The Decay of Capitalism: Zombies and the Class Struggle

nightofthelivingdeadThere has been a huge boom in the apocalyptic movie genre with dozens of such films, television shows, video games, and books being released in just the past decade. They have used meteors, pandemics, global infertility, aliens, vampires, monsters, global warming, and zombies—the reigning champions—to depict the crumbling of society and the end of civilization. This obsession with the apocalypse is not unprecedented; there have been many periods in human history when we have seen art and culture focusing on these dark subjects. But what is it today that causes cinema to turn so gloomy about our future, and why have zombies become such a popular way to depict this future?

The concept of zombies—in which a dead person is under the control of a sorcerer—has its origin in the folklore of indigenous West Africans. As a result of the slave trade, these ideas made their way to the Caribbean islands, where they gained ground, particularly in Haiti, where the economy was heavily dependent upon slavery. It was believed that dead bodies would be taken from their graves and reanimated, without any trace of their personality or their own willpower, to be put to work indefinitely.  

This myth itself is a reflection of the hopelessness and despair that the Haitian slaves must have felt every day—they saw a reflection of their own existence in zombies. Death was seen as a release, a time when one doesn’t have to toil as a slave anymore. The worst possible scenario was to die, and yet be enslaved forever—literally controlled in every way by a slave master taking over every aspect of the slave’s life (or death?). After a long life of servitude, the slave is still not free from his master’s bond as a zombie, deprived even of the thoughts in his head. This is the nightmare of zombieism that is again resonating through today’s society.

The modern concept of zombies, as depicted in countless films, reflects a different kind of slavery: wage slavery. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels explain how the capitalist system, as it developed modern industry, created a class that was no longer isolated, but a class that is brought together in social production—one that constitutes the vast majority of society—the working class. “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers.”

Zombies as portrayed in films like White Zombie (1932)—the first of the genre—and Revolt of the Zombies (1936), follow the traditional Haitian folklore where zombies are dead bodies under the control of a sorcerer. The birth of the modern zombie came with director George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), which was largely influenced by Richard Matheson’s classic horror novel I Am Legend. After Night of the Living Dead, you no longer see zombies presented as mindless slaves of a sinister foe, but as a mass of undead corpses—which have been reanimated for one reason or another—overwhelming the living in their numbers.

Night of the Living Dead was released in the midst of a period of political radicalization in the US and this is reflected in the film. It was released just a month before the extremely polarized 1968 presidential election and the establishment of the MPAA’s rating system—allowing millions of young teens throughout the country to see a horror film that was shocking in its realism.

The film caused an outrage over its graphic content, while the Vietnam War, and all its associated gore, continued to rage on television sets throughout the country. In Night, the fight between living and undead is less important than the infighting among the living while they fend off the zombies besieging the farmhouse they’ve taken refuge in.

Ben, the composed protagonist, deals with a hysterical bunch, including the patriarchal and individualistic Harry Cooper, who seems to represent the narrow-minded conservatism that was conditioned by two decades of the postwar boom. It is likely not an accident that Ben was cast as a black man—the film was released only months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and the film’s dramatic ending seems to nod at this.

dawnofthedeadGeorge Romero returned in 1978 with Dawn of the Dead, a biting criticism of consumer culture. Dawn of the Dead, of course, didn’t exist in its own little bubble. The 1973–75 recession marked the end of the postwar boom. The major capitalist powers, facing a crisis of overproduction, began a process of deindustrialization, offshoring, and relocation of manufacturing in order to squeeze out more profits from cheaper labor. This further intensified the role of services and consumer goods in the economies of the United States and other advanced capitalist countries. This transformation coincided with an unprecedented shift towards finance capital and speculation.

The late 1970s in the United States saw major industrial centers left to rust. It was the beginning of the dismantling of the massive auto industry in Michigan, the textile industries in cities like New York, manufacturing in Philadelphia, and the steel industry in Pittsburgh—the latter two being settings for Dawn of the Dead. The continued growth of capitalism was based on a massive expansion of credit—an almost “undead” growth of the system. This was the time Americans were introduced to the modern shopping mall and when credit cards became more widely available. This was also the beginning of the first wave of slasher horror films, perhaps reflecting a subconscious understanding that beyond the artificially propped up prosperity lay a menacing foe threatening to bring it all to an unpleasant end.

