“Capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks,” claimed Karl Marx in Capital, his multi-volume magnum opus. Elsewhere in Capital, he wrote of “the vampire thirst for the living blood of labor” and explained that “the vampire will not lose its hold . . . so long as there is a muscle, a nerve, a drop of blood to be exploited.” Marx’s partner-in-crime, Friedrich Engels—equally enamored with this hemovoric horror metaphor—referred to “the vampire property-holding class” in his book The Condition of the Working Class in England.
With these allusions to vampire folklore already swimming through the bloodstream of Marxist theory, it’s not difficult to imagine a reading of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula or Tod Browning’s 1931 Universal adaptation of Stoker’s tale as a parable of the perils of capitalism. Count Dracula’s bloodlust mirrors that of capitalism, where eros and thanatos commingle. The vampire’s continual need for possession and consumption resembles the ravenous thirst of capital, and the thirst it conjures up in those under its spell. Count Dracula, like a capitalist, grows in strength through his predation—a strength increasing in inverse proportion to his bite-victim’s weakening. Similarly, Marx pointed out, “the capitalist gets rich, not like the miser, in proportion to his personal labor and restricted consumption, but at the same rate as he squeezes out labor-power from others, and compels the worker to renounce all the enjoyments of life.” There is also the self-replication of capitalist consumerism, consuming consumers who must continue the pattern of consumption, and the enslavement through this replication, which is there in Dracula too. “We become as him,” according to Mina Harker’s journal in the novel, “we henceforward become foul things of the night like him—without heart or conscience, preying on the bodies and the souls of those we love best.” For the vampire does not merely drain his bite-victim of his or her blood, the transaction is reciprocal—though not equivocal—with the victim receiving the vampire’s blood in exchange. “My blood now flows through her veins,” the Count gloats to Van Helsing. Through this exchange of blood, the bite-victim also receives the vampire’s curse, becoming a vampire, a bloodsucker, a consumer—Nosferatu.
While it is true that vampirism was a common metaphor for Marx when discussing capitalism, it was not his only use of occult imagery to describe the conditions of the worker and the problems of capital. Writer Christopher Frayling explained, “Karl Marx enjoyed reading the horror tales of Hoffman and Dumas père for relaxation at bedtime. When he was seeking a compelling image to characterize the attributes of capital . . . he chose a whole series of fantasy images, whose unifying theme was blood.” Marx notably utilized the imagery of anthropophagism and lycanthropy, proferring phrases like “the cannibalism of counter-revolution” and “the werewolf’s hunger for surplus labor.” Had he lived in a later period, it is not difficult to imagine Marx using a different metaphor for capital that could have superseded all three of these iconic images—a metaphor that could incorporate the undead lifeforce-draining bloodlust of the vampire, the ouroboric consumption of the cannibal, and the monstrously inhuman marked nature of the werewolf—and that metaphor would be what we now call the living dead, the walking dead, the zombie.
The zombie, as a concept, wasn’t much known outside of Haiti before the 20th century. A colonial import, the Haitian zombie prototype, of the dead being controlled through witchcraft as a form of slave labor, began to infect the American imagination during the U.S. occupation of Haiti, from 1915-1934. William Seabrook’s 1929 Haiti travelogue, The Magic Island, was the first milestone in the zombie’s inevitable permeation of American popular culture. Victor Halperin’s White Zombie, the first known feature-length zombie film, was released in 1932, on the heels of both Seabrook’s book and a play by Kenneth Webb produced on Broadway earlier in the year, which had likewise been influenced by The Magic Island. White Zombie starred Bela Lugosi as Murder Legendre, a white Haitian voodoo priest with a corps of zombified corpses under his control. Early on in the film, a black coachman describes the zombies he and his white passengers have just seen: “They are not men, they are dead bodies . . . zombies, the living dead, corpses taken from their graves and made to work in the sugar mills and fields at night.”
When a character visits Legendre at his sugarcane mill and sees the mass of mindless workers toiling away, the voodoo sorceror says, “They work faithfully, and they are not worried about long hours.” The horror here is that one could be compelled to work beyond the grave, to become a servile corpse. Thus, the fear in White Zombie is not a fear of zombies but a fear of becoming a zombie. As experimental filmmaker Maya Deren put it in Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, her documentary on dance, possession, and ceremony in voodoo culture, “While the Haitian does not welcome any encounter with a zombie, his real dread is that of being made into one himself.”
