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Biopunk Dystopias Genetic Engineering, Society and Science Fiction$

Lars Schmeink

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9781781383766

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: September 2017

DOI: 10.5949/liverpool/9781781383766.001.0001

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9/11 and the Wasted Lives of Posthuman Zombies

9/11 and the Wasted Lives of Posthuman Zombies

(p.200) 7 9/11 and the Wasted Lives of Posthuman Zombies
Biopunk Dystopias Genetic Engineering, Society and Science Fiction

Lars Schmeink

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Chapter 7 returns to the changed social and political realities of the new millennium and the post-9/11 world, connecting global terror with the success of zombie films in mainstream culture. The renaissance of the zombie films can be directly linked to its allegorical depiction of viral, off-scene terror and the dystopian future of a post-apocalyptic world. In analyzing post-9/11 zombie films, especially the Resident Evil-film series and the 28 Days-franchise, the chapter reveals liquid modern anxieties as connected with terrorism and globalization. The films reimagine the zombie in terms of biological disaster – as viral, infectious and unseen – in order to acknowledge the new form of terror emergent in 9/11. In appropriating this biopunk context, contemporary zombie films make available a cultural negotiation of the liquid modern logic of necropolitics (as an extension of biopolitics) and the negation of human and non-human others through technoscientific means. By casting humanity as homines sacri, biopunk zombie films allow for a witnessing of a radical change of the social order. Zombies, in these films, present a possible future that imagines posthuman subjectivity in drastic and extremely jarring imagery, providing contemporary society with biopunk dystopias.

Keywords:   Zombie fiction, 9/11, Viral terrorism, Outbreak narrative, Globalization, Wasted Lives, Homo Sacre, Resident Evil, 28 Days Later

The September 11 attacks were a monstrous calling card from a world gone horribly wrong.

(Arundhati Roy)

7.1 A New Millennium

‘The New Sociological Imagination,’ a special issue of the International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, is a strange creature that only this specific historical moment at the beginning of the twenty-first century could have produced. In it, co-editors Hector Raul Solis-Gadea and Diane E. Davis gathered eight articles on the challenges posed to sociology by the new millennium, written by the most prominent social thinkers, among them Zygmunt Bauman, Ulrich Beck, Pierre Lévy, and Alain Touraine. What makes this project so interesting, though, is the timing of publication: The articles were conceived as a series of talks to be given at the New School for Social Research in New York from November 2000 to May 2001 (see D. Davis, ‘Preface’ 109). But the book version was not released until spring 2005. Acknowledged in the editors’ writing, the ‘emotional aftermath of 9/11’ (D. Davis, ‘Preface’ 111) delayed the publication for understandable reasons but also left it in a hybrid position in terms of historical specificity: Written pre-9/11, the essays took a positive view of the new millennium that collided with the pessimistic views of a post-9/11 historical reality evoked by terror and grief. In 2005 the essays appeared nonetheless, accompanied by explications of the shifting realities of the historical moment: What had changed from pre- to post-9/11, and how did this influence sociology?

Under the heading ‘Re-Examining the View from the Year 2000,’ Diane Davis makes explicit the mission statement of the essays as an examination of ‘the fundamental shifts in social practices, cultural discourses, business tactics, legitimization strategies, and national or (p.201) social identities that have accompanied intensified changes in technology, global capitalism, and the partial eclipse of the nation-state as the fundamental unit of analysis for understanding and taking political action’ (‘Speaking’ 294). While most of the essays profess a positive and hopeful outlook in their call to find sociological methods engaging the realities of liquid modernity, globalized capitalism, and a hypermediated world, Diane Davis points out that Zygmunt Bauman does not share in the slightly more optimistic spirit of the other contributors – his essay is darker, more somber, and questions the effectiveness of sociology to deal with the new and drastically changed world. From the post-9/11 view, his essay seems profoundly more attuned to the massive sociological changes in the realities of the new millennium. Davis argues that before 2001 Bauman was alone in his writing to ‘openly flag these changes as cause for serious disquiet or fundamental alarm’ (‘Speaking’ 294), making his the most prominent voice of current sociological criticism.

Similar to the other essays in the issue, Bauman tracks some of the problems of contemporary sociology to the emergence of network society, as conceptualized by Manuel Castells, and its global realization in the last decade or two (see Solis-Gadea 118; Stalder 1). Indeed, one of Bauman’s key criticisms in the essay is that a classical sociology is viewed to be ill-equipped to deal with the challenges that liquid modernity presents. He argues that it might be precisely the metaphor of ‘society,’ which conveys ‘images of closeness, proximity, togetherness and mutual engagement,’ that is threatened by ‘[l]iving in a network, moving through the network, shifting from one network to another and back with growing speed and facility’ Bauman, ‘Chasing’ 134). Instead of a solid and stable community, the network as metaphor represents movement, detachment, decentralization, speed, and flexibility – or liquidity. Bauman’s prophetic critique of society in liquid modernity is focused on the destabilizing of the public sphere that goes hand in hand with a growing feeling of impotence and the incapability of individually addressing new challenges presented on a global, networked scale – a problem that he sees as ‘the greatest challenge that confronts sociology at the threshold of the twenty-first century’ (‘Chasing’ 141).

A few months later the terrorist attacks on New York ‘won the stature of a globally legible signifier’ (Society 87), thus proving Bauman’s argument of a globalized society and the crossing of a threshold. The event, giving ‘flesh to the heretofore abstract idea of global interdependence and the wholeness of the globe,’ received its significance as a ‘symbolic end of the era of space’ (Society 87). 9/11 is symbolic in the sense that, as Bauman argues, it symbolized long ongoing changes in the social make-up of our liquid modern world: the developments of (p.202) globalization, leading to individual life politics becoming increasingly uncertain, insecure, and unsafe. The one change best symbolized in 9/11, though, is the end of the connection between power and territory, represented in the nation state and its political alliances:

The events of 11 September made it obvious that no one, however resourceful, distant and aloof, can any longer cut themselves off from the rest of the world […] Places no longer protect, however strongly they are armed and fortified. Strength and weakness, threat and security have now become, essentially, extraterritorial (and diffuse) issues that evade territorial (and focused) solutions.

(Society 88)

Bauman sees 9/11 as the symbolic end of the era of space, which culminated in the Cold War and the territorial stand-off of supranational alliances, and which ended with the elimination of the Berlin Wall (Society 88, 12).

Philip Wegner argues along the same line of reasoning when he calls the ‘toppling of the World Trade Center […] a form of second death, an incident that repeats an earlier “fall”, that of the Berlin Wall in November 1989’ (24). Drawing on Badiou, Lacan, and Žižek, Wegner describes the fall of the Berlin Wall as ‘a true Event: unexpected and unplanned for, an encounter with a traumatic Real’ (24), which led to the end of the Cold War but could not be realized in its symbolic magnitude. The fall of the Twin Towers, on the other hand, according to Wegner, repeats this first fall, destroying the symbolic order of the Cold War completely. Before 2001, the Cold War, though over, still lingered in symbolic revenant form until its second death. 9/11 is then the ultimate symbolic act marking the end of the historic period that is the Cold War and establishing – in George Bush Sr.’s words – a ‘new world order’ and a new period of global(ized) history (Wegner 25).

This new period, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, is characterized, Fredric Jameson comments shortly after 9/11, by the never before seen accumulation of money in the hands of private individuals so wealthy that they become elevated beyond the status of ‘normal’ citizen and enjoy a power level equal to nation states, including the control of paramilitary forces (‘Dialectics’ 302). One of the highly mobile and elevated global elite is Osama bin Laden, who effectively and in a ‘textbook example of dialectical reversal’ used his wealth to strike ‘symbolically at one of the rare centers of globalized finance capitalism’ (Jameson, ‘Dialectics’ 301, 303). The attack is aimed at the globalized power of US-dominated but in effect multinational corporations and the proliferation of consumer society via cultural imperialism. In the end, though, Slavoj Žižek argues, (p.203) both globalization and bin Laden’s terror against it are just two sides of the same coin: ‘are not “international terrorist organizations” the obscene double of the big multinational corporations – the ultimate rhizomatic machine, omnipresent, albeit with no clear territorial base?’ (Welcome 38). In Žižek’s rhetoric, terrorism is the global capitalist embodiment of fundamentalism (Welcome 38) made possible by the networks of a globalized liquid modernity, interdependent between nodes: ‘[One might] link globalization (7-11) and terrorism (9/11) together, stressing that they share in common both the logic of networking and an emphasis on mobility; that is, the “network society” and “terror networks” mirror each other in a mobile network space’ (Diken and Laustsen 89–90). This, of course, clearly echoes Bauman’s criticism in his pre-9/11 essay on sociology and the new millennium.

7.2 Zombie Fiction

As Arundhati Roy so aptly puts it in the quote opening this chapter, September 11, 2001, is a ‘monstrous calling card’ announcing the arrival of a different world order. And as with other calling cards, it prompted the called-upon to ponder the new arrival and its intentions. Western societies, especially the US, asked themselves: How did it come this far? How does one deal with this? It is then no wonder that the cultural imagination of the years following 9/11 is rich in critique of the social realities that led to the attacks and/or followed them, as well as rich in negotiations of the feelings of despair, apocalypse, and helplessness caused by this new variant of terrorism – both in the form of violent attacks and in the form of bioterrorism via diseases and viruses (prompted, for example, by the anthrax attacks immediately following 9/11). These topics have in recent years proven fertile ground for a cultural analysis of post-9/11 America, especially in regard to popular culture (Birkenstein, Randell, and Froula; Quay and Damico; Schopp and Hill; Melnick; Takacs) and its depiction of US society. As Kyle Bishop aptly argues:

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, caused perhaps the largest wave of paranoia for Americans since the McCarthy era. Since the beginning of the war on terror, American popular culture has been colored by the fear of possible terrorist attacks and the grim realization that people are not as safe and secure as they might have once thought.

