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Epidemic of the Living Dead: Zombies as Metaphor

Richard Bamattre

Abstract: Horror films offer monsters as metaphors for social fears, ranging from external
threats to internal disorders. The zombie film has long served as an allegory for and a
representation of contagious disease; the genre matured during the AIDS epidemic, and “new
zombie” movies arose in the context of SARS, avian flu, and H1N1 with the films 28 Days
Later, Planet Terror, and the remake of Dawn of the Dead. This cinema plays with
metaphors of the human body and its relation to disease, offering both catharsis and terror.
By depicting the failure of core social institutions and the inability of medicine/science to
address epidemics, they represent a contemporary lack of trust in government's maintenance
of security in the outset of terrorism and infectious disease. Finally, they set forth a critique of
urban space and position it at odds with a post-apocalyptic return to the idealism of nature.

"They are looking for food; we are their meat in one sense or another. How do we compete
with them? There are so many of them, they reproduce much more quickly than we do, they
tolerate vast fluctuations of population size as part of their natural history. They lack the
emotional apparatus to grieve whenever their population significantly declines. We are
different from them in every respect." (Lederberg, 13)

Horror, as described by Colavito, is "an active essence that captures our fears and
crystallizes them into a shape we can understand" (2008, 6). The horror genre, manifest in
stories, art, and film, is a voyage into the darkness unilluminated by the knowledge and
scientific progress of the era. It is distinct from science fiction in that its monsters are set
loose upon contemporary spaces rather than the shiny utopias of the future. In the classic
horror films of the 1930s and 40s, mythic monsters were given great powers or immortality
and occupied physical or spectral bodies. These creatures operated in an unexplainable terrain
outside of science, and their narratives tended to be patterned: "A monster is discovered, its
properties deduced, and the duration of the film is spent trying to put it down" (267). As
science and technology has undergone rapid and dramatic change since then, new terrors are
required to populate the contemporary territory of fear. The new zombie is a metamorphosis
of the classic monster, which has multiplied in number and adapted to reflect new fears inside
the shadow of science and medicine.
The zombie can be considered a child of Frankenstein's monster and a distant cousin to the
vampire. Both the vampire and zombie are backgrounded by the development of germ theory
in the 1870s and epidemics of cholera, influenza, and tuberculosis. Barber contends that the
myth of vampirism was constructed in pre-industrial societies to offer explanations for the
relatively unknown process of death and decomposition (1988, 1-4). While the vampire is
often a demonic seducer, the bringer of either death or immortality, the zombie has evolved
into a desexualized embodiment of disease. The first film to use the term "zombie", White
Zombie (1932), starring Bela Lugosi, elaborated on Haitian myths of the undead with
mindless beings controlled by a voodoo sorcerer. It wasn't until the publication of Richard
Matheson's book I Am Legend (1954) and the release of George Romero's Night of the Living
Dead (1968) that zombies were released from the control of the evil sorcerer or scientist and
presented in a context of autonomous and inexplicable contagion. As Night of the Living
Dead begins, quite ironically, in a cemetery, and ends in an abandoned house, zombie films
in general have relocated horror from the periphery of laboratories, exotic locales, and the
countryside to the space of the domestic and the territory of the contemporary city.
With his trilogy of films - Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978), and
Day of the Dead (1985) - George Romero not only urbanized the monster, but at the same
time presented them as a satirical reflection on American values. While Night of the Living
Dead has been noted for representing the frustrations of the Vietnam War and containing a
fairly potent civil rights message, Dawn of the Dead critiques modern consumerism by
posing the zombie as a mindless and alienated consumer driven to cannibalistically consume
others. The monster acts as a "totalizing metaphor which took material culture together with
its gospel of narcissism and 'having it all' to its logical conclusion in entropy, cannibalism,
and self-consumption" (Badley 1995, 74). According to Harper, Dawn of the Dead features
radical social critique which positions its zombies as the masses within a Marxian class
hierarchy (2002). This is expanded in Romero's return to the zombie genre, Land of the Dead
(2005), where the undead mass invades a wealthy utopian community in order to avenge the
exploitation of its own. The zombie film as political satire has been adopted, albeit less
subtly, in Joe Dante's episode Homecoming for the series Masters of Horror (2005), where
deceased Iraq war soldiers return from the dead to protest the war.
Within the last decade, the zombie film has had a resurgence. While the remake of Dawn
of the Dead (2004) mirrors the consumerist critique of the original, the films 28 Days Later
(2002), its sequel 28 Weeks Later (2007), and Planet Terror (2007) focus more on the
medical aspect of contagion and institutional response to epidemics. Although they are
undoubtedly inspired by Romero's trilogy, political and philosophical theories surrounding
his movies cannot simply be transplanted to these new zombie films. One significant
difference is the form of the monster: new zombies are faster and smarter than Romero's
slow, mindless cannibals. Muntean and Payne argue that the new zombie is representative of
fears of the terrorist among us within post-September 11th culture (2009). Another theory
revolves around the politics surrounding the contemporary epidemic and their effects on
media culture: after Surgeon General William Stewart declared the end of the "war against
pestilence" in 1969, fatally contagious diseases - in particular AIDS, but including SARS,
avian flu, and H1N1 - have emerged, creating a culture of fear and quarantines both formal
and informal within and between populations. Faster and more infectious filmic monsters
were required to epitomize growing fears of illness within the supposed post-epidemic
society. Connections between the new zombie film, disease, and epidemics will be explored
in length in this analysis. Horror no longer represents the enemy from beyond, particularly
Russian invaders or the atomic bomb, but the darkness has expanded to the space of our daily
lives, our families, and especially our bodies.
In analyzing zombie films of the last decade as reflecting and intersecting with the
contemporary epidemic, Kellner's concept of diagnostic critique, which "uses history to read
texts and texts to read history" (1995, 116) will be applied to both film and its surrounding
cultural context. Also used is a multiperspectival approach which is interested in a wide range
of strategies to critique and interpret cultural objects; this method is interested in various
disciplines but does not respect the boundaries which typically separate them. To examine
convergences between biology, medicine, and culture, Morris' biocultural model is
particularly relevant; it sees "illness as a mental, emotional, bodily event constructed at a
crossroads of biology and culture" (1998, 19). The zombie film as an allegory operates on a
variety of territories; this analysis is broken down into the various scales of the metaphor: the
biological body; disease and societal response to the epidemic; urban space and nature.

