally, zombies represent monstrous tabula rasa fears and anxieties. From a more modern perspective, zombie narratives more often than not present apocalyptic tales of societies in state collapse wherein a minority of survivors receive restricted refuge from zombie hordes (Platts, 2013: 587).
The zombie genre is both philosophical and political in nature, because it makes people question and debate the importance of life, the healthcare system and the financial institutions of the global economy. The zombie also emphasises the undoing and crumbling political system and is offered as a lens for the people of the outside to look into America (Boyer, 2014: 1139). Zombies are metaphors for illicit globalisation (Saunders, 2012: 80). Zombies are a popular cultural metaphor for the political ‘other’ illegal immigrants and not legal citizens. Within the zombie genre in whatever type of media, it often shows existing governmental institutions being overwhelmed by a zombie apocalypse, including local governments, the military, public health agencies, emergency services, and public utilities (Smith-Walter & Sharif, 2014: 336).
Smith (2016: 2) mentioned that the zombie can be used as a tool for measuring America and the rest of the world’s cultural anxieties. When looking at the zombie through the subject of cultural studies with regard to America, one of the theories are that the zombie is a manifestation of white Americans’ fear of the black African American citizens. The zombie monster is similar to a human being in many ways except for the fact that it is not intellectual at all, it has an animalistic mentality, and poses a danger to society. White Americans believed the same to be the case with the African Americans, but over time this view and feeling has declined and they have become more tolerable towards the African Americans. Assuming this is the theory behind the zombie, when analysing the zombie in popular culture, it can be said that it is possible to examine white Americans’ attitude towards the African American citizens.
Since the zombie is often viewed as being the ‘other’ in American popular culture, the otherness has recently become somewhat attractive in that it provides a strange specialness: pain and trauma distinguishes the individual’s complex uniqueness, and allow its truths to be spoken against normative social pressures. The zombie is a monster that can be seen as being pitiful, a victim of circumstance, a sacred being and an abject figure to some even. Discourse that exhibit the ‘conformism of objection’ includes names such as: wound culture, trauma culture, or victim culture (Botting, 2012: 29).
Bishop (2010: 158) mentioned that one of the ‘big’ questions people ask with regard to zombies is: ‘Are they dead or alive?’ the walking corpses called zombies used to be a terrifying monster for anyone seeing it on whatever form of media, but as time progressed, just like every other ‘scary’ monster, the zombie has been humanised in some or other way. This will be examined and discussed more later with regard to one of the chosen films for this essay, Warm Bodies.
Now before coming to the final part of the essay where the analysis of the two zombie films, Zombieland and Warm Bodies will be done, there is one last thing to said by Boyer (2014: 1139), the key lesson of all zombie texts is that the real threat is not the zombies, but instead the darker elements of humanity that obliterated civilisation long before the dead began to rise.
Before watching the two chosen films, a summary of each film will be given before identifying dominant images, icons, values and discursive formations. An opinion about each of the films will be given as well with regard to the theory that has been handles earlier in this essay.
Zombieland is set in American a few months after a disastrous disease infected almost everyone and turned them into zombies. The United States of America is now called The United States of Zombieland. Only a few people survived which is featured in the film as Columbus, a young male, Tallahassee, an older male, Wichita, a young female and her younger sister, Little Rock. Each has a mission, Columbus wants to find his parents, Tallahassee wants to find Twinkies, the two sisters want to go to the Pacific Playland, an amusement park which is apparently free of zombies. Columbus continuously work on his list of how to survive the zombie apocalypse because so far it has worked for him. The girls con the guys a few times but they always end up together again. Together they drive through zombies, shoot zombies and just try to get away from the zombies. At the amusement park, the activation of the rides and games drew the attention of the zombies and the guys had to go and rescue the girls from them. They are successful. Tallahassee finds his Twinkies, but soon after Columbus destroys it after being startled. The group leave together in the end and Columbus says that without other people you might as well all be a zombie, but the four of them are now a family as well.
When looking at the film, Zombieland, there are various different dominant images, icons, values and discursive formations. Below all of these things identified within the film will be named after which a deeper analysis and opinion of the film will be given.
Some of the dominant images within Zombieland include the following: blood; guts; death; zombies; running; shooting; weapons; deserted towns and cities; broken down cars; everything is dirty; and even military equipment that has been abandoned.
Many if not all of these images portray what a post-apocalyptic world would look like after everyone got infected and turned into zombies. Everything is destroyed and the human race is practically extinct in America. If someone somehow survived without getting infected it becomes a priority to stay alive and safe.
Some of the dominant icons within Zombieland include the following: tattered American flag; burning White House; fighting military; American military rituals following the death of Bill Murray.
All of these icons are related to America and show America’s demise after the zombie apocalypse, even the military and the president did not make it out alive and if some of them did, they could not save the country they resembled and stood for. It is clear to see that America has fallen as a result of the zombies taking over. Politically this is an extremely bad thing that is portrayed here: this means ‘the enemy’ won, whoever they may be: the Islamist terrorists, the Mexicans, the African Americans or whoever else it could have been.
Some of the dominant values within Zombieland include the following: rules are important and there for a reason; family and/or friends are very important; real names are kept secret in order to remain safe; there is a need/yearning for love, affection and acceptance; and last but not least, follow your instincts.