(‘Explaining the Zombie’ 17)

(p.204) Interestingly, one genre of film and television that easily lends itself to negotiating terrorism, paranoia, apocalypse, and crisis was one that for all intents and purposes had been forgotten by mainstream media for at least ten years and that was revived at the beginning of the new millennium with impeccable, even if coincidental, timing: the zombie narrative. Whereas the 1980s saw the popularity of the zombie movie peak, the genre virtually ‘ground to a halt in the 1990s’ (Dendle, ‘Zombie Movies’ 178; Encyclopedia 3). In terms of production, Glenn Kay argues, ‘big screen horror releases – zombie releases, in particular – slowed to a trickle. By the mid-1990s fewer new zombie movies were being released than at any point since the late 1940s; the subgenre had completely stalled’ (183).1 But by the 2000s, the genre would prove apt to address the American social and political landscape so drastically changed by 9/11. As Elizabeth McAlister points out, ‘the American zombie is almost always a sign and a symptom of an apocalyptic undoing of the social order’ (474) and thus ideally suited to be used as a cultural cypher for an ever-adaptive barrage of social anxieties and fears.

Historically, the zombie was introduced into Western culture via early Hollywood film in its depiction of Haitian voodoo practices and the creation of slave labor (in films such as Victor Halperin’s White Zombie, US, 1932), but has been more influentially recast as the cannibalistic ‘living dead’ via George A. Romero’s films from Night of the Living Dead (US, 1968) onwards. A full presentation of the historical shifts and changes in zombie imagery and its cultural significance cannot be given at this point,2 but there have been numerous critical analyses linking the zombie to slave labor, colonialism, capitalism, consumerism, dehumanization, xenophobia, ecocriticism, social crisis, and lately viral networks such as media, disease, and globalization (Dendle, Encyclopedia 5). Margo Collins and Elson Bond, for example, declare that contemporary ‘depictions of zombies illustrate spreading anxiety over both (p.205) social atomization and the loss of individual identity’ and thus that ‘zombies come to function as monstrous placeholders for potentially dangerous human interactions in an anomic society’ (187).

7.2.1 The Zombie Renaissance

The latest revival of zombie films, the zombie’s most common medial form, significantly overlaps with the symbolic threshold of 9/11, taking its cue from this event, reflecting in its imagery

the worst-case fears of an apprehensive media culture, entertaining the same anxieties about world events, in this case, a fear of terrorism and epidemic in the zombie form. Various zombie films came to be seen as a medium for western culture’s ‘crisis mentality,’ a kind of vernacular expressing the concerns of a culture waiting for the next terrorist attack, the next outbreak of violence or the next pandemic.

(Birch-Bayley 137)

Most interestingly for my analysis here, the key to understanding the renewed interest in the zombie film in the new millennium lies in its interconnection with liquid modern society and the biopunk genre. As stated before, the surge of new films began coincidentally right after 9/11, and taking into account the long planning and production period of films, one must thus conclude that their inception occurred before, and was not a result of, the terrorist attacks. In fact, the two films to spark the ‘zombie renaissance’ (to use Bishop’s term) were decidedly produced before 9/11: Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil (UK/Germany/France, 2002)3 was already in post-production by the time of the attacks and had to eliminate its subtitle ‘Ground Zero’ due to the historic events (Dendle, Encyclopedia 14, note 23). And Danny Boyle’s 28 Days (p.206) Later (UK, 2002)4 was in the final days of filming in September 2001, with most of its inspiration deriving rather from the recent foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in Britain (Bishop, ‘Explaining the Zombie’ 23; Dendle, Encyclopedia 8). Its strongest scene (most reminiscent of 9/11 imagery) – the protagonist stumbling through a deserted London, finding a wall of posters with people looking for their lost ones – was inspired by an earthquake in China and not, as is commonly assumed, by the attack on the Twin Towers (Bishop, ‘Explaining the Zombie’ 22–23; Boyle and Garland), and Boyle even considered removing the scene from the movie, but in the end decided to keep it (Charity 73). Other works that expedited this ‘renaissance’ (i.e. mainstream popular success) include Zack Snyder’s remake of the Romero classic Dawn of the Dead (US, 2004), Simon Pegg’s satiric Shaun of the Dead (dir. Edgar Wright, UK, 2004), and Frank Darabont’s television series The Walking Dead (US, 2010– ), based on Robert Kirkman’s series of graphic novels.

Nonetheless, both films that initiated the renaissance, Resident Evil and 28 Days Later, reflect a renewed interest in the zombie as cultural cypher, in this case ideally conveying the changing social landscape of the 2000s, the liquid modern realities and especially ideas of globalization, viral networks, and posthumanism. Both films (as well as the sequels that followed in each franchise) are informed by a reimagination of the zombie apocalypse as caused by genetically engineered viral outbreak, unleashed due to corporate experiments with highly contagious viruses. Their innovative take on the zombie allows for liquid modern anxieties (as expressed by Bauman before 9/11) to meld with an uncertain posthuman condition, in order to produce critical dystopian imaginations of biopunk futures. The post-9/11 realities of globalized terror, continuous crisis, and the impotence of social institutions all find a recognizable correlation in the zombie genre’s conventions and tropes. As Bishop argues, the structural elements of zombie films have not changed radically – zombie films before 9/11 are not that much different from films after 9/11. It is rather that the films’ depictions of a breakdown of social institutions, the devastation of infrastructure, and the post-apocalyptic landscape in general are closer to the lived reality of 9/11 and thus have a much greater impact on today’s audience: ‘Initially, (p.207) zombie movies shocked audiences with their unfamiliar images; today, they are all the more shocking because of their familiarity’ (‘Explaining the Zombie’ 24).

Nonetheless, there are noticeable shifts of emphasis in the genre’s conventions that can be attributed to the changed realities of the twenty-first century, specifically to 9/11 and its aftermath regarding the global social order. I find these shifts, for example, evident in the film’s biopunk representations of a posthuman existence. Whereas most zombies of the twentieth century were what Kevin Boon has termed either ‘zombie drones’ (the Haitian zombie) or ‘zombie ghouls’ (Romero’s creation), many new millennial zombies such as those discussed here fall into the category of the ‘bio zombie’ (Boon, ‘Zombie as Other’ 57–58), who turn into zombies through some biological agent (virus, bacteria, disease, chemical) and are thus a variant of biopunk’s representation of genetics as potentially reality-changing scientific progress.

Steffen Hantke notes a similar paradigm change in the representation of the zombie around 2002, most apparent in the ‘Acceleration of the Undead’ (a feature discussed further below), and analyzes this change in terms of capitalist modes of production and consumption (‘From Fordist Plodders to Neoliberal Go-Getters’) that are based in the same societal shifts as discussed by Bauman as liquid modernity. Hantke sees a speeding up of horror characters (vampires, werewolves, zombies) as characteristic of the changed realities of contemporary life since the 1990s and ‘the neoliberal demand for the individual’s constant vigilance and hyper-alertness.’ He attributes these changes on the one hand to production aspects such as action-oriented franchises and digital special effects, and on the other to political changes in the leadership of the US. But, and Hantke emphasizes this caveat, paradigm changes occur over a long period of time, have a complex causality, and allow for ‘internal differentiation […] and the emergence of […] competing morphologies.’ Many ideological factors played into the changed themes and conventions of the zombie film, some originating before 2000 (such as neoliberal politics, liquid modern society, and biogenetic manipulation), while others, such as the radical implications of 9/11 for global politics, might have accelerated the changes – or at least one morphology of zombie cinema.

The Resident Evil franchise, with its now five films, seems ideally suited as a model of these changed themes and conventions, as the series’ production time spans the last 12 years and significantly bridges pre- and post-9/11 sensitivities. A similar argument can be made for 28 Days Later (pre-9/11) and its sequel 28 Weeks Later (post-9/11), while of course other recent zombie fictions have taken up biopunk-specific elements (p.208) and incorporated them – and I will acknowledge some in my analysis. It is important to point out that zombie films can be differentiated into films for mainstream and for cult audiences (see Hantke, note 11). The analysis here is focused on mainstream films (based on box-office success, not production cost) and acknowledges that counter-examples of the tendencies discussed can be found in films after 2000 that are released for a specialized, cult-based audience community. Hantke terms this as a ‘deliberate and self-conscious opposition as a holdout’ to the new paradigm and a self-conscious generic decision. Similarly, some films from before 2000 incorporate aspects of my discussion here – either as avant-garde for the larger paradigm shift or simply as singular expressions of generic experimentation. My argument is simply that these aspects take until after 2000 to manifest in high-profile, successful, mainstream representation of the zombie and that the events of 9/11 accelerated this manifestation.

At the heart of the Resident Evil films5 are the machinations of the capitalist globalized entity Umbrella Corporation, which specializes in bioweapon research and which Alice (Milla Jovovich), the series’ heroine and rebellious ex-employee, refers to as ‘the largest and most powerful commercial entity in the world’ (RE5). In Resident Evil (RE1), during a break-in at the viral research laboratory called the Hive, a sample of the T-virus, a deadly and highly mutable virus that reanimates dead cells, is released. The Hive’s computer tries to isolate the contagion, trapping and killing everybody inside. When a security team arrives and reopens the Hive, the biohazard – in the form of the reanimated dead – is released and the team, including Alice, has to fight its way out of the Hive for survival. In the logic of the genre, which dictates that ‘the spread of a zombie virus is inevitable and pandemic is ultimately unavoidable’ (Birch-Bayley 144), the series enacts this spreading pattern: Resident Evil: Apocalypse (RE2) takes place in Raccoon City, where Umbrella tries to contain the biohazard first via isolation (by limiting access to the city) and then by eradication (a nuclear bomb is dropped on the city), leaving Alice and other survivors to again fight for their escape. With Resident Evil: Extinction (RE3) the contagion has spread across the globe, devastating the planet, not just its human population, and limiting survivors to a (p.209) life on the road, continuously fighting off the undead and scrounging for scraps of the former civilization. A broadcast from the aptly named Arcadia, an isolated town in Alaska, promises relief from this life, and the remaining humans set out to Arcadia in a helicopter. In Resident Evil: Afterlife (RE4), Alice arrives late in Arcadia, to find it abandoned and her friends missing. In her search for the others she arrives in Los Angeles and finds shelter in a prison, which is then attacked by the undead, leaving Alice and another survivor troupe to flee towards a tanker ship in the Pacific, claiming to grant refuge. Unfortunately, the ship is controlled by Umbrella, which uses it for experimentation on humans. In Resident Evil: Retribution (RE5), Alice is captured by Umbrella and brought to an underwater testing ground, which the corporation uses to stage massive human experiments in viral weaponry. Alice is rescued by a team of other survivors, all of whom then once more need to escape the facility and its hordes of undead.

