Saturday, March 12, 2011

Consumerism: The Modern Zombie as an Allegory for Western Cultural Values

The paper, in full, unedited is posted below. A search-able, segmented version can be found by following the link:

Sometimes a table of contents with an easy jump to section, notes, reference area is useful. Read either, utilize either. Just remember to cite the page/author.

The Modern Zombie as an Allegory for Western Cultural Values

By: Ryan Heavner

            Modern Western society is the victim of consumerism. The culprit is mass media and advertising being funded by a capitalistic economy. These concepts will be explored in this paper through the allegory of the zombie. Specifically the focus will be on the modern zombie, as created by George Romero. However, with all things we must know our history before we can venture into the future, so a brief summary of the original voodoo zombie will be presented and used to set the stage for Romero. Then it will be shown that Romero may side with anti-consumerism which, hopefully, will justify analyzing his films in light of this concept. Then we will look at consumerism in an economic sense, and how it relates to George Romero’s work, specifically in the ways that can be most easily extrapolated from his film Dawn of the Dead and comments from interviews. Next, the negative effects of consumerism will be emphasized by looking at Shaun of the Dead. The apathy present in Shaun’s life and the fact that his routine barely changes before, during, and after the zombie apocalypse may be taken to represent the way that consumerism has led to the replacement of art, religion, and family with an empty nothingness.
            After the economic notions inherent with consumerism are dealt with, the concept of consumerism, as an inherent evil present in society, will be redefined along the lines of unrestricted scientific research. This will allow a possible insight to his next film Day of the Dead, where the notion of the zombies’ ability to learn, which had been alluded to previously in Dawn, is fully realized. The problem here is that the scientist is still obsessed with research, even though it results in the ultimate destruction of the base and his own life. This provides the ultimate culmination to the main point of this paper, to illustrate the need to turn away from devotional consumption of any particular thing, material or scientific, by using the zombie allegory as a graphic depiction of the evils inherent to the lifestyle.
            The presence of zombies in the horror film genre dates back to the early 1930’s and the first zombie movie is often noted as being White Zombie. In these original tales, zombies were essentially humans who were dead and brought back, without free thought or will, under a voodoo spell. They were typically used as slaves for labor and evil deeds by the witchdoctors that enchanted them. They were not considered evil unto themselves. Instead, it was the witch doctor who was manipulating them to reach some vile end. The way to lift the curse in these zombie classics was to kill the witch doctor, much the same way killing Dracula would change the people he bit from vampires back into humans.
            White Zombie and other classic zombie films that portrayed the zombie as the victim can be used to analyze a relationship present between the bourgeoisie and the proletarian that manifests itself in modern capitalistic society. Essentially the witch doctors in voodoo culture are people who are respected for their great knowledge of the unknown. They are the highest class present in their societies, analogous to the modern bourgeoisie. Their spell acts as a mode of hypnotization or brain washing of the lower class dead to manipulate them into working for them. This may be taken as an allegory to the Marxist notion that the proletarian is tricked into working for the bourgeoisie by the illusion that he has control over the means of his labor, or that he has any private property in the “free trade” capitalist system. There is no revolt, there is no zombie apocalypse. Instead, there is compliance and obedience until the “hero” of the film comes along and kills the witch doctor.  This sets the stage for the introduction of consumerism as this is the initial stage on which capitalism was founded and the idea of the class war that Marx talks about in the Communist Manifesto.
            The original concept of the zombie is a fitting one as it sets the stage for this article both in the economic sense and for the introduction of George Romero’s cult classic films in the “Dead” series[1]. Romero steps up as the ultimate hero against the witch doctor, and creates a “zombie”[2] that is reanimated for reasons unknown, with a bite that spreads its living dead condition, and has an uncontrollable desire to consume human flesh. It is this uncontrollable desire for consumption that stands out the most within the “Dead” series. It is also the first instance of even primitive thought processes occurring within a zombie and it is one of several attacks on consumerism and the effects of mass media that can be interpreted from Romero’s work.
            Before critiquing consumerism through the zombie allegory, the important question is: why can we assume that Romero is attempting to criticize consumerism? The simple answer can be found in several of his interviews. In Diary of the Dead, Romero, when referencing the mall location for Dawn, simply states that it should “Become obvious in terms of what we are saying of the false security of consumer society.”[3] This opinion seems to be simply one of distaste due to a simple interpretation of another quote from Romero himself from an interview he did with Tony Williams:
