This Halloween, The Walking Dead, Frank Darabont’s zombie themed TV series, will premiere on AMC. The series is widely anticipated, thanks in part to its relatively high production values – something previously unheard of in horror-based television production. But the zombies don’t stop there – World War Z, a film about the survivors of an apocalyptic zombie epidemic is slated for release in early 2012, starring Brad Pitt of all people.
Zombies first appeared on the big screen with films like White Zombie and I Walked With a Zombie. These films sprung from Haitian folklore and explored the zombie as a mindless automaton forced to do the bidding of its voodoo master – a metaphor for the alienated labour force in the wake of early capitalist industrialism. Later, in the 1970s and into the 1980s, zombies enjoyed a brief popular resurgence with George Romero’s zombie trilogy, among others. The second film of the three, Dawn of the Dead, told the story of individuals trapped in a shopping mall, surrounded by zombies. Here, zombies - still mindless - sought not to produce for slave masters, but rather consume endlessly. In this way, the zombie came to represent commodity fetishism and the dehumanizing impact of the rampant consumerism of the era.
Today, a rekindling of popular interest in zombies comes as we take our first steps into an era of post-scarcity, eliciting anxiety from many.
So what exactly is post-scarcity? Futurists and sci-fi writers describe a post-scarcity world where, as author Jason Pargin puts it, it is “like Star Trek, where matter replicators and fusion reactors have ended all shortages.”
While this is for now an impossible unreality, we nevertheless have entered into a post-scarcity society. Pargin uses the proliferation of e-books as an example of this lack of shortages. To this day, libraries lend out books for free, which publishers see as acceptable because the libraries purchase the book, often in multiple copies, and eventually replace them as they begin to fall apart. Enter the e-book: an ‘improved’ book that does not degrade, does not cost anything to manufacture, and can be made in unlimited quantities essentially instantaneously – the e-book is a post-scarcity commodity. So what do publishers do? They insert code into the books that has them delete themselves from the library catalogues after a certain date or after being lent out a certain number of times. This contentious point stands at the crux of anxieties over post-scarcity society: if the books never degrade and exist in unlimited quantities that require no physical production neither the library nor the publisher need exist and the customer need not pay for the author’s book since infinity has no concrete value. Here, in this simple chain of logic, entire skyscrapers full of book publishers, libraries, their staff, the people who make the cars they use to get to work, the people who supply their food, all of them vanish in the face of a post-scarcity product – and this is where the zombies come in.
Zombies today have come to represent this fear of societal collapse in the face of a post-scarcity economy, which is exacerbated by the fact that - like zombies - the vast majority of North Americans do not produce but rather work in service industries particularly susceptible to post-scarcity issues. At the same time, this notion of mindless consumption in the zombie is the solution to these issues. Like the zombie that consumes only for the sake of consumption, our current economic models will only survive in a post-scarcity world, as Pagin puts it, if we can “build the concept of ‘paying just to be paying’ into a new morality.”