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Find a controversial example of a tv show or movie, song, video game, book or reading material, or everyday substance used as a drug. Examine the social construction of the example as a problem. With your perspective on social problems, assessment of Sternheimer’s argument, and Wosner et al’s research, address whether this form of the media is to blame. You post should be at least two paragraphs.
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doi: 10.1111/tsq.12150
The Sociological Quarterly ISSN 0038-0253
BETWEEN THE LIVING AND UNDEAD: How
Zombie Cinema Reflects the Social
Construction of Risk, the Anxious Self, and
Disease Pandemic
Robert Wonser*
Los Angeles Valley College
David Boyns
California State University, Northridge
The zombie film has become an important component of contemporary popular culture. The
sociological nature of the themes addressed by these films reflect prominent social concerns, and
lend themselves to sociological analysis as texts themselves. This article examines the zombie film
genre, its history, predominant themes, and its illustration of sociological dynamics related to
identity, collective behavior, disease, contagion, and the privileges that come from social
inequality. Particular attention is placed on what the zombie films, themselves, can tell us about
society and how they illustrate sociological principles. First, we examine the origins and history of
zombie cinema. Next, we move to a discussion of the central narrative devices around which
zombie films are organized. In particular, we focus on two narratives in zombie films: those that
emphasize zombie possession; and those that focus on the sociological risks of zombie pandemics.
The discussion then moves to an analysis of zombies as selves, and how zombie films express
cultural anxieties about selfhood, loss of autonomy, and threats of de-individualization. We then
explore the roles of power and privilege in the social epidemiology of zombification, paying
particular attention to how those who succumb to zombiedom illustrate the sociological
dynamics of health disparities in the real world. Finally, the sociology of infectious disease is used
to address how zombiedom correlates with real disease outbreaks, what we know about the social
aspects of infectious disease transmission, and the sociology of pandemics.
Keywords: zombies; sociology of film; identity; collective behavior; disease; privilege; inequality; power
INTRODUCTION
The 21st century–zombie film has become a mainstay of American cinema. With its
roots in classic films like White Zombie (1932) and independent cinema like George
Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), the 21st century–zombie film has become a
prominent motif in popular American movies and provides a fertile series of texts for
sociological investigation. Zombie films have been nominally known as cult cinema, but
*Direct all correspondence to Robert Wonser, Los Angeles Valley College, Sociology, 5800 Fulton Avenue, Valley Glen, CA 91401; e-mail: [email protected]
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The Sociological Quarterly 57 (2016) 628–653 V
Robert Wonser and David Boyns
Between the Living and Undead
recent blockbuster zombie films—like Resident Evil (2002) and its offspring; the
acclaimed film 28 Days Later (2002); the remake of the Romero film Dawn of the Dead
(2004); the parodic Shaun of the Dead (2004); more recently the comedies Zombieland
(2009) and Warm Bodies (2013); and the “fast zombie,” apocalyptic horror film World
War Z (2013)—have collectively reflected popular and mainstream interest in zombie
cinema. In fact, a growing cultural industry has emerged around zombies, and the publication of satirical “zombie survival guides” (e.g., Max Brooks’s [2003]) and mashup,
parody zombie novels (e.g., Pride and Prejudice and Zombies [2009]) have been recently
featured on the New York Times Bestsellers list. The popularity of zombies in mainstream
culture, and specifically in film, is reflective of their utility as symbolic and critical representations of the societies from which they emerge and as metaphorical illustrations of
the culture’s zeitgeist. This article seeks to situate the zombie film within sociological
analysis and examine how cinematic depictions of zombies illustrate sociological
dynamics related to identity, collective behavior, disease, contagion, and the privileges
of social inequities.
While the zombie film is typically examined as a social commentary on cultural conformity, political apathy, and mindless consumerism, an unwavering characteristic of the
zombie film is that it is centrally about the issues related to self, identity, and the sociology
of health and disease. This article is organized around four primary topics, each of which
examines central sociological concepts related to the sociological implications of narrative
devices used in zombie cinema, particularly those related to individual zombie possession
and pandemic disease; how zombie films express social anxieties about the social construction of self in the context of disease, stigma, and threats of de-individualization; the
roles of power and privilege in the social epidemiology of disease; and, finally, the sociology of infectious disease in the context of globalization and pandemics.