More zombie movies followed in the wake of White Zombie, creating a minor subgenre of voodoo-inspired zombie flicks, including Victor Halperin’s White Zombie sequel, Revolt of the Zombies, and Jacques Tourneur’s 1943 classic, I Walked with a Zombie. On this explosion of zombie intrigue, scholar Peter Dendle commented that the zombie is “the only creature to pass directly from folklore to the screen, without first having an established literary tradition.” While it is true that literature on the Haitian zombie was minimal, and mostly relegated to cultural studies or travel books like The Magic Island, the idea of a mindless horde of cadaverous brutes was not entirely absent from fiction. Though it does not use the term “zombie,” Herbert West—Reanimator, a 1922 serialized novella by horror master H. P. Lovecraft, became one of the first depictions of zombies as uncontrollable, scientifically-reanimated corpses. This was not considered zombie literature at the time because the premise of the Haitian zombie was always that they were being controlled by a bokor (a voodoo sorcerer), so a scientifically-reanimated corpse seemed like something very different from the concept of the zombie, something more akin to Frankenstein’s monster. Later, Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow likewise didn’t use the term “zombie” in their film The Last Man on Earth, instead referring to their revenants as vampires—as did Richard Matheson in I Am Legend, the novel on which The Last Man on Earth is based. Though these proto-zombie stories are not technically zombie tales, their swarms of scientifically-reanimated, undead, cannibalistic creatures unquestionably set the stage for the zombie revolution to come.
That revolution began in 1968 (a year of many cultural shifts) with George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Though Romero has been called the “Shakespeare of zombie cinema,” people often forget that—like the novella Herbert West—Reanimator, the novel I Am Legend, and the film The Last Man on Earth—Romero’s first Living Dead movie does not include the word “zombie” in a single scene, nor anywhere in the film’s script. Instead, the creatures are referred to as both “the living dead” and “ghouls.” That said, many of the defining traits of what we now think of as a zombie come directly from Romero’s “living dead,” rather than from the zombie of Haitian lore. This was an inflection point in the popular imagination with regards to the iconography of the zombie.
Had he lived in a later period, it is not difficult to imagine Marx using a different metaphor for capital: what we now call the living dead, the walking dead, the zombie.
Romero’s reconceptualized zombies, unlike their Haitian predecessors, are not under the control of some necromancer; they are, indeed, not under anyone’s control. Importantly, the resurrection of this mindless horde doesn’t have anything to do with voodoo or witchcraft; instead, it is implied that science—specifically, in Night of the Living Dead, the radiation from a space probe—may be the cause of the zombie apocalypse. (Of course, the idea that science rather than sorcery and ceremony might actually be what is behind the zombie scourge pre-dated the Romero zombie, as it had actually colored much of the contemporary understanding of what might be behind the myth of the voodoo zombie. For example, Zora Neale Hurston wrote that “if science ever gets to the bottom of Vodou in Haiti and Africa, it will be found that some important medical secrets, still unknown to medical science, give it its power, rather than gestures of ceremony.”) Romero’s zombies are hungry—they feast on human flesh, something that was not a part of the voodoo zombie mythos. In fact, a zombie in Haitian folklore could only be created by a bokor, not through a bite or wound from another zombie. Also new to the Romero iteration of these creatures is that the only way to stop them is through destroying the brain: “Kill the brain, and you kill the ghoul.”
Basically, Romero and his zombie-filmmaking progeny turned these creatures from mere hypnotized moving corpses into rotting, brain-hungry, brain-dead vampires. A zombie, like a vampire, is an undead revenant, who feasts upon living humans—the main difference being that they feast on the flesh, innards, and brains instead of merely the blood. Like vampires, zombies turn humans into replications of themselves after they have feasted upon them. Zombies also share with vampires the fact that they can only be killed via a particular means: vampires with a stake through the heart, zombies with a blow to the brain. What separates the zombie from the vampire is its lack of agency and its earthy decay. This new, modern zombie, reimagined as a dirty, mindless vampire quickly starts to resemble Marx’s thoughts on cannibalistic capital: “Capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”
“What separates the zombie from the vampire is its lack of agency and its earthy decay. This new, modern zombie, reimagined as a dirty, mindless vampire quickly starts to resemble Marx’s thoughts on cannibalistic capital.”