                              What’s the point of just going to church every Sunday? In our neighborhood we live near this                               very high-faulting Presbyterian church and I don’t think there’s any sort of mystical thought going                               through anybody’s head. They’re all out there looking at each other and seeing how they’re                               dressed and doing what they need to do to get into heaven by showing up for one hour every                               Sunday. Its’ American since it’s all about money. Money directs where the research goes. It drives                               me nuts.[4]
Since Romero obviously has distaste for the majority of society’s actions and interest being determined by money, he would probably also dislike consumerism.
            As defined by R. Cronk, in his essay Consumerism and the New Capitalism, “Consumerism is the myth that the individual will be gratified and integrated by consuming.”[5] Traditionally this consumption is an economic consumption, one where an individual is told through advertisement that she needs to purchase a particular item of clothing in order to attract a husband and is incomplete without either the item or the husband. The analogy to the zombies here is that the proletarian is tricked into continuously consuming material goods, by the bourgeoisie, in order to achieve a feeling of integration into the bourgeoisie faction of society. Then there is the zombie, simply brought into being to consume living flesh endlessly in an effort to re-establish the same sense of integration that eludes the proletarian. One ironic notion of the link between zombies and consumerism is that advertisements support this connection. There were commercials for a stereo store titled “Night of the Living Sale”[6], for a stereo store. These commercials featured zombies walking in a grave yard carrying stereo boxes in their arms. This is an instance of the media purposefully linking the zombie with the consumer in an effort to promote a higher level of consumerism.
            For Marx the class war has begun because “Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other -- bourgeoisie and proletariat.”[7]  However, the analogy, of two classes in the world, is easy to draw as it becomes zombies and the living for Romero’s work. They become the proletarian and the bourgeoisies respectively, within the interior of the mall of Dawn. The bourgeoisie survivors make a stand in the mall and immediately kill and remove all the zombies from within it. Yet their presence inside the structure is compelling the zombies to keep attempting to get inside. This could be symbolic of the way the bourgeoisie prevent the proletarian from consuming and yet brain wash them into feeling that if they buy more things they will be able to achieve the same social status as the bourgeoisie. Messages, such as these, act to compel the proletarian to continue to feed into the lifestyle that ultimately impoverishes them while richening those that created the illusion.
            The zombies have a desire to consume, which is noted by Joshua Gunn, “Although the ghoul figure is still somewhat lethargic and slow-moving like the zombie, it also possesses something that was previously absent: an uncontrollable desire to consume.”[8] It is this consumption capacity that makes them so frightening to the audience. On the surface the fear may seem to reside in the pure gore of it, but deeper inspection results in the realization that paying $8 for a movie and $3 for a miniscule box of candy is exactly the kind of consumerism that is being attacked in these films. This in turn allows an opportunity for the viewer to understand that “We are the walking dead.”[9] The person watching the movie is consuming at that moment and in many situations may be doing so as part of a weekly routine to see a movie at the local mall’s theater. This type of routine is not abnormal, instead it is precisely the reason that Romero choose to film Dawn in a mall. During the film, two of the survivors comment on the way that the zombies seem to simply congregate at the mall as if they intended to walk to that specific location:
                                Peter: They're after the place. They don't know why, they just remember. Remember that they                                                        want to be in here.
Francine Parker: What the hell are they?
Peter: They're us, that's all, when there's no more room in hell.
Stephen: What?
Peter: Something my granddad used to tell us. You know Macumba? Voodoo. My granddad was                                             a priest in Trinidad. He used to tell us, "When there's no more room in hell, the dead will                                             walk the earth.[10]
The implication is that the weekly routine of going to the mall has replaced that of church. The consumerist ideal is so engrained that even in death the human condition is such that the mall is “the place to be”. Peter actually says that “they’re us” and to say that “hell is full” gives the religious reference necessary to replace the cathedral with the shopping center. The religious saying implicates a new spiritual level to the condemnation of consumerism, equating it to a deadly sin that resulted in the overpopulation of hell and the degradation of the human soul.
