Friday 15 April 2011

#14 Everything You Wanted To Know About Zombies (But Were Afraid To Ask Daniel Defoe): Everything New is Old Again

Welcome to our most belated, longest titled blog entry yet. Now it takes a great man to admit when he’s been wrong. From the very beginning of the blog, I have emphasised that the zombie apocalypse genre is one that is, for want of a better pun, cannibalistic. I have argued that everything in the genre today can be traced back to Night of the Living Dead, which itself is traced back to I Am Legend.

So it is with all due humility that I say- it turns out I was more right than even I suspected.

Everything You Wanted To Know About Zombies (But Were Afraid To Ask Daniel Defoe) was a lovely event held in London last week, hosted by the Birkbeck Literature Club where various academics and zombie geeks met up to listen to a series of talks and readings about the zombie apocalypse genre- and how it related to 18th century literature- specifically, the historical recordings of the events surrounding the spread of the plague in that period.

From the very start the venue for the event gave off mixed signals. On the one hand, the walls were littered with red crosses and pleas for God’s mercy- on the other hand, there was free wine and nibbles. I poured myself a glass and found myself a seat.

The opening talk came from a man named Peter Jones, who told us about the “Anointers” from Alessandrro Manzoni’s  Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed).
Not this Peter Jones. He knows nothing about 18th century literature or the zombie apocalypse
Faced with the horrific death and destruction, medieval peasants (Here we are defining the word “Peasant” to mean- “Anyone who doesn’t own a TV”) reacted the way they always have in the face of horrific circumstances- a great big group prayer meeting. Modern scientists have responded to the idea of fighting a contagious disease by getting everyone in your community together in a poorly ventilated building, or having them march through the streets from one end of the city to the other en masse as “Oh for the love of God no! What are you doing! And Jesus Ever-Loving Christ do none of you wash your hands?” but community leaders at the time hung up a big “Mission Accomplished” banner and told everyone to go back to their daily business.
Known today as the Mayor Larry Vaughn Technique

Those of you who have just finished googling that pop culture reference (Come on! There was picture of a fin on the poster behind them! Surely that was a give away?) will probably be able to guess what happened next. If you guessed lots and lots more people dying, you can have a gold star.

As this highly crumpled hand-out I still have left over from the event says (In an extract from The Betrothed):

“The men who had fought so long and so resolutely against the view that a seed of a disease had from the beginning been near at hand, or in their very midst, which could multiply and spread by natural means to cause a disaster – those men were no longer able to deny that the disease was in fact spreading through the city. But they could not admit that it was due to natural causes without also admitting that they had completely misled the public and done great harm thereby. That disposed them to find some other reason, and to accept any explanation of the sort that might offer itself.”

This sounds not just like Mayor Larry Vaughn (For Christ’s sake people, he was the mayor in Jaws! The one who kept insisting that there was no shark because it would damage tourism? Jaws is only one of the most successful films ever made! For once, watch something that came out before Kung Fu Panda!) but also rings a bell pretty close to the news reports we hear at the beginning of every zombie movie. It’s taken as read that when the zombie apocalypse starts, our government will leap right into action to fuck it up. And while we’d like to believe that we’re better than medieval peasants (those of us with televisions anyway) deep down we kind of know we aren’t.

So, if prayer meetings don’t work, what do medieval peasants do next?
If you answered "Horror" have a gold star
Yes, it turns out, face with unimaginable tragedy and worrying uncertainty, people’s first reaction was to find people who “didn’t fit in” and weren’t from round these parts” and then torture them. Fortunately people are much more civilised now.

Specifically, in this book the plague was blamed on “Anointers”- suspicious, shady types who would sneak around, “anointing” people with plague. Now apparently there don’t exist that many visual representations of these Anointers, and other academics (for the purposes this article: Wussydemics) would have been stopped by that. Peter Jones however showed he was a good ten times more awesome than his Dragon’s Den counterpart by giving his talk dressed like this:
Peter Jones dressed as an Anointer. Photos courtesy of Hannah Eiseman-Renyard, the Jimmy Olsen to my Lois Lane.
Peter Jones’s talk was followed by a break, where we all got more wine and sat down to be suddenly interrupted by a man bursting in and angrily reading from  'God's Terrible Voice in the City' by Thomas Vincent, who stayed in London and was giving sermons during the plague. It was while he described the gruesome, terrifying sights of the plague to us in an underground room a little way out from King’s Cross, that I decided that I wouldn’t be going to any more apocalyptic pandemic based events in London. Thinking about this stuff is the best fun in a small, out of the way city that even the Romans had trouble clinging onto- thinking about it near the centre of a huge mass of humanity that has historically dealt with plagues by burning itself down is a little more disquieting.
I've no idea what I did to him but I am so very, very sorry!
The final talk of the evening, before the Q&A and the retreat to the pub, was Amy Cutler, who delivered a great paper on how Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year is echoed by modern zombie movies.

