Dreams of the Living Dead

My podcast feed has lately been full of episodes devoted to discussions of a new book called The Uninhabitable Earth, or interviews with its author, David Wallace-Wells. In those interviews, Wells tells the story of how he came to write the book from a vantage point he had not seen covered in a number of discussions of climate change, proceeding from a key question: what about the worst-case scenarios? Wells initially explored the subject in a 2017 piece in New York Magazine before expanding the overall approach to the larger, book-length project, with its apocalyptic, nightmare-inducing title. Its subject is the ongoing climate crisis; its message is bleak. Wells fills its pages with statistics and scientific evidence from studies and projected analyses, all of which point in one direction: it may get much worse than we can even contemplate.

Much of mainstream cinema is now preoccupied with the destruction of the world; the teenage literature market is dominated by dystopian narratives, and a number of television shows center on the post-apocalyptic threat of total annihilation. But for all their fetishized ruin, all their colorless cinematography, all their empty cars and crumbling buildings and overgrown grasses, none of these feel like true dry runs for the horror that we may be in for. Drought. Flood. Fire. Ice. Abandonment. Overcrowding. Collapse. Endurance. Despair. Resilience. Not only are these extremes the subjects of numerous cinematic thought experiments about How It All Ends, but most characteristically represent the zombie film, one of culture’s most venerable vehicles for imagining societal collapse.

In 1968, George A. Romero’s Night of The Living Dead practically invented a film genre. For the first time since the heyday of the Universal Monsters, thanks to Romero, cinema had a new creature to haunt the dreams of its audience: zombies. In the 50 years since, zombie stories have proliferated like the massive hordes of undead inside the films themselves. Most of these stories are the same: a ragtag group of plucky survivors, forced to work together despite their mutual mistrust, desperately seeks shelter from the reanimated corpses headed their way. In zombie stories, we are asked to identify with the human survivors, and spend much of the narrative alternating between seeing ourselves inside the storyfeeling the characters’ terror, claustrophobia, and griefand stepping outside of it to question what we would do in the same situation. Romero’s films likewise spawned imitations in America and abroad, from Dan O’Bannon’s goofball horror-comedy mashup The Return of The Living Dead in 1985 to Lucio Fulci’s tropical exploitation blood fest Zombi 2 in 1979, each offering subtle variations in the zombie mythology. To gauge the depth of Romero’s influence, look no further than the ways in which subsequent stories adopted the mythology he created; slow, wandering ghouls who eat people, who can only be killed with a headshot, whose bites spread the disease to the living, who just keep coming in droves, grabbing and tearing and biting and chewing. The instinct to survive dominates the narrative, and most ask a variation of the same question: what are you willing to do to stay alive?

Night of the Living Dead (1968) | Echo Bridge Home Entertainment
Night of the Living Dead (1968) | Echo Bridge Home Entertainment

In an earlier historical moment, it made sense to identify with these dwindling survivors, seeing reflections of ourselves in the trials and tribulations of those with enough grit to stay alive during the apocalypse. Romero encouraged this reading by using his monster to comment on the world outside the cinema; Night’s extreme violence was a reflection of the horror of Vietnam, bodies littering the field surrounding the farmhouse where the central characters have taken refuge. In addition, the film ends with a reminder of persistent racial inequality when a mob of angry white zombie hunters mistakenly kills the film’s surviving African-American hero, Ben (Duane Jones). Asking audiences to identify with a black man in the same year that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated was bold, but also spoke to the ways in which the collapse of society underlines the absurdity of clinging to deeply held prejudices. In harnessing these cultural flash points, Romero’s first zombie effort localized geopolitical and racial strife in a microcosm of then-current American violence at home and abroad, personifying (in a manner of speaking) those conflicts in a mass of staggering corpses eating their way to proliferation. The humans at the center of Romero’s film are under threat, desperately trying to stave off their own destruction in the collective jaws of the dead. But today, as zombie films and television shows themselves have seemingly reached a saturation point, and as the coming climate catastrophe bears down on us, maybe we shouldn’t be looking for reflections of ourselves in the humans in these films. Instead, we’re the living dead.

In Romero’s zombie films, the living dead are rendered unstoppable by virtue of their sheer numbers, which guarantee the inevitability of collapse. Each film climaxes with an overwhelming number of zombies breaching the space the humans are no longer able to protect. Doors splinter. Windows shatter. Barricades crumble. Improvised homes and ad hoc defenses, once thought secure, begin to fail. In the United States, we’ve long thought of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans as the ultimate defense against enemy invaders; it’s one reason we remained largely free from the consequences of cataclysmic wars that devastated Europe and Asia for the duration of the 20th century. Now, the most dire predictions about the future of climate change warn that those same oceans, which formed a de facto moat protecting us from invasion, will rush up to meet us and reshape the boundaries of our country. What once gave us security will turn against us. The force of water is unstoppable, as the aftermath of hurricanes in New Orleans, New York, Florida, Puerto Rico, and Texas show. As I write, the dustiest plains states, Nebraska and Oklahoma, are experiencing historic flooding. The images of desperate people, begging for resources in the aftermath of near-total loss, would be right at home in any zombie film.   