The Biological Body

Particular metaphors have been used to explain bodily functionality and interactions with
disease. The context of industrialization has provided an allegory of the body as a machine or
as a site of industrially organized activity. Fritz Kahn's series of illustrations Der Mensch als
Industriepalast (Man as Industrial Palace) in 1926 imagines the body as a factory where fuel
is taken in, processed, and outputted. The head is a site of bureaucratic activity, where the
messy biological brain is replaced by a department of memory and managers of speech. This
visual metaphor internalizes industrialization and mechanizes bodily functions, and offers at
the same time a simplified and inaccurate view of our biology. Yet it is still used recently, in
children's educational material: the program Schoolhouse Rock features a song called "The
Body Machine" to explain nutrition: "Look at those moving parts/as the body machine churns
up ... I'm a machine, you're a machine/Everybody that you know/You know, are machines"
(Ahrens 1979). An issue of this metaphor is that it places the physician in the role of the
mechanic, and supposes a complex yet ultimately solvable process of diagnosis and
treatment: this oversimplifies science's relation to the functioning body and the dysfunction
or "incoherence" (Morris 22) of disease. While medical transplants often embody the
machine metaphor, acting as parts being replaced in order to restore the functionality of the
whole, the biological body is too messy to fit conveniently within this industrial allegory;
rather, a variety of metaphors and illustrations about the body's function and its relation with
other organisms can be recognized at the same time.
With the sophistication of germ theory and the establishment of modern medicine as an
institution at opposition with disease and bodily disorder, a metaphorical view arose which
saw the body as the terrain on which a battle is fought between foreign and domestic agents.
Cancer, in particular, is "an illness experienced as a ruthless, secret invasion" (Sontag 5); this
metaphor is expanded as patients are described as "fighting" or "at war" with their internal
conditions. AIDS represents another battleground with similar metaphorical language: "the
virus is winning ... why is the war against the virus proving so difficult? ... the virus attacks
the very cells that should defend the body against it ... know your enemy" (Brown 1992). The
Center for Disease Control's website for children features an "Immune Platoon" which fights
against anthropomorphized common diseases; H1N1 is what appears to be a humanoid
bulldog on steroids. Thus, it is not a great theoretical leap to see zombie films as presenting
embodiments of infectious disease, especially in the context of recent epidemics that have
received a large amount of media attention.
The zombie as an undead version of ourselves not only poses a physical threat within the
space of the film, but reminds the spectator of his/her own mortality. This phenomena can be
seen through Freud's concept of the unheimlich (the uncanny): he describes it as "that class of
the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar." Not only does
Freud consider the humanoid monster uncanny, but pieces of the body as well: "dismembered
limbs, a severed head, a hand cut off at the wrist ... especially when, as in the last instance,
they prove capable of independent activity in addition" (1919). Terror comes not from the
foreign, but from the familiar; walking corpses demonstrate the human body as nothing more
than a meat machine, or pure biology without consciousness or spirit. As much as
philosophers, most prominently Descartes, attempted to distinguish the spaces of mind and
body, the latter of which is constituted as "all the system of members composed of bones and
flesh as seen in a corpse which [is] designated by the name of body" (1970, 151), the
existential logic of contemporary horror has united us with our bodies: anything in addition to
our biology is mere philosophy and conjecture. The undead body is the same as ours, but
without an upper layer of philosophical justification. "We're them and they're us," a character
in Dawn of the Dead (1978) concludes.
The zombie body does not necessarily fit into the machine metaphor, because even though
it is to some extent broken, it still manages to function on a basic level. Rather, the undead
body is a site for the existential messiness of disease which contradicts the internal laws of
the body; its terror is located in the mystery of its own functionality. Much like the invasion
of cancer, the zombie's origin is often unknown and its activity is unpredictable, but its threat
remains real and inevitable. To fully understand the zombie phenomena, a journey is required
outside of the singular body to the macro realm of collective disease and epidemic, where the
monster is multiplied and becomes an agent of contagion.

Disease and the Epidemic

Metaphors, in particular those constructed or reinforced in the media, can be multifaceted

