Zombie movies are the new racism


Why are zombie movies so popular?   (Photo:  From Youtube)

Why are zombie movies so popular? (Photo from Youtube)


I went to see World War Z a couple of days ago as this season of guilty pleasures heats up.

And I have to admit, I came away feeling pretty queasy.

If you haven’t seen it, this is the Brad Pitt creature-feature, about one man’s quest to save us from ravenous, mindless neighbors.

This flick freaked me out, and not because I can’t handle a little alien invasion, or a creature from a black lagoon.

Here’s the context.  Fifty years ago — almost exactly — it was still possible to make a film like “Zulu,” the 1964 war epic that pitted a doughty band of British heroes against swarms of black-skinned savages.

It’s kind of sickening now, right? The spectacle of mounds of dead black men, mowed down by starch-collared white soldiers, is enough to put you off your popcorn.

But apparently we still hunger for the “other” in our entertainment, yearning for a horde of barbaric enemies that we can hate guilt-free. Maybe it’s in our DNA?  A throwback to a tribal age?

Hollywood gratifies this bloodlust again and again, often putting the monsters of the silver screen in black face to drive home the point.

Here’s a scene from Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” that is said to have been modeled after that bloodbath from “Zulu.” This time, the black men have been replaced with black-skinned “orcs.”

Note the pale-skinned Downton Abbey-vernacular elves, the tough, square-jawed Anglo-Saxon humans, even the Nordic dwarf. All arrayed heroically against black-skinned horrors swarming like ants.

Which brings us to “World War Z.” This movie is two ticks more politically correct. There are white zombies as well as black zombies.

In this monster movie, the “other” is offered up more generically. It is the mob, the unthinking mass of human beings, the mindless horde.

But in this new, more color-blind creature-feature, we are still treated to the spectacle of a walled Israel defending itself against swarming, senselessly violent invaders.

In a time when Israelis and Palestinians are literally glaring at each other across towering high-tech walls, already dehumanizing each other in heart-breaking ways, those scenes were particularly jarring.

Again, I don’t doubt that Hollywood is merely gratifying some primal urge in all of us. An urge to test ourselves and the virtue of our culture against the gnashing, grunting strangers who lurk in the dark.

We yearn for someone we can hate guilt-free, whom we can slaughter without remorse.

In one scene near the end of “World War Z” we are treated to an image of a stadium where a mob of creatures is being lured to their deaths — an image apparently taken from a drone.

As the horde swarms in, a missile strike flares, turning the screen crimson.

We few, we happy few. This time we’ve mowed them down from the sky, our collar still properly starched.  And only a little shame to go with our latest fix of adrenalin and carnage.

38 Responses to “Zombie movies are the new racism”

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  1. The Original Larry says:

    “…swarms of black-skinned savages.”

    The movie “Zulu” is a representation of actual historic events and accurately portrays the victory of the “savages” over the British. That they are black is pretty much due to them being Zulus. The “savage” tag is a little bit too much, I think.

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  2. Michael Greer says:

    Orcs aren’t black…they’re gray, or maybe green, but they aren’t brown.

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  3. Marlo Stanfield says:

    Maybe I’m racist, but when I’m walking down the street at night and I see a zombie, I cross the street.

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  4. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Yet again I have to agree with Larry. The Zulu’s, in the eponymous film, were portrayed as resolute and disciplined warriors with masterful leadership. They used every method at their disposal to engage the enemy including psychological warfare. The British came off as poorly organized, with poor strategic planning in spite of their professional status. In the end the personal heroics of a portion of the British garrison led the Zulu’s to withdraw as a gesture of respect, but it was clear that the Zulu’s could have wiped the British out had they chosen to.

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  5. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    In the Lord of the Rings clip showing the Battle of Helm’s Deep the orcs look more like Jason (from the Friday the 13th movies) on steroids. Let’s not forget that in the end it was the Ents that really saved the day. I liked the clip as it show the dwarf taking down the big orc with a crotch shot – I take this as a reference to a battle between British ( if I remember right it was under Harold ) and Vikings. A huge Viking warrior held a bridge and none could pass until some British fighters floated under the bridge and stabbed him from below – not very sporting! After their victory the British hurried south to meet William and his horde of French at the Battle of Hastings where they could have used a bit of help from the Riders of Rohan, or some Ents or Gandalf, but alas no help came that day. Harold fell and the orcs claimed England.

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  6. mervel says:

    We like violence, which is not some sort of evolutionary “throwback” but a true representation of original sin.

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  7. oa says:

    The head zombies in “Game of Thrones” are called “White Walkers,” and Thrones is way more awesome than LOTR!

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  8. Brian Mann says:

    I think “Zulu” was pretty aware for 1964. But in fact the movie was full of historical inaccuracies and as this scene above illustrates, it largely paints the whites as the rounded, complex people.

