Les zombies, c’est vous

Thomas Jones

  • Zone One by Colson Whitehead
    Harvill Secker, 259 pp, £14.99, October 2011, ISBN 978 1 84655 598 5

Zombies, thousands of them. At the movies, on TV, in computer games, on Facebook, roaming the streets in protest or for kicks, the undead hordes have never been more prevalent. They’re a relatively new phenomenon, as monsters in Western horror go, lacking the canonical pedigree of werewolves or vampires. But the plague spreads quickly. The zombie as it emerged in 20th-century American popular culture, though nominally a figure looted from Haitian folklore, is a recombination of familiar mythological tropes: reanimated corpses, anthropophagy, brainwashing, speechlessness, herd instinct. The first zombie movie is generally reckoned to be Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932), in which Bela Lugosi plays a mill owner in Haiti who uses voodoo to control his black zombie workers, and to enslave a young white American woman who’s engaged to one of his neighbours. As Kyle William Bishop writes in American Zombie Gothic: The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popular Culture, ‘this germinal film presented audiences with the exoticism of the Caribbean, a fear of domination and subversion, and the perpetuation of the imperialist model of cultural and racial hegemony.’[*]

The modern zombie, however, lurched from its grave in 1968, in George Romero’s low-budget masterpiece Night of the Living Dead. Although the monsters besieging the remote Pennsylvanian farmhouse where our heroes are holed up are never referred to as zombies (‘ghouls’, they are called, or at first simply ‘those things’), Night of the Living Dead set the ground rules for most subsequent zombie narratives: the survivors build barricades out of doors, ironing-boards and whatever else is to hand, and fight with tyre irons, crowbars and shotguns; the ghouls are motivated only by an insatiable craving for human flesh, and can be killed only by having their brains blown out; and so on. There are variables, reflecting the shifting focus of our anxieties: in Romero’s film, the recently dead are indiscriminately reanimated by radiation from a space probe Nasa destroyed on its way back from Venus. In later stories zombieism is more likely to be caused by a virus or genetic mutation, and is often – as in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One – spread by biting.

Night of the Living Dead subverted the genre even as it was inventing it. The hero, famously and unprecedentedly, is black. According to Romero this wasn’t premeditated; Duane Jones was just the best actor who auditioned for the role. Jones’s character, Ben, isn’t very heroic: he’s brimming with authority, but has as little clue as anyone else how to deal with the undead hammering at the doors, and his clear priority is to save himself – which no one else, in the movie or the audience, is in any position to judge him for. Night of the Living Dead doesn’t sublimate the racism indulged in by its precursors – in many respects Zulu qualifies as a zombie film, as do a fair number of cowboys-and-Indians movies – but inverts and exposes it. As Whitehead said of it in a recent interview, ‘Black guy on the run from hordes of insane white people who want to tear him limb from limb? What’s more American than that?’

Not everyone saw it that way, however. What the film’s many imitators principally took away from it was the besieging army of slathering ghouls. The undead are ideal cannon fodder for a violent and morally uncomplicated massacre; the good guys can slaughter them with impunity because they’re already dead. The same could in a sense be said of suicide bombers – or, at least, of the brainwashed dead men walking with implacable murderous intent who have haunted the Western imaginary over the past decade – which may in part explain the recent zombie resurgence. In Theories of International Politics and Zombies, Daniel Drezner reproduces some graphs plotting the sharp rise in zombie activity since the turn of the millennium.[†] It so happens that the generally accepted way to incapacitate the footsoldiers of both horror and terror is by shooting them in the head.

Night of the Living Dead’s ending is still shocking even when you know what’s going to happen: it’s the next morning, the sun’s up, the cavalry (so to speak) arrive at the farmhouse. Ben shows his face at a window and is shot in the head. ‘OK, he’s dead,’ the sheriff says. ‘Let’s go get him. That’s another one for the fire.’ The distinctions between the living and the undead break down over the course of the movie, not only because human characters die and rise again as ghouls, but because characters’ – and viewers’ – perceptions are increasingly unreliable. The forces of law and order look like just another wave of ghouls when they first appear walking across the fields towards the farmhouse; they tend to make the same assumption about anyone who crosses their path. You can see how easily things can go wrong. Sanction the use of lethal force against would-be suicide bombers, and before you know it a Brazilian electrician is lying dead on the floor of a Tube train with seven bullets in his head.