A statement about our approach is warranted here. Scholars have long looked to the
stories being told in the popular culture for the purpose of illustrating power relations
(Marx [1844] 1978; Gramsci 1992; Adorno and Horkeimer 2002), dominant fears
(Glassner 1999), and as a reflection of society’s beliefs and values (Denzin 1991). Sociological analyses of cultural oeuvres like cinema have traditionally taken either a
“sociology of film” or a “sociology in film” approach (Sutherland and Feltey 2013).
Both are useful for different reasons. Our analytic strategy embraces both approaches to
best allow us to examine how zombie cinema represents societal dynamics that reflect
cultural anxieties present in contemporary society. Specifically, zombie cinema is
uniquely suited for the task of revealing important, sociological aspects of society
because it highlights collective anxieties about social life in the contemporary world in
graphic fashion. Whether zombie films engage themes of the “other,” risks of nuclear
proliferation, or pandemic disease, their sociological relevance is in their ability to
depict principles of sociology in strikingly ruthless, sometimes humorous, and often
gory detail. Regardless of a sociology of film or sociology in film approach, it is our contention that film broadly represents a useful tool for understanding complex societal
phenomena, particularly when it comes to emerging sociology subfields like sociology
of health and disease. Consequently, there is no better genre of film for this analysis
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than the zombie genre. Zombie films highlight a number of acutely modern concerns in
an increasingly globalized and technologically driven world. The following analysis
explores these in greater detail.
We begin with a discussion of the role of zombie films in American culture. Much
has been written about the cultural significance of zombie cinema but comparatively little attention has been directed to zombie films as sociological texts. First, we examine
the origins and history of zombie cinema. Next, we move to a discussion of the central
narrative devices around which zombie films are organized. In particular, we focus on
two narratives in zombie films: those that emphasize zombie possession and those that
focus on the sociological risks of zombie pandemics. From there we move into a discussion of what the zombie films can tell us about society and how they illustrate sociological principles. Here we develop an analysis of zombies as “selves,” and how zombie
films express cultural anxieties about selfhood, loss of autonomy, and threats of deindividualization. We describe the social aspects of zombies, how they differ from living
humans, and what this distinction tells us about how zombie films represent collective
anxieties about the self in the context of disease. We then explore the roles of power and
privilege in the social epidemiology of zombification, paying particular attention to
how those who succumb to zombiedom illustrate the sociological dynamics of health
disparities in the real world. In particular, in a cinematic world threatened by zombie
contagion, we find that the most likely to be infected are those who have large numbers
of informal social connections (either through their occupations or living conditions);
lack the resources necessary to evade and/or treat infection; and lack the privilege to
physically separate themselves from potentially infected populations. Finally, the sociology of infectious disease is reviewed to address how zombiedom correlates with real disease outbreaks, what we know about the social aspects of infectious disease
transmission, and the sociology of pandemics.
ZOMBIE FILM ORIGINS
The origin of the American, full-feature zombie film can be traced to Victor Halperin’s
White Zombie (1932), which depicts the malevolent and intentional creation of zombies
by Haitian plantation owners, to create mindless and unresisting workers for their sugar
cane factories. As Dendle (2001, 2007) suggests, White Zombie is important as a foundation for zombie films because it establishes the genre as a “barometer of cultural anxiety” (2007:45). Fear of the “other,” apprehension about the loss of autonomy, and
threats of totalitarian control and exploitation—motifs of enduring centrality to zombie
films—all have been central concerns of the American experience, as well as central
themes of sociology.
