20 Mar 2013

Zombie nation? Why zombies rise in times of austerity

Zombies have moved from the realms of niche low-fi horror to mainstream popular culture. But why do they rise in times of economic difficulty? Channel 4 News delves into the world of the living dead.

People wear make-up and dress up to take part in a zombie march (R)

How would you cope with “partially deceased syndrome” – aka being a zombie?

The question is posed by the writer of In the Flesh, a new TV drama set after a zombie uprising where zombies are rehabilitated back into their community.

And it shows just how far we have come in our uneasy love affair with the zombie: from graveyards to therapy session – but always with the risk of our own zombification just around the corner.

In recent years, zombies have moved from niche horror to mainstream via the hit US television show Waking Dead and this summer’s blockbuster World War Z, starring Brad Pitt. Thousands of people take part in “zombie walks” in cities around the world, and amateur films, where you can star in your own zombie movie for the right price, are big business.

“We are in one of the longest, sustained and intriguing surges in zombie popularity since 9/11,” Professor Arnold T Blumberg, author of ZombieMania, told Channel 4 News. “But it has continued to be mainstream in a way that we never would have imagined.”

And as zombies have seeped into our televisions, cinemas and even town centres, the flesh-eating monsters have even found their way into our economics.

Parallels have been drawn between the flesh-eating monsters and increasingly stagnant post-recession economies that force people to eat away at their savings without generating any growth. As Channel 4 News Economics Editor Faisal Islam puts it in his blog: “A zombie economy that is not collapsing, but not growing, with zombie businesses unable to grow out of their overhang of debt, and zombie households only managing to pay the interest on their loans.”

Video: Zombies storm app download charts

Consumers gone bad

Can the increasing popularity of zombies be linked to periods of economic downturn?

Professor Blumberg certainly thinks so. “Zombies happen during time of economic stress – that’s the way that horror works,” he told Channel 4 News.

Writer and critic Natalie Haynes agrees. While vampires represent bankers who feed on our blood, she says, zombies are consumers gone bad. To stretch the metaphor further, the 2007/2008 economic recession has been linked to over-borrowing and too much debt – both symptoms of a greedy consumer – and zombies occasionally popped up at the Occupy protests against bankers, corporations and corporation greed.

Zombies are the proletariat… the downtrodden. Individually they have no power, but it’s the mass that gives them power. Andy Edwards, film director

When zombies in shopping malls were catapulted into popular culture by George Romero’s 1978 film Dawn of the Dead, they were analysed by chin-stroking classes as a representation of a decaying mass consumerism.

And the popularity of zombies has certainly coincided with the last few years global recession. Ironically, zombie-related business is one of the few areas doing well economically and was worth an estimated $5.74bn in the United States in 2011.


The ‘catch-all’ monster

Like many monsters, and horror films generally, zombies are a device for us to air and explore our concerns about greater, and very real, problems. There was a big demand for science-fiction in the 1950s during the cold war, and publishers have noticed a trend towards dystopian fiction since the economic downturn.

Rather than specifically working as a metaphor for economic woes, they represent fear itself, says Dr Marcus Leaning from the University of Winchester, who founded the first UK course module on zombies after noting their increased popularity.

“Zombies are a catch-all monster. They could be all sorts of things but they represent the increase in risk and horror,” he told Channel 4 News.

In 2011, he followed a discussion on Mumsnet about what to do when a zombie apocalypse occurred. “The conversation soon shifted not to zombies, but any apocalypse,” he said. “This took place a week after the London riots. But every time they talked about that it got very political. With zombies, we don’t need to talk about the consequences.

He added: “They’re an un-saveable monster. There is no guilt in exterminating zombies.”

Power to the people?

What also marks out zombies is that they are always plural. Zombies may be brain-dead, they may move slowly, but they come en masse: a symbol of collective delusion.

But this can also be a source of comfort, says Andy Edwards, director of the short film series House Party of the Dead. “Zombies are the working class equivalent of the vampire,” he told Channel 4 News. “Vampires are more aristocratic; zombies are the proletariat… the downtrodden. Individually they have no power, but it’s the mass that gives them power.”

This goes some way towards explaining the appeal of the zombie marches, one of which attracted an estimated 16,000 people in Mexico. Dressing up in costume is nothing new, but the zombie facade acts as an equaliser.

“Zombies are closest to us. They are a dark, carnival mirror of us,” Professor Blumberg told Channel 4 News. “They are probably serving as a symbol of an entire generation of disaffected, alientated, media obsessed and media-overloaded people.”

The brain-dead, flesh-eating monsters that are just like us manage to symbolise the oppressor in society, whether that is capitalism, a fatal biological virus or an actual apocalypse.

But they also allow us to identify with the masses, for good or for bad, making them the ideal monster to help deal with these austerity-ridden times.