I have just finished reading Max Brook’s World War Z. For those of you who have seen the movie but not read the book, and vice versa, the two are completely unalike. The book is comprised of a collection of interviews that take place after the “Zombie War.” No spoiler there except that humans survived it. The movie, however, focuses on a UN Official who is sent to investigate the cause of the zombie virus and then to report back his findings. Something of a soldier himself, this fellow ends up fighting his way through zombie hordes at every turn. This character, portrayed by Brad Pitt, is kinda sorta similar, I think, to the character of Todd Wainio in the book version of the story. However, in the book, Wainio fights in the United States only as regular army infantry—and he’s only 19 years old. He’s not the 40-something family man as portrayed by Brad Pitt’s movie version character.
I haven’t really organized my thoughts on the book yet, but I have pulled forth some preliminary tidbits that speak directly to my upcoming project. The “Zombie War” as depicted in World War Z is a veritable zombie apocalypse, complete with survivalists, anarchy, death on a global scale never before seen in the history of humanity—that’s both human and animal death—and a global breakdown of civilization and government. Many animal species go extinct—good-bye whales. It’s like a judgement upon the Earth, and this is a sentiment that is repeated more than once throughout the book. “We did this to all of us. This is our punishment. This is how we are paid out for the evil we have done.” One of the soldiers makes a snide remark about all the “ex-atheists” coming out of their foxholes. There’s cannibalism, violence between humans, violence between humans and zombies, violence between humans and animals. Violence everywhere—it is over the top and out of control. The other thing in common in every person everywhere on earth is Fear:
“Do you understand economics? I mean big-time, pre-war, global capitalism. Do you know how it worked? I don’t, and anyone who says they do is full of shit. There are no rules, no scientific absolutes. You win, you lose, it’s a total crapshoot. The only rule that ever made sense to me I learned from a history, not an economics, professor at Wharton. “Fear,” he used to say, “Fear is the most valuable commodity in the universe.” That blew me away. “Turn on the TV,” he’d say, “what are you seeing? People selling their products? No. People selling the fear of you having to live without their products.” Fuckin’ A, was he right. Fear of aging, fear of loneliness, fear poverty, fear of failure. Fear is the most basic emotion we have. Fear is primal. Fear sells. That was my mantra. “Fear sells” (Brooks 55).”
Wow. And fear is indeed everywhere. I remember watching some of those old 1950 and 60s cold war era “duck and cover” nuclear war preparedness films. They used to show these in classrooms! Today, they are somewhat amusing, but they were quite serious back in the day. Check out these jewels:
And, for us girls, nuclear was is no excuse for shirking our wifely duties. We will, after all, still be expected to have dinner on the table (whether in a shelter or not) by 5:30 sharp:
Aren’t they great? Hehehe. Yet, that was the mindset. And the Russians were the “evil empire” lying in wait, watching like predators for the right time to attack. People were genuinely afraid of the “Ruskies”, and it was better to “be dead than Red.” No matter every patriotic citizen’s best efforts, there were still communists lurking in the shadow of every second shrubbery waiting to pounce on unsuspecting Westerners. There were Russian spies everywhere, and the West had to respond with spies of its own. So… The KGB vs the CIA. Or MI6…
Is it a surprise that James Bond was born of this era? Bond, James Bond, made his first full length movie debut in 1962 with Dr No, and then again in 1963 with From Russia with Love. This debonair “British super spy” has since become a pop culture icon who likes it shaken not stirred. Yet, while Bond was always a rollicking good time—lots of action, adventure, complicated story lines, cool gadgets, and steamy Bond girl sex—Bond was always just a bit cheeky. He wasn’t so grim and serious that he could not deliver ultra-droll one-liners or stop to chat-up a pretty girl. Bond was generally “good to go.” There was always time for a vodka martini and a little bit of caviar. But then, 007 was British. The American films during this time, though, were either deadly serious or hideously comedic.
The same year as Dr No, there was The Manchurian Candidate. But unlike the Bond films, there is no outrageous and elaborate death planned for the hero in this film—just a waiting bullet. The Manchurian Candidate is dark, and presents to the audience the notion of a “sleeper agent”…a KGB spy who doesn’t know he is a spy. This person is Western born, but has been captured, brainwashed, and planted by Russian spies to commit an assassination at a specific time. He is programmed to respond, that is, to “activate” after seeing a certain pre-programmed item. In this case, the “activating item” is a particular playing card. Then, without fear, and without actually knowing he is doing so, he will mindlessly carry out his killing act. In The Manchurian Candidate, the sleeper agent is programmed to assassinate the American President so that the KGB can install their own President in his place—a President that will follow a communist Russian agenda.
This film was designed, not to terrify, but to unsettle the audiences—to provoke them to consider how plausible a Russian “take-over” might be, and how easy in this complacent society. There are no scenes of so-called horror in this film—nothing like one might see in a zombie movie—but it still gave the average movie-goer a creepy feeling, like “being watched.” Precisely. There were lots of films like this. The black comedy Dr Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), Fail-Safe (1964), and Damnation Alley (1977), are just a few among many that instilled fear and/or presented the horrors of nuclear war.
