Dead right

The undead can teach us what it is to be alive, Jennifer Rutherford writes.

In every zombie fiction (post-1968), there's a moment - I call it the ''zombie moment'' - when a choice is offered to the protagonist: smash in the head of your husband, mother, sister, brother, child or lover, or join them in a zombie embrace.

It's a situation all too familiar to anyone who's been through a nasty divorce. Love in the universe of zombies is, to borrow Zygmunt Bauman's term, in a ''liquid'' state. No bond can endure a bite and the price of nostalgia is evisceration.

Still from 28 Days Later.
Still from 28 Days Later. Photo: Supplied

As Selena tells Jimmy in 28 Days Later: ''If someone gets infected, you've got between 10 and 20 seconds to kill. It might be your brother or your sister or your oldest friend. It makes no difference.''

When survivors in zombie fictions step back from their loved ones - with a cricket bat in hand - it's not just romantic love but the whole language and social organisation of love and family that is brought into question. This gesture - smashing in the head of the one you love - is repeated ad infinitum in zombie fictions as if its repeition could make habitable the intensity of the emotional violence that has become part of the everyday language of love.

Sociologists argue the toss over whether the increased chaos of our emotional lives is creating new possibilities for ''pure relationships'', or new ways of making familial bonds, but zombie fictions deliver us into the raw violence of the divorce statistics.

In a zombie fiction, everyone is ultimately alone or at least bound for loneliness as one after another of the social bonds that bind them to others are lost to the zombie embrace. Love in the world of zombies is all about hungering for love but being hunted as meat: wanting love but ending up with blood on your hands.

German social theorist Ulrich Beck calls the family ''a zombie category'', arguing that it derives from 19th-century social institutions that have been superseded and yet still exert a powerful hold on our imaginary lives.

In his thesis, we don't have a choice any longer to be ''for others'' because our most intimate others are under an equal compulsion to be ''for themselves''. They posit an unerotic and asexual contradiction at work fuelling the battleground of sexual relations.

Families are the first to disintegrate in the zombie apocalypse. The film 28 Weeks Later opens with a romantically engaged couple embracing as they prepare a communal meal in their boarded-up farmhouse. Seconds later, the zombies have battered down the doors and the man elects to save himself rather than defend his wife. The drama ensues from this first moment of betrayal.

Reunited with his children, they refuse to believe their mother is a zombie and return to their familial home to find her. She is showing signs of zombification but is still human enough to entice the father to re-embrace her - giving her the opportunity for a revengeful bite.

Zombified, the father becomes a rage-filled saturnine monster hunting down his children as if the only drive left in him is to destroy everything that grounds him to who he was and to who mattered to him in his earlier incarnation of a self bound to others.

Sociologists of the family tend to quibble over just how faulty the modern family is, but zombie fictions are on the side of the pessimists.

Men in zombie films - even the human ones - tend to resume a primal state. These monstrous men exercise a powerful dominion over women, enforcing their return to domestic and sexual subservience, as if the apocalypse holds out the great promise that men will return to dominance and women to all fours.

It's a bewildering and fearful scenario or an exciting promise - depending on which side of the sexual divide you fall on. But from my side, the question is: Why does the past shadow the future in the form of a regression to this most primitive division of a patriarch in dominion over all other men and in possession of all women?

Are dead social forms merely sleeping and waiting their moment to reawaken? In zombie fictions, the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse is always anterior to the present, and the future is already captured by the past.

Zombie combusts in a world of fragmented lives, failed intimacies, uncertain futures and phobic discourses. Unemployment, the collapse of the meanings and values in which one's identity is grounded, and the grief of a broken marriage are the everyday crises of late modernity.

Life in the late modern world holds few sureties. To be modern, as Zygmunt Bauman writes, is to be permanently at risk of falling prey to the unresolvable waste-disposal problem of modernity. It is to live in fear of being disembedded, atomised and at risk of being rendered waste: by redundancy; by the dissolution of bonds (families, communities, shared belief structures); or by the collapse that comes in the wake of radical, incessant change - of governments, states, borders, economies and environments.

As I write, another tsunami and another earthquake have hit Japan, a typhoon has killed over a thousand people in the Philippines, and a freak hurricane has devastated Auckland. Few nations have been untouched by the global sweep of these environmental catastrophes - so portentous is their grim warning of future horror.

To be alive today is to live permanently in what Ulrich Beck defines as a ''globalised risk society''. Hazards that used to assault local environments now threaten the planet, affecting all humanity and all human life.

Nuclear fission, radioactive waste, the destruction of environments, fires, floods and freak storms, the death of forests, the chemical hazards of mass commodity production create a habitus of risk in which even the world's most affluent are unable to protect themselves from the boomerang effect of unforeseen consequences and must dwell in a global state of doubt. Continuous war is the backdrop to this impending sense of doom.

The twenty-first century has seen no end to the wars, death camps and gulags that killed 70 million in the horror scapes of the twentieth. The death toll continues to mount in a new century that opened with the longest war in US history.

Zombie fictional scenarios seem to concur. In lieu of the modernist maxim ''make it new'', zombie fictional works drive the future into a cul-de-sac of return. They hold out no promise, no hope, only the working through of what it is that makes the present an endless prolepsis of ruin.

They seem to be inviting us into a pleasurable anticipation of the nothing that is coming. And yet in this celebration of a future fall, they turn on the present by expostulating, critiquing and adumbrating with the energy of a utopic visionary as to why the present is failing the future.

Critics often find zombies' excursions into political critique burdensome, as if zombie texts should stick to providing increasingly graphic and hyperreal scenes of exploding and disembowelling bodies.

But political and social critique, whether overt or covert, is as integral to the genre as is its splatterfest. Since its genesis in Romero's Night of the Living Dead , the modern zombie genre has interspersed its prophetic vision of an apocalyptic future with a ''socio-political through-line''. In its famous last scene, viewers are thrown out of the absurd condition of being holed-up in an abandoned farmhouse surrounded by ravenous dead people to the horror-scape of 1960s American race relations.

Ben, the film's black protagonist, survives a night of hell only to be shot and tossed on a bonfire by an all-white civil guard. In the Cuban film Juan of the Dead (2011), the government organises a manifestation against the ''dissidents'' (i.e. the zombies), threatening to undermine the revolution but manifestation turns into a monstration as the red flags drown in blood.

In Zombie Strippers (2008) the gyrations of rotten and decomposing women incite a sexual frenzy in their male onlookers and a desire on the part of the women onlookers to be the object of desire.

Both men and women eagerly feed themselves to the zombies in a parody of today's pursuit of how to become the desirable thing. Even in its most excessive moments of violent dismemberment, the zombie genre is puzzling through what it means to be human today.

Jennifer Rutherford is a social theorist and literary scholar and the deputy director of the Hawke Research  Institute  at the University of South Australia. This is an edited extract from Zombies, published by Routledge and out in September.