Dawn is packed with many satirical jabs at consumer culture, including one particularly memorable scene in which the mall’s PA system announces that “If your purchase is in the next half hour in the amount of 5 dollars or more, we’ll give you a bag of hard candies free”— all while we see footage of hordes of zombies mindlessly shuffling throughout the mall—a scene we are not entirely unfamiliar with today. One character explains the zombies’ reason for being drawn to the mall as “Some kind of instinct. Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.”

Later, George Romero took on militarism and imperialism in 1985’s Day of the Dead, this time set in a bunker in the Florida Everglades. Released just 2 years after Reagan’s invasion of Grenada, in the midst of a decade of US imperialist involvement in Central America, the film depicts military bureaucracy, arrogance, and anti-intellectualism. The film focuses on conflicts between scientists, who are looking for a way to reverse the zombification process, and incompetent, brutish, and insolent military men.

This film, like Dawn of the Dead, once again shows us that we are not unlike the zombies. Head scientist, Dr. Logan, has managed to train one of their captured zombies, Bub, into docility. Bub seems to respond emotionally to music, physical human contact, and the aggressive behavior of Captain Henry Rhodes. Later on, seeking revenge for the murder of Dr. Logan, Bub manages to use a handgun to kill Captain Rhodes.

The consciousness of the zombies was brought to a higher level in 2005 when George Romero returned after decades with Land of the Dead. It is George Romero’s most class-conscious film, in it we see a society among the living that is defined primarily by disparity between the classes. While the rich live in luxury, in a high-rise complex, the poor live on the streets, in abject poverty. In order to make raids for supplies and commodities in the surrounding areas, the crew of Dead Reckoning, an armored vehicle designed for these raids, shoot fireworks into the sky to distract the zombies. Back home among the living we see zombie gladiator matches, gambling, prostitution, drugs, alcohol, and other cheap thrills being utilized for the same purpose of distraction on the poor masses and as a playground for the rich.

It is observed early on in the film that the zombies have begun to mimic their past, particularly their occupations. One character notes that “They’re pretending to be alive.” To which the film’s main protagonist, Riley, responds, “Isn’t that what we’re doing? Pretending to be alive?” Apparently coming to a conscious realization, one particular zombie, a former gas station attendant, leads a growing number of zombies on a march to the living city where there is also a growing underground movement among the living against the inequities that exist.

George Romero is the father of the modern zombie film, but there are many other films that continued what Romero started. One particular film that relaunched popular interest in zombies was 2002’s 28 Days Later, directed by Danny Boyle and written by Alex Garland, neither of whom are strangers to social commentary. While much of 28 Days Later borrows from its predecessors, it distilled a number of new concepts and themes. The film’s apocalyptic setting is caused by an outbreak of a man-made infection—coincidentally, the film was released around the time of the first major outbreaks of SARS. Released a year after the events of September 11, 2001, the film’s subtext is declared from the very beginning with a montage of footage of riots, protests, police brutality, and other violent scenes.

A character in 28 Days Later describes the new state of affairs: “This is what I’ve seen in the four weeks since infection. People killing people. Which is much what I saw in the four weeks before infection, and the four weeks before that, and before that, and as far back as I care to remember. People killing people. Which to my mind, puts us in a state of normality right now.” This is reminiscent of Henry Ford’s cynical quip that “history is just one damned thing after another,” and the oft-quoted phrase by Edward Gibbon, author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, that “History is indeed little more than the register of crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.”

Marxists approach history differently, but there is no denying that this cynical approach is shared by many. Today’s capitalist society resembles the pre-apocalypse period as portrayed in the films. A period of war, crumbling infrastructure, hunger, social strife, lack of resources, and disease is characteristic of today, it is no wonder that there is such a fascination of apocalyptic themes.

A poll from Reuters led by Chris Michaud pointed out that in 2012 one in seven people worldwide believe that the end of the world is near. The highest numbers reported came from Russia and Poland, where the collapse of Stalinism is still being felt. The USSR at least guaranteed everyone a job and a place to live, with free access to health care and education. And the latest numbers reveal that sixty percent of Russians today view life in the USSR more favorably than Russia after the restoration of capitalism. The crisis of capitalism has added fuel to this fire—twenty-two percent of Americans truly believed the world was going to end in 2012.