Though the “zombie” had appeared on screen before Romero’s landmark film, in those iterations, it was a voodoo-reanimated corpse possessed by demonic forces or witchcraft. Romero’s monstrous addition was the zombies’ unceasing appetite for human flesh. Like us, they are consumers above all. They are driven on relentlessly, shambling across the countryside, mindlessly eating, reduced to their basest animal instincts. Romero returned to the creature he spawned 10 years later with Dawn of The Dead, which made the zombies into a social metaphor for empty, soulless consumer culture—his protagonists trap themselves in a zombie-filled shopping mall, where the shoppers with brains and those without are not much different from one another. One of Dawn’s most striking sequences occurs in the middle, after the immediate zombie threat to the mall is largely neutralized by the four (then three, after one succumbs to a bite) survivors: in a montage, the living find themselves lording over a materialist paradise, trying on whatever clothes they want, eating whatever food they want, wearing whatever jewelry they want, and on and on. The empty stores of the massive mall become their playground, where they live the life of the rich, totally unconcerned with cost because the apocalyptic nightmare raging outside has rendered the idea of money irrelevant. In such dire times, resources are the only thing that matter, and Romero’s survivors are flush with them.

Dawn of the Dead (1978) | Anchor Bay
Dawn of the Dead (1978) | Anchor Bay

When the mall is eventually overrun with zombies again, after an invasion of nasty leather-clad bikers bringing anarchy with them, it is hard not to think about the pointlessness of the interim chapters, not from a cinematic perspective, but from an existential one. Romero’s trio of humans spent a number of quiet weeks in the mall, living something close toand in many ways even better thana normal life, but it all ended anyway. They were able to protect themselves for a fleeting moment, but the threat outside eventually refused to be ignored. Their paradise is still lost.

And it is their commitment to consumption that does them in. Their fortification of the mall protects them from the zombies temporarily, but the marauding band of bikers gains access easily because the trio’s comfort has bred complacency. Pretending there is no problem, denying the reality of the world outside, creating a hermetically sealed bubble—these are strategies destined to fail because they represent refusal to engage with the scale of the threat. The enemy outside cannot be stopped because it cannot be bargained with. In the absence of their formerly held humanity, the zombies look like us, but they aren’t. They are stripped of empathy, left only with a natural instinct shared by all animals on the planet: in order to survive, they must eat. How different are they, then, from the humans waiting to die in the mall? In trying to live, both humans and zombies bring about their own destruction. Imagine the eventual reality of a zombie film, years or decades down the line: the humans, annihilated by ever-growing hordes of zombies, are long gone, and with them, the zombies’ food source. If they are capable of starving, they will. Nothing resembles life in the 21st century at the edge of the climate crisis so much as these zombies, mindlessly devouring their way into self-destruction.

The planet itself is fighting for its survival; it has no obligation to us because it is indifferent to our presence. We say we’re destroying the planet with our pollution, chemicals, and carbon, but that’s not accurate. We’re attacking it, and it is fighting back. All the forthcoming climate changes are disastrous not for the planet, but for what we have built on it. Floods don’t destroy the planet, they drown our cities by the seas. Hurricanes don’t destroy the planet, they obliterate our businesses. Fires don’t destroy the planet, they burn our homes. Once we are gone, the planet will remain. Our inability to countenance a future beyond ourselves makes us just like Romero’s living dead, governed by the immediacy of the present moment. A noise at one end of the mall sends them shambling in that direction, unable to discern that the humans are distracting them. They follow the hunger that drives them, incapable of planning for tomorrow.

The climate will go on making the planet unlivable for us, and every minute we spend arguing with ourselves over the science or the economics or the tax credits or the necessary adaptations is a minute wasted. Zombie film survivors make a crucial mistake any time they turn away another human being instead of giving them safe harbor. Each human being is at risk of becoming one of the undead, intensifying the problem. Romero’s underrated 1985 sequel Day of The Dead finds a dwindling group of survivors trapped in a nuclear missile silo deep underground, a setting loaded with Cold War-era resonance. Its military command structure is so extreme it resembles authoritarian fascism; the scientists and doctors who live under the soldiers’ thumb are ignored and suppressed. These survivors are unable to reach communal consensus on how to respond to the threat, and their discord eventually tears them apart (figuratively, but also literally, of course—this is a zombie film).

