Our zombies, ourselves

I’m reminded, whenever I think about zombies, of an op-ed, written by Amy Wilentz, a UC-Irvine journalism prof, that ran in the New York Times around Halloween a few years ago. It had to do with the origins of zombies in the context of New World slavery — a different (but related?) kind of zombie economy to the one we encounter in Train to Busan, with its blood-sucking hedge-funders. Some highlights:

Most people think of [zombies] as the walking dead, a being without a soul or someone with no free will. This is true. But the zombie is not an alien enemy who’s been CGI-ed by Hollywood. He is a New World phenomenon that arose from the mixture of old African religious beliefs and the pain of slavery, especially the notoriously merciless and coldblooded slavery of French-run, pre-independence Haiti. In Africa, a dying person’s soul might be stolen and stoppered up in a ritual bottle for later use. But the full-blown zombie was a very logical offspring of New World slavery.

Wilentz asks, near the end of her piece, why we see such a resurgence of zombies in popular culture in recent years, and offers this explanation:

Of course, the zombie is scary in a primordial way, but in a modern way, too. He’s the living dead, but he’s also the inanimate animated, the robot of industrial dystopias. He’s great for fascism: one recent zombie movie (and there have been many) was called “The Fourth Reich.” The zombie is devoid of consciousness and therefore unable to critique the system that has entrapped him. He’s labor without grievance. He works free and never goes on strike. You don’t have to feed him much. He’s a Foxconn worker in China; a maquiladora seamstress in Guatemala; a citizen of North Korea; he’s the man, surely in the throes of psychosis and under the thrall of extreme poverty, who, years ago, during an interview, told me he believed he had once been a zombie himself.

It would be interesting to put Wilentz’s argument in conversation with the sense we get from Train to Busan that global corporate capitalism — the legacy and perpetuator, in many ways, of the slave trade that fueled the first global economy — can’t help but be a zombie-making machine. Lots more to talk about in relation to Busan: communication, quarantine, government, empathy, but this origin story is one place to start.


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  1. The issue about corporate capitalism came to mind while I watched the movie. The fund manager’s (the main character) selfish attitude before and during the outbreak speaks about how deep corporate capitalism has eaten into him. And this could be because of the occupation he chose, which turned him into a zombie (ie channeling his thoughts and emotions to personal interests and being able to adjust his character to situations) before he became an actual zombie. Although the movie does not present a clear evidence the of origin of the outbreak (except a leak in a plant, which was somewhat unclear), I kept thinking ‘what if it was launched by a bio tech company that wants to profit from it?’. Seems like something capitalism could cause.
    Mission Impossible II strongly relates to corporate capitalism. In the movie, a bio tech company manufactures a virus and its cure, with the objective of making money from infecting and curing people. The movie is a good one and is worth watching.

  2. In my opinion, the movie summed up nicely many of the issues we were dealing with this semester. From The Decameron to Ebola we have seen how a disease affects all, regardless of their status or social class. Contagion causes a restructuring of social class, where everybody is on the same playing field. We can see this in Train to Busan where the disease has brought everyone together, and the fund manager and coal worker were suddenly facing the same problem and fought alongside each other.

    Another thing I found interesting was the movie’s ending. We finished our last class talking about endings and the ending of Train to Busan, Ebola, and Angels of America have something in common as they provide the audience with a glimpse of hope. The Train to Busan ends a with pregnant woman and a child (the only two survivors from the train) walking into safety. These two characters both represent life and a glimpse of a better future as the pregnant woman is carrying a life inside of her and the child is young and so has her whole life ahead of her. Similarly, Angles in America ends on a hopeful note where Prior ‘survives’ (lives over 4 years with AIDS) and blesses the audience with “more life” and suggests that life will go. In Ebola, although we do not know the actual ending of the story, we get a hypothetical one where Ebola would “release its suffering victims.” Out of all the possible scenarios, Elsir chose this one with a glimpse of hope. This raises the question: is presenting a glimpse of hope a version of a happy ending for contagion narratives? And can we boil down some of these contagion narratives as somebody has come to town, destroyed most of it, but life goes on?

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