The Running of the Dead, Part 1

Zombies sprint in

•360 Years Later

The first thing a person is going to need to know about Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, from 2002, is that it’s one big trick. That’s one good reason to like the movie, in fact—that it is punking you. I don’t think I can explain the movie’s trick right away; we need to do the groundwork first, but it is the point to keep in mind: 28 Days Later is a bit of the thimblerig. Don’t let your eye off the ball.

The second thing to know is that of all the zombie movies, 28 Days Later is the one most steeped in political philosophy. One way to come at this is to call to mind something that George Bush said in 2006. A reporter at a White House press conference was second-guessing him on some issue—it hardly matters what—and Bush responded like this:

I listen to all voices, but mine’s the final decision. … I hear the voices, and I read the front page, and I know the speculation, but I’m the decider, and I decide what’s best.

A lot of people made fun of those sentences. I definitely made fun of those sentences. The word “decider” is maladapted, obviously, and it’s the bit that most of us kept quoting, but the idea that Bush was hearing voices is also pretty funny. The thing is, though: “I’m the decider” might sound inane, but it isn’t just another Bush malaprop. “I’m the decider” is not “misunderestimate” or “putting food on your family,” because unlike these others it has a clear sense to it, one that we should bother trying to understand. More: It turns out that this sentence, dopey as it is, has a long philosophical history behind it. I absolutely guarantee it: People with PhDs in political theory were whispering in Bush’s ear. They fed him that line. “The human being and fish can coexist” was his alone.

My suggestion, then, is that if we understand the political philosophy behind that sentence, we will understand 28 Days Later, too; that what is at stake in this movie, as one of the important documents of the early transatlantic-Bush era, is what it means to have (or not to have) A DECIDER. And if we’re going to understand that philosophy, we’re going to need a refresher course on Thomas Hobbes, who is the single most important philosopher in the history of the political Right, or at least of one of its strands: not the free-market Right, and not the Christian Right, but the authoritarian Right, the party of SWAT-teams and strong leadership.

The basic facts on Hobbes are that he was writing in the 1640s, 1650s, 1660s, and that he was a royalist: He thought that all societies needed strong central authorities and that no-one had the right to question the state, let alone oppose it. More properly: He thought that governments should establish the parameters of official belief and that anyone dissenting from the state religion or state science, even a kind of state metaphysics, should be silenced.

In and of itself, this position didn’t make Hobbes unusual, since there were lots of royalists in the seventeenth century. What made Hobbes unusual, rather, is how he got to his royalism, the arguments he used to defend kingship. Run-of-the-mill royalists generally argued that ordinary people should accept kingly rule because it was God’s will: God likes kings; God is himself a kind of king; kings are therefore his representatives here on earth. Or they argued that kings were natural: that human groups always coalesce around strong men; that the first human groups were families, and then, when larger groups—like clans or tribes—began accreting, one figure began acting as father to them, and so on, until we reach the condition of modern states, where the king functions as father-to-the-nation.

Now consider the opposite position: There were, in fact, people in the seventeenth century who didn’t like kings; they took an axe to at least one of them. But even those people didn’t have any democratic theory on tap to explain why kings were a bad idea. So the anti-royalists generally looked around history for counter-examples to monarchy, for examples, that is, of human groups that didn’t form around strong men. And they found lots of examples: they found tribes, both in the Americas and in early European history; and they began lifting out of that history the times and places when ordinary people had assembled, deliberated, passed the conch. The anti-royalists granted that lots of tribes had had leaders, but thought they could show that these leaders had themselves been chosen, which meant that power had to be conferred on them by their followers, which meant that the followers were the original power-holders and so not finally or fully followers at all.

Those were the ideas that counted as radical in the seventeenth century. Hobbes’s feat, in this light—and if you pause here, you might see how nifty this is—was that he worked out a way of starting with Position #2 and getting back to Position #1. He thought, in other words, that he could grant the radicals their main point and still make you see that monarchy was the only one way to go. Yes, all power was originally with the people, but even if you are convinced of that idea, you should still sign on to something rather like dictatorship.

If you want to see how he pulls this off, there are two specific argumentative sequences you’ll need to understand. The first goes back to two simple observations.