    They’re the ones you are meant to identify with. You might admire the blacks — “noble” savage is as old a concept in our society as “bloody” savage — but it’s clear who the “we” are and who represents the “other.”

    In Tolkien, orcs are described as “black” or “black-skinned,” as well as “slant-eyed”.

    In one of his letters, he described orcs as “…squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.”

    –Brian, NCPR

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  9. Walker says:

    Sounds like Tolkein hadn’t quite nailed their appearance down: “black-skinned” and “sallow-skinned” are quite different!

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  10. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Okay, Tolkien wasn’t PC, though I expect he was a product of his times and would be more enlightened if he were alive today. Maybe it is just me but I didn’t identify with the British in Zulu. I rather enjoy seeing Redcoats get their butt kicked in any context. Call me crazy but I identify with the “Indians” in Westerns, even the ones riding horses fitted with western saddles and a blanket thrown over as if they were riding bareback. And, OMG!!!!, Jason was from the Halloween series! My mistake.

    Anyway, I haven’t seen Z yet; will wait for Netflix. But the traditional zombie movies were generally very progressive statements about society and the human condition. Zombies typically represented the collective conscious or zeitgeist pretty accurately. If in this movie the patron is made squeemish by the idea of Israel building walls to keep out zombies, mindless hordes bent on nothing but gorging on their living flesh, or to take it a step further if the walls of Israel are meant to represent other walls being built to keep out other nomadic groups – like maybe fences on our Mexican border – who is to say that such vile representations aren’t meant to open our eyes to our inner zombie fears and show the ridiculousness of our mindset?
    I’ll let you know in about 6 months.

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  11. JDM says:

    Brian points out that the writers of history have a distinct advantage.

    An account from the Zulu perspective, so far, has not materialized.

    Such is the condition of fallen man. I’m somehow convinced that the Zulu’s, too, had other confrontations with civilizations unlike their own, in which they either dominated, or were dominated.

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  12. Two Cents says:

    movie ? who can afford to go to the movies!!

    I think you can read into the psychology of the evil attacking horde vs. the good guys all you want.
    Palestine, Israel, Zulu, bald heads….and many more examples you have not listed.
    I can show you the same stadium blasting drone scenario in my garden when I find the ant hill attacking my cucumbers.
    pure animosity, take no prisoners, diatomaceous earth dust raining down death to the ant horde…..

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  13. LJR says:

    Mervel says, “we like violence.” I don’t.

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  14. PNElba says:

    How did North Korea protect itself from the zombie disease? The CIA guy held in the cell in S. Korea said the N. Korean government pulled the teeth of 23 million persons in 24 hours so they couldn’t transmit the virus by biting. Does this mean that despotic dictatorships may have advantages over other countries during disease outbreaks?

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  15. Brian Mann says:

    PNElba –

    Actually, one of the big concerns for Western disease experts is that China’s despotic government won’t be transparent enough about major disease outbreaks to allow proper response. Though China has gotten better about this over time.

    This from an NIH Report:

    The SARS epidemic was not simply a public health problem. Indeed, it caused the most severe socio-political crisis for the Chinese leadership since the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. Outbreak of the disease fueled fears among economists that China’s economy was headed for a serious downturn. A fatal period of hesitation regarding information-sharing and action spawned anxiety, panic, and rumor-mongering across the country and undermined the government’s efforts to create a milder image of itself in the international arena. As Premier Wen Jiabao pointed out in a cabinet meeting on the epidemic, “the health and security of the people, overall state of reform, development, and stability, and China’s national interest and international image are at stake (Zhongguo xinwen wang, 2003a).” In the weeks that followed, the Chinese government launched a crusade against SARS, effectively bringing the disease under control in late June and eliminating all known cases by mid-August.

    While clearly a test for the public health infrastructure of China, the course of the epidemic also raised crucial questions about the capacity and dynamics of the Chinese political structure and its ability to address future outbreaks.


    –Brian, NCPR

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  16. Pete Klein says:

    I don’t think we love violence so much as we enjoy watching it from a safe distance.
    Violence is fascinating because it is sudden change. Sometimes it is necessary. Most often it isn’t.
    Seeing the “other” is ancient and the “other” doesn’t need to be someone of a different race, creed or whatever. Bottom line, the “other” is anyone other than you and we are all programed to survive. If our lives are threatened, we will kill rather than be killed.

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  17. Mayflower says:

    Odd to read this thread while sitting in a room where the trial of George Zimmerman is being televised:

    Once upon a time there were two men — one on an innocent errand to buy groceries, the other innocently walking home with candy and soda pop. And then they meet.

    Instantly, and without any communication whatsoever, they “recognize”and fear one another as threatening and alien: The ‘Creepy Cracker’ Meets ‘The Black in a Hoodie Up to No Good.’

