Zombies as a metaphor: a discussion on the undead in popular culture

Zombies as a metaphor: a discussion on the undead in popular culture (photo)

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“Traveling in a fried-out combi/ On a hippie trail, head full of zombie.” – Men at Work, “Down Under”

I have, like everyone, been thinking about zombies in pop culture. Let’s face facts: we live in a golden age of zombie. What is the most successful show on GetGlue? “The Walking Dead.” Further, the 24/7 web site actually estimates that the zombie genre is worth over $5 billion to the U.S. economy.

It’s a zombie world and we are just trying to survive the slow advance of the famished hordes. There’s more. Zombie mash-ups are reinvigorating classics. Zombies, everywhere, are on the march. Zombies are even, if you believe it, taking over the economy (figuratively, of course). Things have gotten so zombie out there — and there really is no other way to describe it — that the Centers for Disease Control’s “Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse” blog post this past spring crashed their site.

“There are all kinds of emergencies out there that we can prepare for,” read the offending blog post. “Take a zombie apocalypse for example…. You may laugh now, but when it happens you’ll be happy you read this, and hey, maybe you’ll even learn a thing or two about how to prepare for a real emergency.”

Zombie as metaphor! For some reason – our national debt, perhaps? – the idea of an impending zombie apocalypse is the zeitgeist, and our popular culture just cannot seem to get enough. What is the meaning of this thusness?

With vampires, the glamour is obvious. Vamps are sexy, forever young and, quite frankly, built to withstand a robust nightlife for eternity. They are objects of both envy and geek lust. But zombies, with their spasmodic jerks and tortured, rigor-mortise twists as well as, one cannot fail to note, their hugely unfashionable state of decomposition, exude tragic unhipness. And I don’t mean that in a good way. Zombies, let’s face it, are the geeks of the monster world. If vampires are the undead, then zombies are the uncoordinated. And yet…zombie chic persists. How does one account for it?

There’s just something about zombies. Zombie determination to get at our brain matter is, well, commendable; their slow-and-steady-wins-the-race persistence is the stuff of the American dream. But let’s get serious. Just as “The Blob” was the perfect Cold War allegory, zombies specifically speak to our time. Zombies, with their deficit of life, mirror an economy of debt. Zombies, in their grunting aimlessness absent decent eating material, parallel the amount of Americans who believe we are rudderless. Decline is in the air, a sense of imperial overreach in Afghanistan (“the graveyard of empires”) and in competition with the rising nations.

If there is a relationship between the national disequilibrium post-Watergate and the popularity of “The Exorcist” in the 70s (and I believe there is), then perhaps today zombies represent indebtedness and unemployment. Our national debt and our unemployment– steady at about 9% — are not entirely unlike a metaphoric economic zombie infection. That might account as to why the zombie genre has gained such traction in the last few years, in books, in movies and on TV. Something rings true. If only the $5 billion that the zombie genre generates plug the $14 trillion hole we have dug ourselves in. That would be totally zombie.

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Weird Roles

Anthony Michael Hall’s Most Rotten Movies

Catch Anthony Michael Hall in Weird Science on Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Anthony Michael Hall was the quintessential ’80s nerd. We love him in classics like The Breakfast Club and National Lampoon’s Vacation. But even the brainiest among us has his weak spots. In honor of Weird Science airing this Rotten Friday, we analyze Hall’s worst movies.

Weird Science (1985) 56%

A low point for John Hughes, Weird Science is way too wacky for its own good. Anthony Michael Hall’s Gary and his pal Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) create the “perfect woman.” Supernatural chaos ensues. The film costars a young Bill Paxton, floppy disks, and a general disconnect from all reality.

The Caveman’s Valentine (2001) 46%

This ambitious drama starring Samuel L. Jackson couldn’t live up to its rich premise. Jackson plays Romulus, a Juilliard-educated, paranoid schizophrenic who lives in a cave. Hall co-stars as Bob, a rich man, who wants to see Romulus play the piano. The plot centers around Romulus investigating a murder, but with so much going on, the movie never quite finds its rhythm.