and hold simultaneous meanings; often they do not survive their phenomenon (Sontag 88)
and, existing as social constructions, they are are modified, expanded, and deconstructed to
different contexts and times. While Sontag wanted to remove metaphor from public
understanding of illness, an elucidation of the concept is useful in exploring not only social
representations of disease, but its embodiment in the horror genre. A diagnostic critique of
sickness which focuses more on popular perception of disease and treatment outside of the
complex and often unapproachable terrain of the field of medicine is useful. This analysis is
concerned more with the conceptualization of and responses to disease, rather than the
maintenance of health; illness, according to Morris, "always seems to tell us more about a
person or an era than health does" (52). Because a threat to the body also endangers the
structure of local society, a multiperspectival approach sees sickness as being inextricably
tied to social institutions and the relationships between bodies.
In Illness as Metaphor, Sontag lays out the territory of the kingdom of the well and the
kingdom of the sick; movement is allowed between territories: "everyone who is born holds
dual citizenship" (3). However, it is impossible to occupy both at the same time, and there are
standards for immigration between the two: the sick are usually isolated within clinics until
they are well enough to pass as healthy bodies and thus return to their kingdom. Within the
two territories, stereotypes and imaginative thinking create metaphors from conditions of
illness: "it is hardly possible to take up one's residence in the kingdom of the ill unprejudiced
by the lurid metaphors with which it has been landscaped" (3-4). This metaphorizing and
embodiment is a response to diseases which are not fully comprehended within current
science, and exist as mysteries, contradicting medicine's premise that diseases have an
observable and empirical cure. In her treatise, Sontag explores the nature of tuberculosis and
cancer and how public metaphors affected both the perception and the treatment of these
conditions. Her model can be adapted to address the filmic metaphor: the zombie monster
acts as an allegory, or bodily embodiment, of infectious diseases, in particularly those
prevalent in the contemporary era.
Disease cannot be conceptualized outside of its relation to the body, because it is this
biological site which is both host and has its existence threatened by infection. Health is the
"silence of the organs" (Morris 52); the voice of the internal body speaks only in sickness.
Zombies' rotting flesh seems to shout the loudest; they often wear their organs on the outside,
and are corpses who persist in motion in spite of their decay. In Planet Terror, the infected
body seems to bloat and swell rather than fall apart; a virus which has been released into the
air creates zombies of disease, rather than animated cadavers like Frankenstein's monster or
Romero's stumbling corpses. Planet Terror creates horror from common disease, but also
obscenifies the medical profession: the doctors in the film delight in showing patients
pictures of a repulsive medical variety, and use antiquated procedures such as the amputation
of limbs. Tools of the medical profession become weapons of terror, rather than devices of
healing; instead of transmitting medicine, syringes are used like knives, violently inserting
toxins into the body of its victim. Within the space of the film, there is no safe territory:
treatment is as horrifying as the disease.
Contemporary zombie films like Planet Terror clearly have a more complex relationship
with disease and medicine than the previous era's. Romero's zombies infect humans through
cannibalistic biting: a form of undead rabies, where the virus is transmitted through saliva. In
28 Days Later, the virus is given a name - "rage" - which causes frantically aggressive
symptoms after infection by saliva or blood; "It's something in the blood," a character says.
Classic films have the zombie state existing after death; imagery show the zombie as a
resurrected corpse emerging from the grave. New zombies, however, are infected and
violently malfunctioning humans; the "rage" virus transports the infected into the kingdom of
the sick, or rather the space of madness, in mere seconds. This acceleration of infection
changes entirely the way sick bodies are managed, disabling opportunities for medical
treatment and violently reducing the space for quarantine: the only effective response, as
shown later, is violence.
In the same manner that zombies represent biological bodies in decay, they are roaming