28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later follow a similar ‘zombie movie spreading pattern,’ but significantly postpone the ‘pandemic stage’ to the epilogue of 28 Weeks and the planned but not (yet) realized third film in the series. 28 Days begins with bike courier, Jim (Cillian Murphy), awakening from a coma some weeks after the release of the experimental ‘rage virus’ (from a research facility through accident), which seems to have turned humans all over Britain into ‘infected.’ The infected are driven by rage to violently attack and either kill or infect the surviving humans. Jim – with a group of other survivors – needs to escape the civilization of London in order to survive, heading for a military outpost up north. In the end, the crazed and power-hungry military commander turns out to be even more dangerous than the infected and Jim, as well as two others, survive only in full isolation from any other groups. The film allows for a somewhat positive ending when the survivors are being rescued by military forces.

28 Weeks Later begins with the resettlement of Britain under the military protection of US troops and a strict quarantine zone, roughly six months after the events of the first film. Following the logic of zombie narratives, the quarantine is breached and the military leaders find themselves unable to keep the outbreak under control. The uninfected inhabitants of the zone need to fight not only the contagion but also the ruthless attempts of the US military to control, contain, or eliminate the infection. Containment fails and in the end the virus is seen spreading to the European mainland (i.e. Paris), thus promising a third film, with the action taking place ‘28 months later.’

(p.210) 7.2.2 Terror from the Familiar … or the Other?

Many of the typical structural elements of classical zombie fiction are intact in biopunk zombie films. First and foremost, there is what Peter Dendle calls the ‘depersonalization’ (Encyclopedia 6) of the zombie, an ‘absence of some metaphysical quality of their essential selves’ (Boon, ‘And the Dead’ 7), a loss of something that defined their humanity before the change: ‘Usually this entails a loss of volition […] The person is no longer a person in either an existential or metaphysical sense’ (Boon, ‘And the Dead’ 7). This is most drastically shown in what Lauro terms ‘the terror from the familiar […] made unexpectedly different’ (232). In each film – as a staple of the zombie genre – a member of the group gets infected with the contagion but either is permitted to stay with the group or hides their condition until the change is effected. Motivation for remaining with the group is usually some human emotional bond, a feeling of responsibility or familiarity. When the film enacts the transition into zombie status as a violent change and an irreversible crossing of a threshold, there is a sudden and noticeable loss of humanity and the contrast of the two states (human/zombie), the loss of volition, and the depersonalization are highlighted.

The familiar turning into a threat, which the zombie film places in the center of human conflict for the remaining survivors, finds a strong equivalent in the emotional turmoil following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. What makes the 9/11 terrorists so threatening, Diken and Laustsen argue, is that they did not emerge from any marginalized group of society; they were not the other but rather lived as neighbors and guests in suburban US society (90). Fear and terror emerge from the possibility of becoming a victim at any time because anyone can be a terrorist – a deeper uncertainty cannot be felt. Terrorism, similar to its double, globalization, makes use of liquid modernity’s breaking down of territorial nation states, political institutions, and social norms. Both rely on the new networks of mobility, speed, and flexibility. Furthermore, insecurity, unsafety, and uncertainty are at the heart of both terrorism and globalization. Before globalization, terrorists (e.g. the IRA, ETA) had a more localized (territorial, national) and very specific political agenda (retreat of the British from Northern Ireland, a separation of the Basque Country from Spain) and used smaller-scale attacks preferably targeting political adversaries (e.g. police, military, politicians – for example the attack on Margaret Thatcher in October 1984 at the Grand Hotel in Brighton). Which is not to say that there are not, of course, many civilian casualties in the ‘old’ form of terrorism (IRA/ETA) as well, either as collateral damage in efforts to strike strategic (p.211) (military, police) targets, or as part of an escalation of violence against the civilian collaboration in the later stages of the conflicts. Nonetheless, Al-Qaeda promotes a terror that is, in comparison, much more ‘blind and diffuse. It operates stochastically and seldom demands something explicit from an identifiable adversary’ (Diken and Laustsen 91). New terror is ‘invisible, off-scene/obscene, and viral’ (Diken and Laustsen 91) – there is no coordinated effort towards a clearly articulated political aim, no territorial aspect to the attacks, and no unifying strategy or goal, except to promote as much fear as possible.

But the zombie as metaphorical projection of fears of the other in the familiar is not quite enough to represent the new form terrorism had taken with 9/11. Globalized, viral terror comes with the unexpected and the incalculable as its inherent traits, giving no indication of any common elements that could be singled out and predicted. Movement, speed, and flexibility are the essential features of this threat, and it thus seems almost prophetic that 28 Days Later should reimagine the zombie as ‘infected’ – not quite dead, but zombies nonetheless, adhering to Boon’s category of the bio zombie as the infected lose their volition by means of a virus. Technically, the infected of 28 Days Later are simultaneously ‘bio zombies’ and ‘psychological zombies’ (Boon, ‘Zombie as Other’ 58) in origin, as ‘the root of the virus is psychological,’ as Boyle claims, even though this is hardly acknowledged in the film, where it ‘manifests itself in the most appalling physical sickness’ (Harrison 74). Moreover, the transmission of the virus is somatic (biting or the spitting of blood), and thus the essential dynamics of the infected and the undead in zombie movies are mostly the same.

The key change that 28 Days Later introduced into the zombie genre is that the infected were not the ‘“walking” dead,’ as Max Brooks satirically commented, who tended ‘to move at a slouch or limp,’ ‘incapable of running’ (13). Instead, the infected move at almost superhuman speed, as nothing but rage (as the virus is aptly named) is motivating their actions. There have been smaller B-movie productions in the 1980s (e.g. Return of the Living Dead, 1985) that provide predecessors to the infected, but in terms of impact for the genre 28 Days Later is a game-changer. Here, human bodies become the macro-biological manifestation of the ultra-aggressive virus, viciously replicating themselves via instantaneously infectious bites and the vomiting of massive amounts of infected blood. Whereas classic zombie films presented the contagion as a slow-acting disease with an incubation period of hours, if not days, resulting in similarly slow-acting zombies, the infected of 28 Days Later are as fast-acting as their contagion is – once bitten, it takes mere seconds to turn into an agile moving infected. In this shift lies the (p.212) posthuman potential to read the ‘fast zombie’ as culturally divergent from the ‘slow zombie,’ and it seems indicative of the need for a new metaphorical understanding that many films after 9/11 took the infected as model for their representation of any and all zombies.

The Resident Evil series is very enlightening in this regard, as the first film – produced before 2001 – is true to the original games and their inspiration by the Romero films, in that the reanimated dead of T-virus origin are slow and grotesquely moving. For RE1, director Paul W.S. Anderson felt the need to adhere to the ‘rules of the games,’ which meant ultimately adhering to those rules established by the Romero films, the most important of which is, ‘you can’t have fast moving zombies’ (‘Playing Dead’),6 as the classical zombie in its slow, relentless, and inevitable approach represents our fears of death:

Zombies are our destiny writ large. Slow and steady in their approach, weak, clumsy, often absurd, the zombie relentlessly closes in, unstoppable, intractable. However (and herein lies the sublime artfulness of the slow zombie), their ineptitude actually makes them avoidable, at least for a while. If you’re careful, if you keep your wits about you, you can stave them off, even outstrip them – much as we strive to outstrip death.


Simon Pegg’s argument might bear a kernel of truth for a liberal humanist subject born into the relative security and stability of the 1960s and 1970s American or European white middle class of Romero’s zombies (from which he extrapolates). But this is, of course, too reductionist, as death in liquid modern times has grown uncontrollably faster, more incalculable, and indeterminate. Pegg’s subject is situated in the safety of still intact public institutions and a personal financial stability (e.g. a steady job, real estate, insurance, and the luxuries of consumer society), benefiting from stable baby-boomer economics and strong state-driven and well-organized institutions (welfare, healthcare, job programs, infrastructure, police and military protection) and resulting in a massively growing life expectancy (due to technological, medical, and economic progress in the post-WWII years). But these securities are dissolving as the middle class is losing its privileged position in liquid modernity. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, job (p.213) security, financial safety, and personal healthcare are under attack by dehumanized institutions and corporate interests (through privatization of state institutions and neoliberal policy as well as judicature) – the middle class consequently becomes much more precariously situated (further discussed below). In addition, the modern form of terrorism (9/11, the London Underground bombings), viral pandemics (HIV, SARS, H1N1), and corporate profit-oriented strategies leading to human-made and natural ecological disasters (Deepwater Horizon, Fukushima, Hurricane Katrina) prove more than anything that death – destiny writ large – cannot be avoided by careful planning, by living ‘right’ and calculating risks. It should be noted here that the privileged middle class still is by far less affected by those global risks than the underprivileged, as they remain relatively financially secured and geographically mobile. Nonetheless, a growing threat potential is noticeable: Pandemics, terrorism, and disasters are only avoidable to a certain degree – 9/11 hit the heart of white-collar America; infectious diseases can potentially affect anyone. Security is thus a relative term. Instead, living in liquid modernity is defined by exactly the opposite, as Bauman argues: by having to face ‘by far the most awesome and fearsome dangers […] precisely those that are impossible, or excruciatingly difficult, to anticipate: the unpredicted, and in all likelihood unpredictable ones’ (Liquid Fear 11).

Beyond the most obvious allegorical meaning (death), slow and fast zombies also reveal, as Peter Dendle argues, ‘competing underlying constructs of self’ in that they represent specific concepts of the human: Slow zombies reference an understanding of ‘humanity resid[ing] in the sum total of mental and emotional states’ (Encyclopedia 6). In an essentially humanist understanding, what makes ‘us’ human are ‘our’ personal feelings and desires – and all that is gone from the zombie, making it merely an animated body, a depersonalized ‘drone, an automaton, a thing’ (Dendle, Encyclopedia 6) without the emotional components such as desire for a specific action or satisfaction from achieving it. Any memory and activity found in the zombie is instinctual and functions purely as critique – Romero’s zombies return to the mall not as free-willed humans, but as automated consumers, repeating actions from before, ‘remain[ing] in trance’ (Hantke) without real emotional attachment to anything. As such, slow zombies are ideal metaphoric representations of a ‘flattening of affect and the quenching of spirit and creativity’ (Hantke) as feared to be produced by overconsumption, media use, or political conformism.

