Printer Friendly

Zombie Republic: Property and the Propertyless Multitude in Romero's Dead Films and Kirkman's The Walking Dead.


In the West, property and the "human" are knotted. If posthumanism is about decentering the human, it would of necessity involve untying that knot. Reading George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978), and Land of the Dead (2005), along with Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead (2003-present), this essay argues that zombies allegorize the "multitude" of the propertyless, as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri put it. They relentlessly threaten both property and the "human" that is predicated on it. Bound up in this foundational thematic of zombie narrative, though, is the survivors' response to the zombies' deterritorializing threat: they retrench, assert ownership of territory through bodily labor, and then engage in internecine struggles in property's defense. Indeed, the more the survivors seek to hold on to what is "human" through securing land and property at any cost, the more they themselves become monstrous.


POSTHUMANISM TAKES MANY FORMS. ONE IS ORIENTED PRIMARILY TO THE future, imagining a hybrid cyborg body--a human augmented by technology, transcending the limitations of the organic human. "Human enhancement," as Rosi Braidotti puts it, is at its "core" (2). Another form looks to the past as well as the future, interrogating a history of exclusions constitutive of the "human," suggesting that we have always been posthuman. The impetus of this strand of posthumanism is to uncover that which has always persisted in (as well as beyond) the human--or, as Cary Wolfe puts it, to explore how '"the human' is achieved by escaping or repressing not just its animal origins in nature, the biological, the evolutionary, but more generally by transcending the bonds of materiality and embodiment altogether" (xv). (1) Pramod K. Nayar neatly articulates the double movement of posthumanism both backwards and forwards, claiming that it demonstrates "how the human is always already evolving with, constituted by and constitutive of multiple forms of life and machines" (2). While the biological, animal, and even vegetative have, then, as numerous theorists have noted, been barred from dominant conceptions of the "human," certain attributes have also been added. Property, in particular, has long been bound with the organic human to make that particular form of the "human" to which rights accrue.

Several theorists engaged in re-thinking and decentering the "human" have described the imbrication of human and property. In their 2009 book Commonwealth, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue that while property indubitably undergirds modern states, which together compose a vast "republic of property," it also more profoundly constitutes the modern individual: "the absolute rights of people to appropriate things becomes the basis and substantive end of the legally defined free individual" (39, 15, and 13). As Judith Butler puts it, in Dispossession, the desire to possess property on an individual basis "was produced over time as a natural, if not essential, characteristic of human personhood" (9). Or, as Butler's co-author Athena Athanasiou writes, "being is defined as having; having is constructed as an essential prerequisite of proper human being" (13). The virtual equation of human and property is intensified by an equally strong bond between bodies and property: not only do our bodies produce property through labor, but they are our property. We exercise, as Roberto Esposito puts it, a "proprietary dominion" over our body, a dominion that Esposito claims is necessary not only to the liberal state but to personhood itself (92). (2) In short, in the West at least, property defines not just the modern nation and the "free individual," but the dominant form of the human, permeating body and self. Property and the human, as we know it, are knotted. So if posthumanism is about decentering the "human"--if it is about imagining what might come next for the human as well as uncovering what has been either excluded from or added to the human--it would of necessity involve untying that knot.

Zombies have frequently been read as figuring posthumanity, not least because they are glaringly both dead and alive and thus inevitably engage in what Deborah Christie has called "the profound transformation of humanity's conceptual definition of itself (69). (3) The zombie is recognizably "human" yet nonetheless contains all that has been excluded from the human (e.g., death, organic even vegetative viscerality) as well as lacking all that defines the human (e.g., life, speech, consciousness). The zombie also lacks, of course, property--both property in itself (which is why it can be killed with impunity) and material property--land and goods. Indeed, from the "ghouls" besieging the isolated farmhouse in George A. Romero's 1968 Night of the Living Dead to the herd overrunning Hershel Greene's farm in AMC's The Walking Dead, zombies have consistently served to allegorize the "multitude" of the property-less and its inherent antagonism to property. Bereft of attachment to the things and places that they might once have owned in life, zombies stagger, lurch, flock, and even (in the new viral-zombie film) run over land that is not and never will be theirs; they smash walls and fences, swarm homes, and are spectacularly heedless of the rules of ownership. The multitude, Hardt and Negri write, is a "real and effective menace for the republic of property" (40; see also 44-5). Tattered and homeless, their savage animus directed particularly at property, zombies are the obscene incarnations of that menacing multitude. They are a plague on property.

While being propertyless is an empowering source of resistance for Hardt and Negri, as well as for others who imagine an end to private property, it is repeatedly imagined in popular zombie narratives as a living death, a monstrous not a liberating posthumanity. Not surprisingly, a Wall Street Journal review called Commonwealth, with its call to abolish property, a "dark, evil book" (Anderson), a judgment embodied, I argue, in post-apocalyptic zombie narrative, with its terrifying propertyless hordes who dispossess everyone of any lands or goods they might have called their own. Zombie hordes represent exactly how terrifying the prospect of being without land and property is for the majority of viewers, tapping into anxieties about property's catastrophic loss, tantamount to the very loss of self. Zombie narratives, in short, embody a propertyless multitude like that Hardt and Negri describe, but within an entirely different context--a context of dystopian horror, not Utopian desire.

