News & Politics

Braaaains: How Pop Culture's Hunger For Zombies Reflects the Tea Party Nation

From rap songs to comic books, pop culture has traded in its vampire obsession for voracious zombie lore. Here's why we're becoming the United States of Zombieland.

At first glance, Zombieland looks like Tea Party paradise. In the 2009 zombie comedy, all the survivors of the zombie apocalypse are white, drive big SUVs and have lots and lots of guns. Each of them lives by his or her own code, all of which appear to be some version of “Screw you Jack, I've got mine.”

Jesse Eisenberg, star of this year's The Social Network, narrates the film and introduces us very quickly to his rules for living in “The United States of Zombieland.” This geek boy, forced into the light of day by a cute girl who tried to eat him, is obsessed with cardio and staying limber, making sure he's got a big gun with which to “double-tap” the zombies (because you're never sure one shot will actually kill them), and cutting all emotional ties in order to focus on his own survival.

The characters all go by names of places—Middle American cities like Wichita and Little Rock. No proper names; that might indicate a relationship. Eisenberg is referred to as Columbus by Tallahassee, Woody Harrelson's funnier, warmer version of his Natural Born Killers character, whose gleeful violence is only vented on the living dead. Wichita is a cute girl—the Sarah Palin of this zombie flick, taking care of her little sister Little Rock in true Mama Grizzly fashion but willing to steal the Cadillac SUV out from under the tentative partnership of Columbus and Tallahassee, and in a truly symbolic moment, take their guns, too. Of course Columbus is smitten—who wouldn't be? But does smitten mean he actually cares if she lives or dies, or just that he wants some action before she goes?

Then, of course, there are the zombies.

Zombies are everywhere in pop culture right now, from Nicki Minaj's brain-eating verse on Kanye West's song “Monster” to comic books. "The Walking Dead," a zombie apocalypse tale based on the long-running Image comic series by Robert Kirkman, with art by Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard, is AMC's wildly popular followup to its success with "Mad Men." Pride and Prejudice and Zombies went from success as a book to a sequel and a movie in production. And DC Comics' Vertigo line even has a series, "I Zombie," in which the zombie IS the cute girl.

Zombie stories usually involve a ragtag band of survivors doing whatever it takes to maintain the human race, a bunch of loners thrown together and forced to work together because a few brains (and guns) are better than one. Zombieland exaggerates the loner-ness of its characters because it's a comedy (zom-com, or rom-zom-com, the genre invented perhaps by Shaun of the Dead). In contrast, the bleakness of "The Walking Dead" also exaggerates the racism and sexism of its characters—as Kay Steiger notes, to a degree beyond that of the comics. Zombieland feels right after reading Sarah Palin's latest Facebook post; "The Walking Dead" suits my mood after reading the latest round of anti-immigrant bills. And as zombie ideas take over our politics the way the zombie banks took over our finances, even Barack Obama starts to look a little necrotic. I'm surprised I haven't had nightmares about a zombie Milton Friedman or Ayn Rand yet, honestly. (That'd be a great horror movie. Hollywood, call me!)

The nation feted Reagan’s 100th birthday recently, and we were even treated to a celebration of the Gipper at the Super Bowl. Fawning stories of the Great Communicator (who was also the Great Ignorer of the AIDS Crisis, the Great Invader of Grenada, the Great Union-Buster, and the Great Deregulator, among other things) were everywhere, illustrating perfectly the zombie politics we're stuck with.

We've got, after all, a ragged, falling-apart version of Reaganomics still on its feet and stumbling now. When the economic crisis first hit we heard a lot about “zombie banks” but what we've really got is a zombie economy, feeding on us to keep it barely alive. We're desperately shuffling through policies that have been tried and proven not to work, just to keep that reanimated corpse moving.

While vampires (vampire squid, in Matt Taibbi's memorable turn of phrase) are the perfect metaphor for the banksters siphoning wealth from the bottom to enrich those at the top, the zombie goes both ways. It can stand in for the masses, from an elite standpoint. Imagine what the crowds in Tahrir Square looked like to Mubarak, hidden away from public view like the survivors in "The Walking Dead." But to progressives, zombies are the endless political attacks on our rights, the ones that keep on coming long after we thought they were dead.

After all, it's not just economics that have been zombiefied. With the current crop of fetus-first antichoice legislation on the top of the priority list for Boehner and his crew, a politics calling itself pro-life that is in fact anything but is ascendant. There is something deeply creepy, monstrous, if you think about the way the bodies of pregnant people are considered mere vehicles to feed a baby. H.R.3's redefinition of rape and H.R. 358's let-the-mother-die-to-save-the-fetus clause have justly been called “violent” and “assaults on women” by members of Congress, but they're not just brutal—they're parasitic. Sacrifice one body to feed another. What does that sound like?

Jen Sorensen illustrated this perfectly in a comic, asking “Do undead baby-incubator zombies need to pay taxes?”

And of course we have the climate zombies, the climate-change denial crowd that just refuses to see the apocalypse coming. Daniel Drezner even has a book out called Theories of International Politics and Zombies, about which Adam Weinstein wrote:

“But did it never occur to Drezner that the Manichean, all-or-nothing, bomb-it-yesterday neocons are themselves the zombies? Isn't it possible that they—and the Islamophobic, messianic, war-happy Palinocrats that have kept neoconservatism on the pantry shelf long past its spoilage date—are the real undead automatons who march forth with no understanding of their actions?”

It's a profound disconnect from reality that we're really seeing in our politics, a world in which we've all made our opponents into monsters—endless masses of undead monsters. Zombies, after all, aren't anything new in our culture or our politics—Henry Giroux has been pointing them out since at least 2009--and they never really go away. Maybe to break the curse over our political and cultural lives, we need something a little different.

That's where I am cheered by I, Zombie, the fun new comic series where the zombie isn't the villain, but the main character. Gwen doesn't attack the living, though she does eat brains. Most importantly, when she does eat the brain of a recently deceased person, she's filled with their last memories—and feels compelled to act on their last wishes. This zombie is not only capable of learning new things, she takes action purely on empathy.

It's why I'm cheered immeasurably by the protests in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and around the country in solidarity with the public union workers in those states. People are finally breaking out of their zombie routines and standing up together, supporting one another.

Maybe it's just as simple as this—after all, even the Tea Party dream cast of Zombieland learns by the end:

“Without other people, you might as well be a zombie.”

Sarah Jaffe is a freelance writer and web manager/senior writer for GRITtv with Laura Flanders.
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