Fast zombies on the other hand are not characterized by a ‘loss of passion,’ instead rather representing a deep ‘loss of control’ (Hantke) and (p.214)

9/11 and the Wasted Lives of Posthuman Zombies

Slow zombies gather around the impenetrable Umbrella compound to form a ‘wall of zombies’ (screenshot: Resident Evil: Extinction, © Sony, 2007).

a surrender to animal nature beyond the human. Instead of mindless automatons, the new, fast zombies function as metaphor for the ‘animal instinct’ (Hantke), revealing a human nature that is more visceral, driven by self-preservation and thus self-interest. For Hantke, this allegorizes the ‘neoliberal agenda, insisting on individualism, risk, and universal predation’ – the war-like state of ‘kill or be killed’ present in liquid modernity. Consequently, the fast zombie strips away any and all of the human masks of socialization and reveals, in a very posthuman gesture (think ‘becoming-animal’), the predatory side of humanity.

Thus, with the sequels to the original Resident Evil a re-appropriation of the zombie sets in, which evolves the slow-moving creature in terms of agility, abilities, drives, and on-screen presentation to the requirements of the new social and cultural realities and to the new understanding of a posthuman self-construction. In RE2 zombies needed to be ‘more aggressive and more dangerous’ (‘Game Over’), as director Alexander Witt says. They were conceptualized by the film’s choreographers Sharon Moore and Derek Aasland as ‘liquid zombie[s]’ (‘Game Over’) in terms of their relentless forward motion: unstoppable, flowing around any kind of resistance, and then rushing in on the final attack. RE3, for the first time, offered a completely new breed of zombie that was created by Umbrella’s experiments with Alice’s DNA reintroduced into the undead. This mutated form of zombie is what producer Paul W.S. Anderson refers to as ‘super-undead: the undead that can be fast, that is super-strong, that is animal, smart, cunning – a really fearsome foe’ (‘Beyond Raccoon City’). Slow zombies are still present but figure either as a single close encounter or in large groups as a barrier, or ‘wall of zombies.’ The (p.215) ‘super-undead’ become the real threat of the film. From this point on, the slow-moving zombies of RE are ‘phased out’ in favor of the infected of 28 Days Later and become all but non-existent as a threat. The zombie evolution is taken one step further with RE4, in which the original concept of the undead (‘people brought back by the virus’) is being replaced by the concept of the infected (‘people mutated by the virus’), as make-up artist Paul Jones explains in ‘New Blood: The Undead of Afterlife.’ The new form of zombie (referred to as ‘burrowing zombie’ or ‘mandible zombie’) is mostly characterized by its genetic mutation: It is faster and stronger than humans and can extend its mouth into a huge maw with four sharp-toothed mandibles that function as sensors and grasping tools at the same time. These zombies do not shamble up to the prison gates, but instead are intelligent and cunning enough to dig their way through tunnels into the sewer system connected to the prison and attack their prey from cover. Lastly, in RE5 the zombie ultimately evolves into a fully conscious posthuman agent that due to the Las Plagas parasite is capable of retaining full control over its motor functions and the ability to use tools and machinery. Las Plagas zombies are thus able to drive cars and motorcycles, fire weapons, and coordinate a military-style attack (see ‘Drop (Un) Dead’).

As Hantke notes, in accordance with this ‘acceleration’ the zombie changes not just in terms of speed, but in all aspects of its visual representation. Where slow zombies were best captured in rather static long shots, establishing a depth perception that would allow the viewer an orientation point to realize the slow and steady approach of the zombie, fast zombies are shot preferring fast-paced, hard cuts, favoring medium and close-up shots, and unusual, jarring angles. In films such as 28 Days Later the zombie acceleration is even more emphasized by the use of handheld cameras, unsteady point of view, grainy and unfocused shots, and rapid camera movement. This fast and impact-oriented editing directly transports audiences into the conflict and provides a visceral experience of the zombie threat, thus rather addressing mainstream action audiences interested in the physical fight, instead of cult horror audiences savoring the psychological threat posed by the zombie.

Further, as Robin Wood argues, large groups of slow zombies are best described as being governed by a sort of ‘herd’ mentality: ‘[They] never communicate, or even notice each other, except in terms of an automatic “herd” instinct, following the leader to the next food supply’ (298). The phrase is imprecise, though, as slow zombies simply follow specific sensory inputs – such as the smell of blood, movement, noise – but no one zombie leads the herd (aside from being the first to notice the food). Important to note here is that slow zombies might gather in (p.216) ‘herds’ but remain separate in their actions – each following its own instinct for food. This accounts for the zombies’ relative inability to infiltrate human habitats or get past simple barricades. Typical scenes thus include small trickles of zombies gathering around enclaves to form larger groups. Visually, most films present this amassing of zombies in scenes of ‘herds’ pressed against mesh wire fences or windowpanes unable to get past. Metaphorically speaking, slow zombies are thus solid, massive, and separate entities held in place by material boundaries (see the discussion on ‘territoriality’ further below).

Fast zombies, on the other hand, are not stopped by barriers and find ways to move around, under, over, and through any material boundary. As Colin Tait argues, the ‘herd’ becomes a ‘swarm’ (taking his cue from Hardt and Negri’s Multitude and their description of the ‘network attack’ as ‘a multitude of mindless assailants, unknown, uncertain, unseen and unexpected’ [91]) in that ‘they possess the ability to look for openings, utilize crude skills, and eventually overwhelm via their inherently cooperative nature’ (Tait 67). Utilizing a collective intelligence, the swarm becomes a single entity and, not caring for its individual components, urges onwards towards its goal. Visually, most films enact this variant of zombie morphology in terms of fluidity, in which the metaphor of the ‘wall’ becomes the metaphor of the ‘wave.’ Singular drops are lost, arrested in their motion, but the wave itself is unstoppable, moving by replacing the front particles with new ones from the back. In terms of its visual impact, this is most radically expressed in the film World War Z (dir. Marc Forster, US/UK, 2013), which enacts zombies as a wave washing over every obstacle placed in its way – zombies literally rushing over each other to slop over a 60-foot wall or smashing into houses and cars, before the rest of the wave changes direction to circumvent the obstacle.

Returning to the evolution of zombies in the Resident Evil series, I want to argue that the fast zombie ultimately represents a becoming-posthuman in terms of the new social reality of liquid modernity. The zombie is an ideal negotiation of the life/death, subject/object, human/other boundaries – and in its irreconcilability at the level of such dialectic categories, as Lauro and Embry argue, it embodies the posthuman: ‘the only way to truly get posthuman is to become antisubject’ (87). Already inherent in its liminal status, its embodiment in life and death, ‘the zombie serves as an apparent deconstruction of our every ontology’ (Leverette 187) – thus inhabiting a critical posthumanist subject position, which ‘exists in its collectivity (and in its multiplicity and its hybridity)’ (Lauro and Embry 106). Dendle argues that this multiplicity and hybridity can already be found in the human body (p.217) and that it is externalized in the fast zombie: ‘Our body itself is only a loose collective of tissue held together by circumstance and self-interest rather than sentimentality or affection’ (Encyclopedia 6).

This multiple/hybrid position becomes even more apparent through the zombie’s ‘liquefaction,’ in its conception first through its movement as individual (RE2), and as group (RE4): no more staggering, arms ‘outstretched towards the victim, as if begging for something’ (Hulsey), needing to catch its victims unprepared or unaware (see Pegg) to initiate the ontological dissolution of categories. Instead, the zombie becomes an unpredictable and much more flexible ‘swarm organism’ (in its visual impact discussed above), acting as one entity, ‘the only imaginable specter that could really be posthuman’ – transcending the life/death boundary by holding it ‘irrevocably in tension’ (Lauro and Embry 88, 94). Finally, the dialectic between competing categories is completely eradicated in the last three films (RE3–5), when experimentation and mutation create several new species of posthumanity, all ultimately existing in the ‘the lacuna between life and death’ (Lauro and Embry 94).

In RE3, Alice’s blood is used to counteract the effects of the T-virus in the super-undead, restoring certain aspects of life, such as cognitive functions and memory. RE4 on the other hand offers ‘mandible zombies’ that have mutated from a human ontology, having been infected with the T-virus before death and thus retaining their reasoning powers, while at the same time exhibiting an enhanced resemblance to animals in that they develop maws with fangs and feelers. The Las Plagas in RE5 then are conceptually the most unstable subjects, as the film does not clearly determine their origin: virus, parasite, human, dead – these creatures incorporate all ontologies, thus hybridizing and multiplying them.

Epidemic, virus, and contagion – this is the central biopunk terminology that motivates the shift from slow to fast zombie, that enables ‘us’ to think further and more radically beyond the humanist subject position and that very closely resembles discourses after 9/11. Diken and Laustsen argue that the new terror after 9/11 is defined by its virality. Due to the globalized network nature of liquid modern society, the most effective method of destruction is viral: Its goal is to remain undetected and spread using the original network pathways (or even creating new ones): ‘A virus destroys the network from within, causing implosion. Viral terror breaks the public rules, offers no explanation or negotiation’ (Diken and Laustsen 95). That is why Žižek calls this form of terror ‘uncanny’ and ‘paranoiac’: ‘the spectre of an “immaterial” war where the attack is invisible – viruses, poisons which can be (p.218) anywhere or nowhere. On the level of visible material reality, nothing happens, no big explosions; yet the known universe starts to collapse, life disintegrates’ (Welcome 37).

Biopunk zombie films like 28 Days Later (as the initial ‘fast’ zombie fiction) and the Resident Evil series embrace viral outbreak as the key metaphor for terror in liquid modern times and use it to fully break down the humanist subject position and all the safety it provides:

The virus is itself at the very threshold between animate and inanimate, between organic life and chemistry. Little more than a simple strip of genetic material, the virus is unthinking and unmotivated. In the sense that it preserves and replicates its DNA, a virus is arguably the purest form of life.

(Dendle, Encyclopedia 6–7)

The invaded host body – infused with pure life (zoe) – represents thus a critical posthuman subjectivity: becoming-virus. From this subject position, the films enact the fast zombie as a metaphor of the breaking down of both the individual and social body, to present them ‘as being vulnerable to invasion on account of our increasingly globalized, networked and communally organized selves’ (Sundaram 136).

