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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.
 
 
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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.

 
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