    One died; the other is on trial for his life.

    Who needs to buy a movie ticket?

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  18. Mervel says:

    Exactly Mayflower, I mean look at this trial everyone is glued to the screens, it is murder and a boy is dead and it is getting great ratings.

    Lets face it if allowed by law we could easily have the Roman games of old and sell it to sold out audiences.

    Not everyone loves violence thank God, but it sells, no one likes a movie about love and peace.

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  19. Will Doolittle says:

    Having zombies as the bad guys is a huge improvement over the ’60s, when, especially on TV, every mugger and killer, it seemed, had dark skin and every victim was an upstanding white man or vulnerable woman. But in the classic “Night of the Living Dead,” the hero is a black man and most of the zombies are white, including that awful little girl who eats her dad. I think zombie flicks have been a force for good, largely, in the world of stereotypical bad guys.

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  20. Martin, England says:

    Look at some of the films o ver the years where the baddie is normally white. Psycho, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Shining, Green Mile, Halloween, most of the Bond movies. These name just a tiny few.
    If you want to see racism , then try being English in England.

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  21. Two Cents says:

    will, in night of living dead the black man gets shot.
    know what always bothered me in the 60″s ?
    westerns that had clean cowboys in brand new jeans and pressed shirts.
    now i’m way off topic, knuck :)

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  22. Will Doolittle says:

    I didn’t say how he died, I said he was the hero. Everyone dies in “Night of the Living Dead,” except those who are already dead.

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  23. Two Cents says:

    yes will understood, but you didn’t mention at all he died. you left out that point. the black hero died, (a lot of subtext there) shot by someone who assumed he was a zombie,(don’t remember if he was white) not everyone died obviously. you needed only to make it to the morning, that’s all, hence the irony.
    back then in the sixties, you only had zombie troubles at night. oh the olden days

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  24. PNElba says:

    Brian -
    It’s a bit easier to be nontransparent about a disease that takes months or years to manifest itself. The zombie virus took 12 seconds to turn a healthy person into a zombie.

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  25. Brian Mann says:

    PNElba –

    Are you asking me to engage in a serious debate over whether totalitarian societies would be more efficient at dealing with a zombie invastion than democratic ones?

    –Brian, NCPR

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  26. PNElba says:

    No, I’m saying it’s not easy to hide the outbreak of an extremely acute virulent disease no matter how despotic the government.

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  27. Mike says:

    I have to laugh at the liberal, self-flagellating boneheads on here – the ones who come out with classic lines like “The British came off as poorly organized, with poor strategic planning in spite of their professional status. In the end the personal heroics of a portion of the British garrison led the Zulu’s to withdraw as a gesture of respect, but it was clear that the Zulu’s could have wiped the British out had they chosen to”, blah blah blah. It seems to have escaped your notice that just over 150 men defended a garrison against 3000 – 4000 Zulu warriors. Of course the Zulus could have overrun it if they had wanted to. Had the roles been reversed then the Zulus could have been overrun and wiped out just as easily. Given 150 men to defend a garrison against 3000 – 4000 men whatever their colour, just how well would you have fared?? The writer of the article doesn’t even seem to realise that the battle of Rourke’s Drift was based on a real event, so eager was he to trip over his own political correctness. No doubt he (and most of the knuckle-heads who are in sympathy with him) cheered with delight when the black star of the recent ‘Django Unchained’ announced on national TV that he ‘got to kill loads of white guys’.

    P.S. Oh, by the way KnuckleHeadedLiberal, it was the English who fought at the Battle of Stamford Bridge and then Hastings, not the British. Try knowing the difference. The story of the Viking being stabbed from underneath the bridge was a later apocryphal addition to the events at Stamford Bridge. Furthermore William I (more appropriately known as ‘the bastard’) was a Norman, and the Normans were only French in language and custom. In reality they were of Viking descent, having invaded northern France 150 years earlier – ‘Norman’ meaning ‘North Man’ and ‘Normandy’ meaning North Man’s Land’ in Old English.

    P.P.S. If you’re so hand-ringingly embarrassed at the events of history then I suggest you practice what you preach and give back America to the native Indians, seeing as how it all began with us nasty ol’ Brits (I’m English not a ‘Brit’) arriving on the Mayflower and founding your nation for you. How ironic that you tie yourself up in knots over white wrongdoing yet obviously have your own prejudices when it comes to us – and what you know about the English – apart from the pure fantasy and stereotypes put forward by the bullshit that Hollywood churns out – could be written on a postage stamp and still have room for ‘War and Peace’, along with the complete works of Shakespeare. You Yanks can’t see any further back than 1776, or any more further forward than the end of your noses.

    Wankers (which is a good English expression to describe you lot.)