As a consequence, biopunk zombie films need to address Lauro’s ‘terror from the familiar’ from a different perspective. If any social body can be invaded by disease and its cells turned into threats through viral terror tactics, then, as Deborah Christie argues for the vampire–zombie hybrids of I Am Legend, ‘the body, post-death, has become a liability that neither society nor the individual can afford to treat sentimentally. Logically, the body is no longer a symbolic representation of the life that was once housed there, and instead represents a highly contagious source of infection’ (‘Dead New World’ 72–73). After 9/11 the zombie becomes an apt metaphor for the ‘domestic terrorists within one’s own private and public borders’ (Muntean and Payne 246–47) – without forewarning and fully unexpectedly, the private turns threatening. Risk management of global threats (terrorism, pandemics) becomes the individual’s responsibility and personal connections cannot reasonably help in stabilizing or securing against those threats, as one realizes the ‘frailty of human bonds’ (as the subtitle of Bauman’s Liquid Love suggests) and that ‘liquid modern life is a life of undying suspicion and unrelenting vigilance’ (Bauman, Liquid Fear 47), as even the closest of human bonds might be broken in an instant. All of this has been part of zombie fiction before 9/11, but with the advent of the fast zombie and its biopunk metaphor of ‘viral contagion,’ the emotional conflict of killing a loved one, the struggle of severing the human bond with (p.219) the former familiar, has been replaced by an unwavering conviction of the need for swift action. Where before, the bitten had time to ponder their demise, think about how and when they wanted to die, and say goodbye to their loved ones – thus fueling the internal struggle within the social body regarding when to excise the disease – the viral terror of fast zombies ‘must be killed at once – and often brutally’ (Bishop, ‘Dead Man Still Walking: Explaining’ 23), as the infection cannot be allowed to spread under any circumstances. In liquid modernity, faced with viral terror and in order to survive, one needs to be able to cut any relation with speed and decisiveness. Biopunk zombie films heighten this radical change in the make-up of interhuman relations by determining the human becoming-zombie not as a slow progression that can be foreseen, but, as discussed before, as unavoidable and immediate. The biopunk zombie is biology become politics – in the form of a radical action of preemption.

7.2.3 Frontier-land and the Breakdown of Social Order

The politics of globalized, undetectable, viral terror find their cultural representation in biopunk zombie movies first and foremost in the question of how to deal with anything that is seen as a potential threat against the social body. The viral contagion, just like viral terror, is undetectable, turns the familiar into the monstrous within seconds, and is destructive to any social order. One way of dealing with the insecurity of society and the unperceivable threat levels of viral terror is by employing ‘preemptive politics of security’ in order to organize any and all public space for risk assessment, controlling ‘eventualities’ (Diken and Laustsen 97) rather than events and finding a reaction to actions that have not taken place yet.

This ‘ideology of preemption’ (Muntean and Payne 247) is most impressively demonstrated in 28 Days Later: In one scene, protagonist Jim – ignorant of the changes of the infected world – is rescued by Selena (Naomi Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley), who have thus far survived together and formed a social bond. Some time after the rescue and due to Jim’s ignorance, Mark gets injured (and potentially infected) in an attack. Selena immediately strikes him down with her machete, eliminating any risk for her and ignoring her former familiar bond with Mark. The scene is violent and bloody. Mark notices the gash in his arm, realizes his predicament, and looks from his arm to Selena, asking her to ‘wait, wait!’ Selena does not hesitate but swings her machete at Mark. In terms of cinematography, the film enacts no difference between killing Mark and killing the infected before – the (p.220) cuts are frantic, the camera is shaky and unfocused, concentrating on the blood spattering across the wall and the rapid, violent hacking. After it is done, Selena pants heavily and turns to Jim, throwing him a rag with the words ‘wipe that off’ – thus emphasizing that even the appearance of a breach can cost him his life. Remarkably, all of this happens before Mark’s contamination is established and he crosses the human/infected threshold and actually becomes a threat. Anna Froula claims this preemptive strike foreshadows ‘the logic of 9/11, the response to the threat must be as or more barbaric than the threat itself’ (199). Nick Muntean and Matthew Payne argue that with this barbaric response, Selena (and thus all enforcers of the ‘ideology of preemption’) ultimately forestalls any alternative to or ‘potential way out of the apocalyptic crisis’ (247). It is exactly this same logic that dominates the ‘War on Terror’ and thus lends itself to a political reading of post-9/11 zombie films, as zombie terror and Islamic terror become conflated. Bishop explains: ‘The transmission of the zombie infection is a symbolic form of radical brainwashing. Because anyone can become infected (i.e., conditioned) at any time, everyone is a potential threat; thus, paranoia becomes almost as important as survival’ (‘Dead Man Still Walking: Explaining’ 24). This is eerily reflective of the Bush administration’s foreign policy, as stated by national security advisor Stephen Hadley: ‘If necessary […] we do not rule out the use of force before attacks occur, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack’ (cited in Muntean and Payne 247).

Following this logic, the attacked US reacted to viral terror by investing its political rhetoric in strengthening the territorial ‘differentiation of “inside” (friends) and “outside” (enemies)’ (Diken and Laustsen 92) in regard to national politics, which allows political institutions to rephrase uncontrollable global insecurity into much more easily controlled personal safety in terms of homeland security – the implementation of large-scale checks of flight passengers and cargo containers is the most obvious attempt at this (Diken and Laustsen 93; Bauman, Society 89). That national security, that is, territorial domination, does not work after the ‘end of the era of space,’ but is a futile attempt at whitewashing the government’s inability to handle the viral threat, is again symbolically explored by the biopunk zombie fictions. In 28 Weeks Later, the Isle of Dogs in central London is used as a quarantine zone, heavily fortified, under surveillance and control of the US military. But all territorial control measures – the snipers, the medical examinations, the armed guards, and the ever-present CCTV cameras – cannot stop the infection from resurfacing once a new form of infected is found: The biological unpredictability of the contagion, in this case a woman that (p.221) is infected and a carrier of the disease, but not showing any symptoms, is not manageable by the military.7

Again the biopunk metaphor of infected as terrorists is highly enlightening: The inside/outside or us/them differentiation breaks down when the contagion is ‘dormant’ or mutating into unknown form and the identification of the other becomes impossible – just as with the friendly suburban foreign students-cum-terrorists of 9/11. Terror is invisible and off-scene, not found where it is expected and thus not manageable. In 28 Weeks Later, when the outbreak occurs and the citizens of the quarantine zone run into the streets in panic, the military machinery reacts with extreme preemptive logic: Within minutes the order to kill only the infected is rescinded and everyone becomes a potential target. When this radical attempt at controlling the infected fails too, an airstrike with firebombs is supposed to contain the infection for good. The undecidability of targets dissolves any categorization of us versus them within seconds and confuses the snipers as well as the military leaders watching via remote cameras – the viewers are drawn into the same confusion as shaky point-of-view shots through the sniper’s scope and close-ups of the snipers shooting blend with shots of panicked people running through the streets. The film presents infected and civilians running for their lives as completely indistinguishable – in the ideology of preemption anyone (infected, civilian, ‘anyone but me’) becomes a potential threat and the extermination of all threats takes priority.

Similar scenes of territorial fortification and their inability to adapt to new threats are found in RE2, RE4, and George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead (US, 2005). In RE2, the Umbrella Corporation is as inept in containing the T-virus in Raccoon City as the US military is in 28 Weeks Later, giving the live-ammunition order and firing preemptively on the civilian population in the evacuation attempt when the potential threat has become too great and sending in a nuclear strike in an effort to eradicate the virus – which of course fails and leads to the global spread of the virus in RE3. In RE4, the survivors have fortified a prison, in itself a representation of the old, territorial discipline society, and taken refuge where once the undesirables of a society were confined. But again, the massive walls and territorial holdings cannot cope with the oncoming threat of exterritorial, viral, protean terror.

(p.222) The globalized world order after 9/11 and especially the logic of a ‘War on Terror’ is defined by what Bauman calls ‘the character of frontier-land’ (Society 90), where an instability of alliances, a flux of the conflicts fought, and the constant reassessment of goals are central. The exterritoriality of globalization is naturalized and given form in the zombie films, where space becomes contested, no matter how fortified it is. Bauman suggests that the ‘inaccessibility of the global roots of insecurity as long as dealing with them is attempted from inside a locally confined territory, and using only locally available means, has long caused a “safety overload”: a shifting of insecurity-prompted concerns and worries to the action-field of safety’ (Society 89). The individual may not be able to solve viral terror (or the zombie apocalypse), but they can at least fortify their home and keep the threat outside – a strategy doomed to fail as horror films have pointed out repeatedly. No matter if the walls are breached via liquid adaptation (as in World War Z), through brute force (as in Pacific Rim [dir. Guillermo del Toro, US, 2013]) or through inner corruption (as in The Purge [dir. James DeMonaco, US, 2013]), they are inevitably breached. Biopunk zombie films similarly explicate the futility of the territorial fortification by flaunting the adaptive nature of globalized and networked threats: In RE4, the zombie threat becomes viral, invisible, and highly flexible. The safety of the prison is literally undermined by the mutated ‘mandible zombies’ by using the existing network infrastructure – they burrow into the prison by using the sewage and water pipe system.

A similar inability to foresee the unforeseeable and to expect the unexpected is demonstrated by Romero’s most overtly political film, Land of the Dead. In the film, the inner city of Pittsburgh has been fortified – very similar to the Isle of Dogs from 28 Weeks Later – and cut off from the zombie onslaught. This has been easily accomplished because the safe zone is peninsular and the water barrier effectively stops ‘normal’ zombies. The remaining unsafe side of the zone is equipped with armed guards, electrified fences, and all-round surveillance. The film then explores the inability of the established social order inside the zone – reminiscent of old world capitalism and military imperialism – to cope with a change in the abandoned outside world. The zombies outside mutate, change in terms of cognition, and become better organized. By following a zombie leader, using tools and weapons, and simply walking under the water, they are able to infiltrate the city and destroy the system from the inside – the fortification ironically trapping everybody in the city with the zombies.

