Landing : Athabascau University

Zombies and the political economy of precarity


[The blood-smeared public-radio booth in Pontypool (2008), the great Canadian zombie movie]

The zombie has been a tenacious mainstay of popular entertainment for decades. But this soon-turning decade seems more plagued than most, of late, by hordes of zombie pop cultural productions: movies (28 Days Later, Pontypool, Zombieland, as well as remakes like Dawn of the Dead); books, especially in the booming genre of mashed-up “monster classics” (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Jane Slayre, Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter); television (the forthcoming Walking Dead miniseries); pop music (e.g. Major Lazer’s “Zumbi”); new media, teeming with parodies; and “live” performances like the so many big cities now host. And it gets weirder: last year, Ottawa mathematicians published a study using zombie attack to model infectious outbreak. This fall, the U of Baltimore’s “Media genres: Zombies” undergrad course has been getting a degree of press coverage that would seem inordinate…if zombies weren’t the It monster just now. Even my toddler -- who, let me assure you, has never watched a zombie movie (although we have read Wake the Dead, come to think of it) -- is onto it, battling imaginary zombies at the bedroom window last weekend. Zombies conveniently vulnerable to pinching, apparently: “Pinch the zombies! Pinch the zombies!”

Why zombies? Why now? These questions came up recently over breakfast with colleagues at Athabasca U. But none of us had ready answers. Surely some of the blockbuster zombie activity can be attributed to the rejuvenation of pop cultural narratives of the undead that the Twilight franchise catalyzed. (This theory can be reduced to an observation on market trends: “Zombies are the new vampires.”) And some of the DIY consumption-productions (conductions?) -- the fan fiction, the Youtube parodies, the street theatre events -- can be attributed to the ubiquity of digital media, and especially social networks, where pop-culture references mix, mutate, go viral, and spin off in all kinds of creative, hyper-mediated and performative directions.

But while watching 28 Weeks Later last weekend, just to get into the Hallowe’en spirit, I noticed some formulaic features of the zombie movie genre that suggested a tentative hypothesis. The zombies usually attack in a horde. The protagonists usually hide in some kind of bunker or fortified space. The zombies can easily smash through boarded windows, and yet they are themselves quite easily smashed. They attack with their hands and mouths; they bite. They want to eat the flesh of the living: preferably brains, the zombie’s delicacy. There’s no arguing with zombies; force is all they understand. Nobody is ultimately guaranteed not to become a zombie. When somebody becomes a zombie, it usually happens very, very fast.

As Susan Tyler Hitchcock observes, in her Cultural History of Frankenstein, the 1931 film adaptation of Frankenstein (like the earlier and successful film version of Dracula) did brisk box-office business not despite but because of the Depression in which it debuted. Desperate economic times made horror and monster movies particularly suitable flights of fancy, allowing those who could afford the tickets to live vicariously through horrific, apocalyptic tragedies that afforded a perverse but fitting escape from their real-world worries and woes.

Last week, too, my AU colleague Paul Kellogg gave a fascinating talk about the use of the Great Depression as an analogy in more recent economic crises. Using Time Magazine as an archival index of the mass-media Zeitgeist, Kellogg pointed out that the most frequent use of comparisons to the Great Depression occurred in the mid-1980s, the height of Reaganomics. And the next most-frequent use of comparisons to the Great Depression is happening, as you may have guessed, right now. But Kellogg sees a contradiction: during the Depression, the statistical drop in real full-time wages plummeted. Now, stats show that real full-time wages are, gradually, climbing. The problem, he maintains, is that the numbers on full-time wages don’t reflect the representative sample of the work force they once did. That is to say, not nearly as many people now have full-time employment. Even if they work forty or more hours per week. Major sectors of the work force have been reconfigured for flexibility and disposability. In Canadian universities, for example, the bulk of undergraduate teaching is no longer done by tenured or tenure-track professors; it’s done by “sessional” or “adjunct” instructors -- or, increasingly, by graduate students -- who have no job security from one semester to the next, though they may go on teaching at one institution for years or even decades. Such are the norms of labour and its exploitation under the globalized, financialized, and flexibly mobile world-system of neoliberal capital that’s been taking shape since the late 1970s. Such are the labour conditions of the work force we call “the precariat.” So. What’s this detour into history and political economy got to do with zombies? It occurs to me that the pop-culture zombie today is a figure of the precariat and the poverty-stricken, and the zombie narrative is an allegory of mass impoverishment and middle-class retreat. I don’t mean this as any kind of insult to labourers without job security. I’m trying to sort out the cultural function of the zombie figure in texts that are, for the most part, products of a culture industry and the implicit hegemony of values, norms, and perspectives that it imposes.