Among some of the most popular novels that spoke to cold war politics were Alistair MacLean’s Ice Station Zebra (1963), John le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963) and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974). There was Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal (1971) and the definitive cold war novel that scared the crap out of practically everyone was George Orwell’s 1984 (1948). Not only were the communists watching us from over there, Big Brother and the Thought Police were watching us right here at home. There was no safe place.
The cold war invaded the small screen as well: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1968), I Spy (1965), Mission Impossible (1966), and the goofy spy satire Get Smart (1965). To name a few—there were so many. There was even a spy show aimed at the kids—Rocky and Bullwinkle (1959). Does anyone remember Boris and Natasha vs Moose and Squirrel? Everyone had to be warned. Everyone. Even the 7-year-old Saturday morning cartoon devotees.
In other words, Western mass culture embraced the Soviet “threat”, prepared and warned, all the while entertaining by playing on the fears it instilled. But were people genuinely afraid? Really, truly afraid? Yes they were. During the extremely long 13 days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, people stayed home from work, or travelled to their families. People stocked up on provisions and headed down to basements or to the bomb shelters they had already built. Store shelves were cleared of all tinned and dry food…and weapons. Lots of guns and ammunition. Some people packed their bags and headed for the countryside or mountains. There was some looting and profiteering—yeah, those guys. Then again, a few of the more level-headed people refused to give in to fear and went about their business as usual.
Sociologists have had a bit of a time putting together the many broken pieces of what happened during the height of the Soviet nuclear threat, but they have seen that this terror took hold within the minds of the “tweenies” who had wasted precious art-class minutes learning how to “duck and cover.” And now this. A nothing to look forward to but a future of irradiated mutants and cockroaches the size of bulldogs. That’s enough!! Though they didn’t know it at the time, there was a silent consensus taking place. “War sucks! Peace is better!” And a few years later, they became older and began marching, and protesting, and self-medicating their fears away, and with daisy plaited hair, they yelled “Make love, not war!”
Fear caused it all. Fear changed the world in the sixties. Fear is our best motivator—nothing eliminates complacency the way fear does. Fear is a drug. Fear is magical. Fear is supernatural. Fear really does sell.
However, the fear was tangible during the cold war because, well, who are the Russians? Who are the Russians??? Really? They’re right there! THERE they are! Because we can see the Russians. We can talk to them, touch them, hear them, and experience them. They are as real as we think we are. Therefore, the cold war fear was not actually based on nothing at all. There was definitely a something that was definitely out there. But peace and reason resolved all of that: Détente and Perestroika. The Berlin wall came down. Global nuclear disarmament. The end of hostilities. The end of Soviet Communism. The end of the USSR. The end of the Cold War. Fear created one world and Reason re-created it. For a very short time, Planet Earth was mostly populated by a bunch of happy campers. It was not to last.
Can it be that human beings actually prefer Fear to peace of mind? People SAY they don’t, but what they say is trumped by what they DO. Thus, fear is alive and well and functioning as it usually does through popular culture. But it’s not the Russians anymore. It’s not nuclear war anymore—not yet anyway…we’re all waiting to see what happens in the Middle East. As it turned out, the “evil commies” were far too reasonable. In the end, their answer to Sting’s rhetorical statement in his 1985 song Russians, “I hope the Russians love their children too,” was a most certain, and truly offended, “YES, you Bonehead! Of course we do!”
Fear does churn up the humans, but it can’t last forever. All the people grow sick of it. Both sides. And then they become willing to compromise. They just don’t want to go on fighting. It’s too much energy, too much stress. Fear is only profitable at the outset, but in the long run it becomes bad for business because the market becomes saturated. Finally, the time to Reason together comes, Fear is abandoned, and Peace is embrace.
But…what if the enemy cannot be reasoned with? What happens when there is an enemy who doesn’t feel the unbearable tensions of fear and stress? What if the enemy doesn’t need to rest or recover or rebuild? What if the enemy doesn’t know how to love? What if it has nothing to lose? And cares nothing about gain? What if life holds no meaning to them because they are dead already? What can be done against an enemy like that? And so fear, like a thinking thing, has evolved into the Zombie Apocalypse, as in World War Z.
Max Brooks examines the idea of “total war” and decides that human beings are not capable of that level of total effort where every man, woman, child, 24/7 is totally devoted to the fight. He contends that it is just not possible for any nation on earth. However,
“[t]hat is the nature of human warfare, two sides trying to push each other past the limit of endurance, and no matter how much we like to talk about total war, that limit is always there…unless you’re the living dead. For the first time in history, we faced an enemy that was actively waging total war. They had no limits of endurance. They would never negotiate, never surrender. They would fight until the very end because, unlike us, every single one of them, every second of every day, was devoted to consuming all life on Earth. That’s the kind of enemy that was waiting for us…That’s the kind of war we had to fight” (Brooks 273).
There is a fear now playing upon the Western mind through the vehicle of popular culture—just as it did during the cold war. Yet, during the cold war, people could name and point at the palpable root of their fears. That root is no longer as concrete today. Today, the spy genre has given way to zombies and conspiracy theories. Nothing tangible, yet bearing a certainty that seems absolute. There is definitely something out there. Something bad is going to happen very soon. And that is why some people, like me, are writing papers about this. From where is this terror—this mindless, numbing, ubiquitous terror—emanating?