Zombie Epic: Medicalized Politics on Screen

Erik Larsen // Of all the monsters populating modern culture, zombies have lurched into a dominant position in our television and film. Despite varied examples across media forms, one trait unites these mindless eaters: zombies are distinctly unhealthy. Whether decaying bodies or the hosts for a decimating plague, zombies incarnate our sense of health’s absence, both mental and physical. Indeed, our representations of zombies as rapacious, wandering, and contagious combine different meanings of disease, understood both in its etymological sense as a lack of ease, and as a disorder related to a communicable pathogen. If zombies express our fears about un-health, they also link such concerns to deep political anxieties, for their contagion threatens the possibility of social life by transforming persons into mere instinctual mechanisms. Strikingly, zombie apocalypses do not depict an earth devoid of human life, but a landscape full of life without political order. Viewed in this light, the zombies of our moving-image media seem to equate diseased masses with the aggressive destruction of political existence. Inversely, zombie narratives seem to imply that proper citizenship equates with health, and political order with healthy populations. 

Biopolitcal thought casts some light on this troubling and prevalent association of political disorder with disease. In particular, Giorgio Agamben’s notion of bare life suggests much about the historical sources of the zombie’s threat to social order. In his Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Agamben identifies a basic conceptual division of life—one identifiable in ancient Greek thought and persisting in varied forms to this day. According to Agamben, Greek political theory divides life between the political form it takes among humans (bios), and life without political intent or meaning (zoe)—the “bare life” shared by all things, including humans (1-7). From this perspective, political order rests on separating bios from zoe, on dividing political from bare life (8). In many respects, the zombies appearing on our screens encapsulate bare life’s putative war on social life. Recognizing others as mere food, and lacking speech or any form of communication, the zombie represents humanity stripped of political possibility; its aggressive and contagious assault on bios—on those capable of political formation—envisions the zombie as an active threat to the polis. I am not the first to recognize a connection between Agamben’s biopolitical theory and zombies; Jon Stratton, for example, identifies the zombie as a figure of bare life, but focuses on its resemblance, in popular media, to displaced, disenfranchised, and migrating people who seem to threaten the state with invasion (266-7). This and similar interpretations that recognize the zombie as a general image of human life on the margins of “proper” social order, capture a significant aspect of the monster’s biopolitical function in our popular imaginary. And yet, the zombie’s frequently graphic if not gratuitous connection to disease combines the general threat of bare life with a more specific fear. How should we think the relationship of the zombie, understood as an image of disease and un-health, with its aggressive challenge to political life? Is the zombie an expression of biopolitical fears, or a fantasy derived from a medicalized politics?

A recent collection of essays analyzes how we imagine zombies, perhaps increasingly and without critical awareness, through the lens of medical concepts and medical anxieties. Focusing on how medical and popular visual representations of disease often draw on extra-medical concepts, The Walking Med: Zombies and the Medical Image explores how graphic medicine uses the zombie to complicate and challenge unthought assumptions in our medical and medicalized imaginaries (9). In his Introduction to the volume, Lorenzo Servitje describes the increasing use of the zombie as a concept within biomedicine, highlighting perhaps the most shocking example–the CDC’s emergency preparedness comic, Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic (3). Intended as an entertaining educational tool, the comic imagines a viral zombie outbreak in order to prompt readers to prepare for emergencies (Silver, et al.). By figuratively substituting zombies for epidemics, the comic inadvertently exposes the degree to which diseased individuals and populations have come to dominate our understanding of bare life.

Focusing on the medical aspects of zombies in visual culture, my current research asks how recent zombie television explores and even amplifies the equation of bare life with disease. AMC’s The Walking Dead and HBO’s Game of Thrones imagine zombies as contagious threats, as hordes of diseased or decaying bodies threatening to infect the healthy. But what makes these series distinctive works of zombie media is their status as political dramas, if not epic narratives of state formation and decay. Unlike zombie films, these shows’ multi-season plots narrate the epochal struggle for political formation against a backdrop of encroaching disease. In Walking Dead, a viral infection transforms most of the population into mindless, cannibalistic disease vectors, leaving small groups of healthy people to form new societies. The show repeatedly stages the struggle to found and sustain governance in the midst of constant attacks from diseased “walkers.” Although in Thrones zombies, or “wights,” appear as one political order among others—as the army of the dead, led by the Night King—they form an image of a perverted government. While not wandering chaotically, as they do in the Walking Dead, like walkers, the wights are incapable of political formation; their enforced participation in the Night King’s war reveals nothing but their status as bare life. Writings in early immunological science describe epidemics as “reigning” over populations (Cohen 207-8), a metaphor that may have functioned to frame disease as a perverted form of rulership. In Game of Thrones, the Night King’s reign seems, indeed, to describe the perverse reign of illness, not merely as a source of suffering for the living, but as the force destroying hope for proper political order.

Although their immense popularity stems from their sensational violence, complex plots, and visual effects, the zombie televisual epic may also draw its power from the unconscious biopolitical assumptions it shares with us, its viewers.    

Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford UP, 1998.

Benioff, David and D.B. Weiss, creators. Game of Thrones. Home Box Office, 2011-2019.  

Cohen, Ed. A Body Worth Defending: Immunity, Biopolitics, and the Apotheosis of the Modern Body. Duke UP, 2009.

Kang, Angela and Frank Darabont. The Walking Dead. American Movie Classics, 2010-.

Servitje, Lorenzo, and Sherryl Vint, eds. The Walking Med: Zombies and the Medical Image. The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2016.

Silver, Maggie, James Archer, Bob Hobbs, Alissa Eckert, and Mark Conner. Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic. CDC/US Department of Health and Human Services, 2011. https://www.cdc.gov/cpr/zombies/#/page/1. Accessed Nov. 23, 2019.   

Stratton, Jon. “Zombie Trouble: Zombie Texts, Bare Life, and Displaced People.” European Journal of Cultural Studies. 14 (3), 2011, pp. 265-81.

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