[Don't talk": the radio talk-show host tells you so. Pontypool, 2008]

The zombies usually attack in a horde; the precariat labours as a fast-growing multitude, simultaneously grouped in social environments and subjectively isolated by the conditions and technologies of work. The protagonists usually hide in some kind of bunker or fortified space; the dwindling middle class retreats to gated communities, rural properties, condominiums, dwellings that maximize architectural and social distance from the multitude. The zombies can easily smash through boarded windows, and yet they are themselves quite easily smashed; in an economic downturn, society becomes more unequal and more unstable: crime escalates, criminals get creative, weary and beaten scapegoats (immigrant workers, ethnic and other minorities) are hauled before a public conditioned by increasingly neoliberal media, and job security becomes a constant concern, easily smashed at any time by any number of instrumentally rationalized management decisions. (As Ed Broadbent discussed at Congress, with reference to the social study The Spirit Level, the more unequal societies become, as social services and safety nets are scaled back or ripped away in favour of “austerity measures,” the more dysfunctional and volatile they become.) They attack with their hands and mouths; they bite. The precariat and the impoverished have no tools or technologies at their disposal, they are reduced to “bare life.” They want to eat the flesh of the living: preferably brains, the zombie’s delicacy. There’s no arguing with zombies; force is all they understand. The precariat and the impoverished not only become demonized themselves but become instruments for demonizing education: the public sector most critically resistant to neoliberal hegemony. The zombie is a middle-class image of the precariat or the poverty-stricken, a figure instrumentalized by the culture industry to represent a certain kind of ideal consumer (fast-acting, unreflective, bent on consuming only other consumers), and weaponized to assault the institutions that raise critical consciousness about labour, exploitation, and ideology today: educational and intellectual institutions. Nobody is ultimately guaranteed not to become a zombie; nobody’s job is secure enough not to get fired. When somebody becomes a zombie, it usually happens very, very fast; just like getting fired.

These are just a few preliminary thoughts, then, on the ways in which the current popularity of all things zombie might be used not just to model infectious outbreaks (the adequacy of which modelling, I have to say, leaves me skeptical), but also to stand (or maybe stagger) as a cultural symptom of the globalized political economy that has dispossessed and continues to dispossess so many, leaving them ravenous, their hands outstretched, grasping at any purchase, crazed with rage and frustration, clamouring at the doors and windows of the dwindling few who survive the layoffs and cutbacks -- the embattled few who -- just like in the movies -- usually harbour, whether knowingly or unwittingly, the selfish and treacherous individuals who are responsible for the plague in the first place.


[The multitude outside. Pontypool, 2008.]

Works Cited

Agamben, Giogio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (2008).

Adorno, Theodor. "Culture industry reconsidered." New German Critique 6 (1975): 12-19. Rpt. in Soundscapes 2 (2000)

Broadbent, Ed. "The Rise and Fall of Economic and Social Rights -- What Next?" Congress, Concordia U, 29 May 2010.

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (2004).

Hitchcock, Susan Tyler. Frankenstein: A Cultural History (2007).

Kellogg, Paul. "The great recession, the North American workplace, and the 1930’s ‘analogy trap’." MA-IS Faculty Symposium, 15 Oct. 2010.

Pontypool. Dir. Bruce McDonald. Shadow Show / Maple Pictures, 2008.

[cross-posted from Academicalism]


  • Hallowe'en has arrived on The Landing. :-)

    Jo Ann Hammond-Meiers October 20, 2010 - 4:50pm

  • First of all - you're totally supervising my final project. Representations of zombies in cult media? Yeah. You'll be supervising it.

