Voodou potions, hypnotism, viruses, pollution, chemical warfare, and radiation have all been responsible for creating zombies in film. In each of these cases the details of the instigation reflect the filmmaker’s cultural concerns of the moment. Zombies give us an allegory to convey ideas about power struggles. The suggestions in the context of the movie help the viewer to interpret the meaning depending on how obvious the suggestions are or how open the viewer is to understanding them. The broken man, soulless and wandering still consumes and becomes enraged. The zombie is the representation of the most banal characteristics of humanity. Its base instincts are amplified as its humanity is degraded. What applies to one broken man also spreads to all other humans portrayed in the films whether by becoming infected or by being forced into a defensive position. The setting is a broken society of apocalyptic proportion. It seems the likely antithesis to mass production is mass destruction. The strength is portrayed as the weakness. In a republic society of the people and for the people, this type of fantasy is reflecting a massive judgment. The displays of distrust among survivors vary among the films, highlighting antagonisms between classes, genders, the people and law enforcement, military, and corporate power. From the internal struggles within each man or woman to the natural limits of acquired knowledge in the face of scientific discoveries, whether it is the oppressive relationship of a couple or the tyranny of authority the horror of dead men walking and devouring the living confronts the viewer with unconscionable imagery. What may be rationalized in reality is given an artistic rendering in exaggerated unacceptable terms.
Zombies are an allegory for broken humanity because they are so thoroughly devoid of character and driven by simple instincts of hunger. They can hear lunch, but it is only within their ability to attack and consume. In film “a physical defect symbolizes an aspect of character” that is degenerate but portrayed as a metaphor rather than as a literal presentation (Norden 5). The defects of a zombie are lack of reasoning, communication, and motor skills. It is odd and sometimes humorous to see them limping along with their dead faces devoid of interest until something meaty comes along for them to focus their teeth on. In these actions, they are devoid of any human will as it is understood to set mankind apart from the animals. It is a pessimistic critique of those who lack drive and willpower or the horror of a man broken by grief or addiction. For the living, apathy is a hindrance, a drag, actualized as depression, complacency, or utter boredom until they can consume something. Worse, a man who breaks his ethics can refuse grief and live as if he is “already dead” with a latent rage waiting beneath the calm exterior (Shay 53). The zombies are instinctual and sometimes aggressive shells of men that represent those trapped in cycles of negative thought, perhaps by failure to communicate about the issues.
With this in mind, zombies also represent the difficulty of proper citizenship and the danger of the mob when it is without proper skills in critical thinking or valuable information. These “undead masses” get drawn in by charismatic speakers and prove to be dangerous enough to destroy most of everything (Waller 279). At times it is quite easy to battle the dead because of their lack of wit and motor skills, which is part of the humor found in a pathetic zombie threat. As Lev Grossman said, zombies are the “monsters of the people” that display “real American values” with their persistence (61). They keep looking to the next election; yet, many Americans struggle with their own distance from lawmakers and feel as if their voices are not heard. In the movies, the zombies are leaderless, which could be interpreted as a majority with leaders who do not listen to them.
The people create the laws with a desire to morally legislate and complicate every facet of human behavior. This consumes freedom until the weight of all the rules becomes burdensome to individuals and is expressed through apocalyptic settings and survival fantasies. The setting of an apocalyptic catastrophe has become “protocol” in the subgenre (Bishop 20). What might be a sad example of a wasted mind is multiplied by millions. Entire cities or countries are decimated except for the small bands of people trying to survive in their most basic units, which is a great loss of potential from a whole nation. These people are not just lounging on their sofas watching another episode of reality television; they are wandering around cannibalizing any living soul they come across.
The people are infected with something that ruins them, and it spreads quickly and easily. This can be interpreted as the effects of pure propaganda strategies for campaigning to the people unhindered and exacerbated by reporters’ efforts as they simplify things. The pursuit of the people to understand issues while straining under the weight of misinformation and ambiguity leaves an allegorical hollowed out version of what could be, as seen in the torn out buildings and the empty cars along the roads. For Americans who pride themselves on their citizenship the very idea that they are subject to any form of propaganda is enough to provoke a fight. Still, many people are concerned about losing the “American Dream” and have grown pessimistic about the institutions meant to protect it (Sidoti 45+). They have lost faith in the process of lawmaking and resent special interest groups and corporate influence because each time a group succeeds it means more restrictions and tighter control.