            The replacement of religion with material goods is a hallmark of consumerism. R. Cook again aids us with another analogy, “Consumerism, like communism and fascism, is a secular religion restricting freedom of choice.”[11] The seculararity of it is created because the material good becomes a “false idol” that must be worshiped over any god. While the restriction of choice boils down to choosing a particular style of materialism based on what brand of clothing one wears. For many proletarians, this choice is only to work or starve. Similarly, the zombies have their choices revoked. All they may choose is where to roam, though even that is based upon where they can find living flesh to consume. If we are no longer self aware nor have self worth, but are what we wear[12], then the zombie parallel is that they are what they eat. They consume the living in order to attempt to regain their lost self worth and awareness. Their attempts to fill this void with flesh are ultimately futile, only further fueling their desire to consume. By the same means, Western society attempts to achieve these goals through purchasing material goods, but instead it only leads to further deprivation and loss of self worth and awareness.
            The compounded effect of losing self worth and self awareness results in a general apathy toward the world and other people around us. It is easy to find this apathy within Western culture and just as easy to find it in the realm of the zombies. Zombies only attack the living, ignoring all other obstacles and creatures. They bump into each other and even wander in groups completely unaware of the presence of more rotting corpses next to them. In the film, Shaun of the Dead, the title character truly is “of the dead”.[13] When he wakes up in the morning, he groans like a ghoul. Then he proceeds to shuffle through the day without ever changing his routine and although he is never bitten, the suggestion, according to Kim Edwards, is, “…that he always was one [a zombie], and the film becomes simultaneously a satirical social commentary on the drudgeries of modern life and a witty validation of the sedentary lifestyles of young males refusing to grow up.”[14] The argument that Shaun is a zombie refers to not only his morning routine, but also to the apathy toward events around him, much like a zombie that ignores walking into another zombie.
           Though Shaun is the star, he is not the only quasi zombie in the film. Indeed the whole of London is full of zombies, a possible representation of all of Western culture. Edwards addresses this concern too, “The real zombies have been easily mistaken for bored workers, tired commuters, amorous lovers, happy drunkards, eccentric vagabonds or aggressive street gangsters. The horror of the change is that there has been no discernable change.”[15] She is pointing out that the lethargic apathy shown around town in the commuters and the store workers mirrors the actions of a zombie. That society is so withdrawn no one notices the different between a guy kissing a girls neck, and a zombie ripping the flesh from her throat. The groaning zombies are thought to merely be drunk and elated workers celebrating the end of a shift. This is an ultimate attack on the way consumerism causes a withdrawal from society and an apathy toward anything that is not the latest material fashion.
            It is clear that Shaun of the Dead sets up Western society as being in a quasi zombie state. Yet now we must analyze what the likely cause of this state of existence is. Undoubtedly the apathy could be seen as being caused by the loss of self worth and self awareness related to consumerism. Shaun has a roommate named Ed. Ed is guilty of sloth in every sense of the word. He smokes marijuana, does not have a job, does not pay rent, and does not bother to pick up after himself. Instead he spends all of his time playing videogames, specifically a first person shooter that involved killing zombies.[16] Videogames could be considered a big part of consumerism. There is a lot of advertisement that goes into them and when a new system comes out people will line up days in advance in order to get it immediately. The proof of this is apparent not only when new systems are released but also on Black Friday.  Days like those are major events for the consumer and when the doors open people have been attacked, mugged, and even trampled over in order to obtain a particular item.[17]
            Video games are also a major cause of withdrawal from society as people spend countless hours locked in their rooms without any social contact. When people are isolated within the confines of a dormitory they do not develop close personal bonds as well with other humans. This results in an amplification of their apathy toward other people’s plights and an inability to emphasize with strangers. The problem that can result is that issues like homelessness, health care, and unemployment are totally ignored until they directly affect an individual. If consumerism were to be reduced, or even abolished, there would be a possibility for humans to interact within a society that produced caring members that would come to aid citizens in their various plights. This is a dream unrealized in Shaun’s London, even after the zombie outbreak.
            When the outbreak reaches epic proportion and every channel on the television is reporting about it, Shaun is too consumed by the need to purchase an ice cream to notice. He walks to the corner store and picks out an ice cream cone. He even manages to pay for it, mostly as he does come up a bit short, without bothering to notice the blood smears throughout the store. The irony is that, this drive to consume caused him, and arguably much of London, to ignore the news reports that could have helped save their lives.