Since White Zombie, the zombie film has been a constant element of American cinema. While the prevalence of zombie film production has endured ebbs and flows,
Bishop (2010:13) argues that this pattern corresponds to the periods of social and political unrest within the United States. Increases in zombie film production coincide with
increased societal unrest, and are reflective of societal tensions undergirding the
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Robert Wonser and David Boyns
Between the Living and Undead
narrative structure of the films. The earliest zombie films were particularly expressive of
the dubious nature of the master/slave dichotomy. For example, the cultural anxieties
associated with imperialism, worker exploitation, and slavery are illustrated in White
Zombie, and also in other early zombie films like Jacques Turneur’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943) (Bishop 2010). As Bishop (2010:13) explains, “by allowing native voodoo
priests to enslave white heroines, these inherently racist movies terrified Western viewers
with the thing they likely dreaded most at the time: slave uprisings and reverse colonization.” Others have argued that the zombie films produced in the 1950s and 1960s
personified Cold War anxieties and uncertainty over the changing racial order in the
United States as well as the tensions surrounding the Vietnam War (Dendle 2001; Bishop
2010, 2015; Vuckovic 2011; Wetmore 2011). Films of the 21st century continue the trend
of zombie cinema reflecting contemporary cultural anxieties. As Bishop (2015) argues,
recent films like Wasting Away (2007) and Warm Bodies (2013), emblematic of the current “zombie renaissance,” are possible because of contemporary and collective fears
about terrorism and international pandemics (as well as fears about anthrax, bird flu,
mad cow disease), and cultural concerns over immigration and identity politics.
In looking at the history of zombie cinema, a crucial turning point was reached
when George A. Romero released the seminal Night of the Living Dead (1968). It is with
Night of the Living Dead that the first true and popular zombie film was born; it is also
one of the first films to usher in a new theme in zombie cinema—that of the survival
narrative in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. With it came the flesh-eating ghoul,
slow(ish) moving, pack traveling tropes, and mass zombie contagion, all of which have
become hallmarks of zombie cinema. Bishop argues that Night of the Living Dead is
both a critique of, and an expression of the racial tensions of the times. In one sense, as
the film’s only black character, Ben’s inclusion as the protagonist is symbolic. Bishop
(2010:119) argues however, that although Ben’s attempts are really only to resist the
white patriarchy’s “othering of his autonomy and authority,” they “recall the threat of
the Other as depicted in the voodoo-zombie films.” Simultaneously, however, “in the
midst of the social upheavals of the Civil Rights Movement, Ben manifests the greatest
fear of many white Americans: that black men would become socially impertinent and
come to threaten the safety of white women” (2010:120). Following Night of the Living
Dead, replacing (and even reversing) the racist and imperialist fears associated with the
voodoo master/slave dichotomy were new themes reflecting the societal and racial tensions of the 1960s, and emerging critiques of racial discrimination in America (Maddrey
2004). Night of the Living Dead infused new vigor and vitality into the zombie genre,
irrevocably altering its form and function as well as establishing the zombie as a symbolic representation of societal ills—a pattern that continues in present-day cinema.1
When viewed as a whole and through the lens of time, we can see Romero’s films as
emblematic of the larger social changes taking place in American society. This is especially true for the two remakes; Night of the Living Dead (1990) and Dawn of the Dead
(2004). When compared with the originals, we see stark contrasts in both films. In the
1990 version of Night of the Living Dead, we see gender politics assume a more prominent role with the film’s lead female character, Barbara, taking on a more active role in
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Robert Wonser and David Boyns
self-preservation unlike the passive, frightened victim needing protection, as she was
portrayed in the original version. The Dawn of the Dead remake notably rids itself of the
overt commentary on consumerism in the shopping mall setting, focusing instead on
the mall as a region of social control and ending not, with a hopeful prospect of escape,
but with everyone’s fate in jeopardy. In line with a more modern, mediated world, the
film’s final moments are recorded via video camera; thus, documenting the decline of
civilization and humanity (Wetmore 2011).