metaphors for illness and contagion. Max Brooks, author of the tongue-in-cheek Zombie
Survival Guide, describes them as "walking disease" (Zombiemania). What distinguishes the
zombie film from other horror is that its monster is rarely singular, but gains functional
meaning as part of a horde, or what what Mohammad terms the "total zombie organism"
(2006, 97). While the individual undead body is an uncanny mirror for anxieties about our
own fragile and diseased selves, the zombie organism is a metaphor for disease en masse: an
epidemic which not only threatens the individual, but the social body itself, a collective
invading virus with an irrational drive for destruction.
When disease moves from an individual disorder to a collective and societal condition, it
becomes an epidemic. The fundamental boundaries between metaphorical kingdoms are
broken as the kingdom of the sick stages an invasion of the kingdom of the well. The
epidemic acts as a "joining together of populations" which either contract the illness or are at
risk of infection (DeSalle 1999, 153). Rosenberg describes the phenomena of epidemics as
"so dramatic and so terrifying that most physicians and historians have tended to view them
as something alien, something outside of society and contending with it" (1992, 110). Classic
horror and sci-fi of the 1940s and 50s have staged alien invasion narratives, often as a
metaphor for the threat of atomic and biological warfare. This has been continued with films
such as The Andromeda Strain (1971), Alien (1979), and The Thing (1982) in which alien
invaders take the form of an infectious virus or a parasite intent on replicating itself and
maintaining its survival in competition with human life.
However, the concept of disease as an alien phenomenon does not necessarily fit within the
metaphor of the contemporary zombie: this monster is very much "us", inhabits our infected
and undead bodies, and functions within the same social structure; only a small boundary
separates us from them. Just as Rosenberg sets forth the "alien" view of the epidemic, he
opposes it with a more contemporary position, which sees infectious disease "as the
consequence of social organization and especially of social inequality and social change"
(111). The epidemic arises from society, yet at the same time threatens its stability and
legitimization; it is not the invasion of aliens, but a revolution on a biological level, a civil
war between the healthy and the diseased.
There are allusions to historic epidemics in contemporary zombie films. In many films the
monsters are set on fire by the humans; this not only makes for dynamic filmic imagery, but
references the burning of bodies during epidemics, particularly the Bubonic Plague. Other
issues of viral containment are explored; the entire nation of Great Britain is transformed into
a quarantine in 28 Days Later as global authorities hope to contain the virus until the infected
die out. The concept of quarantine is distinctive in that it attempts to physically separate the
kingdoms: citizens of the kingdom of the sick are imprisoned within the terrain of the healthy
and are subjected to surveillance and often experimentation of a scientific or medical origin.
In Day of the Dead and 28 Days Later, zombie specimens are restrained with collars and
treated like captive animals. In 28 Weeks Later the mode of quarantine is more contemporary,
but its inhumanity is only submerged under the context of medicine: strapped to a hospital
gurney, a female carrier of the virus is isolated while the medical and military authorities
argue over whether to subject her to scientific scrutiny or exterminate her.
The devastating effects of the epidemic require that it receive attention outside of the
medical community; the phenomena "necessarily evokes responses in every sector of society"
(Rosenberg 110). Part of the terror of zombie films is its exploration of societal response, in
particular the failure of fundamental social organizations to combat the epidemic. In the same
way that disease cannot be considered distinct from the body, a biocultural model refuses to
see illness and epidemic as operating separately from the social realm, but as intrinsically
connected with culture and society. In horror, institutional structures fail to protect, or arrive
at the end, like the Calvary in classic Western fare, to rescue a few survivors. Thus, fears
explored in film are not limited to the body or external threats, but extend to nightmares of a
total societal collpase. After waking up a month after a virus has ravaged most of England
and utterly destroyed its institutional structure, the protagonist of 28 Days Later has difficulty
coming to terms with the societal and organizational downfall:

Jim: "Of course there's a government. There's always a government, they're in a bunker
or a plane somewhere."
Mark: "There is no government. No police. No army. No TV. No radio. No electricity."

The fear of institutional failure is coupled with a failure of technology endemic to the
horror genre, often accompanying terrors of the body. In horror films, cars refuse to start,
weapons jam and run out of bullets, and cell phones get no service or run out of battery. Since
the zombie genre operates within a near or total failure of society, there are both fears and
delights in living in the post-apocalypse. Looting is one of the more entertaining moments in
films; "Let's shop," a character in 28 Days Later declares as they stumble upon a well-stocked
and abandoned grocery store. This can be compared with news coverage of the Katrina
disaster, in which looting became a contested term, especially when it conformed along racial
lines. The distinction between looting and "finding" supplies is not only subjective, but
carries with it a moral judgement: in films as well as journalistic media, it is the protagonist
that finds material for survival, and the "other", the supposed criminal element, that loots.
Morals within a fundamentally fractured society, as functioning to maintain boundaries of
civility and drawing a distinction between the two kingdoms, will be addressed later on; first,
an exploration of the failure of medicine and science within the space of horror is useful.
Rather than representing a fear of science, as embodied in Dr. Frankenstein and other mad
scientists, who Noël Carroll describes as "overreachers" (1990, 120), the zombie epidemic
portrays a fear of the failure of science and medicine, along with other fundamental
institutions. There is no cure for the virus, only survival through skill and the use of basic
technology. The medical institution rarely has a prominent positive role in zombie film; in
Planet Terror it is a source of contagion, as corpses reanimate within the clinic and the sick
take revenge on the callous physicians by using their medical devices against them. Only
basic medical technology is used - splints, bandages, and other first aid provisions - and are
used to remedy minor conditions, rather than the epidemic virus. The main female
protagonist of the Dawn of the Dead remake is a nurse, and uses first aid to treat minor
injuries but is unable to prevent the contagion or apply medical ethics to situations of newly
infected humans: the survivalist morals of the group circumvent her efforts and the infected
are executed. In the end, the firearm, a reliable yet limited resource, takes precedence over
any medical or scientific device in addressing issues of the epidemic, reinforcing a survival of
the fittest through violence.
Contemporary films are realized within a general lack of trust in the government's ability
to protect its citizens from epidemics and terrorist attacks like 9/11 and the London subway
bombings; this is coupled with the perceived inability of the scientific and medical
community to develop and distribute treatment for infectious viruses, including H1N1 and the
"metadisease" AIDS. Independent and community responses to AIDS during its early stages
when it was generally ignored by government health services and the scientific community
can be compared to the rogue survivalist tactics employed by small isolated groups in zombie
films; both function in the absence of an organized institutional response and support and
operate on a strategy of survivalism with whatever elements and technologies they can find.
In both 28 films and Planet Terror, the intention of the government, specifically military
organizations, is dubious at best; in Planet Terror and other films military experiments are
the cause of the virus, manifesting fears of military technology and biological weapons. In 28
Days Later, the only remaining institution, a rogue military group, is ultimately corrupt and
intent in building a patriarchal utopian society as long as they are able to ensnare female
survivors. "I promised them women," the leader admits to the male protagonist. Two
characters in the Dawn of the Dead remake are members of core social institutions - law
enforcement and medicine - yet both struggle to survive, choosing to adopt individualism
rather than represent their particular roles and maintain the structure of the institution.
The failure of technology and science extends, in a domino effect, to mutually reliant core
social structures. The ensuing societal failure of the zombie genre provides for an annulment
of the social contract, and the deficit of structures of social control both provides space for
anarchy to flourish and reformulates the concept of morality. Ethics become more fluid and
informal rules of survival emerge in order to negotiate a separation between the two
kingdoms, lest the sick overtake the well. Murray argues that in the zombie film there is a
