Daniel W. Drezner

Political Metaphor of the Living Dead

Political Metaphor of the Living Dead

The most painful time for a book author is that interregnum between handing in the completed book manuscript, knowing that the text is locked down for good, and the book’s arrival on the bookshelves.  That’s because stuff happens during these months that would be awesome to put into the book, but alas, it’s too late. 

Fortunately, there are blogs to write. 

With the success of AMC’s The Walking Dead (don’t worry, that show got into the introduction; oh, hey, did I mention that you can now preview the introduction online?  And that the endorsements are glowing?), pundits are now falling all over each other to try to use zombies as a political metaphor.  Late last month, Jeremy Grantham entitled his third quarter investment letter “Night of the Living Fed,” with a pretty amusing cover graphic: 

Grantham’s effort, however, pales besides New York Times columnist Gail Collins, however.  Her op-ed today posits that the revived popularity of the zombie genre is a bad omen for politics:

Zombies are in. This cannot possibly be a good sign….

What’s the attraction of zombies? They don’t really do anything but stagger around and eat raw flesh. The plot possibilities seem limited. Zombies come. Humans shoot them. More zombies come. Humans hit them over the head with shovels. Nobody ever runs into a particularly sensitive zombie who wants to make peace with the nonflesh-devouring public. (“On behalf of the United Nations Security Council today, I would like to welcome the zombie delegation to the … aaauuurrgghchompchompchomp.”)

Maybe that’s the whole point. Our horror movies are mirroring the world around us. The increasingly passé vampire story is about a society full of normal people threatened by a few bloodsuckers, some of whom are maybe just like you and me, except way older. It was fine for the age of Obama. But we’ve entered the era of zombie politics: a small cadre of uninfected humans have to band together and do whatever it takes to protect themselves against the irrational undead….

I have three responses to this. 

First, I wish her minions Ms. Collins had taken a deeper bite out of the zombie canon in researching her op-ed, because, as I discuss in Theories of International Politics and Zombies, there is the possibility that the undead would follow the George Romero narrative arc and learn over time.  From p. 42-3 of the text:

Even in Night of the Living Dead, Romero’s ghouls demonstrated the capacity for using tools. In each of his subsequent films, the undead grew more cognitively complex. The zombie characters of Bub in Day of the Dead and Big Daddy in Land of the Dead were painted with a more sympathetic brush than most of the human characters. Both Bub and Big Daddy learned how to use firearms. Bub was able to speak, perform simple tasks, and engage in impulse  control-that is, to refrain from eating a human he liked. Big Daddy and his undead cohort developed a hierarchical authority structure with the ability to engage in tactical and strategic learning. In doing so they overran a well-fortified human redoubt and killed its most powerful leader. It would take only the mildest of cognitive leaps to envision a zombie-articulated defense of these actions at the United Nations (emphasis added). 


If you buy the book, you’ll see some sweet artwork depicting this very possibility. 

Second, Collins repeats a point that others have made in the past — that the persistence of the zonbie genre seems aesthetically puzzling because the zombies themselves are such uninteresting characters.  That misses the point, however — what makes the zombie genre interesting has less to do with the ghouls themselves than with how humans respond to them.  The zombies in Night of the Living Dead and Shaun of the Dead are exactly the same — it’s the human responses that evoke such different responses to those films.  Sure, it’s quick and easy to label one’s political opponents as brain-dead zombies — what’s intriguing is how one responds to that possibility. 

Third, it is noteworthy that both conservatives and liberals are using the zombie metaphor to advance their aims.  They both think the other side is brainless.  This doesn’t sound good for political discourse — but it might just lead to a cultural consensus. 

Ten days ago,The Hollywood Reporter‘s James Hibbard pointed out the ideological split in TV-watching.  Both sides like a lot of quality TV shows, but different ones:  Democrats lean towards Mad Men, 30 Rock and The Good Wife; Republicans go for Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory, and The Amazing Race.  I’m willing to bet, however, that The Walking Dead appeals to both sides of the partisan fence, precisely because they imagine the other side as the zombies.

This leads to an interesting prediction.  Politicians, pundits and professors like to use pop culture references to explain a concept to the widest possible audience.  If zombie TV is one of the few remaining places where an ideologically diverse group, however, then we’re going to see a lot more uses of the zombie metaphor in politics over the next few years.