Columbus’ list of rules he made included the following rules: cardio is important; double tap when killing zombies; beware of bathrooms; seatbelts are important to wear; travel light; always check the backseat of a car; limber up before going into any possibly dangerous situation; when in doubt know your way out; enjoy the little things; and do not be a hero. Zombies attack when people are vulnerable thus the rule: beware of bathrooms. Columbus said more than once that you should never trust anyone, because they will either hurt you or coincidently be a zombie trying to eat you. The humans in Zombieland barely trusted each other.
Discursive formations identified within Zombieland include the following: the disease began because of a hamburger being contaminated by meat from a cow with madcow disease which infected human soon creative ‘mad’ zombies, this shows how the people in charge of health and safety of food were negligent and indirectly caused the apocalypse; the economy is destroyed; the medical officials and medicine was not good enough to prevent or cure the disease in humans; anxiety and fear rules most if not all people before and after the zombie apocalypse; survivors wish they could just be normal Americans again; there is safety in numbers; mistakes can cost lives; and it is important never to get attached to anyone or anything in The United States of Zombieland.
For survival Columbus, Tallahassee, Wichita and Little Rock stuck together. An example of mistakes costing lives is when the group goes to Bill Murray’s mansion to rest and Bill Murray himself is still alive but dressed up and made up to look like a zombie. He played a prank on Columbus resulting in him being shot in the chest and obviously this was fatal and he died.
Warm Bodies is a zombie film told from the zombie’s perspective, well, a zombie’s perspective and that zombie is simply known as R. R and many of the other zombies live at an airport while the humans live further away behind an extremely high wall. Bonies are also a type of zombie but they gave up on everything and gave in to the flesh-eating urge. What makes zombies and bonies different is not only their looks but their attitudes towards humans. Long story short, a group of humans go beyond the wall in order to get medical supplies because they are running low within the wall and while they are scavenging for supplies a group of zombies attach them, R is one of those zombies. Perry shoots R but does not kill him resulting in him raging out and killing him and eating his brains. When consuming a human’s brain, zombies receive all of their past memories, thus R received all of Perry’s memories and that in part is why he saved one of the human girls from the other zombies. That human girl was Perry’s girlfriend, Julie. After a long time of looking after her R begins to change slowly back into a human. Other zombies started to change too but bonies are beyond the point of no return. In the end, the zombies help the humans fight the bonies since they are also becoming human again. Once they are triumphant, humans accept the zombies and the zombies slowly turn into humans again. R and Julie fall in love with each other and watch together as the walls of the city gets destroyed now that it is a new world free of zombies. Basically, in an even shorter summary, Warm Bodies is the story of Romeo and Juliet.
When looking at the film, Warm Bodies, there are various different dominant images, icons, values and discursive formations. Below all of these things identified within the film will be named after which a deeper analysis and opinion of the film will be given.
Some of the dominant images in Warm Bodies include the following: news article titles about the disease spreading; zombies; bonies (also zombies but beyond the point of no return); deserted infrastructure; graffiti; death; R (zombie) and Julie (human) together; sleeping and dreaming means you are alive; wall gets broken down in the end; Warm Bodies is Romeo and Juliet.
As seen with simply their names R and Julie is Romeo and Juliet.
Some of the dominant icons in Warm Bodies include the following: the president of The United States of America is infected by the disease; bonies is the bad version of zombies; the military is active always with guarding and protecting the remaining humans.
On a political level America has definitely been affected by the disease and the zombies, but there seems to be some form of hope left since there are so many human survivors still. The zombies and bonies have not taken over yet. By distinguishing the zombies and bonies from one another is makes it apparent that even though they are the same (dead) they are also different almost as if though to say just because people are of the same religion or race or country, it does not mean that they are all the same. In short, do not stereotype people because of the group they represent, everyone is different.
Some of the dominant values in Warm Bodies include the following: zombies are lonely and lost, showing they have specks of humanity left in them; zombies use interspection often and keep asking themselves questions; there is safety in numbers; zombies kill to survive but hate hurting people; memories are important because they disappear so easily; it is possible to change; stay hopeful; and love trumps all.
Basically, here is proves that zombies are still part human and that anyone can change if they just get the opportunity to do so and to prove themselves. The film also tells us that love is a powerful thing and through love anything can be achieved.
Some discursive formations in Warm Bodies include the following: the zombies are waiting for something but do not know what in the beginning; zombies yearn to be human again; love can make a zombie human again if they have not turned into a bonie yet; death has become such a normal thing; zombies show remorse, bonies does not; they say there is no cure for the zombies and they will never change, but they did; humans and zombies unite to fight against the bonies and remain united afterwards as they all change back into humans.
the questions asked with regard to this essay have all been answered and discussed. The two films, Zombieland and Warm Bodies have been discussed with regard to dominant images, icons, values and discursive formations as well as a little extra analysis. The zombie genre as surprisingly fascinating really and I learned a lot while working on this assignment such as the symbolism and meaning behind the zombie. The two films may be from the same genre and have zombies in common, but one of the big things that distinguishes the two is the fact that the one film is from the human perspective and the other film is from the zombie perspective.
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