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We Are the Disease: Apocalypse Porn, the American Zombie, and WORLD WAR Z

We Are the Disease: Apocalypse Porn, the American Zombie, and WORLD WAR Z

If there’s one
thing World War Z proves, it’s that
the apocalypse can be more than just exhilarating; it can be downright
gorgeous. There’s a certain splendor in chaos, and the film’s creators make
full use of their oft-discussed budget
by sparing not a single moment of grisly stimulation. But if viewers were interested
in aesthetics alone, they’d find no shortage
of outlets elsewhere. Mirroring
and building upon a similar fixation in the 1980s, what World War Z so effectively embodies is the American obsession with
the very idea of apocalypse: the myriad ways we will ruin ourselves, how we
will cope with that ruin, and how we will start over.

In his article,
Pessimism Porn,” Hugo
Lindgren describes our amplified interest in financial collapse following the
economic downturn of the past half-decade, and how this interest manifests in
our daily habits:

“Like real
porn, the economic variety gives you the illusion of control, and similarly it
only leaves you hungry for more. But econo-porn also feeds a powerful sense of
intellectual vanity. You walk the streets feeling superior to all these
heedless knaves who have no clue what’s coming down the pike. By making
yourself miserable about the frightful hell that awaits us, you feel better.
Pessimism can be bliss too.”

Our interest in
the all-out catastrophe witnessed in World
War Z
, though, extends beyond basic entertainment and narcissism; it speaks
to a deep-rooted unrest felt most keenly by Generations X and Y. Where pessimism
porn traffics in the pleasure derived from economic collapse, apocalypse porn
stems from a desire for a cultural refashioning; it’s a reaction to our
implicit involvement in structures we feel powerless
to alter
. We’re aware of the problems we face and that we’re a part of
them, but we don’t necessarily understand where our fault lies, and,
transitively, how we’d begin to right our wrongs. Meanwhile, we feel like we’re
doing better than ever: we’re more socially conscious, less bigoted, less
wasteful. Yet income
equality
and class resentment are on the rise, careless environmental practices lead to
greater damage and catastrophe by the day, and our political system often seems
more invested in protecting
partisan interests
than solution-oriented legislation. These systems are so
deeply entrenched in the framework of modern America that to “undo” them would
take years of dedicated work built around assumptions that could prove to have
been incorrect all along.

Zombies, on the
other hand? You can just kill them.

And it feels
good to see the supposed undead put to bloody rest. They’re the hyperbolic
analog for everything Americans hate about themselves and each other: they
consume blindly and beyond what they need to survive, they’re incapable of
empathy, and they lack the agency to make any decision beyond bloodlust. Their
punishment—if killing them is even to be considered punishment—is purely
functional, inviting the easy, naïve morality of criminal justice into action
pulp, shifting the focus from the more complicated matrix of culpability and hardship
to the catharsis of strategy.

It is an
accepted fact that dehumanization
occurs as a coping mechanism during wartime; in order to sterilize the emotional
toll of killing, we distance ourselves from the humanity of our enemies. Zombies
don’t even require that effort—they’re pre-packaged humanoid monsters. Part of
what makes World War Z such a
quintessential exemplar of apocalypse porn, in fact, is in its portrayal of these
iconic creatures. In keeping with 28 Days
Later
, the zombies in this film are not the slow-moving mutes of bygone
days. They’re powerful, capable of swift damage, best observed in scenes like
the closer to the film’s trailer. But World
War Z
owes as much to pandemic films like Contagion as it does to 28
Days
; the zombies’ real power lies in infestation, not singular scares. Often
depicted from the bird’s eye, in plain sight, they appear more an insect swarm
than individual teeth gnashers. From such a remove, they leave the impression
of scrambling ants
in the moment the anthill is kicked (particularly set against the sandy
backdrop of Jerusalem). This persistence in focusing on the macro—exhibited visually
through the sustained use of aerial cinematography—reveals the film’s interest
in keeping the isolated humanity (or loss thereof) from the viewer’s mind.

