July 1, 2013
Death To Zombies
by Natasha Vargas-Cooper
A pop culture journalist on how films use zombies as a metaphor for AIDS.
Our paranormal epics, action flicks, and monster movies are stuffed with metaphor. The billion-dollar success of Christopher Nolan’s bleak Dark Knight alerted studio executives back in 2008: metaphorical thinking was in. Summer blockbusters could grapple with bigger themes and darker allegories without turning off their sebum-soaked ticketholders. This gimmick has seeped across all the blockbuster industries: graphic novels, television, young adult books. You’re surely familiar with the biggies by now: The mutant struggle for assimilation is about gay civil rights. Vampires represent our anxiety about dying alone or, worse, never dying alone. Zombies, their uprising, and our anticipated armed struggle against the undead horde is metaphor for plague—specifically, AIDS.
Zombie films were initially allegories on race or consumerism; even Land of the Dead is, in its own quirky way, about Marxism. But George Romero no longer holds claim over the zombie genre as he once did. That kind of metaphorical thinking could and still can be invigorating: Recasting moral dilemmas in new or unfamiliar terms, like District 9’s treatment of apartheid. But, as Susan Sontag wrote in "Against Interpretation," metaphorical thinking can also be “reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, and stifling.” Of all the double meanings and allegories pumped out by the Summer Movie Industrial Complex, the zombie metaphor is the by far the most useless and cowardly. World War Z is both the most recent and obnoxious example. Like many of its pop culture predecessors, the movie obscures the real legacy of AIDS, further dehumanizes people with AIDS and bombards the viewer with so much fantastical terror and paranoia that actual moral dilemmas of the modern plague are left to wither.
Could the makers of zombie pop products like "The Walking Dead" or World War Z simply be using general disease, not just AIDS, as a metaphor? It’s possible but unlikely. World War Z author Max Brooks is of two minds. "I think zombie stories express the current societal anxieties we’re all confronting on a daily basis," he said in an interview, but also… this:
The notion of a walking plague also terrifies me, and that comes from growing in the 1980s. When I was a kid, I watched AIDS go from an obscure, arcane curiosity to a global pandemic. What drove me crazy was that unlike the Black Death or the Spanish Influenza, AIDS could have simply been stopped by a pamphlet: A couple dos and don’ts, a little education and clear-headed leadership and it might have ended up as a footnote in a virologists’ medical text. If that’s not zombies, I don’t know what is. Like AIDS, they’re very easy to stop, and with the right clear-headed leadership, they could be wiped out before ever becoming a threat.
Zombie narratives don’t mimic the spread of polio, syphilis, or the slow creep of cancer. Instead Zombie Pop cherry-picks from the most macabre elements of the AIDS crisis: A virus from an unknown origin laying siege to the human body, disease spread through body fluid, polluted blood, irreversible effects, living skeletons, victims as pariahs, gruesome deaths, no cure in sight.
Early on in the film, when the zombies first ‘break loose’ and the normies start looting supplies, Brad Pitt’s wife, on her way to pillage asthma medicine for her wheezing daughter, is overtaken by some men and almost raped. This could have been a cheap and easy way to put the protective mother figure in peril or, perhaps, it was an equally cheap echo of the heterosexual terror of unknown fluids.
While there are some exotic diseases that haunt the modern psyche—like Ebola or leprosy—none have yet reached the pandemic level of HIV. AIDS is what gives game developers, comic book writers, script doctors and screenwriters the real-life template for a modern plague. And still the metaphor fails repeatedly to instigate any new or worthy thinking about the disease.
The zombie narrative leaps over one of the most agonizing moral questions of disease: what to do with the infected who are not sick? This category of person does not exist in the zombie universe. If you are bitten, or zombie blood gets into your system, you “turn," usually (and ridiculously) within seconds. "The Walking Dead" only makes a gesture to the ‘infected but not sick’ category by making everyone a carrier of the mysterious zombie virus. This trick serves no purpose other than quickly killing off the mortally injured with a bullet to the skull. No one survives becoming a zombie. Once turned, an infected person can only consume and infect others. It is either/or.
There is, creators find, only one rational solution: total war. The mechanized carnage that follows, the skulls exploded by close range bullets, the infected herd machine-gunned down, forces the squeamish viewer to accept this new world order of violence. What else could be done? Hooray for the world police.
If only it were so simple, you think. Perhaps it almost was. During peak AIDS hysteria in the late 1980s, a Los Angeles Times poll found that 50% of the adults surveyed supported a quarantine of people with AIDS, 48% would approve of identity cards for people with HIV; 15% favored tattooing AIDS victims. Can you tattoo zombies?
