Sunday, 1 May 2011

GUEST BLOGGER: Arrest Those Zombies!: Policing The Undead

This week as well as our usual blog, we have a special guest blog from Amy Cutler of Passenger Films- one of the zombies arrested during our Royal Wedding celebrations on Friday. To find out more about the strange zombie happenings going on during the Royal Wedding, see our regular blog. Here, she shows us zombie movies have a lot to say about those events:

On Friday morning I attended a ‘Royal Zombie Wedding’ picnic, and was subsequently handcuffed and arrested in Soho Square (that’s me above), and spent the afternoon in a cell at Belgravia police station. While I was in my cell I thought a little harder about the link between zombies and the policing of cities. Here are some thoughts, followed by a call to arms for supporters of the undead!

Readers of Chris’s blog will no doubt be familiar with the importance of police in zombie films. Think of the pre-credit footage of riot police, soundtracked by Johnny Cash’s ‘The Man Comes Around’, in Dawn of the Dead. Or the use of riot police footage once again at the start of 28 Days Later, in which exposure to such television transmissions also means exposure to the transmission of ‘the rage virus’.

I’ve always been interested in zombie politics, which has an early model in Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), concerned with the 1665 bubonic plague in London and the effect of the ‘walking putrified carcasses’ which were the infected, and also the attempts by the mayor and the aldermen to police the situation. New legislation came out at the time to ‘prevent idle assemblies’ and therefore contagion, but there were plenty of instances of people ‘breaking out in Rabbles and Tumults’, just as the body breaks out in tokens of the plague. The behaviour of the sick and infected in the book 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’. Defoe is himself awed by the idea of a mob of people, as seen in his 1702 publication, ‘The Original Power of the Collective Body of the People of England’ (1702). He thought mobs to be the very antithesis of government. An example is when he called upon the House of Commons to pay attention to the Kentish petitioners, and signed his name ‘Legion’; he is clearly therefore very aware of the idea of people acting as a political force. It is also telling that it is the poor and labouring classes who are of the greatest importance in Plague Year, for they cannot afford to withdraw into isolation, but must continue to work and be mobile – and are thus most likely to be spreading the infection.

Zombie films learn from Defoe a fascination with the various meanings of the term break-out – the break out of disease, the break out of riots, and the break out of contained spaces such as shut up houses and jails. The administration that went on in trying to control the spaces of the city included the mayor’s orders forbidding the ‘multitude’ of rogues and ‘wandring Beggars’ from ‘swarming in every place about the city’, and the large scale incarceration of people within infected houses. Defoe quotes verbatim these rules for the regulation of the citizens. But he is also fascinated with the areas in which these policies fail or are ineffective. ‘There was just so many Prisons in the town as there were Houses shut up’, the narrator observes: yet over and over he tells stories of the people who broke out by force and stratagem, whether they found ways to unscrew locks, escape into one of the back streets, go over the rooftops, or break or throw themselves out of the windows.

It’s important to remember that Plague Year was written during a moment of crucial revision in men’s exercise of final authority over one another. Defoe constantly draws attention to the internal governance and state institutions that provide the matrix within which the spectacles and anecdotes of the plague take place. He adopts the conceit that fully deployed legal authority in the city turns its houses into prisons and its citizens into criminals. (When we talk about crime it’s important to note that Defoe has first-hand knowledge of the development of the penitentiary system at this time, as he’s actually been imprisoned on seven or eight occasions, both for debts and for libel in his work as a journalist.) This criminalisation of the infected is partly because, as Michelle Brandwein notes,

plague effectively turns crime and disease into identical things. A plague, as a contagious illness, breaks down the distinction between ordinary, non-contagious illness (understood as harmful only to the self) and crime (understood as harmful to others); because a plague is harmful to both the sick person and others it forms a bridge between illness and crime, and all who suffer from it are both victims and criminals at the same time.

In the modern zombie film, we see a similar concern with the political constructs behind the suppression of the zombie threat. In the sequence in the underpass in 28 Days Later, the running zombies are portrayed very much as an anonymous mob. None of them are discriminated from each other – instead, they herd as shadows towards the human agents in the scene; we hear the footsteps of a mob as one threatening sound. In 28 Weeks Later we again see the threat of the mob as something which has an uncontrollable and unmanageable element, and the efforts of the military or governmental agents to control the movement of people (as in some scenes they appear as little more than glorified traffic controllers). Concepts of border control, quarantining and containment are all subject to investigation in today’s political zombie film.

The perceived social wrongs which zombie films address have ranged from the colonial connotations of the early voodoo zombie films, the consumerism of mall society in Romero’s early films, and the various social divisions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ which are exhibited in the class and race tensions in Land of the Dead. We can witness that film’s interest in the policing of the divisions of the city space immediately in the poster, showing a disembodied zombie hand clinging to what we must surely guess is the wrong side of the fence.