As demonstrated in these examples, the power of the military (or military-like organizations) based in territorial sovereignty is severely (p.223) challenged by the biopunk zombie film, especially because they cannot foresee the viral, mutable nature of the threat. But more so: No social institution, no structural element of the old, solid modernity is depicted as capable of dealing with the realities of globalization and liquid modernity. As Nicole Birch-Bayley suggests:

These films very often consisted of societies and populations that proved ill equipped to cope with the overwhelming spread of violence and disease; the human crisis became directly linked to authentic global concerns, such as wars on terrorism, political revolutions, inadequate governments, weapons of mass destruction, viral epidemics or even pandemics, which continue to be referenced in the contemporary media. (138)

Arriving in mainstream media with post-9/11 zombie films is a strong flaunting of this inability of the old structures and systems to deal with the ensuing chaos after any form of globalized crisis. The institutional inability had been present in zombie films before, in fact it had been present in many horror or science fiction scenarios, but has through the terror attacks been more clearly focused on global causation and brought to the fore as systemic in network society. Zombie films strongly showcase the realization that ‘the 9/11 attacks exposed the vulnerabilities of global infrastructure and security, or the fragility of civilization itself,’ mostly leaving audiences with ‘a general sense that in a time of crisis, people will not be able to depend on authorities for help’ (Dendle, Encyclopedia 9).

It is then no wonder that zombie films demonstrate the fast and complete destruction of any institutions or structures that are connected to any current social order: Government, police, military, medical systems, and the church all become obsolete and dysfunctional, as do media and capitalist ventures. Images of decrepit cities, abandoned highways, overrun military outposts, looted shops, and corrupted symbols of social order (like churches, schools) abound in most zombie films: ‘we have seen chaos metastasize across the planet, and the message is clear: no one is in charge of the world any longer. Nearly every zombie film contains the obligatory scenes of similar disorder as the authorities looked to for protection themselves fall victim to the chaos’ (Zani and Meaux 114). As such, the zombie film naturalizes and speeds up a process that Bauman argues is inherent in the social make-up of liquid modernity: the dissolution of social mores and systems.

(p.224) 7.2.4 Empire, Sovereignty, and Homo Sacer

But biopunk zombie films go beyond a simple representation of societal inabilities to cope with global crisis and apocalypse. The films also comment on and shift the zombies’ representation of sovereignty. Inherent within liquid modern society, but most apparent after 9/11 and its political climate shift, sovereignty needs to be seen in its connection to what Hardt and Negri refer to as Empire: ‘Along with the global market and global circuits of production has emerged a global order, a new logic and structure of rule – in short, a new form of sovereignty. Empire is the political subject that effectively regulates these global exchanges, the sovereign power that governs the world’ (Empire xi). Replacing the nation states in their claim for sovereignty, Hardt and Negri argue, new globalized structures emerge that operate fluidly, flexibly, and without territorial boundaries, but still under a unifying logic of capitalism. Instead of the territorial extension of state sovereignty via imperialism, Empire rules via mobile global elites, the dissolution of space through speed, and an unfettered exterritoriality, just as Bauman claims for liquid modernity.8 Hardt and Negri underline the difference: ‘In contrast to imperialism, Empire establishes no territorial center of power and does not rely on fixed boundaries or barriers. It is a decentered and deterritorializing apparatus of rule that progressively incorporates the entire global realm within its open, expanding frontiers’ (Empire xii–xiii).

And because Empire is not imperialism (in terms of territorial claims and fixation of borders), the ‘global capitalist network’ exerts a form of sovereignty over the globalized world that ‘goes nomadic, assuming a nonlinear, rhizomatic character’ (Diken and Laustsen 93), Hardt and Negri argue, and is best described by Foucault’s terms of ‘biopolitics’ and ‘biopower’:

Biopower is a form of power that regulates social life from its interior, following it, interpreting it, absorbing it, and rearticulating it […] The highest function of this power is to invest life through and through, and its primary task is to administer life. Biopower thus refers to a situation in which what is directly at stake in power is the production and reproduction of life itself. (23–24)

(p.225) Instead of the sovereignty that incarcerates, disciplines, and punishes its citizenry (disciplinary societies) by organizing itself around tightly surveyed enclosures, biopolitics emerge with a shift towards societies of control, which exert power via flexible ‘modulation, like a self-deforming cast that will continuously change from one moment to the other, or like a sieve whose mesh will transmute from point to point’ (Deleuze 4; see Foucault, Discipline). Political control over life has become the measure of sovereignty, as Sherryl Vint argues: ‘Under biopolitics, life itself becomes the object of political governance, and political governance becomes the practice of steering the biological life of individuals and species’ (‘Introduction’ 161).

Foucault argues in his lectures on biopolitics that sovereignty defines itself through the power to kill, ‘the right to take life or let live,’ and that this right has been complemented through biopower with ‘the power to “make” live and “let” die’ (‘Society’ 241), which Vint explains as the right to shape the governed according to sovereign notions of what is healthy, good, or right (‘Introduction’ 162). Biopolitics is thus the practice of excising unhealthy, bad, or wrong specimens from the governed social body, by deciding which life is worth living and which is expendable. It is this excised body that Giorgio Agamben describes with his concept of homo sacer, ‘who may be killed and yet not sacrificed’ – the ‘bare life’ (8) of man that is outside of law and the social body, defined within only by exclusion from it. In (liquid) modern times, groups of expendable lives are declared homo sacer by a biopolitical sovereign in order to assure their lawful exclusion, and even extermination, from the social body, as Anthony Downey writes:

Lives lived on the margins of social, political, cultural, economic and geographical borders are lives half lived. Denied access to legal, economic and political redress, these lives exist in a limbo-like state that is largely preoccupied with acquiring and sustaining the essentials of life. The refugee, the political prisoner, the disappeared, the victim of torture, the dispossessed – all have been excluded, to different degrees, from the fraternity of the social sphere, appeal to the safety net of the nation-state and recourse to international law. They have been outlawed, so to speak, placed beyond recourse to law and yet still in a precarious relationship to law itself. (109)

The conceptual closeness of homo sacer, bare life (zoe) existing outside of law and society and always already dead but still threatening existing order, to the figure of the zombie has been pointed out by several scholars (S. Cohen; Leverette; Stratton; Sutherland; Zechner), but it also seems (p.226) reminiscent of Bauman’s category of ‘Wasted Lives’: ‘declared redundant’ and denied the ‘assurance of social survival,’ no longer functioning within and excised from liquid modern society as ‘flawed, incomplete, unfulfilled’ (Wasted Lives 13–14). Zombies are representatives of human waste, as Steven Shaviro suggests: ‘They live off the detritus of industrial society, and are perhaps an expression of its ecological waste’ (84–85).

In zombie films, the assertion of sovereign power is exemplified by declaring a permanent ‘state of exception,’ in which ‘it is impossible to distinguish transgression of the law from execution of the law, such that what violates a rule and what conforms to it coincide without any remainder’ (Agamben 57). In zombie narrative, acts of violence and transgression are thus suspended outside the law and not punishable – basically, any action is justified: ‘Abandoned, the Homo Sacer is considered already dead: “whoever is banned from his city on pain of death must be considered as dead,” […] and therefore, can be killed with impunity: killing the already dead is not murder’ (S. Cohen, citing Agamben 105). Simchi Cohen argues that the zombie/human relation of zombie film discourse can be read as the homo sacer/sovereign relation in that both positions are outside of law, both are in the permanent state of exception, and both find themselves converging with the other (humans becoming zombies, zombies taking on more human qualities).

For Sherryl Vint, recent biopunk zombie films are one example of science fiction’s discussion of ‘the thanato-politics of a biopolitical order that deems lives not worth living, and thus inhabited by a kind of living death’ (‘Introduction’ 167). The distinction between human socially bound life, in the form of bios, and bare life, in the form of zoe, is explicitly negotiated by the zombie metaphor to showcase ‘the fragile quality of this distinction, how easily one can switch categories when the state of exception operates permanently’ (Vint, ‘Introduction’ 168). Human lives, in the sense of biocapital, become commodities that need to be managed, their economic value determined through their biology, in the sense of a posthuman being-animal or being-machine. Biopower ‘refers not only to government of the living, but also to multiple practices of dying’ (Braidotti 9). Biopolitics turns into necropolitics, as Achille Mbembe terms sovereignty, ‘whose central project is not the struggle for [individual] autonomy but the generalized instrumentalization of human existence and the material destruction of human bodies and populations’ (14). Necropolitics has ‘the power and the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die’ (Mbembe 11), enhanced in scope by the ‘intense technological mediation’ of the ‘inhuman(e) moments’ (Braidotti 9) of the posthuman predicament.

What is emphasized by biopunk zombie films, then, is the ease and (p.227) speed with which the transition from bios to zoe occurs, as discussed above, and the necropolitical dimension of managing the zombies and what they represent. Stratton argues that current zombie films enact and comment on the ‘relationship between zombies and displaced people, most obviously refugees, asylum-seekers and illegal immigrants’ (265), that the zombie comes to signify Western fears of being overrun by these homo sacer of liquid modernity. A film that naturalizes this fear and in terms of visual urgency is most drastic in depicting the ‘wave’ of zombies drowning out Western society is the abovementioned World War Z. Furthermore, ever since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, ‘refugees have been branded as a sinister transnational threat to national security – even though none of the 11 September terrorists were actually refugees or asylum seekers’ (Stephen Castles, cited in Bauman, Wasted Lives 54). Bauman calls these displaced peoples human waste and ‘surplus population’ (Wasted Lives 39), a category that Vint sees reflected in biopunk zombie films, which ‘might be understood as a kind of monstrous surplus of biocapital, a crisis of overproduction (of life) that becomes monstrous in the image of living dead bodies’ (‘Introduction’ 168). Liquid modern fears of this growing mass of displaced wasted humans, those already dead-in-life, ‘inadvertently produce a massive culture of death and destruction, our image of viable life continually modulated as the market demands’ (Vint, ‘Introduction’ 170).

The Resident Evil series embodies this interconnection between globalized capitalism and thanato-technological progress like no other. The Umbrella Corporation manufactures bioweaponry and in a steeply progressive trajectory (over the course of five films) demonstrates its willingness to manage both living and dying to maximize their economic surplus. They use every chance to field-test and monitor the effectiveness of their weaponized T-virus, as demonstrated for example with the Nemesis project in RE2. They even claim necropolitical sovereignty over their biohazard material, that is, the zombies: In RE3, scientist Dr. Isaacs (Ian Glen) uses zombies like lab animals, picked out from the mass in front of the facility by use of an industrial crane, in order to enhance his ‘domestication project,’ which is supposed to turn the threat of the zombies into slave labor. George A. Romero realized a similar theme in Day of the Dead (US, 1985), when Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty) tries to ‘civilize’ the zombie Bub (Sherman Howard). The contrast between the two is motivation: Logan argues for co-existence as necessary for human survival, whereas Isaacs is driven by greed. In RE4, the corporation sends out false signals luring survivors to pick-up locations, where they are sedated and placed into stasis for viral experimentation. And in RE5, Umbrella keeps clones of ‘50 base models’ of humans stocked in an (p.228) underwater testing ground especially built to showcase the effectiveness of viral weaponry. By running scenarios with thousands of humans, the corporation studies viral outbreaks and containment, as well as the best methods of exterminating the biohazard.