    The zombie phenomenon is one that I've been watching for a while, and I think that it actually precludes Twilight. The success of the vampire franchise began, in my opinion, with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and is now in a second iteration in the form of Twilight, and has moved on to a third iteration in the form of True Blood.

    The zombie genre - and by this, I mean the Romero zombies, and not the voodoo zombies of Haitian origin - really seems to have begun with the release of Night of the Living Dead, and Romero is more or less responsible for advancing the genre. NotLD was more of a reaction to communism - so it's said - and the zombie films that followed certainly presented a strong cultural critique of middle-class America and consumerism.

    Those are usually the 'slow' zombie movies. The newer, 'fast' zombie movies have been rebooting the genre. The slow zombie of the Romero era were just that: slow and slack-jawed. But the fast zombies - the ones you see in Zombieland, 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later, and the Dawn of the Dead remake - aren't just fast...they're angry. Really, really angry. Frequently, they're portrayed as a kind of reversion to complete savagry, even though they're smarter than the slow zombies. Where the slow zombies are meant to provide a kind of consumerist critique in the vein of 'they're not that different from us,' the fast zombies are definitely NOT us: they're everything bad about humanity, made even worse, and now they can chase you down. They're not human any more. I think they're meant to be a kind of reflection of the depths of human brutality, now envisioned as a kind of virus.

    I agree that your theory of middle-class retreat and precariat labour, but I think there's also a facet of the notion of the undoing of humanity - where the disease vector is brought to bear, and the ensuing zombification a kind of mass fear of the unpacking of all humanity and culture.

    Is that something we're all afraid of? The decline of the human race? Heading back to the Dark Ages? People who lived through the Black Plague thought the world was ending, and their art and literature reflected their view of the impending apocalypse. I do wonder if the popularity of the 'fast' zombie reflects a growing sense of unease in our times.

    There is an excellent essay series on the fast and slow zombie phenomenon (neatly tied into Hobbes!) here:

    And, if you want to turn the zombie genre on its head, try watching Les Revenants (Robin Campillo - English title 'They Came Back'). It's the ultimate French socialist zombie film: the dead have risen...does that mean we have to give them back their jobs and pension?

    Heather Clitheroe October 20, 2010 - 5:06pm

  • Yeah, zombies are fast now...that's a really good point. It works for my theory too (which certainly needs more fleshing out, har har har), thinking of Paul Virilio's problematization of acceleration and speed as a defining temporality of capitalist modernity. So when you write that zombies are "meant to be a kind of reflection of the depths of human brutality," that their popularity augurs "the decline of the human race," a return to "the Dark Ages" -- these projections seem to me not opposed to but possible outcomes of the precaritization of labour, the dispossession and warehousing of millions, the dismantling of social and economic rights, and the  corporate confiscation of whatever's left over. ("Dark age ahead," warned Jane Jacobs...) 

    Mark A. McCutcheon October 20, 2010 - 5:27pm

  • Yeah - I don't think I'm so much opposed to your theory of the precaritization of labour. I think the phenomenon spreads farther than just labour, though - I think it's a cultural shift. Ultimately, I think it relates to a loss of cultural mythology...which, yes, is another possible outcome of the changes in labour. Puts me in mind of the cultural of accumulation that Jameson talks about...


    And what does it say about us, as a culture, when we are so morbidly fascinated with the demise of the species? Have we finally commodified the soul?


    (oddly enough, I have 'Dark Age Ahead' and Virilio's 'City of Panic' side by side on the bookshelf. Also 'Crepuscular Dawn.')

    Heather Clitheroe October 20, 2010 - 5:47pm

  • Great post Mark (and response Heather)! I am also quite taken by the Zombie character in contemporary culture. I've been working with Agamben's ideas recently (not in relation to Zombies) and can see some great applications of his work to the zombie phenomenon. I am a little less convinced by the precariat argument, maybe because it seems to be too general a category. I would point to what Marx called the 'lumpen,' the residual segment of the proletariat, "the scum, refuse, offal of all classes" (too use Marx's words not mine). As you point out this raises a whole bunch of issues around equating the socially and economically marginalized with zombies. I've thought about these issues when contemplating the deployment of the zombie metaphor in my work on homelessness. There are some important political questions here.