dialectic between the communitarian and individualist, which reflects a distinction relevant to
American political philosophy. 28 Days Later projects a form of social Darwinism, where the
few survivors are those who are able to violently protect the boundary between kingdoms by
killing their newly infected friends and family. "You wouldn't be alive now if you haven't
killed somebody," the leader of a rogue military group tells the protagonist. Isolating and
removing the sick is a necessity for survival under epidemic conditions; morality mutates in
the face of illlness, and those who are equipped with the most flexible morals are the fittest
for survival.
The relation of morality to sickness is not unique to the contemporary moment; "the sick
man himself creates his disease," the physician Georg Groddeck wrote in the late 19th
century, "he is the cause of the disease and we need seek none other" (Sontag 46). In the
same way that an internal condition has an affect on social relations, morality and conditions
of interaction are transmitted, through metaphor, into the space of the body: "Passion moves
inward, striking and blighting the deepest cellular recesses." Illness can reflect moral
character when it is viewed as punishment for behavior or lifestyle. This is evident in ancient
literature and religion: the plagues of Exodus, the Iliad, and Oedipus were of divine origin in
retaliation for misconduct. In the 19th century, the vengeance of a deity was replaced with
reactions of a corrupt character; Schopenhauer writes: "The will exhibits itself as organized
body and the presence of disease signifies that the will itself is sick" (1966, 259).
Contemporary zombie films have deconstructed this pairing of morality with illness by
creating darker narratives where main characters, their family, and friends become the
infected. In one of the more savage moments of the horror comedy Shaun of the Dead, the
main character is forced to kill his recently infected mother; in 28 Days Later a daughter
loses her father, as he becomes infected from hapless circumstances, rather than personal
moral failure. These threads reflect the complicated ethics of contemporary views of illness
where becoming ill is no longer intrinsically tied with ethical behavior.
Social ethics and the moral universe of film overlap but should not be considered identical
terrains. Within the genre of terror, "horror morals" have set a distinct formula for ethical
behavior and used violence to both typify and enforce their rules. This system of codes is
deconstructed in postmodern narratives like Wes Craven's Scream series: minor characters
tend to be slaughtered early on; individuals who display weak morals or have sexual
intercourse are more likely to die than morally upright virgins. As recent films have
complicated on-screen morality by using more complex roles and turning monsters into
protagonists, most of the codes, although critiqued or submerged, remain. Since onscreen
morality is to some extent formed by requirements of the film's narrative and dominant codes,
an analysis of film ethics and its interplay with offscreen social behavior must take into
consideration this distinction. When the two main females in 28 Days Later are threatened
with sexual violence by a military group, the main character, Jim, saves the day by
collaborating with zombies to kill the soldiers and free the women. By inhabiting the role of
the protagonist, Jim is not only given a good chance to survive the length of the film, but is
endowed with a higher order of morals, allowing him to violently murder the soldiers in order
to save the purity of the women. In other films, it is not only the immoral that die, but
expendable minor characters, who are sacrificed to develop tension and generate horror and
thrills within the narrative space of the film.
The sequel 28 Weeks Later is one of the minority of zombie films which is not ultimately
pessimistic; the original carrier of the virus, immune to its affects, has two children which
may carry the same immunity. In the same way that the infected are a metaphor for viral
contagion or act as the embodiment of the microbe, the children are walking genetic material;
their innocence is manifest as the cure for the disease, and they can be seen as the saviors of
an sick kingdom. As illness is characterized as "incoherence" (Morris 22), the ability of
medicine to find a cure and thus restore the separation between the two kingdoms can be seen
as a step towards organization and positivism and away from the anarchy and blind entropy
of the invading virus. However, this ending is not the same in most films; in them, the city
falls, and the kingdom of the well is vanquished. The total destruction of the urban is a larger
theme within zombie films; metaphors of the city and its relation to nature will be explored in
the next section.