•1A. Everything wants to live. Or, if you put in this in terms of political theory, every person has a right to defend him- or herself against attack. One of the few observations we can make about the world that seems all-but universally true—true everywhere at every time—is that people (and animals and even plants) will do what they need to do to stay alive.

•1B. Being an early human must have sucked. This is actually the heart of Hobbes’s argument: If you reflect on the earliest stages of human history, you’ll see that it must have been hard to stay alive. Anybody could have done to you anything they wanted. The only thing standing between you and every passing rapist was your own fist.

But, Hobbes says, people aren’t stupid, and they want to stay alive. So what must have happened is that they all got together and agreed, in a kind of contract, to appoint one person who would settle all disagreements and resolve all conflicts. That would be the king. And here’s the sick genius of his argument: The contract is a one-time deal; it can never be renegotiated; because once you have agreed to give all power to the king, just to be sure that your next-door neighbor doesn’t tear your throat out, you can’t afford to disagree with the king any longer. In fact, it becomes nonsensical to talk about disagreeing with the king, because the king is the one who settles disagreements. It is part of the original contract that the king is always right.

One other point to drive home: Hobbes was a kind of peacenik. We usually think of the peace movement as belonging on the Left, but Hobbes loved peace; peace was the whole idea; he was a right-wing pacifist, and in a sense, there have always been lots of these, though “pacifist” is not usually what we call them. We call them “law-and-order types,” and their politics goes back to the Hobbsean idea that nothing—absolutely nothing—is more important than suppressing the possibility that war might break out from within the tissue of society.

So that brings us to Hobbes’s second argumentative sequence, which was that…

2. War is always looming, always threatening to break out from within the tissue of society. Primal conflict is always lurking in society’s cracks. This isn’t just paranoia on his part. Hobbes agrees with modern liberals on one easy point, which is that life is full of disagreements, and that these disagreements can’t help but seep into our social and political institutions. Another way to put this would be to say that our institutions are shot through with gaps—holes of uncertainty. All institutions involve ideas, propositions or arguments: “People have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” or “There is no God but God.” And these institutional ideas will always lead to an entire series of problems or puzzles, mostly because such propositions can never be self-interpreting, which means that any institution will tend to generate competing schools or factions or parties, as people inevitably and in good faith begin to disagree about what the body’s guiding propositions mean. Worse: Most institutions are involved to some degree in fact-gathering. Police departments, scientific agencies, central banks—they all collect information about the world, and that information is also going to need interpreting. None of it is going to have plain meanings. And here, too, there are inevitably going to be disagreements—disagreements that on a philosophical level will be interminable. You cannot show beyond a shadow of a doubt that “all men are created equal” or that “global warming is real.” You just can’t. Doubt is always possible.

So this is where the king comes in: The king is there to decide. This is one of the classic theories of the king (or the sovereign or the executive). And you have to keep in mind: This theory has absolutely nothing to say about what the king should decide. It has absolutely no recommendations to make about which interpretation the king should choose. The whole point of theory, in fact, is that the decision is arbitrary. That has to be true by definition, if you think about it, since if it weren’t arbitrary, it wouldn’t be a decision. It would be a conclusion. There are all these void spaces in the political system where doubt and uncertainty fester; and a leader simply has to come in and plug that vacuum. The government, in other words, has to set the terms for religion—or people are going to war over religion; it has to set the terms for law—or people are going to war over law; it has to set the terms for science—or people are going to war over science.

That’s what Bush meant. Someone has to decide, and the decision will always be arbitrary. “The decision,” it’s true, isn’t Hobbes’s word for this position. The cat who reformulated Hobbes’s argument around the concept of “the decision” was Carl Schmitt, who was the most important political theorist among the German fascists. “I’m the decider” is the best evidence we have that someone was really and truly — dead literally — feeding George Bush Nazi political thought. But let’s not get hung up on the Nazi business. The interesting philosophical point is that Bush wasn’t claiming to be right. He was saying: I don’t have to be right. In fact, right-and-wrong is the wrong way to think about it. The king’s decision—or the president’s decision—can’t be right or wrong, because no-one can tell for sure. Someone just has to decide, period. Political beings never choose between right and wrong. They choose between respecting the decision and … well, something else. Civil war. Chaos. Zombies.

