When it comes to cinema and television, Americans love a good apocalypse. I’m no exception. From hellmouths to zombies, I am fascinated by horror films and the lessons they sometimes impart about who we are. Zombie films are a particular favorite subgenre of mine — from the racial terror captured in Night of the Living Dead (1968) to Santa Clarita Diet’s (2017-2019) portrait of a suburban couple who attempt to ethically source human flesh, I have watched countless hours of the undead ravaging humanity. Perhaps that’s why I have zombies on my mind lately as the world unravels, not because I think late capitalism and climate collapse will lead to the rise of the undead, but because of the lose/lose component of most zombie narratives. With rare exception, zombies in television and film aren’t “winning” as human beings lose. They are merely shuffling through the end of the world, consuming, deteriorating, and playing their role in the downfall of life as we know it.
In cinema, zombies have long been viewed as vehicles for our political anxieties. From reinforcing racist tropes to highlighting racism as a death-making force, the undead are interpreted in the context of our fears. In the words of Erin C. Cassese, “This is the utility of the zombie as a political metaphor — it’s flexible; there is room enough for all our fears.” But what happens when we, ourselves, are the world-ending force at work?
In the horror show of late capitalism, we are the zombies. But we don’t have to be.
As climate collapse continues and economies unravel, leading to more authoritarian power grabs, we are ambling along, with our consumption furthering the very decimation that chills anyone who dares to think about it. Many Americans who condemn climate denialism are in their own kind of denial. Rather than learning about the science of what’s happening, they avoid the details. They know that people are suffering, but they glance at headlines rather than reading the disturbing content of articles about floods, fire and death. They know that the apocalypse is not approaching in some future sense. They know the end of life as they understand it has already begun, and yet, like the lead characters in Santa Clarita Diet, they are intent on maintaining a “normal” life for as long as possible. So, many of us shuffle through our lives, doing what we did before, consuming destructively and playing our part in the ultimate collapse.
In George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), both zombies and the film’s four human protagonists head to a shopping mall amid the chaos of the apocalypse. Stephen, one of the film’s human characters, muses that the zombies must be driven by “some kind of instinct” or “memory of what they used to do.” The film’s human characters commandeer a helicopter to escape the zombie onslaught, but their attachment to “what they used to do” leads them to fight zombies, and even other humans, for control of a shopping mall — with disastrous results. The film’s special effects are laughably dated, but a story about people clinging to consumerism as the world ends remains all too relatable.
Our Apocalypse Now
When faced head on, the climate crisis is more frightening than any horror movie. Animals on land and at sea are dying with stomachs full of plastic. Companies like Exxon are implicated in environmental crimes on an unfathomable scale, but continue to make money. Indigenous people are murdered and rainforests burn so that land can be seized for cattle and crops. Tornadoes made of fire move through red skies over devastated tracts of land. Glaciers and islands disappear as temperatures and ocean levels rise. People are drowning, dying of thirst and being thrown in cages as they try to escape disasters of biblical proportions. We are living out the catastrophe of capitalism, a force so toxic that it has ultimately proven incompatible with the living world.
As climate catastrophes continue, we will see the slow desertion of hurricane-battered coastal areas. We will see power outages, like the one that claimed the life of a man who couldn’t use his oxygen machine in Santa Rosa, California, last weekend. We will see horrors that we are accustomed to viewing from afar unfold within reach. Americans who said “what a shame” and went about their lives as Bahamians were denied refuge after Hurricane Dorian may learn what it’s like to be told to “go home” when there is no home to return to. Like the immigrants our government has funneled into the desert in order to deter them from attempting to enter the U.S., leading to the deaths of thousands, our country’s own climate refugees will be scuttled into places that will likely prove unlivable.
We will continue to see desperate foreign refugees held off at our borders. We will continue to see rampant violence aimed at stopping them from entering. We will continue to see “good people” turn away from those atrocities because they are afraid for themselves, and scarcity has set in. We will continue to see the Republicans’ disregard for the sick and injured, as manifested in their various attempts to deny health care to those in need, reach its natural conclusion: the normalization of human die-offs, as people perish from preventable and treatable illnesses as the wealthy continue to consolidate resources. We will see fascist demagogues and “centrist” neoliberals embrace those die-offs, as a means of making the populace more manageable.
Those who benefit from gross inequality will maintain the system for as long as possible, regardless of the losses that requires. But will we continue to shuffle along, zombie-like, following their lead?
Researchers with Goldman Sachs recently released a report on the threats posed by the climate crisis. The investment bank’s researchers warned of climate threats to major cities, noting that cities generate 80 percent of global GDP. The finance giant also pointed to the economic opportunities ecological collapse might present. “Urban adaptation could drive one of the largest infrastructure build-outs in history. Given the scale of the task, urban adaptation will likely need to draw on innovative sources of financing,” says the report. Wall Street ghouls will fund those build-outs. But who will those structures protect? As the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy illustrated, “resilience investments” in an inequitable society only serve to escalate inequity.
So How Does This Movie End?
Spoiler alert: On a long enough timeline, no one’s wealth will protect them from climate collapse. But casino capitalists intend to play the game for as long as they can, and they don’t plan on most of us having seats at the table. If we want whatever time humanity has left to play out any differently than late capitalism has thus far, we have to act now — because the atrocities we have witnessed will multiply, and we will not be spared.
In Santa Clarita Diet, the show’s undead heroine Sheila recognizes that she is part of something apocalyptic, but tries to differentiate herself from that threat by restricting herself to a diet of “bad people.” This effort is so clearly analogous to notions of “ethical consumption” under capitalism that Sheila even jokes about how expensive “sustainably raised” Nazi meat would be at Whole Foods. But ultimately, Sheila realizes that even though she is contributing to the potential fall of humanity, she can also fight against that catastrophe.
We are living through a mass extinction event. Extinction will happen. But how long do we have, and how will we live during those years? What sense of purpose will we take up and what banner will we carry? What will the point of our story be? Will we be shuffled toward death by the rich while the world burns? Will we avert our eyes and dull our minds as the crisis mounts? Or will we follow the lead of communities and activists who have shut down pipelines, airports and city streets? Will we fight for a society that is not defined by wealth, where we care for as many people as possible for as long as possible — where comfort exists for those who would be ground under on our current course? Will we live as though we are truly alive, fighting for life and decency? Or will we shuffle through the apocalypse like zombies, sauntering toward oblivion?