Urban Space and Nature

Through its connection to disease and the epidemic, contemporary zombie films bring up
issues of urban space as environment and a site of contagian. Although some epidemics take
the rural setting as their origin - bird and swine flu (H1N1) are two examples - the major
locus of the spread of most epidemic disease remains in the densely populated space of the
urban. It is no coincidence, then, that zombie films are mostly staged within the city; it is in
the streets, hospitals, and malls that the struggle between the two kingdoms takes place. This
is distinct from early horror, which isolated its monsters in graveyards, distant European
villages, and on tropical islands; occasionally these monsters would be carelessly transported
to the city to detrimental result, in the case of King Kong, Dracula, and others. The zombie
epidemic as a distinctly urban phenomenon brings up issues of the spread of disease in the
city and distinctly separates the space of the urban with the terrain of nature.
In the history of medicine, a connection has been constructed between illness and
environment. The chaos, dirt, and disorder of the atmosphere was viewed in the early 20th
century as the cause of infection: Florence Nightingale diagnosed many symptoms of illness
as representing a "want of fresh air, or of light, or of warmth, or of quiet, or of cleanliness"
(1912, 8). This can be compared with the industrialized city, in which bodies are exposed to
the the noise, filth, and coldness of an artificial and machine-mediated society. This view not
only has a reference within the medical practice, but is imbued with a morality as well:
society and the urban environment are seen as corrupting the natural man, a perspective held
by Enlightenment thinkers such as Rousseau. The weakness of humans to remain within their
original "state of nature" causes them to rely excessively on society; the greater the
sophistication of social institutions, the more corrupted the man; industrialization is seen as a
move away from the simple society of virtue rather than a negotiation between contemporary
desires and needs. This contributes to a modern dichotomy which opposes the realm of man
to that of nature; the very act of defining nature as a "quantifiable, three-dimensional universe
appropriated by humans" (Descola and Palsson 1996, 66) already recognizes it as a separate
space from development and urbanism and, to some extent, idealizes it. Within the nature/
society distinction, the hospital can be seen as negotiating both, but mainly functioning as an
antidote to the unhealthy urban atmosphere: a "corrected, organized, and ceaselessly
supervised environment" (Foucault 2003, 32); a controlled space opposed to the chaotic
(un)structure of the city. Rosenberg relates Nightingale's view of the hospital as a
"microcosm of society, every part interrelated and all reflecting a particular moral order"
Even within the contemporary context, disease retains an unsubtle connection with
morality specific to the space of the modern city. Its ties can be analyzed in both the history
of AIDS as a public discourse, particularly in the cities of New York and San Francisco, and
the relation of current epidemics with issues of immigration around the globe. Both attach
political or moral components to movement, association, and sex within the urban
environment, and construct informal and allegorical quarantines which separate populations
based on their histories, points of origin, and sexualities. Scientific views on contagion have
advanced since Nightingale, but a correlation between the epidemic and the city persists,
because densely populated areas accelerate disease transmission, particularly within
institutions such as prisons, schools, and daycare facilities. Although medicine has refuted
theories of infection due to bad light or atmosphere and replaced them with germ theory,
metaphors on the atmosphere of disease have continued to percolate the city's center. A
concept of infection through industrialization has penetrated the space of the domestic: Todd
Haynes' film Safe (1995) explores anxieties that household cleaners and chemicals could be
the cause of new and unexplainable forms of disease and disorders; the backlash against