In Dawn of the Dead, Romero’s sequel to Night of the Living Dead, the zombie finally fulfills this destiny by becoming the apotheosis of Marxist horror metaphors. In the film, a foursome of zombie apocalypse survivors—Stephen Andrews and Francine Parker, who work at WGON television studios, their police officer friend, Roger DiMarco, and another officer, Peter Washington—fly a stolen WGON traffic helicopter over Pennsylvania, trying to figure out where to go and what to do, now that the United States seems overrun by the living dead. They see something in the distance. Stephen asks, “What the hell is it?”—this strange, concrete monolith surrounded by a field of parking spaces. “It looks like a shopping center,” responds Roger, “one of those big, indoor malls.” They quickly realize what this could mean for them: “There’s an awful lot of stuff down there that we could use.” So, after ridding the mall of its zombies, blocking off a perimeter, and building a fake wall, the four—for a brief moment, anyway—live a sort of idyllic capitalist existence in the mall. “One-stop shopping,” Roger says. “Everything you need, right at your fingertips.”
Francine, the lone woman of the group, playing against mid-century sexist stereotypes, is the one least comfortable with this haven of consumer goods. “You’re hypnotized by this place. All of you!” she shouts. “You don’t see that it’s not a sanctuary, it’s a prison!” She is the character most attuned to the possibility that all will not go right in this retail mecca. She even suggests that her boyfriend teach the rest of them to fly so that they can be prepared “if anything happens.” And, of course, she’s right—something is bound to happen, for they have chosen as a hideout a place that these ghouls are drawn to. The shopping mall invites the zombies in the same way the house invites the home invaders from The Strangers.
“Why do they come here?” Francine wonders aloud. “Some kind of instinct,” Stephen says. “Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.” These zombies wander around looking for live flesh to consume, visiting places they remember, places that were important to them when they were alive. Whereas the Haitian zombie is burdened by the whims of his bokor, the modern zombie is burdened by his enduring memories and his innate desires, driven to satiate an insatiable appetite. As Dendle explained, “Romero liberated the zombie from the shackles of a master, and invested his zombies not with a function (a job or task such as zombies were standardly given by voodoo priests), but rather a drive (eating flesh).” Whereas the Haitian zombie is a corpse that has become a servant to a supernatural slavemaster, the modern zombie is a corpse that has become a servant to consumption. The zombie originated as the slave’s nightmare (where even after death he would be forced by a master to work the fields, to do someone else’s bidding) and, with the advent of the Romero-style zombie, the creature has become the consumer’s nightmare (where even after death he must continue this insatiable consumption, where even after death he will be drawn to the shopping mall). “They’re after the place,” Peter figures out in Dawn of the Dead. “They don’t know why; they just remember. Remember that they want to be in here.”
Dawn of the Dead reimagines hell as a shopping mall. The film’s famous tagline—“When there’s no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth”—could have just as easily been: “When there’s no more room in Hell, the dead will be damned to shop.” Insatiable consumption, capital’s modus operandi, becomes the true horror of the film. We may enjoy buying things, may even love our collected knick-knacks, but we remember not only the mall, but the thing we’ve always secretly known: that the always-already-terror lurks in the shadows of capitalism, consumerism, and commercialism. True hell isn’t a dance with the devil, but continuous mindless consumption, long after the joy of the indulgence has left us.
It should come as no surprise that Marx diagnosed a parallel change in The Communist Manifesto. A century before the zombie would transition from a dead slave of a sorcerer to a dead slave to consumption, Marx wrote, “Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange, and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.” This conjures up an important series of questions: In this metaphor, is the consumer the zombie, no longer controlled by the sorceror, now driven solely by consumption? Is it the living labor which, consumed by capitalism, functions as undead labor? Or is capital itself the zombie?
Dawn of the Dead reimagines hell as a shopping mall.
The zombie as Marxist metaphor is a tripart image: the zombie simultaneously represents capital itself (which, zombie-like, lives only by consuming living labor), the capitalist worker (for the enslaved living labor becomes a zombified living dead), and the everyday consumer (who, trapped in this system, consumes in response to the thing that is consuming it, continuing the cycle endlessly). The point is that capitalism, which, in this scenario, we could call “zombie patient zero,” is responsible for infecting both worker and consumer, and they thereby perpetuate the epidemic by fulfilling their function in and for the system.