    A differect tact might be to undertake a Derridian analysis wherein zombies take on particular cultural resonace because of their 'undecidability,' neither alive nor dead ect. In this context, zombies might operate as the 'Other' to the neoliberal subject (free willed, in complete self-control, autonomous) that is so celebrated under current political-economic conditions but is really a veil. On a libinal level, Zombies remind us of our 'real' (to evoke Zizek) relations to capital.

    Maybe there is interest in a Athabasca U. zombiefilia group?


    Joshua Evans October 21, 2010 - 10:38am

  • Actually, I'd really like to see an AU cult media (zombies and what not) research group or collective. I'm deeply interested in the subject...Mark is supervising me in a reading course on postmodernism and graphic novels, and in another couple of months, I'll be casting about for a prof to supervisor me for a reading course on Marxist thought and apocalyptic literature (Josh or Mark - interested? I'm mostly low maintenance...).

    I'm hoping to parlay my MA research into a PhD proposal for the U of Calgary's interdisciplinary program, and it certainly wouldn't hurt to be a part of a research group.

    Heather Clitheroe October 21, 2010 - 7:16pm

  • Had no idea these hastily gathered thoughts would prompt such great discussion.

    @Heather: I see your prior comments reflect an interest in the "apocalypse" part of the "zombie apocalypse." We are witnessing all kinds of cultural shifts; this one seems to involve more not less mythologizing (which is what pop culture tends to produce), although I'm not sure ideology is a zero-sum kind of thing. Anyway, apocalypptic and post-apocalyptic narratives are their own tradition that belies the singularity of the present. Mary Shelley published The Last Man, a novel about humanity extinguished by cholera, in 1826 -- and she was exploiting an extant trend at that time.

    Also: distinguishing between "Romero zombies" and those of West Indian, syncretic voodoo & obeah traditions is hugely important; thanks for bringing it up.

    @Josh: your comment leads me to realize it's the zombie story plot that's about precarity; the zombie character seems -- as you suggest (and as I started to realize while I wrote) -- more significantly on the dispossessed and impoverished side of things as they are. The genre plot allegorizes precarity in representing the fulcrum of transformation -- from "us" to "them" -- as a moving target. Your point about "undecidability" and references are also very helpful and generous, thanks.

    Now, about a study group: would it be worthwhile to start and/or "seed" one here in the Landing, as a new Group? (A hint for Heather, since PhD programs like to see research initiative as well as collegial participation... :)

    Mark A. McCutcheon October 21, 2010 - 9:40pm

  • Hrm. Perhaps a workign group is in order. I'll investigate over the weekend and look at getting one started up. Thanks for the gentle nudge. 

    When I was talking about the loss of cultural mythology, I meant that there seems to be the rapid creation of new mythologies in the face of changing views of the nature of the world. Which is, I know, a terribly unformed and skimpy statement.

    Heather Clitheroe October 22, 2010 - 12:16pm

  • A study group sounds like a lot of fun. Count me in. Would the zombie serve as our muse?

    Joshua Evans October 22, 2010 - 12:29pm

  • Yes, as we all have big brrrrrraaaaaaiiiinnnnsss....

    Heather Clitheroe October 22, 2010 - 12:51pm

  • So the Landing is a perfect place to launch this study group, since otherwise we'd have to meet in a boarded-up, darkened house in the countryside.

    Mark A. McCutcheon October 22, 2010 - 12:56pm

  • Yes, and starting it up on Landing will mean that we can skip the inventory of canned goods. That always takes forever.

    Heather Clitheroe October 22, 2010 - 3:06pm

  • This is so interesting. I had thought of the zombie motif as generally the logical successor to the Titanic as sinking unsinkable empire--it won't die. But this is more granular and makes a lot of sense.

    Mary Pringle October 28, 2010 - 2:49pm

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