All this isn’t to say that zombies straightforwardly ‘are’ suicide bombers. Another reason they’ve shown such longevity and resilience is that they are so metaphorically open. As Whitehead puts it in Zone One, which is set in downtown Manhattan in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, the survivors putting down the undead ‘all saw something different as they dropped the creatures.’ In 1968 a certain cross-section of conservative white America would presumably have looked in the mirror held up to them by Night of the Living Dead and seen only Viet Cong, Watts rioters, protesting students. In his preface to Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, published in 1961, Sartre told Europeans who once saw their colonised subjects as zombies that, now, ‘les zombies, c’est vous.’ What he didn’t – couldn’t – say was ‘les zombies, c’est nous.’ Zombies, as he didn’t quite put it elsewhere, are other people.

Identify with the plucky band of sympathetic individuals defending themselves against the murderous onslaught of an undifferentiated horde, as the stories invite you to, and the zombie threat taps into atavistic fears of death, disease, decay, enslavement, cannibalism; but consider the situation from the outside – a privileged minority uses extreme violence to protect its property against the starving crowd battering at the gates – and the moral certainties collapse like a flimsily assembled barricade. Looking at the Statue of Liberty across the harbour from Battery Park, one of the characters in Zone One thinks: ‘Give me your poor, your hungry, your suppurating masses yearning to eat.’

In the opening scene of Whitehead’s novel, which at times reads like a movie treatment, a boy goes with his parents to visit his cool uncle at his 19th-floor apartment in the city, equipped with the latest in hitech home entertainment systems and a big-breasted girlfriend. ‘The boy watched TV and loitered by the glass walls, looking out on the city through smoky anti-UV glass.’ The skyline fades from late 20th-century exhaust-stained cityscape to post-apocalyptic rain-and-ash-smeared ruin. The boy is now a man, world-weary, unwashed and carrying a gun. ‘He turned from the window’ and ‘kicked in the door to Human Resources’. Which is ironic. ‘They were on him in an instant … He was the first live human being the dead had seen since the start, and the former ladies of HR were starving.’ He survives, of course.

Zone One’s unheroic hero is known as Mark Spitz. We never learn what his name was before the cataclysm; many survivors go only by nicknames. Mark Spitz (never Mark or Spitz) was given his after refusing to jump off a bridge into a river to escape a lorryload of ravenous ‘skels’ – as the more aggressive zombies are known – but standing his ground on top of a car and gunning them all down. ‘He’d laughed along with everyone else, but later he had to look up Mark Spitz, in a surreptitious mission for an old paper encyclopedia.’ There’s no internet after the apocalypse, of course. We’re only 30 pages from the end when Mark Spitz tells Gary, a fellow zombie hunter, how he came by his nickname, adding: ‘Plus the black-people-can’t-swim thing.’ This is the first explicit mention in the text of Mark Spitz’s skin colour (Gary, we’re told early on, ‘had a granite complexion, grey and pitted skin’). ‘He found it unlikely that Gary was not in ownership of a master list of racial, gender and religious stereotypes, cross-indexed with corresponding punchlines as well as meta-textual dissection of those punchlines, but … there was a single Us now, reviling a single Them.’ Another character says: ‘The whole thing breaks down unless you are fundamentally sure that they are not you.’ But the differences between ‘stragglers’ – catatonic zombies, the standing rather than walking dead – and survivors are blurry, and get blurrier.

Mark Spitz and Gary, under the command of Kaitlyn, are Omega Unit (the name a nod to the 1971 movie The Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston, one of the many adaptations of Robert Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend, also a major influence on Night of the Living Dead). An enormous wall has been built across Manhattan, along Canal Street, and the area south of it, Zone One, is being cleared of undead to make it safe again for human habitation. Squads of marines went in first to deal with the massed ranks of violent skels; now small teams of armed civilians, known as ‘sweepers’, are clearing out the last of the stragglers. The operation is being run from Buffalo, the seat of the new proto-government. ‘Now the world was muck. But systems die hard – they outlive their creators and unlike plagues do not require individual hosts – and thus it was a well-organised muck with a hierarchy, accountability and, increasingly, paperwork.’