The sudden invasive infection in America’s “cultural imaginary” of zombie films causes known paths to be torn up and littered with obstructions of destruction (Natoli 73). If neither side of the argument can convince the other with facts, then the paradox collides and the cinematic protagonist finds himself or herself “pathless” (Natoli 77). Rather than addressing environmental problems already created or continuing to discuss the facts and dive deeper into particular issues, there is negativity in defense of particular policies and lifestyles. The disastrous settings and the rampant zombies can also represent the misguided American people who do not want to continue the discussion, but would rather remain in their comfort zone ranting about the media or the politicians indulging a self deprecating attitude, in an “attempt to detach oneself from potentially threatening situations” (Kaplan 100). People do not want to trade their lives for jobs that expose them to carcinogens. There are those who know the capitalist management, nor is the government always responsibly addressing hazardous pollution adequately for its employees or neighbors; yet, they “keep quiet” and “just live” (Cain 40+). Apocalyptic fantasies of running amuck allow viewers a cathartic vicarious romp where they can smash in the heads of all those puppets between them and the puppet master. In many of these movies they do not even approach the corrupt headman; their resolution is survival.
The survivors in the films are placed in a defensive position, forced to fight or run, kill or be devoured. They must struggle for control of their emotions and their environment. In Planet Terror (2007) as the infecting green gas trickles away from the military unit that is both its victim and its instigator, it causes chaos in the hospital. When El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez) arrives with recently attacked Cherry (Rose McGowan) without her leg, the police chief questions him with distrust. As their environment descends into utter horror, the chief cuffs him and will not allow him his own gun in complete contrast to his inept deputy who shoots an uninfected patient and eventually the chief himself. There does come a point in the film, directly after the “missing reel” that the chief apologizes to him and tells the others to “give him all the guns” as if he just discovered he was a reputable marksman. Society tends to struggle with a desire to have clear distinctions between those who are to be trusted and those not to be, but it’s not that simple.
Cherry experiences her own internal power struggle by starting out dissatisfied with life, crying on stage as the epitome of the exploited woman. She is negative and has no faith in herself. It takes the pressure of battle to bring her together with Wray and for her to discover her own worth, effectively escaping her cycle of negativity. She loses her leg and covers her head with a sheet, but Wray comes in an says, “So!” thrusts a wooden table leg onto her metal stub and leads her out the door without carrying her. Later she breaks that leg in a would-be rapist’s (Quentin Tarantino) eye, so Wray replaces it with a machine gun so she can lead them away from the quarantine and towards freedom.
In Planet Terror, Dr Dakota Block (Marley Shelton) is clearly trying to get out of an oppressive marriage with Dr William Block (Josh Brolin), who behaves with malicious paranoia. After discovering her messages with her girlfriend, he numbs her hands with her own syringes (anesthetic she has been using to help with the amputations) and locks her in the closet. Her husband displays no empathy as a doctor and gets smeared with the contagious abundant pus by an infected patient. Already a monster, he fights his infection and continues to follow her. Dakota must break free and run away with her numb hands until she can find allies to protect her. This is a horrific metaphor for any woman (or gay person) breaking free from a controlling husband (or tradition) who allegorically ties the hands of the wife with intimidation and isolation while he uses her own words against her.
In Resident Evil (2002), Alice (Milla Jovovich) awakens with amnesia along with her husband Spence (James Purefoy). Rather than being led down a rabbit hole by the white rabbit, she is escorted by a black clad security team of her employer down a tunnel to the Hive where the computer system dubbed the Red Queen has “taken measures” to keep the infection from spreading. When Spence steals the virus and breaks it open, the Red Queen locks down her facility and kills everyone who worked there to protect the outside world. The workers become a danger when the team reboots the system to unlock the facility. Alice and Spence slowly remember their marriage is a cover for their roles as gatekeepers for the Hive, an underground facility of the Umbrella Corporation. Their wedding rings explicitly state, “Property of Umbrella Corp”. Alice’s desire to bring evidence of the illegal research to light comes to her husband Spence’s attention, and he beats her to the punch. Both meant to betray their employer, Alice for truth and Spence for money. They struggle for control of the virus and the antidote as they fight for survival. Unlike the virus in Planet Terror that was its own addictive antidote slowing the process, the Umbrella Corp. was performing a range of tests complete with an antidote that may work if received soon enough. There is lack of communication between specialized sections within the corporation specifically kept unaware of what the other sections were doing with a totalitarian myopic control. This is another allusion to the negative aspects and strength of industrial efficiency and corporate interests overcoming the individual. What makes the corporation strong makes a formidable opponent to those fighting to survive.
