The Trouble With Zombies: Exploring Geek Culture’s most troubling themes

For nearly a decade, popular culture has been overrun with zombie fiction. Movies like the Dawn of the Dead remake, 28 Days Later and the parody Shaun of the Dead helped bring zombies out of the niche of geek culture and properly into the mainstream in the early 00s. Quite appropriately, the zombie love affair spread like an infestation to every segment of the media, from movies, video games, comicbooks, film and even zombified remakes of Jane Austen classics. If sheer zombie fatigue isn’t enough reason to relegate zombies back to the cultural niche they occupied for years, maybe this is:

This masterpiece is what you get if you shell out extra cash to buy the “Live Bait” edition of Deep Silver’s new Dead Island videogame. Amid backlash, the publisher has released an apology, stressing how committed they are to ensuring nothing like this ever happens again. But how could it have happened in the first place?

Maybe the answer lies in the internet responses from angry gamers who, like the guys at Deep Silver apparently, can’t even understand what’s so disturbing about a statue like this to begin with. Most of them think the statue violates some abstract feminist cause or the sensibilities of the politically correct, overlooking that the frequency of sexual violence in our culture is a practical issue that women in our society are forced to deal with. This is easy to overlook if you don’t know any women—but not being raped, murdered and chopped up is actually a serious, practical concern for a lot of them, to the point that it’s understandable they’d find a statue like this disturbing. Of course, you don’t have to be female to understand what’s weird or creepy about this bonus collectable. I struggle to get into the mind of the gamer who’d want a butchered woman’s torso sitting next to the subwoofer in his entertainment center—probably because I’m not Jack the Ripper.

The fact that the statue exists is bizarre enough; but it’s the idea that so many defenders of the statue around the Web don’t even understand what’s wrong with it that is really disturbing. This isn’t surprising when you observe the prevalence of sexualized violence in male-oriented geek staples like horror films, comics and videogames. Ranging from subtly titillating to actually kind of creepy, images of women in sexy danger are so commonplace in geek culture that the audience doesn’t even perceive them anymore. For those accustomed to this norm, the displeasure over this collectable must seem strange. It’s easy to become desensitized to images of women in peril if you grew up strictly consuming superheroes, science-fiction and fantasy, fiction genres in which Princess Leia’s golden slave bikini and Wonder Woman’s bondage games are part of their respective iconographies.

Bell Hooks posited that sexualized violence, what she called “pugilistic eroticism” in her critique of Hip Hop, was a reaction to feminism; a desire to reduce women to roles the male audience was more comfortable with, namely victims and sex objects. This might be pretty on-the-nose for the guys at Deep Silver, who got in hot water previously when gamers discovered code hidden in the game referring to a “Feminist Bitch” mode of play, but it also explains a larger fascination with rape that has become a focal point of Right-wing American politics recently. This unlikely cross-section between gamers, gangster rappers and the Tea Party shows how universal and conventional misogynist themes are in media.

While violence and gore have always been part of the fun of zombie movies, the best ones were also telling us something. George Romero, father of the modern zombie movie, served up a critique of consumerism in the classic 1974 Dawn of the Dead. From the shopping mall-turned-fortress that is raided by the survivors holding up there to the zombies themselves, who lumber along in their single-minded and unquenchable hunger, Dawn is acknowledged by many as a veiled criticism of consumer culture. The more recent 28 Days Later raised the question of humanity when the surviving protagonists seek shelter with a group of soldiers in a military base only to find they are worse monsters than the zombies outside. Romero questioned our humanity directly in the final scene of Diary of the Dead (2007), in which some drunks string a zombified woman to a tree and use her for target practice. “Are we worth saving?” the protagonist reflects right before the credits roll.

In games like Dead Island (so violent it’s been banned in Germany) you’re supposed to revel in destroying zombies in the most gruesome or hilarious ways you can come up with. The fetishization of zombie-gore, which has manifest itself in pop culture even before Deep Silver’s unfortunate statue, forces me to wonder if we haven’t missed the forest for the trees.

When horror movies, superheroes and other staples of geek culture occupied the margins where they could embrace their real deviance, they often served as camp, absurdist critiques of mainstream culture and art. Now that geek culture has become the mainstream, its sub-cultural and counter-cultural relevance is in question. Mainstream proliferation of geek fare has only redoubled geek culture’s more problematic themes, particularly objectification of women and problem-solving violence. A new sub-cultural movement is sorely needed; particularly one that undermines geek culture’s problematic themes and the hegemony they reinforce (arguably, this may have already happened with manga and anime). Culture informs and, ideally, ours should teach us how to be more sensitive and humane individuals.

In the meantime, it’s not, necessarily, that zombie movies need to go; both long time fans and newer mainstream audiences need to be better at parsing and interpreting geek culture’s implicit messages. Understanding that, the concentration and homogeneity of modern mass media (not to mention its sheer expedience and willingness to grasp for lowest denominator) makes cultural literacy both more necessary and more difficult to obtain than ever.

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