As those that create it are living and breathing in the real world, art does not exist in a vacuum, rather, it is in many ways a reflection of the world we are living in. Culture must speak to us on some level and must say something about about the times we are living in, if it is going to resonate in society. Art and culture are influenced by the forces all around us, social, political, and economic.

Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch (1450–1516) made paintings that depicted terrifying scenes of the “end times,” and the end times were indeed upon him—the decay of feudal society and with it the breakdown of morality, of religion, and of all the existing institutions and traditions. Today there are reflections of these apocalyptic themes even in music. Groups like Godspeed You! Black Emperor [sic] have albums riddled with samples conjuring apocalyptic images—it is no accident one of their songs is featured in a memorable scene from 28 Days Later.

Boards of Canada’s Mike Sandison, while speaking on their latest album, Tomorrow’s Harvest, which is full of nods at old zombie film scores, had the following to say: “Being a father fills you with a healthy understanding of your own mortality, and on a bigger scale that responsibility highlights the fragility of our society, or the problems with it. We’ve become a lot more nihilistic over the years. In a way we’re really celebrating an idea of collapse rather than resisting it. It’s probably quite a bleak album, depending on your perspective.” Significantly, the most uplifting track on Tomorrow’s Harvest is entitled Nothing is Real

The future appears bleaker and bleaker, particularly for today’s youth. Tuition costs have gone up nearly 600% since 1980, combined with stagnating wages which puts us into a dark hole where the idea of a good job is too good to be true. According to a CNBC article in 2011, “Perhaps discouraged by the weak job market, fewer are actively trying to do something to improve their financial situation: 25 percent of Gen Yers surveyed by Scottrade said they were looking for a higher-paying job, down from 49 percent in [pre-recession] 2007.” This joyless outlook on the future continues to intensify as the crisis of capitalism wears on. The prospect of a bright future seems like pie in the sky, and as a result, some even look favorably towards the end of this world and all its associated horrors.

peopleonsmartphonesZombie and other apocalyptic films also speak volumes about the alienation of the individual from the rest of society and from our very selves. In the film Warm Bodies, zombies become human again only by communicating with each other, and ultimately with living humans. In a monologue, the protagonist wonders what it would have been like before, to be able to express yourself with others. The movie humorously cuts to a scene where everyone is walking around concentrating on their cellphones not speaking or communicating to each other. 

Despite social media, which should give us more connections, it only facilitates a further atomization from each other. Although this character in Warm Bodies is dead, he is also alive. He wants to be able to feel again, there is something very human about him in his striving to better himself. The more he interacts with other zombies, and the more he interacts with a human that he saved, the more he becomes human. This is another way of saying that we are only truly human through our connection with others.   

World War Z earned a whopping $540,007,876 and Walking Dead is one of the most popular shows on television. While it seems they currently dominate, some consider that zombies have over-saturated the market. According to Greg Gilman from, “Hollywood now has so many features about the living dead that any new zombie pitches are a hard sell.” It is predicted all that is needed is one zombie movie flop, and the genre won’t be produced for awhile. Zombie films may very well fizzle out for a time, but so long as the capitalist system and the features of its decay continue to wreak havoc on the lives of billions of people we will see culture reflect this decay.

dawnoftheredsThe slaves in Haiti developed a folklore of zombies to reflect the horrors of their life in bondage, at the mercy of ruthless and abusive slaveowners, a life that alienated every aspect of their lives from them. But the story didn’t end there. In the 1790s, a heroic revolution rocked Haiti, when the slaves rose up and took their lives into their own hands, overthrowing their masters and the rotten slave system. Today in the US, big events are on the horizon—revolutionary events in which ordinary men and women will take their lives into their own hands. We already see such inspiring events around the world. The fight for socialism is the fight of the future against the dark and bleak conditions of capitalist wage slavery and exploitation that exist today. Through this fight we will stand tall, like our revolutionary forerunners in Haiti, and earn our position as fully realized, living human beings.

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