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We Are the Disease: Apocalypse Porn, the American Zombie, and WORLD WAR Z

Press Play By Jesse Damiani | Press Play July 26, 2013 at 11:42AM

If there’s one thing "World War Z" proves, it’s that the apocalypse can be more than just exhilarating; it can be downright gorgeous.
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WWZ Promo

If there’s one thing World War Z proves, it’s that the apocalypse can be more than just exhilarating; it can be downright gorgeous. There’s a certain splendor in chaos, and the film’s creators make full use of their oft-discussed budget by sparing not a single moment of grisly stimulation. But if viewers were interested in aesthetics alone, they’d find no shortage of outlets elsewhere. Mirroring and building upon a similar fixation in the 1980s, what World War Z so effectively embodies is the American obsession with the very idea of apocalypse: the myriad ways we will ruin ourselves, how we will cope with that ruin, and how we will start over.

In his article, “Pessimism Porn,” Hugo Lindgren describes our amplified interest in financial collapse following the economic downturn of the past half-decade, and how this interest manifests in our daily habits:

“Like real porn, the economic variety gives you the illusion of control, and similarly it only leaves you hungry for more. But econo-porn also feeds a powerful sense of intellectual vanity. You walk the streets feeling superior to all these heedless knaves who have no clue what’s coming down the pike. By making yourself miserable about the frightful hell that awaits us, you feel better. Pessimism can be bliss too.”

Our interest in the all-out catastrophe witnessed in World War Z, though, extends beyond basic entertainment and narcissism; it speaks to a deep-rooted unrest felt most keenly by Generations X and Y. Where pessimism porn traffics in the pleasure derived from economic collapse, apocalypse porn stems from a desire for a cultural refashioning; it’s a reaction to our implicit involvement in structures we feel powerless to alter. We’re aware of the problems we face and that we’re a part of them, but we don’t necessarily understand where our fault lies, and, transitively, how we’d begin to right our wrongs. Meanwhile, we feel like we’re doing better than ever: we’re more socially conscious, less bigoted, less wasteful. Yet income equality and class resentment are on the rise, careless environmental practices lead to greater damage and catastrophe by the day, and our political system often seems more invested in protecting partisan interests than solution-oriented legislation. These systems are so deeply entrenched in the framework of modern America that to “undo” them would take years of dedicated work built around assumptions that could prove to have been incorrect all along.

Zombies, on the other hand? You can just kill them.

And it feels good to see the supposed undead put to bloody rest. They’re the hyperbolic analog for everything Americans hate about themselves and each other: they consume blindly and beyond what they need to survive, they’re incapable of empathy, and they lack the agency to make any decision beyond bloodlust. Their punishment—if killing them is even to be considered punishment—is purely functional, inviting the easy, naïve morality of criminal justice into action pulp, shifting the focus from the more complicated matrix of culpability and hardship to the catharsis of strategy.

It is an accepted fact that dehumanization occurs as a coping mechanism during wartime; in order to sterilize the emotional toll of killing, we distance ourselves from the humanity of our enemies. Zombies don’t even require that effort—they’re pre-packaged humanoid monsters. Part of what makes World War Z such a quintessential exemplar of apocalypse porn, in fact, is in its portrayal of these iconic creatures. In keeping with 28 Days Later, the zombies in this film are not the slow-moving mutes of bygone days. They’re powerful, capable of swift damage, best observed in scenes like the closer to the film’s trailer. But World War Z owes as much to pandemic films like Contagion as it does to 28 Days; the zombies’ real power lies in infestation, not singular scares. Often depicted from the bird’s eye, in plain sight, they appear more an insect swarm than individual teeth gnashers. From such a remove, they leave the impression of scrambling ants in the moment the anthill is kicked (particularly set against the sandy backdrop of Jerusalem). This persistence in focusing on the macro—exhibited visually through the sustained use of aerial cinematography—reveals the film’s interest in keeping the isolated humanity (or loss thereof) from the viewer’s mind.