As the millennium approached, the genre took a dramatic (and sometimes comedic)
turn toward faster, stronger, and more ingenious zombies, beginning with the parodic,
punk rock–inspired film Return of the Living Dead (1985). The emergence of the “fast
zombie” was solidified with the release of 28 Days Later (2002) where the speed, dexterity, and strength of zombies were taken to new levels of dangerousness and ferocity, all
with the intensity of a full-throttled sprint. Considering most of the zombie films since
28 Days have continued to feature fast zombies (e.g., the remake of Dawn of the Dead
[2004], and the sequel to 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later, the Resident Evil series, Zombieland, World War Z), it might be that the “fast zombie” is here to stay (there are of course
notable exceptions to fast-moving zombies from Romero himself and 2004’s Shaun of
the Dead). Symbolically of course, the move toward the fast-moving zombie mirrors
society’s seemingly increasing approach toward a postmodern “speed culture” (Gottschalk 1999) and “fast capitalism” (Agger 1989, 2004), and reflects a new fear altogether—that of rapid social change, particularly in an era of social media and rapid
information transmission. As we will explore below, these fast-moving zombies provide
some of the best analyses of the zombie as a contemporary, environmental pandemic.
ZOMBIE NARRATIVES: POSSESSION AND RISK
Zombies are uniquely positioned in the popular imagination as liminal figures: neither
fully dead nor fully alive. They are, instead, animated (or re-animated) corpses that are
“undead” (Leverette 2008). As an undead creature, the cinematic representation of the
zombie illustrates important principles related to the sociology of the individual, particularly related to cultural fears concerning self, identity, and stigma.
In the earliest examples of zombie cinema (particularly in the White Zombie era),
the loss of individual selfhood is a dominant theme. There, the fears of zombies are
those articulated through the possession narrative where individuals are typically threatened by a voodoo priest’s control over the human will through supernatural forces. In
such films, an individual’s loss of personal autonomy is a primary leitmotif, reflecting
the cultural fear of de-individualization and enslavement by callous and authoritarian
masters (usually able to exercise control through paranormal means). These films have
been considered a narrative reflection of the fears of fascism and communism of the
post–World War II era (Gunn and Treat 2005). But they also express an important subtext: loss of independence matched with rampant conformity are markers of a loss of a
distinct sense of self. As undead creatures, zombies are symbolic representations of the
consequences of the loss of self. However, it is not the mere fact that they are undead
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Between the Living and Undead
that is at issue in the world of cinema. Instead, because zombies are both undead and
without selfhood, they are somehow radically nonhuman. Other undead creatures that
appear in film do not carry the same connotation. Vampires, for example, are undead
but also, and most notably, they retain selfhood and are depicted much more sympathetically (George and Hughes 2013). As the popularly of the Twilight films attests, being
undead with selfhood makes vampires much more appealing than being a dehumanized
zombie, and is a state of being a human might actually find desirable.
As the zombie film genre has progressed beyond the focus on the possession narrative, the cinematic theme of the loss of selfhood has begun to more directly reflect a preoccupation with the risks of the modern world. Fears of individual zombie possession
have been replaced by a focus on enormous hordes of nameless, faceless zombies chasing, infecting, and transforming the living into a de-individualized, undead multitude.
Here, the zombie phenomenon has become massified, and threats of zombie infection
are vulnerabilities not only to individuals, but also to entire communities, nations, and
even civilizations. In the 21st–century zombie film, these narratives have taken on more
apocalyptic overtones; the threat is not only the loss of individual self, but also the possibility of the extermination of cultural selfhood, and of the extinction of human selfhood as a marker of the species.
In contemporary film narratives, zombie plagues have emerged as a consequence of
fallout from the uncertainties of modernity (Koven 2008), a result of what Beck (1992)
has called the “risk society” of the late-20th century. Such themes still retain a focus on
possession narratives, of becoming just another face in the zombie crowd; but these
themes are coupled with risk narratives that explore anxieties about the shortcomings of
modern technology. Whether it be from a radioactive probe (as in Night of the Living
Dead) or the release of a highly contagious socially engineered virus (as in Zombieland,
28 Days Later, and the Resident Evil films) the cause of the zombie pandemic is usually a
catastrophe of human origin. While selfhood remains imperiled in contemporary zombie cinema, this threat has apocalyptic connotations and is a prominent, sociological
subtext that drives today’s popular preoccupation with zo …
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