The 2009 horror comedy Zombieland, whose sequel comes out this week, begins with a lament for the United States: “I wish I could tell you that this was still America.” The voice-over, delivered by Jesse Eisenberg, plays over a shot of an American flag and a wrecked, post-apocalyptic U.S. Capitol. Lest this strike the viewer as too subtle, a distorted version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” plays on the soundtrack.
I shouldn’t have to tell you that a movie which opens with a shot of a flaming Washington might have some kind of political subtext, but if you somehow missed it, here it is: the United States had elected its first black president the year before Zombieland came out. Even back then, when white guys talked about “not recognizing America any more,” they were sending one specific, unmistakable message; you didn’t need to see them put on a red MAGA hat to know what they meant. Zombieland has a reputation as a stupid comedy with a fun Bill Murray cameo — which, for the most part, it is — but it also represents the downfall of the zombie genre, in which a monster that began as a socially progressive metaphor became an overtly right-wing trope. Ten years later, Zombieland: Double Tap, a movie critics have hailed as “worthless” and “utterly devoid of necessity,” follows a run of ceaseless zombie films — World War Z[ombies]! Pride and Prejudice and Zombies! Walking Dead (the titular dead are zombies!) — to bring us back to that same hippie-punching, bimbo-mocking territory.
To say that Zombieland has aged poorly in the past ten years is an overstatement. Watching it in 2019 instantly makes 2009 feel like a very long time ago; it is jarringly gross, in a post-GamerGate universe, to realize that the movie’s hero is the lonely, virginal, video-game obsessed white guy who tries to reclaim his masculinity by picking up a gun.
Jesse Eisenberg plays “Columbus,” the incel-in-training, who plays World of Warcraft through the zombie-induced End Times and considers it a great tragedy that he has never had a girlfriend. We, the viewers, understand why he has never had a girlfriend, because, when he meets a woman, he tends to say things like “I kind of like this girl. She’s not your typical hot, stuck-up bitch.” After a “hot” female neighbor cuddles him but does not sleep with him, he beats her to death with a toilet lid. (She’s a zombie, by that point, which feels like an overly convenient choice on the part of the screenwriters; it doesn’t help that he accompanies this with one of his several monologues on the inherent untrustworthiness of women.) He soon meets a girl — the lucky non-bitch in the quote above, played by Emma Stone, who deserves better — and said girl quickly loses every IQ point in her head, gets trapped, and requires rescuing, all so that Jesse can “be a hero,” a process in which he must “nut up.” When he rescues her, she rewards him with sex. As for the zombies themselves, they barely register; they’re a faceless, meaningless threat, mere targets for the hero to mow down in order to prove his own manhood.
So that’s Zombieland, a movie where only white people survive the apocalypse and only white men actually matter, a movie whose subtly Republican imagery can perhaps best be summed up by the scene in which Woody Harrelson shouts “thank God for rednecks” and celebrates his own love of “really big trucks and really big guns.” This kind of cartoonish hypermasculinity and rancid sexism were typical for comedies of the time — this was the same year convicted rapist Mike Tyson was cast as a cool celebrity bro in The Hangover — but its “ironic” ’80s nostalgia, cock-rock soundtrack, and downright fetishistic worship of big men with big guns feels more than a little sinister, ten years later, in a political context where “threatened” American masculinity and whiteness are lashing out at full force.
You might be able to tell by now that I’m not a zombie person. I’m a horror fan, and a horror writer, and I recently published a book on the genre, but this is the corner of it I won’t touch with a 10-foot-pole. Horror works best when it’s intimate and psychologically acute; it shows us the scary truth about ourselves. Zombie movies, which focus on the thrill of mowing down a faceless enemy whose humanity doesn’t count and whose feelings don’t matter, are not moving enough to be scary.
Yet every monster is a reflection of its culture, and the zombie is no exception. Werewolves are a metaphor for how Christianity’s soul-body dualism ruins our lives, splitting us into “civilized” selves and “animal” instincts. Vampires point to just how helpless we are to resist our own libidos, even when we know that our desires may kill us. Zombies are not about guilt, or desire, or anything so interior. They show us what happens when we forsake our interior lives altogether, giving up our individual personalities to become part of the mindless crowd. Zombies come in hordes and masses; they want to eat our brains, but they don’t use their own. They are groupthink personified.
