Promotional image for the film World War Z (2013)
Here are two disclaimers before starting this article about the figure of the zombie, particularly in the recent film World War Z by Marc Forster (2013). The first one is that the text that follows — as well as the very will to go see World War Z in a theater — is strongly inspired by the excellent article “World Revolution Z” (December 5th 2005) by Gastón Gordillo on Space and Politics. The second disclaimer is that, although there won’t be any major spoiler in this text — watching the trailer is a spoiler itself — I will need to refer the end of the film at some point, and despite its expected nature, people who are wanting to see this film without having heard too much about it should probably stop their reading here.
Movies that dramatize an pandemic of zombies are well-known for involving a high level of symbolical elements as the fictional figure of the zombie refers to a human body reduced to its animal (cannibalistic) function. It is understood that if we want to see these narratives for the way they influence our imaginary, we have to consider that the figure of the zombie exists only through the subjectivity of a non-zombie human, and that these hordes of bodies, which are something that this non-zombie is not, chasing him or her are the reflection of a strong paranoia towards a specific group of people. In the text mentioned above, Gastón Gordillo emits the legitimate hypothesis that in the case of World War Z, the zombies represent the insurrectional proletariat engaged in a worldwide revolution. Such an interpretation becomes extremely tangible when we see the strongest image of the film: a mass of bodies climbing on each other to get over a tall concrete wall in Jerusalem. The team crew was careful to explicitly describe that the wall had been built specifically against the zombie attack — in other words, this is not the separation barrier built in the West Bank by the Israeli — and to include a scene in which Palestinians and Israelis seem to be in communion to face the universal danger upon them — in other words, these zombies are not the Palestinians who are trying to liberate themselves from this wall that separate them from their family, their fields, their roots. I will not mention the sum of details that do bring us back to a pro-zionist perspective — the very fact that the whole city of Jerusalem is said to be in Israel is the most obvious one — in order to focus on the fact that the symbolic of this image cannot liberate itself from the way we see it, with our experience and cultural references: this wall is the separation barrier and these bodies are the Palestinians fighting against their restriction of movement.
The film ‘offers’ us a multitude of scenes in which these unarmed bodies, that are said to be zombies — the shots are so quickly strung together that it is impossible to recognize zombies from ‘sane’ bodies — are being killed by hundreds by various machine guns, grenades, axes, bombs etc. The end of the film itself describes a war in which the zombies are not even able to perceive the ‘sane’ bodies and they are being methodically killed one by one and piled up on gigantic mounts of bodies with the calm voice of Brad Pitt explaining to us that “the enemy” has to be exterminated. I would like to insist again on the fact that, despite the way the film tell us, spectator, what our imaginary perceive is humans killing systematically other humans. This remark is essential as no groups of people ever commit any form of genocide without a preliminary construction of a subjectivity towards this group of people. The holocaust itself is the conclusion of several decades of an anti-Semitic narrative that legimitized — or, at the very least, made it tolerable — the deportation of millions of Jewish people (along with groups of homosexuals, handicapped, gypsies and communists) and their industrial extermination.
What is then the status of the zombie? The word itself comes from Haitian creole; it describes the status of a dead slave — before the 1791 independence war against the French — whose soul would have been prevented to go back to lan guinée i.e. Africa/Heaven (see the article “A Zombie Is a Slave Forever” by Amy Wilentz). We can therefore interpret the zombie as the figure of the body that remains colonized even after its death. Such status can be shared by the various soldiers of human history that have been deliberately killed in such a way that they are prevented to go to heaven or its equivalent in the precepts of their religion.
The zombie is also a human that has lost its legal statuses, including the one guarantying it the status of human itself. It can therefore be killed without legal repercussions and the various narratives involving it even promote the systematization of such killing. The status of zombie might be acquired in an objective manner, — that is what the pandemic is about — however, their perception by the non-zombie — this idea that they are chasing them — is strictly subjective and construct a scenario in which the killing is acceptable. In the case of World War Z, what would be interesting to see is the same plot from the point of view of a zombie. What we might then see through this other subjectivity is the methodical and horrifying massacre of humans whose only crime is to have been contaminated, whether this contamination is health-related like in Michel Foucault’s History of Madness or ideologically related like in Gastón Gordillo’s hypothesis.