Magazine | April 22, 2013, Issue

Undead Reckoning

I try to resist the siren song of metaphor, luring the polemicist onto the gaudy rocks of glibness and meretriciousness only for his sturdy column to crack and sink 400 words before the safe harbor of the final paragraph. Honest I do. But a few months ago I was inveigled by my daughter into taking her along to something called “Zombie Shopping Mall.” It was in Reading, a drab town on the outskirts of London, and I had carelessly assumed that it would be a purpose-built attraction. Instead, upon arrival we discovered that the zombie bloodfest took place in an actual shopping mall that had gone out of business. The new management had left in place the dangling shingles and abandoned store windows and hired a bunch of Equity-minimum extras to rampage through the joint terrorizing those in search of an authentic “horror immersion experience.” It was so authentic there wasn’t even a welcome area: Participants met at the former mall’s padlocked, graffiti-defaced delivery entrance. The bona fide decrepitude added an eerie frisson of verisimilitude to the zombie apocalypse. Not to mention that it’s oddly poignant when something that was once real is reduced to no more than a stage set for dystopian fantasy. For a while, back in New Hampshire, every time we passed a shuttered building or an abandoned pasture, we’d joke about opening Zombie Sawmill or Zombie Dairy Farm.

In tough times, audiences supposedly seek escapism—like the frothy film musicals of the Great Depression, with Astaire and Rogers and an army of betailed and begowned supporting players gliding without a care across vast unbounded parquet dance floors in art deco palaces. But some escapisms are less escapist than others, and the present zombie fever seems an appropriate end point for pop culture in a fin de la civilisation West. The zombie is of newer vintage than most of his Monster Mash confreres. Americans first ran across him during the U.S. military occupation of Haiti. Back then it was exotic stuff: Do do that voodoo that you foreigners do so well. That a cultural archetype from the most impoverished, violent, dysfunctional, and peripheral part of the hemisphere should seem such a perfect fit for the global superpower at the dawn of the 21st century is itself a little unsettling. But don’t worry, we Americanized him: The flesh-eating is a local embellishment, invented by George A. Romero 45 years ago for his film The Night of the Living Dead. As I say, one should beware the temptations of metaphor, particularly for creatures as thinly delineated as the vast anonymous dead-eyed hordes, whose rotting shoulders can be burdened with whatever tickles your fancy. Writing in the New York Times, Amy Wilentz sees them as the unquestioning workhorses of global capitalism:

The zombie is devoid of consciousness and therefore unable to critique the system that has entrapped him. He’s labor without grievance. He works free and never goes on strike. You don’t have to feed him much. He’s a Foxconn worker in China; a maquiladora seamstress in Guatemala; a citizen of North Korea.

#page#If you say so. The zombie does not seem to me to be obvious labor material. Not for nothing do Boeing and HP prefer recruiting an educated Indian work force from Bangalore to an army of moldering undead from an abandoned cemetery. In fact, the zombie doesn’t seem to work at all, but rather feasts on the functioning members of society, in turn zombifying them—rather as, under the Baron Samedis of American bureaucracy, the dependency rolls swell remorselessly, perfectly able-bodied citizens are conscripted to the armies of Social Security disability claimants, and entire communities infected by the EBT voodoo devour everything in sight on the first of the month.

But, like Ms. Wilentz’s thesis, that’s too modest. The Western world itself is largely a collection of zombie nations—Greece’s rotting fingers reaching up out of the grave to wrap its decomposing flesh around the ankles of Cyprus and Germany and beyond. There are still a few tough hombres out there like Vladimir Putin willing to gun down the undead menacing his safe-deposit box in Nicosia, but most governing institutions of the West seem to have internalized and accepted zombie psychology, staggering on like glassy-eyed cadavers frenziedly hunting down the last remaining non-infected—the “1 percent,” to coin a phrase—on which to feast. California’s auditor has just announced that the state government has a net worth of minus $127 billion. Yet somehow it will still lurch on infecting everything in its path in hopes of stumbling across something else to devour. In Europe as in America, the state is an animated husk whose vital organs no longer function: Everything in his life is made elsewhere; everything he spends is borrowed from a magical future; everything he eats is served by a minimum-wage immigrant. But on he totters, somehow, for a while longer. As Gibbon wrote, “The form was still the same, but the animating health and vigor were fled.”

On second thought, that sounds less like a zombie and more like a belle époque Parisian boulevardier, outwardly urbane and dapper and enjoying his amusements and diversions, but inwardly ravaged by his appetites and crumbling away from syphilis. Maybe I should pitch it to AMC or Paramount, but, even in a pop-culture twilight, somehow “Syphilitic Shopping Mall” doesn’t have quite the same ring.

– Mr. Steyn blogs at SteynOnline (

Mark Steyn — Mark Steyn is an international bestselling author, a Top 41 recording artist, and a leading Canadian human-rights activist. That’s to say, his latest book, After America (2011), is a top-five bestseller in ...

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