In interviews, Whitehead plays down the allegorical side of the novel. The papers may be full of stories about zombie banks, and Zone One may be set in New York’s financial district, but Whitehead says he ‘wasn’t trying to capture any particular aspect of our current economic disaster. I’d like the book to continue to be read five years, ten years from now, and wouldn’t want it tied to the national mood circa 2010.’ Many of the characters show a similar optimism, believing that the zombie plague will be eradicated and civilisation back on its feet in short order.

One of the survivors ‘carried a big red marker in his utility vest and liked to draw clumsy clown grins on the slack faces of the stragglers’. ‘Then he pressed the muzzle of his assault rifle to the temple of Mr Chuckles or Her Most Exalted Highness the Lady Griselda, smiled for the birdie, and had Angela take a picture before he splattered their craniums.’ There can’t be many people who’ll read this without thinking of Private Lynndie England. ‘I’ve been getting questions about Abu Ghraib and 9/11 references in the book,’ Whitehead has said. ‘It seems to me that soldiers have been abusing prisoners in plenty of conflicts prior to our latest desert excursion, and that the world is so chock-full of life-altering disasters that to merely associate that Post-Calamity Feeling with the destruction of the Twin Towers seems … exclusionary.’ That may be so, but it isn’t as if readers are inventing the associations either.

There’s no obvious satirical target, intended or otherwise, for the descriptions of post-apocalyptic zombie management, but the details are gruesomely comic:

For the first few weeks they tossed the bodies out the windows. It was efficient. The likelihood of harming passersby was infinitesimal. The unsuspecting, the caught unawares, the out for a smoke. They lugged the bodies to the sill and heaved them out. Confronted with the beggar’s slit of a safety window, they shot out the glass. Disinclined to lift the window, they shot out the glass.

Eventually the disposal teams that collect the body bags and take them to the incinerators complain about the mess on the pavements so the defenestration has to stop.

Zone One is set over the course of a weekend – ‘a conditioned part of him submitted to end-of-the-week lassitude, even if Fridays had lost their meaning. Hard to believe that reconstruction had progressed so far that clock-watching had returned, the slacker’s code, the concept of weekend’ – with many flashbacks, perhaps too many, to Mark Spitz’s life before the plague hit, and his time surviving alone in the wasteland before the helicopter scooped him off to Buffalo.

One of the great things about Night of the Living Dead is that it doesn’t waste any time filling in back story: it doesn’t matter how Ben got to rural Pennsylvania, only what happens once he’s there. Mark Spitz is fixated on his past but Zone One doesn’t make it very interesting for the rest of us. Before the plague, he was living in his parents’ basement and commuting to a terrible job in Chelsea, working in a multinational coffee chain’s Customer Relationship Management, New Media Department. On Last Night, as it’s known, he came home from a trip to Atlantic City to find his mother eating his father in their bedroom. ‘When he was six, he had walked in on his mother giving his father a blow job … It was, naturally, to that night his thoughts fled.’ Parents gone, he’s out on his own. But surely it was time for him to leave home anyway.

The banality of the backstory is part of the point – Mark Spitz is proudly mediocre and credits his mediocrity as the core reason for his survival – but compared to a post-apocalyptic novel like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Zone One gives little sense of what, if anything, has been lost. Again, this is part of the point, sometimes made well – ‘New York City in death was very much like New York City in life. It was still hard to get a cab’ – and sometimes not: ‘“Survivors are slow or incapable of forming new attachments,” or so the latest diagnoses droned, although a cynic might identify this as a feature of modern life merely intensified or fine-tuned with the introduction of the plague.’

Mark Spitz is happiest by himself. Gary and Kaitlyn show early promise as secondary characters, but Whitehead doesn’t follow through on this. Zone One would be more engaging, and readers more likely to care when Omega Unit splits apart at the end, if it were more of a proper gang. Especially since Whitehead’s previous novel, Sag Harbor, a very funny and surprisingly sad coming-of-age novel set over the summer of 1985, showed how well he can write about gangs: not in the criminal sense but in the sense of a group of teenage boys who spend most of their time together by force of habit or circumstance, but among whom friendship is a vexed and shifting idea, which it would be dangerous for them to question too closely.