Yet for all that is written about Romero’s anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist, and anti-corporatist agenda with his Living Dead series, the politics of the films never feel as neat and tidy as some of us on the left might like them to be. Night of the Living Dead, especially, is riddled with Red Scare subtext. Many moviegoers saw the “clear anti-communist hysteria that’s running through that film,” in the words of director John Landis. Indeed, as much as the film may in some way critique the anti-communist hysteria that made movies like The Blob so terrifying to much of America, Night of the Living Dead also plays into that lingering cultural panic: “They’re coming to get you, Barbra.”
Even though McCarthyism and the Hollywood Blacklist had long subsided by the time Night of the Living Dead appeared in cinemas across the country, the ‘60s continued to be laced with anti-communist unease, so the zombie horde represented for many of those who filled the theaterseats in the autumn of 1968 the red menace that they feared was secretly all around them, infiltrating their society, and working to dismantle the fabric of its institutions. The zombie-as-communist analogy, though perhaps crude and simplistic, is as much a part of the subgenre’s political subtext as its zombie-as-consumerist mirror-image. In this Randian reading of the zombie subgenre, mindless hordes feast on the bodies and brains (read: “work” and “ingenuity”) of others. Brains, one might say, “to each according to his need.”
From its opening scene where American flags wave in a desolate graveyard, it is obvious that Night of the Living Dead is more than mere schlocky screamfest; it emerges from and shines a light on a host of deep-rooted cultural anxieties. The film stands in the shadows of the Vietnam War and a spate of political assassinations, wrestles with the Civil Rights movement and Nixon’s supposed “silent majority,” questions the efficacy of the Space Race and McCarthyism, and transmutes the iconography of the Red Scare and the unrest at the 1968 Democratic National Convention as “the whole world was watching,” tapping into the zeitgeist of “the year of the barricades”—but its politics are anything but straightforward. While the zombie film is generally seen as the most politically leftist strain of the horror genre, it is important to recognize that even its politics are knotted, which acts as a reminder of the pitfalls of trying to capture the political currents of the horror genre as a whole. Stephen King, in his “Why We Crave Horror Movies,” argued that “the best horror films, like the best fairy tales, manage to be reactionary, anarchistic, and revolutionary all at the same time.”
Thus, though the horror genre is certainly “a very political genre,” as director Guillermo Del Toro claimed in an interview with Time, it is, unsurprisingly, not squarely of the left or of the right. Horror films can have arguably conservative politics like Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th and its stream of sequels (where the greatest factor in determining a character’s chances of survival is whether they have avoided sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll) or they can tow a seemingly progressive line like John Carpenter’s They Live (an examination of not just Boomer consumerism, but of the dominant Reaganite political philosophy of the 80s). They can critique white privilege and cultural appropriation like Jordan Peele’s Get Out or they can mock PC culture and college campus activism like Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno. Yet even films like Friday the 13th, They Live, Get Out, and The Green Inferno—movies seen by many as wearing their politics on their sleeves—are disserved by such facile readings. These films are interesting, in varying degrees, due to their willingness to interrogate ideologies rather than merely to espouse them. The best horror films—the best films—are not didactic, not preachy, not propagandistic; they wrestle with complex ideas in subtle, nuanced ways, often working in multiple political directions, courting conflicting readings from opposing ideologies.
Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, for instance, like Night of the Living Dead, can be read just as easily as a critique of socialism as it can be read as a critique of McCarthyism. Film critic Michael Dodd argued that by “simultaneously exploiting the contemporary fear of infiltration by undesirable elements as well as a burgeoning concern over homeland totalitarianism in the wake of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s notorious communist witch hunt, it may be the clearest window into the American psyche that horror cinema has ever provided.” The truth is that providing clear windows into our collective psyche is precisely what any great horror film does.
Rather than proselytize on behalf of a specific set of political beliefs, horror films generally act as chronicles of our cultural myths, barometers of our shared anxieties, shrifts of our secret desires, dissections of our dominant ideologies. The politics of the horror genre—and, in particular, the politics of the genre’s best films—are, therefore, ambiguous, haphazard, oscillatory. The only ideology the horror genre seems to espouse with any sort of coherence is one that sees every person, every object, every image, every idea, every ideology—everything—as having an undercurrent of the always-already-terror.
These movies are as varied as the people who make them. They contain as many multitudes as we all do. So, one might ask of horror films, “what the hell are they?”—the same question Francine asks of the zombies in Dawn of the Dead—and the answer would likely be the same one she gets from Peter: “They’re us, that’s all, when there’s no more room in hell.”