            Consumerism, in the economic sense, has been presented as an evil of the capitalistic economy that dominates Western culture. However, there are many things to be obsessed with consuming in the world besides material goods. When the root of the word is analyzed one is able to see that consumerism does not have to simply apply to material goods. The root is “consume” which can be defined as “to engage in fully” according to Merriam Webster’s Online Dictionary. The site also defines “-ism” as a “doctrine or theory”. One of the main things that is on the rise, in the upper classes as the proletarian is barred from Universities by financial burden, is the consumption of scientific knowledge or engagement in theories. As worldly knowledge advances, scientists, like zombies craving flesh, are never satisfied and always crave more.  R. Cook is speaking about material consumerism when he says, “Ever so subtly we are losing our ability to act independently of the justifications of consumerism.” However, this should clearly apply to scientific studies as well. Scientists seem unable to act without knowing the truth of an action and all the reasons behind it. Slowly this has lead to researchers pushing back the moral grounds of the churches by first proclaiming falsities in the doctrines. Later on the researchers manipulated semantics in order to move morals out of the way of certain forms of study. This produces a certain moral trade off in the pursuit of knowledge.
            Galileo was one of the first to trade off Christian morals in order to progress his field, declaring heliocentrism as fact over geocentrism. In the 1940s there were experiments done in Tuskegee Alabama to determine the progression of syphilis. These experiments involved purposefully withholding treatment from patients simply to study the progression of their death. Now, in modern times, scientists are being given the green light to murder in the name of research. Embryonic stem cell research is legal in many areas of the world and in some nations tax money is provided to fund the labs. The state of Michigan just passed a bill in 2008 that allows the use of stem cells, from fertilized eggs used in in vitro, for research in labs. With the destruction of fetuses becoming part of scientific research, the last shreds of morals have been discarded. Scientists fight to be able to do research in the fields and ways that they want but they never get enough. Instead, they endlessly consume any “truths” they can uncover and the need never ceases.
            Dr. Logan is just the type of scientist that cannot give up his pursuit of knowledge. In Day, he has a lab set up in the underground military base where he experiments on the zombies that are captured and brought to him by the fellow survivors. He is supposed to find a way to kill them easier, or to cure them. However, he spends his entire time conditioning them to act more “civilized”. He does this by teaching them to use items like a gun, the phone, and to simply not view him as “lunch”[18] In the face of doom itself, Dr. Logan surely knows that behavioral modification takes time and has to be performed on a scale that is too small to be beneficial to himself or the rest of the survivors with him. He also would know that a cure or air born chemical that could “kill” the zombies would be considerably more beneficial. Alas he does not want to study a cure, and since he is the word of science he gets to make the trade off of the moral imperative to preserve mankind in order to advance his personal knowledge.
            Ultimately the moral trade off by Dr. Logan results in the destruction of himself and the rest of the survivors. This occurs when the military personnel who want to see results over react and some zombies escape from their holding cell within the compound. Similarly, if Western civilization does not heed this warning, scientific research will lead to a society that is only concerned with the advancement of research no matter the cost. In such a world the moral distinctions that help to bind the actions of individuals and result in more peaceful interaction will be blurred away. The end result will be the same as that of the military compound in Day, civilization will tear each other apart from the inside.
            Consumerism can be defined in several ways. Most commonly it is the mass consumption of material goods. However, the root of the word only requires a full engagement in an action and the suffix just needs theory or doctrine. This implies the ability for consumerism to apply to other things besides material goods, such as the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Through the allegory of the zombie, Romero was able to embed multiple entandres that could be interpreted as strikes against both types of consumerism in his films. The foundation of the message, for both, is that an obsession with such abstract items can cause serious harm to society and even its ultimate collapse. For the economic sense, it is the subjugation of the proletarian and the replacement of religion with false idols. Science replaces morals with research at the expense of all other beings and concepts. These harms are linked further as the scientists are a part of the upper class and their test subjects are picked from the proletarian. Similarly, the bourgeoisie manipulate the proletarians into fueling the capitalistic economy by embedding consumerism into their sub conscious. In the end, the only thing to do for the proletarian is to band together and reject consumerism along with unrestricted scientific research and instead focus on living a life of moderation of all things akin to Buddhist philosophy.