•Of Zombies Fast and Slow

A different movie now, and a confession: I’ve never felt so puzzled by a movie as I was the first time I saw Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake, from 2004. I walked away from that movie not understanding anything. It was my own personal Mulholland Drive. I had liked it well enough, but just couldn’t get it to add up. The problem was I went in cocky. I figured: This is, in its bones, a Romero movie—Romero’s Dawn, the second of the Dead movies, came out in 1978—and I know how such movies work; I’m on my home turf. And then the confusion snuck up on me. I got all the way through that first screening convinced that the new Dawn was staying, by remake standards, pretty faithful to the original. It had the mall; it had black actors in central roles; it had strife among the survivors. Three of the actors from the original showed up in cameos, and once I’d spotted them, I was pretty sure I was watching an homage. I was in the mood to watch an homage.

But then I walked away from the movie, trying to get it straight in my head, and I couldn’t make it tally; I couldn’t figure out what the movie was doing. I went in with expectations derived from, yes, a certain reverence for Romero, and by those standards everything seemed wrong—or off—and I couldn’t figure out what had changed.

Or rather one thing had changed: The zombies were fast. But then I knew this going into the theater, because the press had made a big deal about it. It was the Big Innovation. 28 Days Later had introduced the novelty. The Dawn remake made it seem like a trend: the living dead, lickety-split. Three quick thoughts about this:

•Fast zombies are not, in fact, an innovation; I mean, even in ’02 or ‘04, they weren’t an innovation. The press was just wrong on that count. Breakneck zombies had been introduced years earlier, in Return of the Living Dead, from 1985, which is also the movie that gave us the chiming, Karloffian B’raaaaains, spoken like breath across a beer bottle.

• That said, the underlying convention had remained more or less intact. The late ‘80s and ‘90s were a fallow period for zombie movies, so the few fleet corpses of the Reagan era hadn’t really led anywhere, and this allowed the press to feel, when 28 Days Later was released, that its creatures were next-generation zombies. We remembered zombies as slow, and these weren’t. But then does that change really make a difference? I mean in some sense, it’s obviously an improvement. Boyle and Snyder ditched that staggering, shambolic gait, which was always the easiest thing to parody about zombies. The new zombies were limber and belligerent, and to that extent just scarier. To get caught by a Romero-style zombie always required a signal lapse of attention. One could reasonably conclude, then, that fast zombies were an improvement in horror-movie technique, a kind of engineering advance. But other than that, I mostly walked away from Dawn of the Dead thinking that the change from slow to fast was neutral, that it didn’t actually change any of the meanings that a zombie could carry. It’s was like putting a new engine in a chassis you really like: Romero with more oomph, Romero all souped up. And the Dead shall book.

•I was completely wrong. It turns out that up-shifting the zombies from slow to fast changes everything; it entirely re-frames the zombie movie as a genre. I find this utterly fascinating. It seems like a small change, little more than a tweak, like defragmenting your hard drive. And it leaves nothing untouched.




11 responses to “The Running of the Dead, Part 1

  1. Brilliant. I’m totally hooked. You are the smartest person ever.

    This is a very small point, but I think it’s fair to Hobbes (whose ideological achievement is just as you say): in Leviathan, at least, the natural state isn’t really supposed to be a historical one; what’s more, the argument isn’t even trading on it being a fake one but of heuristic value. It’s different in this regard from Locke, or Rousseau — who of course blows the by-then “State of Nature” trope apart. Rather, it’s a weird, out-of-time, analytic proof, based merely on the definitions he’s built up. It’s worth noting this, I think, because the fact that it’s so itself does the work of showing that/why the covenant is a one-shot deal. That is, it’s in the very nature of the “Think about it; if these definitions are right, this is what you’d do, tomorrow, yesterday, forever, whenever. Therefore, now, today, don’t fuck with the King” — it’s built right into the form of the argument, and not just a matter of the content of the pseudo-narrative in those chapters (13-17 or so) that, should you have any current doubt about it, all you have to do is run the thought experiment again. It’s geometry, not – as in Locke – metaphor. I’m pretty sure this is right, but I’d be curious to hear why you give it the historical spin in your presentation.

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  4. There are no zombies in 28 Days Later

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