Daniel W. Drezner

Has the zombie apocalypse jumped the shark?

In recent weeks there’s been a low hum of pretty interesting and not-so-interesting essays asking why there has been so much attention paid in the zombie apocalypse, and what that attention signifies.  I bring this up because the Discovery Channel will be airing it’s Zombie Apocalypse documentary this evening.  The New York Times’ Neal Genzlinger reviews ...

In recent weeks there’s been a low hum of pretty interesting and not-so-interesting essays asking why there has been so much attention paid in the zombie apocalypse, and what that attention signifies. 

I bring this up because the Discovery Channel will be airing it’s Zombie Apocalypse documentary this evening.  The New York Times’ Neal Genzlinger reviews it and finds it… pretty wanting

Thank goodness we’ll all be wiped out by the Maya doomsday by week’s end. That will spare us the discomfort of having to go through the impending zombie apocalypse….

The National Geographic Channel’s “Doomsday Preppers,” among others, has already introduced viewers to people who go to seemingly extreme lengths to get ready for terrorist attacks, the collapse of the financial system, nuclear power plant disasters and more, so perhaps it’s no surprise that, at least according to this program, there are some among us who are seriously preparing for a zombie attack. What makes this program different is that among clips of the preppers spewing nonsense about how to shoot a zombie, it intercuts interviews with credentialed academics who say that, yes, a virus or some such that attacks the brain could find its way into humans, disseminate rapidly and cause symptoms that would make us resemble all those zombies we know and love from the movies….

The program also gives you the rare experience of hearing a professor (Daniel W. Drezner of Tufts University) described as the “author of ‘Theories of International Politics and Zombies’ ” — on Monday, No. 40 on Amazon’s list of best sellers in its sub-sub-subcategory of international and world politics. And it provides a new entry for the list of you-must-be-joking organizations: apparently there actually is something called theKansas Anti Zombie Militia.

But it’s hard right now to take this program in the pop-culture way it was intended, especially the idiocy that comes out of the mouths of the various preppers. “Some people’s epiphany,” says one, Matthew Oakey, “is when they realize that the guy that lives on their block with all the guns and ammo isn’t crazy.”

I haven’t seen the documentary yet, so I can’t really comment on it except what I recall from their interview of me three months ago.  Three thoughts, though: 

1)  Given the reported claim that Nancy Lanza was in fact a doomsday prepper, I have to share Mr. Genzlinger’s concern about the unfortunate timing of this broadcast.  Some television networks have made alterations to their broadcasts because of the Sandy Hook attack.  I’m not sure this program rises to that level, but the timing makes me wince, which is probably not a good sign. 

2) Damn, I need to update my Fletcher page. Seriously, that thing is at least three years out of date.

3)  Regarding my participation in the documentary, well, I’ll just reprint what Newsday‘s  Verne Gay wrote

One of the "experts" quoted here is in fact a respected scholar in foreign policy at Tufts who has written widely on zombies, though largely as metaphors for chaos in world markets and how people adapt. In an email, I asked Dan Drezner about the program, and he responded that a book he had written on the subject was "intended to be funny [but] one of the points I make is that fears about zombie apocalypses are exaggerated because people underestimate the adaptability of humans." He added, "I have no idea if that got in or not."

Sorry, professor — it did not get in, and the documentary is not funny.

That’s unfortunate… and it gives rise to an almost sacrilegious question:  have we hit the law of diminishing marginal returns on the living dead?   On the popular culture front, when Twilight-like books and films are being made about zombies (though I gotta admit I like what I see from the trailer) and the sign of Nick’s loserdom in The New Girl is that he’s working on a lame zombie novel, I fear we’ve hit saturation point. 

On the utility-of-the-metaphor front, I will defend the use of fictional analogies as a way of stimulating creative thinking and calling attention  to useful policy measures until my last undying breath.  I wrote Theories of International Politics and Zombies because I thought it would make some people laugh and make some people think; it was a subversive way to get some book-learning into the cerebellum. Since the book has come out, however, I find that the questions I get from reporters and documentarians about the living dead have morphed from seriocomic to just dead serious. 

I share Alyssa Rosenberg’s concern that people are focusing way too much on being in the apocalypse as opposed to how we get to the apocalypse and whether it can be stopped.  Analogies free up certain pattens of thought while also constraining others.  Because so many zombie narratives assume that no matter what humans do, we wind  up in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, there’s a tendency to presume that this must and always be so.  That constraint is starting to become more prominent. 

So to sum up:  I’m in a zombie documentary this evening, it’s apparently not that great, I’m quite confident that the zombie apocalypse won’t happen, and my Fletcher page is badly in need of updating.  That is all.

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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