Abstract Horror (Part 1a)


Zombies lower the tone, in innumerable ways. Socio-biological decay is their natural element, carrying life towards a zero-degree affectivity, without neutralizing a now-repulsive animation. They exist to be slaughtered — in retaliation — which in turn furthers their descent through the pulp-Darwinism of entertainment media, to the depths of senselessness where victory is all-but-assured. As the world comes apart into dynamic slime, popular horror is increasingly infested with zombies.

When envisaged as a military antagonist at the global scale, Max Brooks calls ‘them’ Zack (amongst other things). If ‘Charlie’ abbreviates ‘Victor Charlie’ as a casual jargon noun for the Viet Cong, how is ‘Zack’ derived? Brooks offers no specific answer. It seems at least plausible that ‘Zombie Apocalypse’ is the term that undergoes compression. In any case, ‘Zack’ is name with a future, providing a concise collective — or dense — noun for a monstrous syndrome that looms beyond the historical horizon.

‘Zack’, like ‘Charlie’, is the enemy, nicknamed with an informality designed for stress reduction. The intensity of the tag is associated with its ambivalence, as an affectionate moniker that liberates or legitimates unrestricted killing. ‘Zack’ sounds like ‘he’ could be our buddy, so we can unleash violence upon ‘him’ without qualm or inhibition. However odd this psychological formula may sound, it is one that Brooks inherits, rather than invents.

Charlie is already an abstraction from ethical familiarity, but nothing like Zack. Where we end, Zack begins, recruiting our corpses into undead swarms. Our calamities are ‘his’ ammunition, because Zack is sheer weaponry, the first true instantiation of total war, perfectly incarnating antagonism to human survival. Zack is nothing but the enemy, ‘who’ — entirely devoid of non-belligerent purpose or interests — cannot be terrorized, intimidated, or deterred. Scare Zack? One has no less chance of scaring a cold virus. So things always return to the same basic conclusion: Zack has to be killed, as nothing has before (even though — or especially because — it is already dead).

Brooks is a zombie neo-traditionalist. His re-animated undead shuffle (slowly). They propagate by cannibalistic contagion. Only head-wounds terminate them. But zombies are not the monsters. Zack is the monster. It is the syndrome — the convergent wave — that realizes the phenomenon, as a matter of spreading swarms, or irreducible populations.


Tactically, Zack’s strength is number, overwhelming resistance, and replenishing itself from the casualties it inflicts. Strategically, it prevails through system shock, patterned as epidemic, and registered not as the ‘individual’ humanoid ghoul, but as an emergent, global outbreak. There is no prospect of rational or ‘dispassionately’ effective counter-action until it is understood that Zack is no mere ghoulish horde but a singular planetary trauma. Zack is total stress.

Brooks insists upon the realism of his methods:

The zombies may be fake, but I wanted everything else in “World War Z” to be real. Just like with “The Zombie Survival Guide,” I wanted the story to be rooted in hard facts. That’s why I researched the real geopolitics of the world in the early 21st century, the military science, the macroeconomics and the cultural quirks of each country I was writing about. As creative as I think I am, I also know that I can’t invent anything as interesting (or scary) as the real planet we live on. As a history nerd, I also wanted to ground the book in our species’ life story. Nothing in “World War Z” was made up, it all really happened: Yonkers was Isandlwana; the Chinese cover-up was SARS. There’s nothing zombies can do to us that we haven’t already done to each other.

Take the world, exactly as it is, and postulate a radical stressor as historical destination. Engineer, with all possible precision, a speculative collision with utter disaster — a total world war that is also a plague, a precipice of bio-social degeneration, and a universal psychotic episode — that’s Zack. Understandably,  people will be reluctant to describe this method as ultimate realism. Nevertheless, as things messily unwind, we’re going to hear much more about it.

August 29, 2013admin 11 Comments »
FILED UNDER :Horror , Zombie

11 Responses to this entry

  • James Says:

    For extra credit, interpret Warm Bodies in this context.

    (But I think that the Yahoos will always be the best satire of humankind.)


    admin Reply:

    I’m still waiting for the ‘World War Z’ DVD to show up here, so I’m seriously behind on the film front. My tenuous grasp of the ‘Warm Bodies’ message (gleaned from a preview) would situate it significantly to the Left of WWZ (which itself has a number of vivid Left traits). It seems to be encouraging tolerance and acceptance of Zack as an adequate response to the collapse of civilization. (Go on, feed your kids to Zack, it will be OK.)
    If the Left is driven to drain horror down to romantic comedy, it tells us something about the way horror is originally polarized.


    Scharlach Reply:

    Oh, Warm Bodies is fantastic progressive agitprop. The real villain in the story is the one man dedicated to keeping his family and non-zombified friends safe from the zombies, who have apparently killed millions and destroyed civilization.