All About the Benjamins (2002) 30%

Ice Cube plays a bounty hunter who teams up with Mike Epps’ con man to catch diamond thieves. Hall plays Lil J, a small-time drug dealer. It’s definitely a role we’ve never seen Hall in, but overall the movie isn’t funny or original enough to justify its violence.

Freddy Got Fingered (2001) 11%

This showcase for Tom Green’s goofy gross-out comedy is often hailed as one of the worst films of all time. Green plays Gord, a 20-something slacker, who dreams of having his own animated series. Hall is Dave Davidson, a CEO of an animation studio who eventually helps Gord find success. Too bad Tom Green wasn’t so lucky.

Johnny Be Good (1988) 0%

Hall plays against type as Johnny Walker, a star quarterback. Robert Downey Jr. is his best friend and Uma Thurman plays his devoted girlfriend. Despite the support of a future A-list cast, the movie lacks central conflict and charm. Or, as TV Guide put it, “Johnny be worthless.” Ouch.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” Weird Science this Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Season 6: Episode 1: Pickathon

Binge Fest

Portlandia Season 6 Now Available On DVD

The perfect addition to your locally-sourced, artisanal DVD collection.

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End of summer got you feeling like:

Portlandia Toni Screaming GIF

Ease into fall with Portlandia‘s sixth season. Relive the latest exploits of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s cast of characters, including Doug and Claire’s poignant breakup, Lance’s foray into intellectual society, and the terrifying rampage of a tsukemen Noodle Monster! Plus, guest stars The Flaming Lips, Glenn Danzig, Louis C.K., Kevin Corrigan, Zoë Kravitz, and more stop by to experience what Portlandia is all about.

Pick up a copy of the DVD today, or watch full episodes and series extras now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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Byrning Down the House

Everything You Need to Know About the Film That Inspired “Final Transmission”

Documentary Now! pays tribute to "Stop Making Sense" this Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Cinecom/courtesy Everett Collection

This week Documentary Now! is with the band. For everyone who’s ever wanted to be a roadie without leaving the couch, “Final Transmission” pulls back the curtain on experimental rock group Test Pattern’s final concert. Before you tune in Wednesday at 10P on IFC, plug your amp into this guide for Stop Making Sense, the acclaimed 1984 Talking Heads concert documentary.

Put on Your Dancing Shoes

Hailed as one of the best concert films ever created, director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) captured the energy and eccentricities of a band known for pushing the limits of music and performance.

Make an Entrance

Lead singer David Byrne treats the concert like a story: He enters an empty stage with a boom box and sings the first song on the setlist solo, then welcomes the other members of the group to the stage one song at a time.

Steal the Spotlight

David Byrne Dancing
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Always a physical performer, Byrne infuses the stage and the film with contagious joy — jogging in place, dancing with lamps, and generally carrying the show’s high energy on his shoulders.

Suit Yourself

Byrne makes a splash in his “big suit,” a boxy business suit that grows with each song until he looks like a boy who raided his father’s closet. Don’t overthink it; on the DVD, the singer explains, “Music is very physical, and often the body understands it before the head.”

View from the Front Row

Stop Making Sense Band On Stage
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Demme (who also helmed 1987’s Swimming to Cambodia, the inspiration for this season’s Documentary Now! episode “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything”) films the show by putting viewers in the audience’s shoes. The camera rarely shows the crowd and never cuts to interviews or talking heads — except the ones onstage.

Let’s Get Digital

Tina Weymouth Keyboard
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Stop Making Sense isn’t just a good time — it’s also the first rock movie to be recorded entirely using digital audio techniques. The sound holds up more than 30 years later.

Out of Pocket

Talk about investing in your art: Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz told Rolling Stone that the members of the band “basically put [their] life savings” into the movie, and they didn’t regret it.

Catch Documentary Now!’s tribute to Stop Making Sense when “Final Transmission” premieres Wednesday, October 12 at 10P on IFC.

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