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Works Cited[19]

(n.d.). . Retrieved April 22, 2009, from
consume - Definition from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. (n.d.). . Retrieved April 23,   2009, from
Consumerism and the New Capitalism. (n.d.). . Retrieved April 22, 2009, from   
Edwards, Kim. "Morbundity, Mundanity and Modernity, Shaun of the Dead." Film As text: 99-  103.
Gregson. "Understanding the Appeal of Zombie Films." International Communication       Association: 1-28.
Gunn, Joshua, and Shaun Treat. "Zombie Trouble: A Propaedeutic on Ideological Subjectification and the Unconscious." Quarterly Journal of Speech 91 (2005): 144-74.
"An Interview with George and Christine Romero." Interview with Tony Williams. Quar. Rev.     of Film and Video 2001: 397-411.
 ism - Definition from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. (n.d.). . Retrieved April 23,           2009,   from
Police Seeking Wal-Mart Shoppers Who Trampled Employee. (n.d.). . Retrieved April 23, 2009,   from           sh_n_147069.html.
Shaun of the Dead (2004). (n.d.). . Retrieved April 22, 2009, from
THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO. (n.d.). . Retrieved April 22, 2009, from   
Unknown. They are Us/U.S.: 9/11, Zombies, and the Ideological Force of the Monstrous Other in Popular Culture. National Communication Association.

[1] This is intended to refer to the movies: Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, and Diaries of the Dead. They will be referenced throughout this paper by the first word in their title.
[2] Note that the term “zombie” was never used by Romero in any of his films. None of the characters know they are zombies, instead referring to them as ghouls and therefore the audience is to be lacking that knowledge also. Romero himself never imagined that they were zombies during Night of the Living Dead, because they did not meet the definition of a zombie per the voodoo standard of the time.
[3] Ch 12 of the film
[4] Emphasis mine.
[6] They were shown during Diary of the Dead documentary.
[7] See previous link to the Communist Manifesto
[8] Joshua Gunn Zombie Trouble: A Propaedeutic on Ideological Subjectification and the Unconscious
[9] Quote from the comic book The Walking Dead. The lead character gives a speech after the breakdown of “society” within the surviving group, explaining to the others that once they killed their first zombie they were no longer civilized, instead they were savages just like the zombies were. The horrors of it made them one.
[10] From the original script of Dawn of the Dead. Emphasis mine.
[11] From his essay Consumerism and the New Capitalism
[12] R. Cook: “Self-awareness and self-worth have been distorted. We are what we wear.”
[13] Morbundity, Mundanity and Modernity, Shaun of the Dead by Kim Edwards p 99
[14] P99 Edwards
[15] P101 Edwards
[16] TimeSplitters 2
[18] A survivor, Sarah, points this out “No, it isn't what this one does, but what he doesn't do! He doesn't get excited or agitated when Logan enters the room! He doesn't see Logan as...” to which Dr. Ted Fisher replies “lunch”.
[19] Ok, so although I may have messed up both of them, I can point out the intended difference. A bibliography is intended as a section for all materials that influenced the paper, even if they were not cited in the paper. A works cited page however, only lists the sources that were actually sited in the paper itself.

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