Zombies are, at least, easy to spot. People with HIV are not. AIDS had its own alleged zombie though. A storyline put forward by AIDS biographer Randy Shilts was made up of rumors about a so-called Patient Zero willfully infecting other men with the disease. Gaetan Dugas, a Canadian flight attendant, who claimed to have slept with over 2,000 men, would go to gay bathhouses and engage in unprotected sex. The story went that Dugas would flip on the light and say, “I have gay cancer. I’m going to die and so are you.” When a doctor confronted Dugas about his hideous behavior, Dugas is reported to have responded: “It's their duty to protect themselves. They know what's going on out there. They've heard about this disease.”
Unfortunately for pretty much everyone, Dugas' tale was trotted out at the behest of Shilts' book publicist. His status as promiscuous proto-zombie came because of his links in a study to eight other men. He wasn't even the first case of HIV in Quebec. (And the "zero" in Patient Zero was actually the letter "O.")
What to do with the story of a man like that? In "World War Z," our incongruously long-haired family man hero goes hunting for Patient Zero. What does he find? Well, nothing. It's basically a MacGuffin. Instead of Zombie Mary, we find Damon Lindelof's hastily inserted third act, the one that saved the production from total disintegration. But what an idea! Let’s say before our democracy collapses under the weight of a million of ravenous corpses: how do you protect the rights of an individual and the general public at the same time? When is the government allowed to intervene in the sex lives of others? What tools do they use? Shotgun, axe, or bat? What if Patient Zero was played by Bill Murray in the movie version? Would that change your answer?
Another trope of the zombie genre, and perhaps its most pernicious, is its depiction of government reaction to the infected. The response, even if done in secret, is swift and brutal. In World War Z, Israel imposes a self-quarantine, walling off the entire country to outsiders (except Brad Pitt, he can come and go whenever he wants, collecting children along the way). In the novel of World War Z, Iran and Pakistan destroy each other through nuclear warfare after Iran tries to cut off the flow of Pakistani refugees fleeing the zombie plague. America, acting in secret, sends out tactical sniper teams to stomp out the emerging zombie threat before launching a full-scale slaughter. These scenes, in the book and movie, are meant to provoke some sort of thought in the audience about government overreach—the opposite of AIDS, incidentally, where what was most harrowing was a decade-long indifference.
The classic comparison—Shilts made it often, to his credit—was to the outbreak of Legionnaire's disease. On August 1st, 1985 the number of people who had died from AIDS was 12,062; the CDC declared AIDS to be an epidemic. The Reagan administration, which declared AIDS their “top priority," set the public education budget for AIDS at $120,000. In, 1976 members of the American Legion met for a three-day convention in Philadelphia. Three attendees died within the week. Two weeks after the convention 130 attendees—all white men between the ages of 39-82—were hospitalized for chest pains and fever. The CDC mounted a huge investigation effort; the Ford administration encouraged all American citizens to get vaccinated against the new killer flu. In November of 1976, there were congressional hearings into the CDC’s findings. The story of the new killer flu got the cover of Newsweek and Time. Six months in, scientists figured out that disease came from a bacteria (the genus was later named legionella after its victims), spread through the convention by the hotel’s air conditioning system. Fewer than 200 documented cases of death by Legionnaire's exist to date.
“This horrible disease afflicts members of one of the nation’s most stigmatized and discriminated minorities,” Congressman Henry Waxman told the Subcommittee on Health and Environment, during one of the first official probes into AIDS in 1982. “There is no doubt in my mind that, if the same disease had appeared among Americans of Norwegian descent, or among tennis players, rather than gay males, the responses of both the government and medical community would have been different.”
But nobody neglects zombies. You simply can't. And while they may not be easy to kill off, but unlike the gay men and poor people and women of color with HIV, they at least weren't ignored to death.
Let’s call the the zombie metaphor over. It was a neat experiment, but also a collective failure of nerve and creativity. It’s a dead idea. I think the rest of us who are not scheduled to attend any zombie flash mobs this summer are tired of it; at least, I am. The box office seems to agree. While the film pulled off a decent Brad Pitt opening (and a zombie movie that opened with 50% female ticket-buyers!), this weekend the squeaky-clean, metaphor-packed Monster’s University—a paranormal take on privilege and bootstrapping—toppled Brad Pitt’s undead war epic.
Whatever hope there was after 28 Days Later, Danny Boyle’s 2002 masterpiece, for using the zombie metaphor to say anything of significance has been obliterated by the proliferation of facile shoot-‘em-ups. Filmmakers, showrunners, and writers continue to ruthlessly mine the AIDS epidemic—and fear of the AIDS epidemic—for material. And then, constructing their stories, they go on to trivialize one of history’s greatest catastrophes with cowardly and moronic plot lines.
Natasha Vargas-Cooper will eat your face. This article was originally published at The Awl.
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