products with artificial and/or harmful chemicals has taken the form of an organic and green
revolution which seeks to replace the future with a pre-chemical and pre-industrial past. This
opposing of nature and civilization is reflected in zombie cinema as the city is hopelessly
overrun by monsters within; the only plausible strategy is a reversal of development in the
form of a flight from the city and a return to nature.
As the kingdom of the sick overtakes the city in the narrative of the zombie film, the rural is
the only space relatively untouched, and acts as a haven for survivors; a new Eden for the
rebuilding of the species. In 28 Days Later, the survivors escape to a pastoral country house,
and other films end as characters escape the city in helicopters and boats; it is assumed their
destination is far from the diseased city. The theme of their escape can be viewed in the
context of a de-industrialization, both a reaction to and a result of the overconsumption and
artificiality of urban space. The nature/society separation is not only manifested in the end of
narratives, but at the beginning, within the origin story of the virus. Often, the epidemic
originates within the realm of technology and science; in 28 Days Later, the "rage" virus is
inadvertently released when animal rights activists liberate infected chimpanzees from a
laboratory; while the ultimate cause of the virus is unknown, a scientist defends his research:
"In order to cure, you must first understand." The infection in Planet Terror is of military
origin, as are other films; more movies, particularly George Romero's trilogy, are less clear
about the origin of the infection. In many instances, the virus, whether of natural or artificial
origin, can be conceptualized as the revenge of nature or the overreaching mistake of
technology which threatens to destroy society at large. This narrative succeeds condemning
the contemporary urban setting while advocating a flight to suburban or rural locations as the
only method of survival, recalling the concept of "white flight" which saw middle class
inhabitants remove themselves from an increasingly diversified urban space. Within this
context, and seen in connection with horror's failure of institutions and machinery, the
zombie genre is in many ways technophobic, displaying a doomsday scenario where our
contemporary society fails, and a virus threatens to existinguish the human species, banishing
the survivors into nature and a former mode of living, before industrialization.

Zombie films as metaphors are fairly pessimistic: there is no treatment for infection, and
survival only exists for the few. The last remaining character in Night of the Living Dead is
inadvertently killed by his own rescuers; in other films protagonists die as others barely
escape. Within the metaphorical struggle between human and microbe, the zombie, as an
embodiment of the virus, wins, and replaces humans as the primary biological entity. Thus
the fears explored in this genre do not merely extend to the survival of individuals, but the
viability of the entire species; by depicting the failure of social institutions, they manifest a
deep anxiety that contemporary science, despite its relative success and advancements, is
unable to protect us from the tiniest of enemies, the microbe. Viewing the horror genre is
informed by media coverage of the contemporary epidemic, or vice-versa, is an
oversimplification: both forms equally influence each other, depicting fears of mass
contagion while at the same time reinforcing them. Within the media, "epidemic" has become
such a powerful term that it has been applied to rampant social phenomena, including teen
violence and obesity. Fear does not merely provide for entertainment and cheap thrills, but
elucidates the shadows of our imaginations, a dim terrain untouched by both common
understanding and the empiricism of science, in order to more fully understand societal
anxieties. A greater understanding of the role of horror within the context of science and
medicine, as negotiated through the space of culture, can provide at least a fragmentary
illumination of the darkness of our collective nightmares.

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