Visually, the films highlight the industrial use of and necropolitical control over human life by the Umbrella Corporation by dehumanizing the subject and reducing it to mere body – sometimes not even alive. In the opening scene of RE3, Alice wakes in the shower of the mansion (the exact opening scene from RE1), but it rapidly becomes clear that she is not in the mansion, but rather in an Umbrella facility with traps set to test her genetic memory and her survival skills. She finds a door that leads her to the laser tunnel (from RE1’s Hive), escapes it (barely) through a ventilation shaft, and drops into Raccoon City’s hospital (from RE2). There she survives a blade slicing into the hallway, before unwittingly triggering a mine that kills her. Dr. Isaacs appears, filmed from a low angle (fusing the viewer with Alice’s position on the floor), and says, ‘Take a sample of her blood … and get rid of that’ (indicating the camera position). The use of ‘that’ dehumanizes Alice (and the viewer), indicating the value given to human life by Isaacs and the corporation. Two technicians take the corpse out of the facility (without any body bag or cover) and throw her in a ditch. The camera follows Alice’s body and slowly in a dolly out (filmed with a crane above the ditch) reveals not only one body, but a row of possibly hundreds of Alices, all dressed exactly the same in the iconic red dress of the first movie. The ditch is a mosaic of red dresses, black boots, blonde hair and torn flesh. The camera movement dollies over the ditch, slowly picking up speed, and moving upwards to show the amount of clones that have been experimented on and finally killed in the testing grounds. In Umbrella’s corporate necropower, the human body is mere bio-matter, a piece in the experimental set-up of the laboratories.

Umbrella thus demonstrate necropolitical sovereignty on all levels: They ‘make life’ (the clones), ‘take life’ (the captured survivors), and ‘let die’ (their employees and test subjects). Their economic agenda, selling their weaponry, takes precedence over any morality involved in the technologically enhanced destruction of whole populations – in its extreme, the ‘let die’ aspect of their biopower includes 99 percent of the world’s population, even the earth itself: Resident Evil is one of very few zombie fictions to, for example, imagine the contagion having an effect on animals (if only in limited examples of dogs and crows) and the environment (RE3 narrates the effect of the virus on the earth as leaving ‘barren wastelands’). Bearing in mind that the films (p.229)

9/11 and the Wasted Lives of Posthuman Zombies

The result of necropower: dead Alices in the ditch (screenshot: Resident Evil: Extinction, © Sony, 2007).

are not prime examples of coherent and logical storytelling and are unlikely consciously developing an overall story arc about necropolitical biopower, they nonetheless negotiate contemporary cultural anxieties and reveal a preoccupation with and an escalation of necropolitical tactics.

Further, the films explore necropolitical power also in their connection to terrorism and globalization – a connection that Muntean and Payne see evident in the liminal position of the zombie,

because it makes manifest and unavoidable all of the unsavory elements required for the perpetuation of the Western way of life. This critical symbolic function of zombies is strikingly similar to what many commentators saw as both the literal and symbolic message of the September 11 attacks – that America’s global financial and political hegemony had only been attainable through the subjugation and abjection of distant lands and peoples (243)

The two elements of Žižek’s ‘obscene double’ – terrorism and multinational capitalism – find themselves interlocked in a struggle with one another, while at the same time working hand in hand, in thwarting any and all attempts to bring the conflict under an ‘equitable, universally binding and democratically controlled global order’ (Bauman, Society 93), because the resulting uncertainty of power structures and jurisdiction is beneficial to both sides.

The point of difference between the two groups lies in their access to globalized mobility and exterritoriality. Whereas the global elite (the representatives of Empire, who are waging war on terror) is mobile, unfettered, and exterritorial, the ‘global underdog,’ countries from which terrorists recruit their human capital out of the human waste (p.230) left by globalization and liquid modernity, is constrained and impotent ‘to arrest or even slow down the mobility of the power elite’ (Bauman, Society 100).9 The terrorists thus wish to ‘demonstrate the incompleteness of their own immobilization and so prove the vulnerability of the elite despite its superior mobility’ (Bauman, Society 101). In appropriating the network as a form, terror is able to follow the flow of liquid modern movements of capital and uses the same strategies that global corporations employ: ‘Terrorism has no country. It’s transnational […] At the first sign of trouble, terrorists can pull up stakes and move their “factories” from country to country in search of a better deal. Just like the multinationals’ (Roy).

At the opposite side of the conflict, Empire aims to ‘restate and reinforce the immobilization of their adversary’ by linguistically shifting terrorism to ‘rogue states’ – making the enemy territorial – and ‘reducing the task of fighting terrorism to the incarceration of the targeted terrorists as physical, spatial bodies’ (Bauman, Society 101). Terrorists adopt exterritorial and networked strategies in order to harm the globalized elites while Empire uses the ‘spectral entity’ and non-territoriality of terrorism ‘as an empty signifier’ (Diken and Laustsen 94–95) to justify war – but in the end both groups, in Bauman’s terms, are still only expressions of ‘the revenge of nomadism over the principle of territoriality and settlement’ (Liquid Modernity 13).

Recent biopunk zombie films visualize this nomadic, non-territorial conflict especially aptly in demonstrating a posthuman necropolitics, as characterized by Mbembe as this ‘specific terror formation I have called necropower’ (27). One of the key features of this is a fragmentation of territoriality into ‘isolated cells,’ which then are interconnected via ‘over- and underpasses’ taking into account the ‘three-dimensional boundaries across sovereign bulks’ (28). This is reminiscent of the military-installed quarantine zones of 28 Weeks Later or Land of the Dead, but also, of course, of the strongholds that Umbrella keeps in the apocalyptic world after the T-virus devastation: the Hive in RE1 and RE2; in RE3 the underground facility in the Nevada desert and the other corporate enclaves around the world; in RE4 the Tokyo headquarters as well as the tanker ship in the Pacific; in RE5 the underwater testing ground (p.231)

9/11 and the Wasted Lives of Posthuman Zombies

The underground maze of the Hive (screenshot: Resident Evil, © Sony, 2002).

in Kamchatka. Mobility in and between these territorial enclaves is ensured by their three-dimensional design. Underground tunnels, for example, connect the Hive with Raccoon City. Such tunnels extend for miles down and outward from any Umbrella facility. But even though their underground character may offer a strategic advantage in the conflict with the zombies, it also nonetheless effectively immobilizes the globalized elite in the enclaves.

The Resident Evil films make extensive use of these three-dimensional territorial enclaves by drawing attention to their origin in video games, by positioning characters in computer-generated maps, in their abstraction reminiscent of architecture or 3D-modelling programs. The scenes usually depict characters (highlighted on the virtual map in glowing red against the bluish black of the model) and locate them in the vast underground complexes. By blending real-life footage of the characters smoothly into CGI frame models inserted into the 3D map, the scenes highlight not only the human dependence on technology, but also the insignificance of life for corporate technoscience. As these enclaves are highly technologized spaces, fully automated, monitored, and controlled by artificial computer intelligences, human life is revealed to be under the control of necropower, seen merely as a disruption in the smooth workings of the industrial-military corporation. As the films flaunt the size and extent of the enclaves through the 3D maps, they also allow viewers to draw conclusions about the relative position of the characters within the maze-like structures that entrap them, mostly deep underground with literally thousands of zombies, as for example in RE1, where all employees of the Hive have turned into zombies.

(p.232) To counteract this underground immobilization, the films grant the globalizing force (Umbrella in Resident Evil and the military in 28 Days/Weeks) airspace dominance, signaling non-territoriality as well as a privilege of mobility. Whenever the enclaves are threatened and the conflict emerges in that territorial cell, Empire simply uses its technological superiority and, literally, its ‘upward’ mobility. Mbembe argues that ‘the airspace [is] transformed into conflict zones […] [and] the symbolics of the top (who is on top) is reiterated. Occupation of the skies therefore acquires a critical importance, since most of the policing is done from the air’ (29). Airspace dominance can, on the one hand, mean freedom from the conflict, as in 28 Days Later, where the sighting of a commercial airliner overhead evokes hope of normalcy outside the infected UK and the arrival of a military fighter plane at the end signals a rescue from the zombie infection; or in RE3 and RE4, where a helicopter and a small private plane allow the survivors the mobility to move away from conflicted areas. But on the other hand, in most cases the airspace is a space of thanato-technological domination and the expression of necropower. 28 Weeks Later spatially divides top from bottom by having high-up positioned snipers shoot at the ground-level or by having fighter jets firebomb the city. In all of the Resident Evil films, Umbrella uses fighter planes and military helicopters both for mobility (rescuing their assets) and as practices of dying.

The practices of dying and thanato-technological advantages become similarly obvious when considering the opposite side of mobility: The globalized elite, in its enclaves and with airspace dominance, is depicted as continuously besieged by the posthuman waste of zombies, by the displaced and sacrificed. The masses of wasted lives/living dead that threaten both the global elite and those human survivors caught in the middle (i.e. ‘real’ or ‘normal’ humanity, not as mobile as the elite and thus always prone to easily shift in category and become part of the human waste) seem to become larger in number. Vint understands these narratives of ‘abject posthumanism’ as a literalization of racism in Foucault’s biopolitical sense, as ‘humanity becomes split between surviving “real” humans and infected, dangerous posthumans.’ She also argues that ‘the new living dead’ as racist category is not new, but has been extended to include more and more people that used to be ‘protected from such damage by the discourse of liberal humanism and its state institutions’ (‘Abject Posthumanism’ 139).

In RE1 these wasted lives consist of a couple of hundred employees altogether, mostly scientists and office workers; in RE2 the mass extends to all citizens in the urban environment, but most scenes involve less than a hundred at a time; in RE3 already thousands, if not tens of (p.233) thousands, lay siege to the Nevada facility, trying to lay claim to the place; in RE4 their numbers have grown to several hundred thousand in front of the prison, and the film is only able to visualize this with sweeping aerial shots. Interestingly, the film is the first to be shot with 3D technology and stages the siege of the prison by having Alice arrive in a private propeller plane – thus allowing for wide flyovers revealing the extent of the zombie hordes. In RE5, then, the final shot is a zoom out from the White House besieged by possibly millions of zombies, held back only by massive walls and enormous military firepower (such as tanks, rocket launchers, and flamethrowers).