    The entire premise is that zombies don’t look or act like ‘us’ (i.e., White Westerners), but underneath, they really really just want to act like us. If we’re a little bit nicer, and get to know them, we’ll realize that beneath the undead exterior is a an upper-middle class hipster waiting to come out.

    (Bonus: the movie comes with a ‘don’t build a wall’ metaphor.)


    James Reply:

    My impression of the young English middle- and upper-middle classes is that they take care to distinguish themselves from the zombies, but except for the small elite who attend private schools, they tend not to extend themselves far beyond that point—I haven’t noticed a youth culture or aesthetic worthy of mention.

    Having mostly been dragged down by the godawful, prolonged statist schooling, inane mass media culture and total dissipation of creative energy, we young middle class people are insipid, stuffy and incapable of meaningful rebellion.* It’s enough effort to have a normal marriage, career and family at a reasonable age. And based on my impression of several kinds of European teenager, as well as comments that I’ve noticed all sorts of people make about England, the zombie virus is more prevalent here than in any other wealthy country, including white America.

    But if America is somewhat similar, the thrust of that film (based on the synopsis) could be that instead of trying too hard not to be zombies, maybe middle class teenagers should learn to accept elements of zombism, and work on other aspects of their lives. (Or else we’re reading too much into these crappy films.)

    *I guess the main kind of adolescent rebellion is symbolic retreat into indifference, embodied in overtly inane and futile tropes. That’s why people find 4chan, Nyan Cat et al cathartic. Amongst PhD student types, the type of rebellion practised by Snowden and Aaron Swartz is taken seriously. So it’s the classy version of “Rage Against the Machine”.


    fotrkd Reply:

    You’re giving private schools too much credit. Education is not (dark) enlightenment.

    James Reply:

    Most of England’s accomplished, culture-bearing people seem to pass through their halls. Entrepreneurs, classical musicians, top notch civil servants and so on. So politics aside, they are important to England’s continued status as a First World country.

    On the other hand, Erik von K.L. did say,

    The British public school with its latent suspicion for brilliancy and originality is largely responsible for the depersonalization of the English upper class. (The Scottish mountain dwellers fared definitely better.) The public school had fostered a team spirit and a small herd esprit de corps which is neither aristocratic nor of great value to the state by its tendency to create reliable mediocrities. One is inclined to like the gentleman of a Byronic pattern rather than the one standardized by the old school tie, and to prefer an aristocracy with a knightly tradition to one crushed in the years of adolescence by a vaguely homoerotic group spirit and the industrial idea of “cooperation.” Boarding schools, preparatory schools, and public schools are far more hostile to the ideals of liberty than the much maligned family, and this is the reason why these actually play into the hands of democratism.

    I submit that England has sunk so dramatically in stature that this commentary is obsolete.

    fotrkd Reply:

    @ James

    I don’t disagree (though (private) Montessori appears to be the vogue for Western internet entrepreneurs nowadays). Unfortunately (“politics aside”) they do also produce the majority of our politicians, and that doesn’t appear to be going so well – today’s (UK-)earth shattering vote aside. Good quote btw, though I wonder if the Byronic pattern can be produced in any other way(?) – one tends to be more than enough.

    Posted on August 29th, 2013 at 5:28 pm Reply | Quote
  • Handle Says:

    In the US film version, the U.S. Army Soldiers holding out in South Korea call them “Zeke” not “Zach”. The Captain who commands the company is bitten and says, “Aw man, now I’m a Zeke!”

    In an over-brief but poignant scene, a sniper on overwatch offers mercifully to take the Captain out before the change, but the commander responds, “no, I got this” and shoots himself in the head – the last act of autonomy.

    I found the story of the North Korean response to also warrant more attention. The rogue ex-CIA intelligence-mercenary (or something) who tells Brad Pitt to go to Israel because they’re safe behind their wall, also says that the Norks pulled out everyone’s teeth (to eat mushes rice, presumptively, until the threat had passed and false teeth distributed to all) to prevent contagion. The CIA agent himself speaks as if toothless, but I can’t remember getting a clear look.

    The think I was wondering for the rest of the movie was, “Well, wouldn’t that work? Aren’t the Norks Ok? Do they take over the region? The world?”


    admin Reply:

    The movie is notoriously ‘liberated’ from the constraints of the book. The North Korean story in the movie is already classic, but the book version is entirely different, and also fascinating (the entire country disappears off the grid).
    Also — pedantically – it’s ‘Zack’ (not ‘Zach’). What could ‘Zeke’ come from? The WWII reference (to the Mitsubishi Zero) seems unhelpful.


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