Distraction plays
a vital role; World War Z is no
character study. We’re supposed to be too busy rooting for the success of Brad
Pitt’s Gerry Lane amid ballooning crisis-mode, tactical narratives to notice
the millions turned into killing automatons. Most of the plot is spurred by
ticking time bomb scenarios that, if solved, serve to instigate new ones. The
ostensibly research-oriented mission to Camp Humphreys in South Korea, for
instance, devolves almost immediately into a laundry list of action tropes, all
of which disregard the human lives lost in escorting Lane back to a freshly fueled
helicopter. It is not uncommon for action films to care little for its supporting
and peripheral characters, but the gravitas of apocalypse bears greater weight than
the typical action flick—speculating about human behavior in the fallout opens
up, in theory, greater possibilities for psychological exploration in even the
most banal moments. The film’s insistence in defaulting to detached expressions
of violence, if nothing else, marks a yearning for simplistic morality in the
face of complex problems.

The zombie also
functions as a powerful allegory for maturation to adulthood in modern America,
symptomatic
of the recession. Prospective workers have witnessed a drop
in available jobs, worsening
conditions
in existing ones, and a rise in office and temp culture, where
purpose and fulfillment often seem like an afterthought. In their place,
notions of money and competition are incentivized above all, leading to general
disconnectedness that induces a zombie-like state of routine drudgery, where the agency to seek
out meaningful work feels stripped away rather than abdicated.

In a larger
sense, we feel monstrous. We feel tampered with. Unchecked government developments
like surveillance
and “killer
robots
” cause us to doubt that our fundamental rights will be honored.
Finding food without genetic modification or carcinogens
has become an increasingly herculean task, not to mention expensive. As social
media and the rat race of Internet journalism merge, reports of crime and
brutality pervade in what were once private spaces. The symbiosis between media
and mass opinion (as depicted in Bowling
for Columbine
over a decade ago) leaves the impression of a sinister
world—a self-fulfilling prophecy when it has become easier than ever for the
individual to wreak mass havoc in the form of shootings and bombings. Widespread
availability of advanced nuclear technologies allows any group to threaten
already precarious international relations on rapid timeframes, compounding
paranoia. Whether justifiably or not, we feel the itchy anxiety of impending
doom, as if we’re slowly clicking up the tracks of a steep roller coaster. In
response, we turn to entertainment to incite the ride’s drop—to rip off the
proverbial scab and “get it over with.” The line between thrill and addiction,
though, is a fine one, and whether this escapism is cathartic or exacerbating
is still up to debate.

Much like the
disparity between America and Europe’s relationship
with green practices, Europe has leapt ahead in its use of apocalyptic material
in media, transcending the pornographic quality exhibited in World War Z. Within the same fatalist
impulse, shows such as In the Flesh
and Les Revenants approach from an
altogether different angle: rehabilitation. They incorporate the disaster, but
the emotional register deals little with the disaster itself. Instead, these
films focus on the intimate, personal struggles faced by characters attempting
to rebuild their lives after unspeakable (or unknown)
trauma. It should be acknowledged here that World
War Z
is and has been
intended to be the first installment of a franchise. The film has moments that seem
to encourage concepts of teamwork and restoration—particularly in the tonally
inconsistent third act—which leaves hope that sequels might incorporate the
humanism of its source
text
, but only time will tell.

After being
extricated from the zombie infestation of Philadelphia to an aircraft carrier in
the Atlantic Ocean, Gerry Lane is asked by his former U.N. boss to join a
special operations unit charged with locating the source of the outbreak. Lane
is more than a little reluctant to leave his family, but after his initial
refusal, the naval commander standing by says to him, “Take a look around you, Mr. Lane. Each and every one of these
people [is] here because they serve a purpose. There’s no room here for
non-essential personnel. You want to help your family, let’s figure out how we
stop this. It’s your choice, Mr. Lane.” Purpose. Choice. Doesn’t sound
half bad, zombies and all.

Jesse Damiani is Series Co-Editor for Best American
Experimental Writing (Omnidawn, 2014). He lives in Madison,
WI.

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Comments

Elliott

This is one of the most beautifully compact digests of the zombie craze I've read. I think part of the problem is that blockbusters are getting so big and so general that they need huge subjects like the apocalypse to justify themselves, and it's only playing into our feelings of helplessness with regard to intangible power structures and zomboid office culture. I haven't seen "World War Z" (though it was practically the only blockbuster this year I wanted to), but I think the use of zombies as cannon fodder goes back much further; zombies have long been an easy out for nihilistic-hack commercial filmmakers who want the "fun" of showing hordes of people getting fragged detached from any kind of moral or intellectual responsibility.

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