This is the Age of the Zombie, of the neighbor next door who yesterday smiled and waved to you as you backed your Volvo out of the driveway and today is slavering and growling and trying to chew off your face. Half of the direct-to-video movies on pay-per-view are about flesh-eating ghouls; “The Walking Dead” have overrun our television. Popular culture’s dark fantasies have always reflected our deepest fears about the real world. Today, in a time when Americans are figuratively at each other’s throats, our monsters are our fellow citizens.
In the ’50s, the Bomb loomed over the culture, and the sense that some anonymous functionary could push a red button in a silo in Minot or Semipalatinsk and that would pretty much be that. So we had your straight-ahead nuke melodramas, like “Fail-Safe,” and the aftermath films, like “Panic in the Year Zero” and “On the Beach.” But you also had the fantasies, like “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” and “Them!,” where radiation turned benign nature malignant as extinct dinosaurs and enterprising ants became massive monstrosities via radiation.
What they shared was the common threat of impersonal doom. The nuclear war just sort of happened, with individuals sucked into it. The giant monster just sort of happened to wander through the city, unknowable, unstoppable.
Not so with zombies. Regardless of their various forms—running or stumbling, virally-induced or cause unknown—the zombie is an intensely personal, intimate nemesis. It is your friend, your spouse, even your kid, and it’s not going to kill you by radiation from a dozen miles away or via a huge claw that can’t even feel you squish as it stomps on you. A zombie is going to eat you alive, and linger while doing it. And it will all happen not in some ruined wasteland but in your own neighborhood, looking the same as it has always has except that some of its inhabitants are running from other inhabitants who want to have them for dinner.
Our Out-of-Control Society
What does it say that our collective subconscious senses less of a threat from fanatical outsiders who, in the last couple decades, have killed thousands of us via terrorism, than from each other?
Perhaps our ids are onto something. After all, foreigners are relatively easy to deal with. They blew up our buildings, so we went over and slaughtered thousands of jihadis and their medieval buddies. Except for a few attempts with various levels of success, they have been ineffective here since. Those who try shooting up Americans for Allah last a few minutes at best before they get shot down. The foreigners are a threat, but that’s under control.
What is out of control, or what seems like it is out of control, is our society itself. A pervasive unease in America is deepening. It is a sense that our society has become unstable, that the normalcy we took for granted is gone and perhaps not coming back. There is a sense that at the other end of the tunnel we have walked down is chaos. We are at the point where millions look at Donald Trump as the solution to our problems, not a symptom. It’s that bad.
Attacking the American Identity
It started sometime after Reagan vanquished the Soviets and the nuclear threat disappeared. History was supposed to be over, but it didn’t work out quite that way. We elected Bill Clinton, who superficially seems to be the last of the “regular order” presidents but was actually something quite different. The first president from the ’60s generation, he was also the first president who came to Washington with a coterie of fellow travelers who, in a very real sense, despised much of what America is—and many of their fellow Americans.
Hillary tried to reorganize health care, terrifying much of the country. Her husband warred on the right to keep and bear arms—sometimes literally, as at Waco. In reaction, you had Oklahoma City, which Clinton—in one of his vilest deeds—blamed upon conservative radio and, by extension, its conservative audience. Then you had his disgusting sexual antics, flagrant perjury, and the impeachment attempt. This drama was the opposite of normality.
George W. Bush’s election in 2000 was another dividing line, where half the country felt the other half was stealing the election. The terms “red” and “blue” America entered the lexicon. The Bush years coincided with the growth of the Internet and alternative media, which fueled polarization by rewarding the angriest and the bitterest voices. Not coincidentally, it was the early 2000s when the moribund zombie genre started to reanimate.
Then “No Drama” Obama became president by pretending to reject division, and instead doubled down upon it. He promised to fundamentally change America, which read as a solid plan to one half of the country and as a threat toward the other. He promised to punish his enemies and reward his friends, and he turned formerly neutral mechanisms of governance like the Internal Revenue Service upon those who opposed him. Friends and allies like Hillary Clinton and Lois Lerner committed federal crimes and are safe from prosecution. Shrieking social justice warriors police our culture and campuses. The Internet shames anyone with an unpopular belief. Minor functionaries in remote counties get tossed into jail for disobedience.
Americans are turning upon each other. Some lives matter, others apparently don’t. The Bill of Rights is now negotiable. The White House issues instructions to sophomores to hassle their elders about Obamacare at Thanksgiving dinner. Red and blue people barely mix anymore—these days, would you bring up politics at a party where you weren’t sure everyone else was on board?
Apocalypse Stories Are Conservative
The question is, “What’s next?” Does this chaos get walked back, or does it get worse? Will we tear ourselves apart? Mutterings about violence, succession, and even civil war intrude from the margins into mainstream conversation. Have you heard them, too? That didn’t happen a few years ago. We certainly have the means for such self-destruction, and the anger out there certainly could fuel the will. But the apocalypse now is not an equal-opportunity Armageddon; when it comes to chaos, some ideologues are more equal than others.
The zombie genre is essentially conservative. Survival is always based upon the actions of individuals and small groups, and the government is either useless or an active threat (Max Brooks’ fascinating book “World War Z” is something of an exception, while the movie adheres to tradition). The survivors are not unlike the pioneers, trying to carve a life out of a wilderness while dodging Indians who take scalps not as trophies but as snacks. City slickers need not apply.
As conservatives do, the zombie genre likewise recognizes the necessity, even the obligation, to keep and bear arms. The people who refuse to use guns die; those who hesitate to pull the trigger allow their friends to die. Those who fight prevail. Interestingly, we have a generation of kids who attend schools where they are taught the lie that violence never solves anything and where they will be suspended for fighting back when a bully punches them. Yet on Sunday night they cheer a show that celebrates heroes who ruthlessly make gory headshot after gory headshot. Sure, the heroes wring their hands like liberals, but the ones who survive are the one who choose firepower over feelings.
It may not be a zombie apocalypse, but much of America expects some kind of apocalypse. In a beautiful city a mile or so from the Pacific one recent sunny Saturday morning, a line developed outside a gun store well before it opened. In the Age of the Zombie, the end of the world will take place not far away but at close range, and many Americans seem to have resolved to go down fighting.