Distraction plays a vital role; World War Z is no character study. We’re supposed to be too busy rooting for the success of Brad Pitt’s Gerry Lane amid ballooning crisis-mode, tactical narratives to notice the millions turned into killing automatons. Most of the plot is spurred by ticking time bomb scenarios that, if solved, serve to instigate new ones. The ostensibly research-oriented mission to Camp Humphreys in South Korea, for instance, devolves almost immediately into a laundry list of action tropes, all of which disregard the human lives lost in escorting Lane back to a freshly fueled helicopter. It is not uncommon for action films to care little for its supporting and peripheral characters, but the gravitas of apocalypse bears greater weight than the typical action flick—speculating about human behavior in the fallout opens up, in theory, greater possibilities for psychological exploration in even the most banal moments. The film’s insistence in defaulting to detached expressions of violence, if nothing else, marks a yearning for simplistic morality in the face of complex problems.

The zombie also functions as a powerful allegory for maturation to adulthood in modern America, symptomatic of the recession. Prospective workers have witnessed a drop in available jobs, worsening conditions in existing ones, and a rise in office and temp culture, where purpose and fulfillment often seem like an afterthought. In their place, notions of money and competition are incentivized above all, leading to general disconnectedness that induces a zombie-like state of routine drudgery, where the agency to seek out meaningful work feels stripped away rather than abdicated.

In a larger sense, we feel monstrous. We feel tampered with. Unchecked government developments like surveillance and “killer robots” cause us to doubt that our fundamental rights will be honored. Finding food without genetic modification or carcinogens has become an increasingly herculean task, not to mention expensive. As social media and the rat race of Internet journalism merge, reports of crime and brutality pervade in what were once private spaces. The symbiosis between media and mass opinion (as depicted in Bowling for Columbine over a decade ago) leaves the impression of a sinister world—a self-fulfilling prophecy when it has become easier than ever for the individual to wreak mass havoc in the form of shootings and bombings. Widespread availability of advanced nuclear technologies allows any group to threaten already precarious international relations on rapid timeframes, compounding paranoia. Whether justifiably or not, we feel the itchy anxiety of impending doom, as if we’re slowly clicking up the tracks of a steep roller coaster. In response, we turn to entertainment to incite the ride’s drop—to rip off the proverbial scab and “get it over with.” The line between thrill and addiction, though, is a fine one, and whether this escapism is cathartic or exacerbating is still up to debate.

Much like the disparity between America and Europe’s relationship with green practices, Europe has leapt ahead in its use of apocalyptic material in media, transcending the pornographic quality exhibited in World War Z. Within the same fatalist impulse, shows such as In the Flesh and Les Revenants approach from an altogether different angle: rehabilitation. They incorporate the disaster, but the emotional register deals little with the disaster itself. Instead, these films focus on the intimate, personal struggles faced by characters attempting to rebuild their lives after unspeakable (or unknown) trauma. It should be acknowledged here that World War Z is and has been intended to be the first installment of a franchise. The film has moments that seem to encourage concepts of teamwork and restoration—particularly in the tonally inconsistent third act—which leaves hope that sequels might incorporate the humanism of its source text, but only time will tell.

After being extricated from the zombie infestation of Philadelphia to an aircraft carrier in the Atlantic Ocean, Gerry Lane is asked by his former U.N. boss to join a special operations unit charged with locating the source of the outbreak. Lane is more than a little reluctant to leave his family, but after his initial refusal, the naval commander standing by says to him, “Take a look around you, Mr. Lane. Each and every one of these people [is] here because they serve a purpose. There’s no room here for non-essential personnel. You want to help your family, let’s figure out how we stop this. It’s your choice, Mr. Lane.” Purpose. Choice. Doesn’t sound half bad, zombies and all.

Jesse Damiani is Series Co-Editor for Best American Experimental Writing (Omnidawn, 2014). He lives in Madison, WI.

This article is related to: Jesse Damiani, World War Z, Blogs


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