Recent zombie films explicitly refer to particular governmental decisions. In Joe Dante’s Homecoming, the American Republican policy makers are flummoxed by the return of the Iraqi war dead, who begin to contradict patriotic narratives of the war (one declares on TV ‘I was killed for a lie’). These are speaking, thinking, harmless zombies, threatening only in the sense of the affect of their return on the government’s political agenda. Mark Peranson points out the overt links to the Bush administration:

Homecoming’s most stunning scene is the first appearance of the zombies at Dover Air Force base, as the undead soldiers emerge from beneath the American flags covering their coffins — the very scenes that the Pentagon has forbidden the media to cover. More than soldiers, though, the zombies represent all the disenfranchised, including those whose votes weren’t counted in both recent elections: as the undead eventually are allowed to go to the polls, and the results start swinging to the left, the Republicans make the call. Dante pulls no punches in declaring the fix was and still is in (after name-checking Florida, he even shows the classic “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline).

Here are the returned patriots posing before the flag:

Equally harmless zombies are the subjects of the recent French film Les Revenants (English title They Came Back). The use of zombies to show the return of the repressed, and entry into a Marcusian non-repressive civilization, is a familiar trope. In Revenants, the mayor of the town and the governmental and military representatives decide they cannot deal with the unsolicited returnees: the returned loved ones and family members are therefore, in a horrifying final sequence (spoiler alert!), gassed and returned to their graves (below). What better image for the suppression that society enacts, in order to ensure it continues to function? Or Kristeva’s image of the zombie as the ‘abject’ of society – that matter, such as dead bodies, or faeces, which must be ejected from society in an organised fashion. (I have to say I felt like a very abject zombie indeed in Cell no. 12 at Belgravia police station.)

If we’ve outgrown Romero’s consumerist zombies, then perhaps one of the still growing zombie themes is that of surveillance and its association with the policing of space. The use of CCTV in Diary of the Dead and 28 Weeks Later are cases in point; in the latter, we are even given the military’s gun-point of view, in a scene in which all discrimination between ‘friendlies’ and the infected is given up, and the soldiers are instructed to enforce the quarantine by shooting ‘anything that moves’.

This ‘anything that moves’ bring us to what I think is the most interesting form of policing – that is, policing movement. The threat of the mobile crowd, the threat of the mobile infection, and the threat of the mobile dead – nicknamed in recent TV series The Walking Dead simply as ‘walkers’ – invites, but also defies, arrest by the authorities. The zombies are defined not simply by being dead, but by being the moving dead, and to ‘arrest’ them would also to be, literally, to cease their motion. The idea of zombie arrest is very similar to the idea of the arrested, controlled society – most strikingly so when we consider the threat of the ‘mob’, and the link between ‘mob’ and ‘mobility’. From the Online Etymology Dictionary:

Mob, 1680s, "disorderly part of the population, rabble," slang shortening of mobile, mobility "common people, populace, rabble" (1670s), from L. mobile vulgus "fickle common people" (c.1600 in English), from mobile, neut. of mobilis "fickle, movable, mobile," from movere "to move" (see move).

I’ve begun to discuss this idea with some of my students. (I teach a couple of classes on film studies to third year geographers on the Mobilities course at Royal Holloway, where I’m doing my PhD.) Perhaps I’m even keener given that I’ve now been an arrested zombie myself. The full story of the day is given by Hannah, my fellow zombie convict, here.

What remains fascinating to me is the revival of some of the ideas I have been previously interested in, such as the portrayal in Homecoming of zombies versus the controlling political agendas hidden behind patriotism. In our case, on the day of the wedding the scene on street level was subject to severe editing by the police. We were fairly inoffensive members of the undead, who ate some homemade ‘brainnnsss’ cake earlier in the day, and travelled on to Starbucks where we sat down with some tea. At this point, four police vans (with sirens!) came round the corner and did a raid on Starbucks. We were stopped and searched under a special Section 60 for the wedding day – by sixteen police men, although there were only five zombies – and finally arrested and transported to the police station. This constituted a successful removal of what was seen as an ‘unseemly’ element of the day’s celebrations. Apparently, our fancy dress was too alternative to be tolerated. Even though, look, I was being patriotic – I even had a flag!

Footage of our arrest is on this video – you can watch us actually being handcuffed at seven minutes thirty seconds in.
I also found out afterwards that one of the camera men who filmed us being arrested was subsequently arrested himself! His account here.

Meanwhile, the good news of the day is that the zombie family I met (complete with two little zombies in prams, one holding a ‘princesses are pigs’ sign) apparently got away and danced the night away in Red Lion Square. And they’re reported here in the Guardian, saying that ‘anti-democratic, anti-egalitarian Britain (is) the land of the living dead’.

I made good friends with the other undead convicts, Ludi, Hannah, Deborah and Erich, all charming and creative people – Erich has coincidentally just run a zombie all-nighter at the London Indie Film Festival. We also managed to get the word zombies into the Guardian the following morning, in a quote in which I sound particularly harmless and simple-minded:

So, what next? We’re thinking of arranging a protest lurch. Please get in touch if you want to be involved (, and come and be a manacled zombie shuffling round Soho, in a walk in support of our right to be zombies whenever we goddamn like.

The perfect model, of course, is Bub from Day of the Dead, who I’ve saved for the end, as probably the most famous zombie prisoner. Don’t forget he ate through his manacles in the end though.

1 comment:

  1. This is absolutely fascinating! Wow. Brilliant.