Amy Cutler immediately admitted that her readings of the texts she was talking about were Marxist, which wasn’t a huge surprise. We’ve already mentioned Romero’s parodies of consumerism and capitalism in Dawn and Land of the Dead, as well as his take on I Am Legend as a story about revolution.
Although you could read it as the ultimate example of letting the free market decide...
She started out by drawing on some the more obvious parallels between zombies and plague victims- mainly that people walked around looking really gross, in the process infecting other people who then went on to look really gross. She pointed us to a quote from Defoe’s Journal that went “many People had the plague in their very blood, and preying upon their spirits, and were in themselves but walking putrified carcasses, whose breath was infectious, and their sweat poison”. She goes on to describe how: “The behaviour of the sick and infected also poses a form of geographical insurrection, for ‘they were with great difficulty kept from running out into the Fields and Towns, and tearing all in pieces wherever they came’”

Amy moved on from here to talk about more structural similarities however, such as “the ways in which the city space is performed and changed bodily by the actions of groups of people, of the bodies of the sick and the healthy.”

This is a key part of the zombie apocalypse genre- in the least few weeks I’ve furnished you with plenty of examples of pubs, shops and radio stations being reinterpreted as fortresses and streets and office blocks becoming battlefields. I think this is not only a key trope in the genre, but also part of its appeal. Unlike the Western, Space Opera or Historical Romance, you can easily re-imagine your own street as it is hit by the zombie apocalypse, a sort of instant Augmented Reality game.

Amy also talks about the mechanics of groups of survivors. She talks about plague survivors in Defoe’s book who “develop their own social, economic, and moral laws: they pool their money on the condition that any further money any one of them gains will be added to the public stock. In Epping Forest they build their own shelter, kill their own food, and almost totally avoid interaction with anyone outside their group.” She compares this to zombie movies where “The zombie film heralds the return of the ultimate democratised travel. There are typical scenes such as a hijacking on the road and the fall into what is basically land piracy. And there are no more zones of exclusion or privilege as each is broken into.”

I’m not sure how much I agreed with Amy’s idea that there is anything Marxist about your typical zombie movie survivors. If anything films like I Am Legend, Dawn of the Dead and Land of the Dead show the survivors as practicing the ultimate in Laissez-Faire capitalism, hording as much as they possibly can behind barricaded windows and locked doors, struggling to keep out or kill the baying hordes outside.

She did go on to point out some interesting trends that immediately seemed obvious after she said them, but hadn’t occurred to me before. Such as the prevalence and importance of petrol stations in pretty much any zombie movie you care to mention- which is odd considering that these same films are often built around static siege narratives.

So what do these talks teach us about the zombie apocalypse? Well, they teach us we keep retelling the same old stories, and that horrible things that happened centuries ago still haunt our nightmares today. They tell us about how we view cities- places of safety and civilisation that could be transformed into a jungle at a moment’s notice. But I think most of all these talks show that there is no threat so great, no common cause so important, no unifying action so crucial to our survival, that we will not act like a complete shower of dicks to one another.
Our zombie experts: Jennifer Cooke, Amy Cutler and Peter Jones, destroying your hope in humanity
I emailed Amy before writing this blog, asking for a copy of her talk and also inviting her to adjudicate the drinking game rules for this week’s blog (since some people still seem to think I’m being overly lenient). Her rulings were as follows:

Do the characters spend most of the story under siege in some manner of building? (One shot) NO
Are the people coming to rescue you incompetent (One shot) or more dangerous than the zombies? (One shot) YES
Does nobody ever actually use the word zombie? (Two shots) YES
Is mankind the real monster? (One shot) YES
Has anybody said “They’re coming to get you Barbra!” (Two shots) NO (didn't actually mention that film or play a clip from it!)
Are the zombies walking dead (One Shot) YES who move slowly (One shot) NO (seemed to deal more with running zombies) and can only be killed by destroying the brain? (Head shot) NO 
Kiddy zombies? (Two shots) YES
Do the dead rise regardless of whether they were “infected”? (Two shots) NO it's all about infection.

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