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  28. mervel says:

    Will is correct Night of the living dead the first classic zombie movie stared a black male and indeed most of the zombies were white as I recall.

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  29. LJR says:

    Pete Klein says: “If our lives are threatened, we will kill rather than be killed.”
    Mervel says: Violence sells, and “no one likes a movie about love and peace.”

    I think we have been brainwashed to think these thoughts, but they are not in fact true of me or many of my friends. There are many people, such as pacifists, who refuse to kill even if threatened. Violence may sell, but I, for one, never buy violence if I can help it. And I do love movies about love and peace. There are many powerful, moving, excellent movies that feature love and, peace, and other nonviolent themes such as creativity, growth, challenge, and adventure, and these are the ones I watch.

    I agree with Pete that violence does catch our attention: we will watch it with interest from a distance, and this is different from “loving” violence. From a survival point of view, it makes sense that violence grabs our attention — we want to learn how to protect ourselves. But that makes it a cheap and unimaginative basis for movie plots (or story plots in general). It also become profoundly morally problematic when it brainwashes people into believing basic falsehoods about the nature of violence and how it works, especially reinforcing a mentality of “might makes right,” and dehumanizing those we do not understand. In real life, most violence is tragic and makes things worse; very little (if any) is heroic and redemptive.

    I seek out the stories of true heroism and redemption. There are many such stories. What I have learned is that the mechanism of heroism and redemption is not violence but, yes, love, creativity, imagination, and respect.

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  30. LJR says:

    Wow, someone doesn’t like my latest posting! I thought it was a message of hope. What is there not to like about it? I really am genuinely curious.

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  31. mervel says:

    Ha who knows LJR, I liked it!

    My point was not about individuals such as yourself, it was more about looking at our aggregate culture and what we as a nation invest our consumer dollars on and what sells.

    On the Zombie side it seems right now we have an obsession not simply with zombies, but with end of the world movies. I remember when it was a big deal to show a zombie eating someone, now it is common place to see on the screen people eating brains and so forth, I think it is part of a desensitization toward violence. Violence to me is just the flip side of hardcore porn. Both desensitize us.

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  32. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    LJR, the problem is complexity. You have too many thoughts and paragraphs. If someone disagrees with any single point they may give you a dislike even though they may agree in general. Break your paragraphs into separate posts and then you can scientifically determine where the dislikes are coming from.

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  33. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    On the other hand, I think people give dislikes just for the fun of it.Other dislikes are just and accident. I suspect some people will give me a dislike no matter what I say – they wont even read the post. Heck, every once in a while I give myself a dislike to encourage other people to pile on.

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  34. PNElba says:

    But apparently we still hunger for the “other” in our entertainment, yearning for a horde of barbaric enemies that we can hate guilt-free. Maybe it’s in our DNA? A throwback to a tribal age?

    It’s odd that Brian connected the theme of this movie somehow to race. I saw it purely as an epidemiology problem and how one might go about responding to an epidemic.

    Zulu is one of my favorite movies. I am an AngloZulu war fanatic. I have books on the angloZulu wars, I love the many websites on Rork’s Drift and Islandlwana, I watch the movie at least twice a year. I didn’t hate the Zulu’s in the movie Zulu or see them as savages ( I admired them and felt bad about how they got suckered into a war). I also didn’t hate the zombies in World War Z because they happened to be infected with a virus. I have to admit that I hated the fact that they were fast zombies. But being fast zombies is one of the reasons the epidemic should end relatively quickly.

    In my mind this movie was much more about our fear of infectious disease and how we should respond to a disease outbreak. Did you know the Centers for Disease Control has a webpage concerning preparedness for a Zombie outbreak (http://www.cdc.gov/phpr/zombies.htm)? Zombie movies are perfect to get people talking and thinking about preparedness for a disease outbreak.

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  35. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Okay, off topic yet again but I was on an airplane flight where one of the movie offerings was “Contagion”. What idiot programmed a movie about spreading a highly communicable virus for an airplane ride?

    Back to your previous zombie programming…

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  36. Paul says:

    Not only does he survive a plane crash. He survives a plan crash of a plane that was full of zombies!!! Brian, I think you are over-analzing, the movie was good. They needed a place where building a wall around it quickly was a semi-realistic option.

    I was glad to see that they didn’t use the old stand by where they needed a “monkey” or something so they could miraculously develop a vaccine in a few hours. I won’t give away what they figured out.

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  37. Paul says:

    Killing the undead is really doing them a favor. Besides you don’t have to use a drone they will come to the sound anyway. I didn’t even notice what race any of the zombies were. And if you did notice the Israelis were letting anyone through the wall as long as they were not zombies (racism i guess?). “More people we will not have to “kill” later.

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  38. mervel says:

    Maybe though we like it because we can kill a zombie and feel good about it, it gives our feelings for murder license?

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