Zone One might have been better if instead of Mark Spitz and his series of casual acquaintances, the zombie hordes were being evaded and fought by Benji, the narrator of Sag Harbor, and his younger brother Reggie; Randy, whose cachet has risen since he got a driving licence and a rusty old car; Marcus, who has to ride his bike because there are only five seats in the car; Clive, who sits in the front passenger seat; Bobby and NP (short for ‘Nigger Please, because no matter what came out of his mouth, that was usually the most appropriate response’; even his mother says it – ‘For all we knew, she’d coined it in the first place’).

For the boys in Sag Harbor, the ‘reliable if unlikely boogeyman’ haunting the hinterlands of Long Island is the Ku Klux Klan, aka the ‘Hooded Menace’:

Statistically speaking, there may have been some members of the KKK in the near vicinity – it was the Hamptons, a ‘resort community’ after all, and even the worst America has to offer occasionally need to unwind, catch some rays – but it was unlikely that they were patrolling on horseback, in full getup, complete cracker regalia, behind the dirt trails of Mashashimuet Park.

Sag Harbor is peppered with references to the Hamptonite Undead. The narrator says he ‘derailed’ all his ‘junior-high schemes of social improvement’ in his first week at high school by making such remarks as: ‘I can’t wait for Master of Horror George A. Romero to make another film. Fangoria magazine – still the best horror and sci-fi magazine around if you ask me – says he has trouble raising funding, but I think Hollywood is just scared of what he has to say.’ The narrator gets a job at an ice-cream shop. ‘War and siege analogies came easily in there, during a rush. I was most partial to a scenario I called the Zombie Hideout, given my early training in horror movies: the human beings in the house, the furniture nailed up against the doors and windows to repel the living dead.’

The Zombie Hideout presents another, more insidious problem than the horde outside: the better your barricades, the harder it is for you to leave. The zombies aren’t dangerous only because they want to eat your brains, but also because they’ve trapped you inside. What we fear, and what really threatens us, are not necessarily the same thing. In Night of the Living Dead, the survivors inside the claustrophobic farmhouse pose at least as great a danger to one another as the ghouls outside. Whitehead turns this round in Zone One: the zombie apocalypse sets Mark Spitz free. Perhaps one reason he chose not to explore the ambiguities of the Zombie Hideout scenario in Zone One is that he had already done so, in a way, in Sag Harbor.

We know from the start that Benji’s parents are well off. She’s a lawyer, he’s a doctor, they own an apartment on the Upper East Side and a house in Sag Harbor; the boys go to private school: ‘I remember one day in the seventh grade when an old white man stopped us on a corner and asked us if we were the sons of a diplomat.’ It gradually emerges that they’re fairly neglectful parents, too, leaving the children to their own devices for weeks on end. And Benji’s father, it eventually transpires, is a violent drunk. There’s no self-pity in the way Benji tells it. His dominant feeling, when his father is on a bender, is embarrassment. He shuts the windows and hopes the neighbours won’t hear: time to put up the barricades. Benji and Reggie have an older sister. ‘I haven’t talked about Elena much because she wasn’t there,’ Benji says, but towards the end of the novel he runs into her by chance outside a restaurant in South Hampton. She’s with a ‘German-looking guy with long blond hair and bright white teeth’ who when he sees Benji approaching ‘had that expression I’ve seen many times, when I’m walking down the street and there’s a white person sitting alone in a car. The look on his face was the one they always get before they lock the car doors.’ Sometimes people see zombies where there aren’t any. ‘Just do me a favour, Benji, and get out when you can,’ Elena says. ‘Work hard and get into a good school. That way you’re out of the house and that’s it.’ ‘I don’t understand,’ he replies. Sometimes people don’t see the zombies at the door because they’ve been there all their lives.

[*] McFarland, 239 pp., £30, March 2010, 978 0 7864 4806 7.

[†] Princeton, 136 pp., £10.95, January 2011, 978 0 691 14783 3.