Academic journal article Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies

Zombies Go to the Amusement Park: Entertainment, Violence, and the 21st Century Zombie in Zombieland and Left 4 Dead 2

Academic journal article Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies

Zombies Go to the Amusement Park: Entertainment, Violence, and the 21st Century Zombie in Zombieland and Left 4 Dead 2

Article excerpt

In 2009, not one, but two pop culture products, Columbia Pictures's Zombieland and the Valve Corporation video game Left 4 Dead 2, decided to give the "zombie-apocalypse" plot a twist. Interestingly enough, they picked the same one. Zombies arrived at the amusement park. Both works still fall neatly within the zombie apocalypse genre. Their plots focus on a rag-tag band of survivors struggling to stay alive in a world overrun by the dead. However, both locate major portions of that struggle inside abandoned American fun lands. What's interesting is that these amusement parks aren't just grim, devastated ruins, backdrops used to contrast the levity of a pre-zombie world with the horror of a post-zombie one. Instead, both parks remain the pleasure centers they once were, although the "fun" is now not just in sampling the park's offerings; it is in fighting off the undead horde. In Zombieland and Left 4 Dead 2, the survivors bask in the adolescent dream of having the run of a carnival while delighting in combat against their assailants. They laugh and whoop for joy as they see the sights and ride the rides, their automatic weapons blaring. They diverge from the task of survival on the off chance of finding an unharmed Twinkie or concession stand, hoping to be the last person on Earth to savor the ambrosial flavor of junk food.

While these post-apocalyptic trips serve mostly as light-hearted entries into the zombie-apocalypse megatext, they represent a compelling site for critical consid- eration when examined alongside earlier zombie narratives which have received attention from the academy, notably George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead. Through such intertextual comparison, Zombieland and Left 4 Dead 2's respective uses of the amusement park will provide an avenue through which insight may be gleaned into a spate of changes the zombie has undergone as a villain figure in past years. Part of the reason for this is that, while Left 4 Dead 2 and Zombieland do enter various zones of commerce throughout their plots, their move to place significant portions of their narratives at amusement parks seems a bid to establish the carnival as a new canonical setting for zombie combat, just as Romero did with the American mega mall in Dawn of the Dead. The mall, made famous via Dawn's scathing commentary on materialism, has become inextricably connected to the zombie apocalypse. In fact, critics have argued that Dawn's mall-based meditation was so influential that it created a situation in which modem zombie narratives are "irrevocably associated with a critique of consumer culture" (Robbins 75). Yet, in Zombieland and Left 4 Dead 2, a discussion of materialism is largely elided. Instead, the characters are incorrigible seekers of pleasure, hunters of junk food and joy, and ardent fans of the entertainment industry with propensities towards fan worship that cannot be obliterated even by a zombie apocalypse. This new generation of entertainment-fixated zombie survivors differs from their forbearers in the objects they desire to consume, yet their consumer desires remain.

In examining Left 4 Dead 2 and Zombieland medially as well as diegetically, placing them in dialogue with Dawn, we will be able to see the interrelationships between material changes in present-day life and the shifts the zombie has undergone as a villain figure in popular fiction, particularly in regards to the dynamics of violence and pleasure. Via Left 4 Dead 2 and Zombieland we will see that the metamorphosis of the zombie narrative, its move from mall-based critiques of materialism to bloody-but-playful romps across amusement parks in search of entertainment, echoes the dematerialization and digitization of the contemporary life. In short, what we will find is the zombie has transformed from a device for cultural contemplation to a figure which has become a focal point for bloody fun, a newly justified target of aggression. These changes (metonymically captured in the shift from the mall to park as zombie battleground) are symptomatic of a continued transition from physical economies and societies to immaterial and information-based ones. …

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