In most biopunk films, one can observe an escalation of the practices of dying that corresponds to the growing numbers of living dead laying siege to the last remaining outposts of humanity. But as Max Brooks has remarked: ‘Conventional warfare is useless against these creatures, as is conventional thought. The science of ending life, developed and perfected since the beginning of our existence, cannot protect us from an enemy that has no “life” to end’ (xiii). Consequently, the films enact not only individual human death and serialized posthuman destruction of zombies (through guns, blades, or blunt force), but also the utter physical destruction of large amounts of posthuman bodies in a multitude of ways. The obvious weapons are military gunships and fighter planes dropping bombs, as discussed above, but in addition the films celebrate a creativity in terms of incongruous use of everyday objects, especially vehicles, as weapons: In 28 Weeks Later the chopper pilot needs to clear a landing area and uses his rotor blades to mow through the approaching infected, decapitating and tearing limb from limb several dozens of bodies in the process. A similar scene can be found in RE4 when the plane takes off, dives, and then scrapes through hundreds of zombies with its propeller, leaving a trail of blood in the faceless masses. The weaponized convoy of RE3 would be another example: In one scene the tanker truck plows through thousands of zombies, then flips and crushes many more, only to be blown into bits and pieces as the remaining crowd of zombies converge on the driver’s cabin.

7.3 A Posthuman Society

As I have shown, the post-9/11 zombie film renaissance picks up on liquid modern anxieties, especially in its connection of terrorism and globalization, and negotiates these by reimagining the zombie in terms of biological disaster – as viral, infectious, and contagious. In appropriating (p.234) the zombie as a metaphor within this biopunk context, films such as the Resident Evil series or the 28 Days franchise make available a cultural negotiation of post-9/11 politics, globalization, and their underlying logic of abjection and negation of human and non-human others alike. The films thus reject a humanist notion of subjectivity and evoke the destruction of current social order by offering a posthumanist fiction that is ‘anticatharsis, antiresolution’ (Lauro and Embry 94) in that it neither restores the old order nor replaces it with a recognizable new one.

In the zombie the humanist subject thus sees itself evanesce, literally being eaten up by a new form of sociality so radically different that few are able and willing to acknowledge it. As Deborah Christie argues, the zombie film thus represents not just the ‘end of the human’ but also the beginning of an alternative, radical, and posthuman subject:

We tend to view zombie narratives as apocalyptic because we believe that we are watching either the slow breakdown or the catastrophic destruction of human society, and we generally regard that as a negative event. But because we most closely identify with the dwindling number of living human subjects, we often miss the larger implications that what we are really witnessing in a zombie narrative is a form of violent, transformative renewal.

(‘And the Dead’ 61–62)

What drives this radical assumption is a critical posthumanist subjectivity, which not only decenters privileged human subjectivity (by engaging in the formation of a new posthuman zombie subjectivity) but also dethrones all humanist ‘values and aspirations’ (Wolfe, What Is Posthumanism? xvi) as superior models of thought by giving privilege to instinctual, animalistic, and zoe-centered understandings of life. Zombies already act as replacement for contemporary society in Romero’s work, who himself states in an interview that zombies can be seen ‘as a revolution, a new society coming in and devouring the old’ (cited in Curnutte).

Simchi Cohen argues in reference to the Romero films that the genre provides a ‘political subtext that divides the humans into factions: black versus white, male versus female, military versus science, rich versus poor’ in its representation of the permanent state of exception and the enactment of sovereignty. The genre thus delivers prominent critique of the dichotomies inherent in the humanist subject position and the racism that underlies all biopolitical sovereignty. As such, zombie films function as dystopian (even anti-utopian) visions of apocalypse about the loss of humanist values and mores, and in their focus on the human (p.235) survivors’ viewpoint thus deeply resound with exactly those values and mores. Leaving aside a humanist view and fixation on human survivors, though, the films indeed reveal the posthuman possibility of replacing the human altogether, in the form of zombie society. Further, these films naturalize Agamben’s theses that the political and biological bodies have become one, that biopolitical life is bare life (zoe), and that the permanent state of exception is a political reality: ‘we are all virtually homines sacri’ (Agamben 115; see 181–82). But hidden in this dystopian vision there is also a strangely utopian hope about the posthuman – about homo sacer as subject – that ‘this exceptional figure augurs a “coming community” that is based not on rights as such but the suspension of rights’ (Downey 110). For the zombies, it becomes clear especially in the biopunk zombie films, are the representations of a ‘mystically conjured, apocalyptically disconnected Utopia of the abrupt becoming-subject of bare life’ (Robnik 92, translation mine):

The zombies […] are a homogenous mass: black and white, male and female, military and science, rich and poor. They all hobble together after the same goal: flesh. And they are killed indiscriminately […] As the movies progress, the zombies become more and more homogenous, rotting, and grotesque, and the viewer grows less and less able to distinguish a black zombie from a white one, a male from a female, an army sergeant from a doctor, a millionaire from a beggar.

(S. Cohen)

To further emphasize the blurring of the human/zombie distinctions and the subject positions of the films, the post-9/11 zombie films concentrate on speed, mobility, and flexibility of the zombie – character traits favored in liquid modernity – and feature a newly found ‘intensity of the zombies’ (Bloom) that announces them as the new protagonists:

By accelerating the rhythm of scenes between the living and the dead, the characters have no real time to reveal their ideologies and are instead downgraded to purely impulse-based reaction. This shift in the structure of zombie horror signaled a departure from social satire to visceral intensity, with the zombies themselves taking the limelight from the humans who resist them. Because of the zombies’ physiological improvements, the threat of human individualism receded under the increased threat now posed by the undead.


By granting the posthuman more room in the films and allowing (p.236) zombies to evolve, adapt, and mutate, biopunk zombie fictions radically interrogate the Anthropocene, human dominance, and human subjectivity. The zombie negates any humanist notion of individuality and superiority, and thus promises ‘the destruction of a corrupt system without imagining a replacement’ (Lauro and Embry 96). Instead of reading biopunk zombie films as dystopian and apocalyptic, I thus understand them as critical posthumanist interventions, in which the biological infection is reimagined as providing a zoe-centered subjectivity and ‘functions as an agent of transformation – a catalyst for change rather than a vehicle for regeneration’ (Rogers 129). In biopunk zombie films, the human – in its humanist, privileged notion – has thus become legend, as Robert Neville has in Richard Matheson’s novel: a superseded model, unfit for the new reality and the new form of society. If ‘we are all virtually homines sacri,’ as Agamben muses, meaning that ‘we’ have all become zombies, then biopunk zombie fictions allow ‘us’ to witness a new posthuman position and the realization that ‘Society has evolved beyond humanity, mutating to accommodate a new life-form that both is and is not identifiably human, which proves most clearly that it is our definition and even prioritization of humanity that has been flawed from the outset’ (Christie, ‘Dead New World’ 68).


(1) Lists of film releases (e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_zombie_films) support this reading: Wikipedia lists 60 titles during the 1980s and only 30 during the 1990s, and more than half of these came before 1993. Instead, the zombie narrative saw a strong increase in zombie video games produced in the 1990s (see Kay 184; Pruett).

(2) For an overview of contemporary zombie scholarship, see the anthologies by Christie and Lauro; Fürst, Krautkrämer, and Wiemer; McIntosh and Leverette; Boluk and Lenz; as well as Dendle’s Encyclopedia; Lauro and Embry; Bishop, ‘Critical Investigation’; Green. Two important classical readings of zombie fiction can be found in Wood 101–07 and Shaviro 83–105.

(3) The film is based on Capcom’s immensely successful Resident Evil video game series (the first game was originally released in Japan as Biohazard in 1996), which most prominently established the survival horror subgenre (alongside Silent Hill and Alone in the Dark; see Pruett). The film series owes inspiration to the games in the form of characters, theme, and style (especially in terms of cinematography and editing; see ‘Playing Dead’), but is essentially developed as a separate franchise. The independently produced film (by Bernd Eichinger’s company Constantin Film, with a moderate budget of $33 million) has become the seed of a highly profitable, high-gloss Hollywood franchise, spawning four sequels so far (a fifth is scheduled for 2016) and opening a diverging storyline from the game franchise.

(4) Boyle produced the film independently and on a low budget of only $8 million, shooting mostly with digital video cameras and refraining from larger visual effects. The film was highly successful and was followed by the 2007 sequel, also an independent production, 28 Weeks Later (dir. Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, UK/Spain). A third installment, 28 Months Later, was discussed but has not (yet) been realized.

(5) Reference to the films in the following is by number in the format ‘(RE#).’ The film series, which was internationally co-produced in Germany, UK, France, Canada and the USA, consists of Resident Evil (RE1; dir. Paul W.S. Anderson, 2002), Resident Evil: Apocalypse (RE2; dir. Alexander Witt, 2004), Resident Evil: Extinction (RE3; dir. Russell Mulcahy, 2007), Resident Evil: Afterlife (RE4; dir. Paul W.S. Anderson, 2010), and Resident Evil: Retribution (RE5; dir. Paul W.S. Anderson, 2012).

(6) The importance of these rules to zombie fan culture cannot be overstated, as the internet discussion following Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead (2004), which reimagined Romero’s classic film with fast-moving zombies, shows (see Levin; Hulsey; Pegg; Dendle, Encyclopedia 6).

(7) Non-zombie outbreak films, such as Wolfgang Peterson’s Outbreak (US, 1995) or Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (US, 2011), enact similar scenarios but are more positive in their resolution, allowing for national and international institutions (military, governmental, medical) to regain control.

(8) Here it might be useful to recall Žižek’s argument of the ‘obscene double’: that globalized capitalism and globalized, viral terror are closely related in terms of their strategies and power dynamics, and that Osama bin Laden is part of the global elite of liquid modernity.

(9) Ironically, the facilitation of this fight, once again in connection to Žižek’s ‘obscene double,’ is only possible by financiers from the self-same global elite, such as Osama bin Laden and Arabian sheiks. Whereas the mass of Al-Qaeda members might be ‘underdogs,’ their actions nonetheless are financed and led by similarly global players as those this form of terror is fighting.