A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
As far as I can tell from common usage, a zombie is a former human being whose dead body has been reanimated. Zombies walk around in a stiff stupor and often want to kill and eat humans as their only way to survive. While not all zombies feed on humans, most of them do in popular fiction, video games and movies, which connects zombism directly to vampirism.
The vampire, and by extension the zombie, is the perfect image for an age when selfishness reigns as the underlying ideology. I call it the “Age of Reagan” because it was under Ronald Reagan’s leadership that the country began its turn towards selfishness. Reagan expressed it best with his oft-told joke with the punch line, “I don’t have to run faster than the bear, just faster than you.” A human creature who stays alive by sucking the blood of other humans is an apt metaphor for the current epoch in which our social and economic policy creates small numbers of ultra-wealthy Americans, while everyone else gets poorer. In a real sense, the wealthy feed off the bodies and work of the rest of the country.
Five years ago in my blog, I noted the vampire fad and predicted it would continue because it served so well as a symbol for the zeitgeist. The spin-off these past few years into zombism is therefore not surprising. A five-minute Internet search yielded the following list of zombie or zombie-vampire television series showing on broadcast, cable, premium cable or Internet television: “The Walking Dead,” “Z Nation,” “Dead Set, Death Valley,” “In the Flesh, Raised by Zombies,” “Ash vs. Evil Dead,” “The Returned “and “Zombie Hunter: City of the Dead,” to name a few. I’ve assiduously avoided this nonsense, but sometimes see the promotions for these shows while channel surfing.
The zombie is not exactly a vampire and doesn’t hold exactly the same subtextual symbolism. Unlike the vampire, who is generally a loner or runs in small packs and usually comes from a privileged background, the zombie is a creature of groups. Whereas the vampire represents the capitalist, the horde of zombies may in fact be stand-ins for illegal immigrants, who are currently getting the blame for many of our problems by most Republicans. Criminals, rapists, stealers of jobs from honest Americans, users of our social safety net—these zombies who live off the body politic come from the dregs of society, not the higher planes as many vampires do. Mitt Romney was the perfect vampire, whereas Donald Trump projects himself as the ruthless superhero protecting us from the zombies.
The latest entry into zombie entertainment caught me by complete surprise: a new movie titled Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The trailer makes the movie look like a martial-humans-versus-supernatural-monsters flick set in the late 18th century.
Not recognizing the title merely shows how out of the mainstream of pop culture I can be when it comes to adult horror and fantasy fiction, because as it turns out, the movie called “P&P&Z,” as I’m going to abbreviate it, is based on a 2009 novel by the same name. According to the Wikipedia article on the novel, about 85% of it repeats Jane Austen’s original words, which are now in public domain and therefore available for use without royalty payments. The author, Seth Grahame-Smith, interweaves several subplots about the living dead into Austen’s classic story of star-crossed lovers kept apart by their own foibles of pride and prejudice.
Not the author, but the publisher, is responsible for creating the concept of interjecting zombism into Jane Austen. Quirk Books editor Jason Rekulak developed the idea for “P&P&Z” after matching a list of popular supernatural characters with a list of books whose titles are in the public domain. Once he came up with Pride and Prejudice and zombies, he turned the project over to a writer, much as a marketing vice president would turn an industrial video, a television ad campaign or website concept over to a PR writer.
I usually don’t depend this much on the contents of a Wikipedia article, but the Wikipedia description of the opening of the novel gives a pungent sense of the odd pastiche produced by combining Jane Austen with the living dead:
“Elizabeth Bennet and her four sisters live on a countryside estate with their parents. Mr. Bennet guides his daughters in martial arts and weapons training, molding them into a fearsome zombie-fighting army; meanwhile, Mrs. Bennet endeavors to marry the girls off to wealthy suitors. When the wealthy and single Mr. Bingley purchases a nearby house, Mrs. Bennet spies an opportunity and sends the girls to the first ball where Bingley is expected to appear. The girls defend the party from a zombie attack, and attraction sparks between Mr. Bingley and the eldest daughter Jane Bennet. Elizabeth clashes with Bingley’s friend, the haughty monster-hunter Fitzwilliam Darcy.”
Elizabeth and Darcy have become superheroes, while maintaining their upper class country English breeding. As a “Saturday Night Live” skit, I would think it a hoot of a travesty. But in a full-length novel or movie, I imagine that the joke quickly becomes boring and the tongue gets a little tired firmly stuck in the cheek for hours at a time. Plus the frequent interjections of violence must quickly overcome the humor of mixing 18th century gentry with zombies.
Those who believe that this triumph of marketing over creativity reflects the bankrupt spirit of western culture should remember that the practice of a business person giving a concept that mixes unlike elements to an artist goes back at least to Roman times, when the Emperor Augustus’ political advisor Maecenas gave the well-known poet Virgil the task of creating a Roman epic that incorporated elements of the Iliad and the Odyssey into it, but with a Roman hero. In a sense, the early Renaissance paintings which depict the family of the person who paid for the artwork adoring the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child perform the same kind of genre mixing and for the same reason: to make money. We could analyze for days what makes the Aeneid or Botticelli’s “The Adoration of the Magi” great art and ”P&P&Z” a piece of titillating dreck. The points we would discuss include artistic technique, depth and consistency of characters, avoidance of the explicit, historical significance and discussions of or allusions to great issues.
As a cultural document reflecting its time, “P&P&Z” may be more telling than the Aeneid or Renaissance art, which after all, reflected the predilections and fears of a small sliver of the population, the wealthy. “P&P&Z” incorporates the politics of selfishness in its most extreme manifestation—consuming other people to survive and killing the worthless living dead who threaten to overrun the stable society of the prosperous living. It therefore both reflects and ameliorates the fears many have of falling behind in an economic system in which 95% of the population has stagnated or lost ground over the past three decades, while elected officials have used tax and spending policies literally to take money from the poor and middle class and give it to the wealthy, and then placed the blame on the poor themselves.
Copyright 2016 Marc Jampole