Day of the Dead (1985) | Shout! Factory
Day of the Dead (1985) | Shout! Factory

In retrospect, Day is a foreboding warning about the dangers of ignoring scientists’ approach to a problem. It is somewhat applicable to the climate debate we are now having, but shuffles the deck a bit. In the film, lead researcher Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty) is a mad scientist experimenting on the dead, training one particular zombie named Bub (Howard Sherman) to respond to basic verbal commands. His other experiments confound inhabitants of the silo and terrify the panicked soldiers, breeding mistrust. The military men and the scientists are on opposite sides of a debate about how to respond to the problem, in a reflection of Cold War tensions—the scientists generally want to understand the consequences of the issue, while the military wants to kill their way out. In our modern climate context, the scientists and the military are united in their alarm. The scientific community warns that the effects of rapid climate change will radically alter the way our societal infrastructure must function. The military simultaneously prepares for the commensurate effects these changes will have on the geo-political infrastructurethe inevitable increase in refugee populations displaced by newly unlivable conditionsand the corresponding increase in violent conflict that may result from radical shifts in population densities around the world.

In Day of The Dead, it feels like it’s too late. The few remaining humans have trapped themselves underground, and the presence of the dead is a new reality; there is no solution, only survival. That is the subject of the 2005 film Land of The Dead, a film generated from an abandoned part of the original script for Day of the Dead that proved unworkable within Romero’s 1985 budget. Romero’s return to the genre after a long absence, Land was released in the wake of 9/11 and just before a catastrophic economic collapse. Its Pittsburgh setting is divided into the haves and have-nots, as a rich elite have built a gilded tower that protects them from the zombie horde, leaving the poor to fend for themselves in slums far below. Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), the rich overlord in the tower’s penthouse, watches out his floor-to-ceiling window, looking down on the world he has created. The bridges are fortified and guarded by men with machine guns, and the city is fenced off and walled in. Kaufman has established a place where the richest don’t have to think about the problems outside, but the poorest have no choice but to venture out into the dangerous wild when they need resources they can’t afford to buy. He has rebuilt old societal inequities previously destabilized by the apparently equalizing force of the end of the world.

This is where I fear we are heading next. Land is a story about adaptation, and in some ways, it speaks to the ability of the human race to adjust to almost anything. Normally considered a human strength, in the context of the climate crisis, our belief in our capacity to adapt may be our undoing. We might be able to re-engineer the city of Miami to sit above the level of guaranteed sea level rise. We might be able to construct a massive seawall to protect New York City. We might be able to innovate. But for many around the worldlow-lying countries in Southeast Asia like Bangladesh, which stands to lose much of its land-mass to advancing seas, or desert regions of the Middle East that may soon become unlivable because of extreme heatit will be too late. While adaptation to adversity and even extremity is a hallmark of human ingenuity and guile, the severity of climate outcomes dictates that such adaptation will become a privilege of wealthy individuals and nations alike. The poor, as ever, are likely to be left behind to fend for themselves, begging for admittance to richer countries, penned up in refugee camps, or living off whatever remains of the land vacated by those lucky enough to escape. What good is innovation in the face of staggering loss of culture, history, and tradition, all uniquely tied to the lands people have inhabited for thousands of years? Can adaptation ameliorate the existential threat not to their lives, but to their Life? Humanity can likely survive climate change. But not all of us. Not all of who we’ve been. Not all of what we’ve built. The losses will be incalculable.

Land of the Dead (2005) | Universal Studios
Land of the Dead (2005) | Universal Studios

It is tempting to look back at these four Romero zombie films and read them as a metaphor for the deepening climate crisis. Though this wasn’t Romero’s intent, they tell us something about how we might imagine ourselves responding to an existential threat. In this formulation, the zombies are climate change, and we are the humans. That certainly seems to be what some modern films and television shows are up to—the final season of Game of Thrones, which has seen the army of the dead, in all its icy fury, marching south to plunge the land into endless winter, seems like a ringer for a climate metaphor.

But as long as we’re projecting metaphors onto Romero’s zombie films, I think we can learn more by seeing ourselves in the zombies. The human survivors ensconce themselves in ever-larger spaces—a home, a mall, a missile silo, an entire city—but the zombies break in every time. Inevitably, the breach comes. More humans are lost, doomed to roam the earth themselves, joining the ranks of the undead. If the worst predictions about the climate crisis come true, we will only have ourselves to blame. The zombies were once, after all, us. And we have destroyed ourselves.

Science fiction author Philip K. Dick once titled a novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Well, what do the living dead dream of? Behind their glassy eyes, do they know they’re dead? What keeps them shambling forward, other than base instinct? Do they think about their mistakes? Do they wonder what happened to them? Do they have regrets over things done or undone? Do they blame themselves?

The Uninhabitable Earth sits on my nightstand, ready and waiting for me to crack it open. Whenever I catch sight of it, I well up with ambivalence. I want to know, but I don’t. I’m compelled to feel the scale of the problem, but I worry that gut-check will confirm that I am living in a world on the edge of annihilation. If our sentence is already passed, and the human race is destined for extinction, then we are the living dead. We’re just taking a walk between meals.