The Downside of Zombies

Paramount Pictures.

By Joseph Young

Paramount Pictures.
Paramount Pictures.

World War Z, the latest Zombie book turned big-screen summer blockbuster, has got me thinking about the undead. I am not a fan of the genre. To be fair, these undead killers have been the stars of feature films since the 1960s. Dan Drezner made them cool for the foreign policy crowd.

As our readers know, I do like post-apocalyptic stories. There is, of course, some overlap. Pondering how societies operate once social order collapses or how people rebuild after a huge shock is fascinating both as entertainment and in ways that help me think about what makes our daily society work. Zombies can induce these changes. Shouldn’t I be a fan then? Besides the glaringly obvious reason, there is a downside to Zombies.

In any conflict, there are parties with interests. Sometimes one side is clearly the aggressor or wrong1, but most times there are factors that lead each to be active participants in the chaos that violent conflict creates. When we succumb to black and white thinking, it is easier to view the other as evil and justify any response.

Manichean Thinking

Films often depict human interaction as a dichotomy. Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Harry Potter all portray agents of good battling agents of evil for control of the universe. An ancient religion started by the prophet Mani, or Manichaeism, saw the world as a giant struggle between the forces of dark and light. Without entering too much into ancient religions, the core dualism of the ideas allowed individuals to order the world and justify responses to perceived evil. This dualist thinking has permeated (or has been independently adopted by) other religions or cultures. The problems with this mindset are many. Randy Borum, a psychologist and terrorism expert offers one such example. When individuals identify a problem, blame another for the problem, and view the other as evil, it then justifies however they choose to respond to this threat. He suggests that this is a common pathway that an individual employs to justify and then perpetrate acts of terrorism.

MGM/United Artists.
MGM/United Artists.

Rocky IV

During the Cold War, Ronald Reagan famously took a hard line against the Soviet Union, terming it the evil empire. Popular culture more than obliged this construction of the enemy. Red Dawn, Firefox, and even the Rocky franchise depicted an evil empire that was bent on destruction of the West. Ivan Drago, the Soviet boxer from Rocky IV, killed Apollo Creed, who was adorned in stars and stripes boxing trunks, and showed no remorse stating in broken English, “if he dies, he dies”. Rocky then had to go mano-a-mano to defend the US and all that is good against a cold-calculating, evil enemy (to be fair, they softened Ivan Drago toward the end as he respected Rocky’s ability to absorb punishment).


The new popular evil empire is Zombies (or maybe Vampires). How can you negotiate with a being hell-bent on eating your flesh? What is the only appropriate policy response? Do we apply these Manichean thoughts about Zombies to other perceived enemies? It is difficult to measure the influence that popular culture has on people’s views related to major policy questions. To the extent that people are influenced based on the media they consume, Zombie lessons are dangerous. Few conflicts have a clear division between the sides. For example, who is bad in Syria? The dictator? The Jihadis? The fractured rebels? The Russians? The Iranians? The US? I don’t want this to digress to an argument about pure moral relativism. Hitler and Stalin allow us to steer our moral compass to zero and then start placing other actions and leaders along a spectrum. The larger point is that in most cases with most people, there are interests and there is grey, not black and white or Zombie flesh eating.

Note: Full disclosure: Max Brooks, the author, is an American University alum.

1 Whatever being wrong means…culpable?

  1. Ah, but you are making a big mistake by focusing on the WWZ movie. The book is excellent precisely because Zack is not the only adversary. The book does a great job of showing how politics leads countries to behave in different ways as they face tremendously difficult choices. There is a heap of gray in WWZ the book. As I argue elsewhere, the movie, because it speeds up the zombies, makes it hard for humans to adapt and adjust in different ways: if you bring Warm Bodies into the mix, the Zombies themselves have distinct identities and divisions.

    So, do not blame the Zombies but blame the folks who hack away the best parts of a great book.

  2. Thanks Steve. I haven’t read the book. Fair point. Do they negotiate with Zombies? Are the Zombies sympathetic characters? Can they be reasoned with? The IR of the human dilemma sounds interesting but the ultimate enemy sounds the same.

  3. I have always understood zombies not as an enemy – they are, after all, undead and bereft of intentionality and consciousness, so they cannot set their will against us – but as a problem more akin to a meteor or some other environmental catastrophe that threatens the survival of humanity.

    The politics in these narratives is thus not about good v. evil, or us v. them, but about how different individuals (in the classic zombie stories) or governments (WWZ) find ways to overcome their differences, fears, prejudices, or collective action problems, to coordinate their response to the zombie problem. In many of these narratives, the greatest threat to the survival of humanity is humanity itself, in particular, its inability to recognize its common fate and act accordingly, rather than the zombies themselves (who are, after all, slow moving – at least when they are not zooming — and dim-witted). The politics of global warming may thus be a better analogy to zombie narratives than the Cold War or terrorism.

    1. John, I certainly like your version of the story better than mine. The fact that they are human-like, act, are individuals, not a meteor or earthquake, etc. still makes me nervous that people will draw analogies from a zombie threat to other human threats. I hope you are right.

  4. Dennis Petty- I am Kathy Petty’s Cousin and I am looking forward to meeting Erica the last weekend in July. I have The Army’s Master’s Degree from the Command and General Staff College and over the years have participated in “Wars to make peace.” Our Country’s failure in Vietnam troubled me until I started to look at it from their perspective. From what Vietnam and Iraq cost us, we could have gone in and built nice houses for most of the people. The real cost in lives lost on both sides could not be measured. I will do my best to not try to simplify the enemy and war as we discuss the world.

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