How Disaster Movies Reflect Political Extremism—But Now It’s Getting a Little Real

You get to practice looking at the abyss and ask yourself: Would you be one of the good people?

Some days, even without the minor detail of the reanimated dead, it’s easy to see our proximity to a zombie apocalypse.

YES! Illustration by Fran Murphy

We’re in the middle of a government shutdown as I write this. Vital services for people are temporarily gone. Hundreds of thousands have no paychecks coming and no plan for what they’ll do. Garbage is piling up in the national parks. In an economy with a tiny percentage hoarding the resources, more and more of us are fighting for the scraps. Some days, even without the minor detail of the reanimated dead, it’s easy to see our proximity to a zombie apocalypse.

It’s apt context for considering Peter Biskind’s new book, The Sky Is Falling: How Vampires, Zombies, Androids, and Superheroes Made America Great for Extremism, especially for me. I’m a comic book writer whose work includes a zombie series, as well as a career-long pop culture critic and ­lifelong devotee of the genres in Biskind’s title.

I expected from the author of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls an illuminating dive into the connection between my kind of nerd pop culture and the rise of extremism, currently a euphemism for Trumpism. Biskind asserts that there are centrist shows (World War Z) and extreme ones on the right (24) and left (Avatar), with subcategories such as the Luddite left and dot-com left. But some shows (like The Matrix and The Hunger Games) appeal to extremes on both sides.

Apocalyptic fantasy movies and TV shows, he says, are “dress rehearsals for a show we hope will never open.” But he doesn’t develop that thought adequately. I say that show is now opening.

Zombie shows in particular do reflect extremism and have been vehicles for cultural commentary starting with George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978) and on through countless imitators, such as popular AMC series The Walking Dead. Regardless of the specific social commentary—Vietnam in Night, consumerism in Dawn—they tend to share some basics: no functioning government, everyone for themselves, fighting for increasingly scarce resources, armed to the teeth.

After two years of a Trump administration, a Republican-controlled Congress, and historic political polarization, the zombie apocalypse is getting a little real. Zombie shows seem less and less like escapist fantasies than practice for some not-too-distant future. The zombie fans who converge in a Venn diagram with assorted nihilists, government haters, and doomsday preppers may have just been better at sensing which way the wind’s blowing.

A zombie apocalypse hallmark is that there’s no government coming to your rescue in the crisis. The people of Puerto Rico can relate to this now. And I guarantee some future zombie show will include an ineffectual dimwit lobbing paper towels at survivors.

Whether or not you considered Ronald Reagan a zombie, he sired a generation of conservatives who loathe government and got elected to kill it. Ex-Trump strategist Steve Bannon bragged that the administration’s goal was the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” That’s included mowing down regulations—also known as protections for consumers, students, workers, breathers, water drinkers,
and eaters.

And people in zombie tales never feel safe. Consider:

Gun deaths rose in 2017 to about 40,000. We are by far the industrial world’s outlier. A few days ago, a bowling alley not far from me in Torrance, California, got shot up. A few weeks earlier, a mass shooting in nearby Thousand Oaks made headlines.

The insecurity is not just out on the streets. Nearly 80 percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and four in 10 can’t afford a $400 emergency expense.

Undead plague survivors know they can’t count on the old rules anymore. Ethical behavior isn’t rewarded, and corrupt behavior isn’t punished.

You don’t need a forensic analysis to spot the extreme conservative and liberal outlooks in zombie shows.

They’re front and center: I’ve got mine, Jack. You’re on your own. And I’ll do whatever’s necessary to survive, even
if it means you don’t.

Or: Our only chance for survival is working together and functioning as a society. How we survive is as important as whether we survive.

Zombie shows also tap into our fear of people turning into something else. They look like the people you know and love, but that’s not them anymore. Whether it’s the wife who goes to embrace her unwell-looking husband who takes a big, gruesome chomp out of her in Dawn of the Dead, or your parents who bring up Fox News talking points when you go home, something’s not right.

Let’s take a brief detour with superheroes. It’ll dovetail, I promise.

Biskind doesn’t make much of a case that superhero comics, shows, and movies promote extremism. In fact, they’re mainly juvenile power fantasies and—as a fellow comic writer once described them to me—tall tales. They’re generally about heroes and villains, right and wrong, and good punching the crap out of evil. Generally.

Superheroes embody decency, and their villains function as the id.

Recently, superheroes have endured a minor infection Biskind skips, known as Comicsgate, a movement against diversity and liberalism in comics, which does share Venn diagram space with “alt-right” extremists. The superirony of Comicsgate supporters who deride “social justice warriors” is that that’s exactly what superheroes have always been. And Comicsgaters who have harassed creators who are liberal, female, LGBTQ, or people of color seem unaware that this makes them the bad guys in any reality.

Here’s the dovetail: We’re getting sick of bad guys, and some heroes are stepping up. We’ve had a prolonged test-drive with the id at the wheel, and most of us prefer decency.

Zombie shows have let us peer into the abyss from a safe distance. As the distance got less safe in the past couple years, we pulled back. The midterm elections were the real-world equivalent of a rebellion against The Walking Dead’s despotic villain Negan.

Like any true hero’s journey, there’s some loss. In this case, it’s somewhere between a quarter and a third of us who we just have to accept are MAGA zombies. They’re gone. I’m sorry. We have to keep moving.

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But like The Walking Dead’s Rick Grimes, new and diverse leaders are emerging who remind us that everyone for themselves and a society driven by fear and selfishness simply doesn’t work. These good people want to save your health care and social safety net and hold Negan, I mean, Trump, accountable for his abuses.

Here’s a helpful zombie exercise to see where you come down: You’re in Night of the Living Dead, where a group of people have been thrown together in an isolated farmhouse besieged by hungry zombies. Who would you be?

Would you be Ben, the no-nonsense leader who gets everyone to work together for survival against the common threat? (He was a Black man who some folks didn’t like bossin’ ’em around, not unlike Obama.)

Would you be Barbra? (“They’re coming to get you, Barbra!”) She goes catatonic during the crisis.

Or would you be Harry Cooper, the bald coward who’s only out for himself and his family and throws others under the zombie bus in a pinch?

The hopeful part: If Cooper sounds too familiar in 2019 during a government shutdown driven by stoking our fears, here’s a reassuring spoiler: He doesn’t win in the end.