Zombies of Our Capitalist Apocalypse

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Those who benefit from gross inequality will maintain the system for as long as possible, regardless of the losses...

Truthout - October 31, 2019

"Spoiler alert: On a long enough timeline, no one’s wealth will protect them from climate collapse. But casino capitalists intend to play the game for as long as they can, and they don’t plan on most of us having seats at the table. If we want whatever time humanity has left to play out any differently than late capitalism has thus far, we have to act now — because the atrocities we have witnessed will multiply, and we will not be spared."

When it comes to cinema and television, Americans love a good apocalypse. I’m no exception. From hellmouths to zombies, I am fascinated by horror films and the lessons they sometimes impart about who we are. Zombie films are a particular favorite subgenre of mine — from the racial terror captured in Night of the Living Dead (1968) to Santa Clarita Diet’s (2017-2019) portrait of a suburban couple who attempt to ethically source human flesh, I have watched countless hours of the undead ravaging humanity. Perhaps that’s why I have zombies on my mind lately as the world unravels, not because I think late capitalism and climate collapse will lead to the rise of the undead, but because of the lose/lose component of most zombie narratives. With rare exception, zombies in television and film aren’t “winning” as human beings lose. They are merely shuffling through the end of the world, consuming, deteriorating, and playing their role in the downfall of life as we know it.

In cinema, zombies have long been viewed as vehicles for our political anxieties. From reinforcing racist tropes to highlighting racism as a death-making force, the undead are interpreted in the context of our fears. In the words of Erin C. Cassese, “This is the utility of the zombie as a political metaphor — it’s flexible; there is room enough for all our fears.” But what happens when we, ourselves, are the world-ending force at work?

In the horror show of late capitalism, we are the zombies. But we don’t have to be.

As climate collapse continues and economies unravel, leading to more authoritarian power grabs, we are ambling along, with our consumption furthering the very decimation that chills anyone who dares to think about it. Many Americans who condemn climate denialism are in their own kind of denial. Rather than learning about the science of what’s happening, they avoid the details. They know that people are suffering, but they glance at headlines rather than reading the disturbing content of articles about floods, fire and death. They know that the apocalypse is not approaching in some future sense. They know the end of life as they understand it has already begun, and yet, like the lead characters in Santa Clarita Diet, they are intent on maintaining a “normal” life for as long as possible. So, many of us shuffle through our lives, doing what we did before, consuming destructively and playing our part in the ultimate collapse.

In George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), both zombies and the film’s four human protagonists head to a shopping mall amid the chaos of the apocalypse. Stephen, one of the film’s human characters, muses that the zombies must be driven by “some kind of instinct” or “memory of what they used to do.” The film’s human characters commandeer a helicopter to escape the zombie onslaught, but their attachment to “what they used to do” leads them to fight zombies, and even other humans, for control of a shopping mall — with disastrous results. The film’s special effects are laughably dated, but a story about people clinging to consumerism as the world ends remains all too relatable. ...
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