Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

The Aesthetics of Risk in Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days Later

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

The Aesthetics of Risk in Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days Later

Article excerpt

In 2011, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began a new campaign for emergency awareness: "Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse." Using examples from zombie films and literature, the CDC's blog and social media pages offered tips including what to pack in an emergency kit and how to make an evacuation plan. Against the dire scenarios presented in zombie films, the page tells us to "never fear"--the CDC will intervene to quarantine the disease, find a cure, and help those in harm's way. The campaign was a canny move on the CDC's part, providing publicity for disaster preparedness by associating it with the enormously popular zombie phenomenon. Indeed, divorced from their generic content, descriptions of zombie films seem to resonate with late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century disasters: a new disease emerges and spreads rapidly; scientists detect nuclear radiation on multiple continents; a toxic chemical leaks into the atmosphere and returns in rainwater. However, unlike the CDC's optimistic promotional material, zombie cinema depicts anything but competent and effective responses to disaster. It is no coincidence that the latest wave of zombie enthusiasm in the US crested at the same moment as a series of spectacular failures of risk assessment and prevention. While most readings of zombie films interrogate them as allegories of consumer capitalism or national trauma, (1) I will examine how George Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (2002) figure the breakdown of risk management in fields such as finance, national security, and medicine.

Zombies capture a postmillennial structure of feeling, including the fear and helplessness that accompanies the paralysis of risk-managing institutions. Produced in a moment of atomic anxiety, Dawn of the Dead depicts government scientists failing in their attempts to systematize and control an apocalyptic threat that exceeds all hope of calculation, while ordinary citizens remain complacent and cloistered within a nuclear-powered shopping mall. These representations reflect the collapse of a regime in which potential dangers are regulated and collectively borne by the state. However, 28 Days Later is firmly ensconced within a risk society in which public institutions are unable and, increasingly, unwilling to predict or insure against the disasters the film alludes to, including the rapid spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy and the AIDS pandemic. This historical transformation can be traced through the shifting aesthetics of the films from the lingering, art house shots of Dawn of the Dead to the rapid, MTV-style editing of 28 Days Later. Whereas Dawn of the Dead depicts a form of risk that is recognized but unpreventable, 28 Days Later shows us threats that seem to erupt even before they are located and perceived. By examining these films in light of risk theory, we can see how contemporary media make manifest dangers which are highly mediated, speculative, and global.

The psychology of the zombie makes it an effective allegory for risk society. After Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) severed the zombie from its master, the cinematic zombie often appears to alternate between unconscious states of uncontrolled appetite and aimless repetition. These zombies show no signs of thought, sentience, or even self-preservation. Possessing only rudimentary reflexes from the past, zombies attempt the same failed action over and over, even if they destroy themselves in the process. Their awareness of the present is equally contracted, largely limited to the pursuit of living flesh. Even when granted vestigial memories or murderous cunning, zombies remain incapable of foreknowledge or planning. The zombie is, in a sense, thrown into its environment in a state of perpetual unpreparedness, haplessness, and contingency. (2) Zombies stumble down escalators, decapitate themselves on helicopter blades, walk into gunfire, and bounce off of walls. …

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