American filmmakers once used zombies’ mindless conformity to make cutting — and progressive — statements about the United States. George A. Romero, the director of the original Night of the Living Dead trilogy, used zombiedom to condemn racism (in Night of the Living Dead, a heroic black man survives the zombie plague only to be shot by cops), capitalism (in Dawn of the Dead, the mall-swarming zombies are literally mindless consumers) and militarism (Day of the Dead takes place on a military base, where humans spend most of their time arguing whether to kill the zombies on sight or torture them in the name of science).
Romero codified the key truth of good zombie movies: It’s the humans, not the zombies, who pose the real threat. Zombies’ mindless violence starts the plot rolling, but that’s only interesting because we get to explore how human characters adapt — for better or worse — to the crisis. To the extent that any latter-day zombie movies are worth watching, it’s because the real horror centers on human malice. In Danny Boyle’s 2002 movie 28 Days Later, we see humans behaving so brutally toward one another that they’re indistinguishable from the zombies. 2016’s The Girl with All the Gifts gives us a zombie who is a charming, sweet little black girl; the real monsters are always the white adults who fear her, incarcerate her, and treat her as less than human.
But the meaning behind the monsters has drifted rightward over time, as filmmakers have become more fixated on the shambling undead than the human malice that creates them.When you shift your focus to zombies, you realize how uninteresting they are: Cannon fodder, not characters. But that very quality makes them a convenient stand-in for any marginalized groups the filmmaker fears or hates. Zombies tap our fear of the huddled masses: Strong because they move in herds, unbeatable because there are always more zombies than protagonists, irresistible because being touched makes you one of them. Zombies are dumb, and subhuman, and killing one makes you a hero. The only way to survive when they attack is to wall yourself into some safe, gated compound with the “real” humans, the ones whose lives matter. Nonetheless, zombies are constantly trying to get past our borders, and should they do so, they can win on numbers alone, destroying our culture and replacing it with their own, brain-eating lifestyle. I’d explain how this metaphor lends itself to racism, but seeing as how you presumably have a not-eaten brain in your head, you can probably figure it out.
There’s a tragic irony to this narrative shift: Zombie stories have roots in black Haitian mythology that used them to express the primal horror of slavery, the idea that some master might force you to keep working even after you died. Contemporary white filmmakers have appropriated zombies to express their fear of, well, black people. Or immigrants, or Muslims, or any other swarming and numerous Other that white people feel the need to fend off. Just consider the zombie’s obvious appeal to right-wing, Ayn-Rand-loving director Zack Snyder — he directed the 2004 Dawn of the Dead reboot, and is currently working on another zombie movie for Netflix — or the spectacularly unsubtle, immigrants-coming-to-get-you imagery in 2013’s World War Z, where thousands of zombies literally swarm over a border wall in Jerusalem.
Which brings us back to Zombieland. I hesitate to pin the downfall of U.S. democracy on one stupid and half-forgotten horror comedy, but the elements we convinced ourselves were “funny” back in 2009 are everything that has made life in 2019 all but unbearable. Its toxic masculinity and distrust of women, its fetishistic love of assault rifles, its open nostalgia for a more “innocent,” ’80s-like America, are precisely what paved the way for America’s dramatic rightward shift. None of it was ever a joke, not really; this was the poison that brewed and bubbled in the cultural subconscious for years before Donald Trump declared his candidacy, expressed only half-consciously, and inadvertently, in our stories.
Great monsters always reflect their culture, but some monsters outgrow their usefulness.
Indeed, Zombieland: Double Tap apparently returns to that broken, post-apocalyptic Washington. Except now, the White Houseis the place our “heroes” call home, having holed up there to hide from the encroaching subhuman horde. In the Oval Office, there’s a conveniently placed Obama poster, some Trump-ribbing banter about how Harrelson’s unredeemed hick “brings dignity to the office” — all signs of a movie bent on getting political. What’s not clear is whether the filmmakers understand how political Zombieland — and the other zombie movies like it — was all along.
Great monsters always reflect their culture, but some monsters outgrow their usefulness. They go fallow and have to wait years or decades before they can be interesting again. Zombie movies, with their undertones of not-so-disguised fascism, have given us nightmares the culture is better off without. Maybe, rather than revamping them, and rebooting them, and re-imagining them, we could do what the movies refuse to do: let them die.
Update: An earlier version of this piece misidentified the burning building in Zombieland. It is the U.S. Capitol.