Both Planet Terror and Resident Evil have the cause of the zombie infection beginning with military applications, a reflection on the bad science attracted by a highly militarized society. The people are infected to find a cure and those who are not infected are the solution. In Resident Evil; Apocalypse (2004), the scientists experiment on people infected to look for a cure, to gain control over them, and to build ultimate fighting machines. They quarantine the city and shoot anyone who tries to leave showing their level of control and sadistic willingness to create a game out of life. In Extinction (2007), the scientist has a zombie chained down and offers him a phone, a camera, and then shapes to fit into the proper holes. They are thrilled that the zombie is retaining some intelligence until he can’t fit his block in the hole and erupts, breaks free, and tries to eat them. Their zombies are faster and far more focused. The same could be said for modern warfare with focused bombings. This allusion illustrates the concern of the negative consequences of bad intelligence, communications, and potential eruptions from veterans after they have served, especially if they have broken their ideas of what is morally right (Shay 20).
Similar to Cherry’s success over the militarized quarantine due to her automatic weapon augmented leg, Alice becomes superhuman and only escapes the all-seeing eye in the sky surveillance system because of her will-power over their brain implant. In complete contrast to the militarized Umbrella Corp that treats people like cattle in a corral or a soldier as a replaceable unit, Alice is a caring compassionate person who appears both small and vulnerable when she awakens in their lab naked and strapped to machines. By the end of Extinction Alice becomes the “champion of the White Queen” just as Tim Burton’s Alice does (Aikens 31). She is ready to continue the fight against the Umbrella Corp that can replace leaders as soon as they are conquered. If Tim Burton turned Alice from a wonderer into a warrior that would conform to a man’s world of “capitalism and military force” then Paul W. S. Anderson molded Alice to fight for freedom against the behemoth power of corporate manipulation and authority (Aikens 31).
A common task of the zombie survivor is to kill someone they know who has turned into a zombie. In Resident Evil Alice kills her husband after he makes it clear he is in charge as he takes the virus and offers for her to come with him to reap the rewards of big money. Everyone in the hive is dead, most of their team is gone, and Spence gestures at Max (Eric Mabius) who had sent his sister into the hive as a mole to expose the truth about the corporation. He asks Alice, “Do you think people like him are really going to change anything? Nothing ever changes”. He views the world in a negative light, and she stands strong against him to the end holding hope for Rain (Michele Rodriguez), the witty loyal woman at arms that had been bitten and was changing. She waits until Rain is trying to eat them before shooting her in the face. Having to end someone who becomes an enemy is a monstrous reflection of intense isolation. The warrior must struggle with her own feelings and it forces the viewer to reflect on the struggle in an emotional way.
As zombie movies reach a peak of popularity, so does the country’s anxieties over personal freedoms being devoured. This is portrayed in a scene towards the end of Extinction when the infected Carlos (Oded Fehr) sacrifices himself by blowing himself up in a truck to clear a path for Alice into the facility. Smiling, he lights up the last cigarette, and the zombies all gather around the window to devour him. Fighting for freedom requires a balance between personal happiness and responsibility to others, an ever present struggle because there are people lined up with ideas for rules of what is right to impose on others’ efforts to pursue their own happiness. The zombies represent both the efforts of the majority to rule and the effects of the few on the majority through infection. There are those who would exploit the fears of others without compassion as an antagonist, but freedom and liberty whither under fear. In each of these movies the heroine can be interpreted as the personification of freedom, versions of Lady Liberty. The worker, the doctor, and the protector all have to struggle to survive through scenery of mass destruction as they battle the dead multitude. The abundance of negativity has to be overcome by making connections with compassion.