Integral to the thematic of zombies as an itinerant, propertyless multitude is the survivors' twinned response. On the one hand, as the roving zombie horde relentlessly menaces all forms of property, the living are forced into a dangerous nomadic existence, a precarious life in "the wild," or "the open," as it is fearfully described in The Walking Dead. (4) On the other hand, however, the survivors also struggle, sometimes violently, to stake claims to goods and places--a struggle necessary for survival, to be sure, but, more metaphorically, signifiers of a humanity eroding under the zombie onslaught. In what seems a paradox integral to property, while the living dead themselves are certainly monstrous, bereft of the property integral to the human, the survivors, too, become something other than human in their efforts to hold on to their humanity in and through property: they become the walking dead in the very effort to ward them off. Zombie narratives dramatize the threat to property as monstrous, in other words, while also showing how the survivors, in fighting to keep their own property at all costs, risk becoming monsters. In their dramatizations of property relations, zombie narratives figure the terrifying excesses of both the annihilation and the ownership of private property, articulating, I suggest, a popular dissatisfaction with the extremes of both rapacious neoliberal capitalist accumulation and also with intellectuals in the Marxist tradition (like Hardt and Negri), who call for the end of private property. After exploring this paradox of property in George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead (1978), and Land of the Dead (2005), I turn to Robert Kirkman's graphic novel series, The Walking Dead (2003-present) to argue that while the series is very much interested in this paradox (both the monstrous propertyless multitude and the monsters of property) it also offers the fragile (sadly, very fragile) hope of a salutary proprietorship predicated on collective labor and on land held in common.

Romero's groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead not only introduced the flesh-eating zombie, it also initiated what has become an iconic image of zombies beating at the walls of houses and barns, their hands groping blindly and remorselessly at the humans who are trying desperately to keep them out. Night is also the first film to depict that other, more human, monster--the monster produced by the struggle to defend an intertwined life and property, to defend it not only from the propertyless horde but also from other survivors. Indeed, what proves deadly in Night of the Living Dead is less the attack of the zombies than the conflict amongst those who find themselves thrown together in a rural Pennsylvania farmhouse on the night the dead start coming back to life. The gun the protagonist Ben uses against the encroaching ghouls, for example, is also, finally, wrenched away by fellow survivor Harry Cooper, intensifying the internecine struggle between them for control of the group's resources.

From the moment Ben arrives at the seemingly uninhabited house, he rushes around frantically boarding it up against the undead corpses who want to batter their way in. The extended scenes of his shoring up the house reinforce its status as his, as property earned by dint of effort, with the labor of his body. Since secured property secures life itself, Ben is determined to let no one appropriate what he has acquired. So when Harry Cooper appears from the cellar, Ben is immediately suspicious. Disagreeing about whether the house or the cellar is the safest place, they agree in the end to be "boss" of their respective parts of the house--Ben upstairs and Harry in the cellar. Harry encroaches on this partitioning of the house when he rather gratuitously declares that he is going to take Barbra down into the cellar with him. In response, Ben makes perhaps his most impassioned speech of the film: "Leave her here. Keep your hands off her, and everything else that's up here too. Because if I'm staying up here, I'm fighting for everything up here, and the radio and the food is part of what I'm fighting for." Cooper objects that they'll need food down in the cellar: "We've got a right," he declares. But Ben vehemently rejoins "Is this your house?" Without property when he first arrived, Ben assumes the house, its contents, and its prior occupant, Barbra, as his, because he's "worked" for it.

Ben's newly-acquired property seems at times to subsume even the struggle for survival. (5) As he puts it, "I'm fighting for everything up here." But those possessions also precipitate the ultimately deadly conflict among the survivors themselves. Cooper increasingly threatens Ben's claim to what he deems his property. He refuses to let Ben back in the house, for instance, after the failed attempt to fuel the truck, and he later grabs Ben's gun rather than help keep the ghouls out of the house. In the struggle over the gun, Ben is driven to shoot Cooper, even as the zombies break through the walls of the house: in this moment, his proprietorial rage blinds him to the real threat. Ben's act is not only destructive, but decidedly self-destructive, as his violent defense of what he now considers his own not only leads to Cooper's death but strands him with no one left to help him fortify the house. The house is overrun and Ben is, finally, forced into the cellar and subsequently shot.

The destructiveness of the battle for property enjoined by Ben and Cooper--what Barry Keith Grant has called "the struggle for masculine dominance and territorial control" (207)--is heightened in Tom Savini's 1990 re-make of Night (which Romero wrote), in which Ben's gun-fight with Cooper leads directly to Ben's death and to his literally becoming a zombie. In Savini's remake, moreover, Barbara survives precisely because she is the only one willing to walk away from the house. She resists the enchantment of possession and seeks safety in the open, not in securely-bounded property. Her relinquishing of the house, while Ben and Cooper fight to the death over it, is a sign that she recognizes and refuses a deadly proprietorship. Grant has argued that social order in Night falls apart precisely because of the "inability of Romero's male characters to work together" (207), and that the original "monstrous threat" of the zombies, by the end of Night, is surpassed by a terrifying "hysterical masculinity" (210). This "hysterical masculinity" is clearly rooted above all in territorial dominance.

Dawn of the Dead continues Romero's exploration of how the stranglehold of private property produces monsters. Like Night's Ben, possessing virtually nothing, four survivors arrive at a shopping mall. Realizing its material benefits, Roger, Peter, Stephen, and Fran clear the mall of zombies and secure its entrances, thus, by the rules of ownership in the post-apocalyptic world, claiming it as theirs. In a distinct departure from Night, however, the alluring consumer goods of the mall begin to drain the survivors of their humanity long before the lethal struggle over territory erupts near the end of the film. Dawn has consistently been read as a critique of pervasive consumer capitalism, allegorized in the zombies' instinctive return to the mall ("This place was important to them," one of the characters explains) as well as in their bottomless drive to consume (albeit by other means). (6)

Steven Shaviro has described the zombies in Dawn as exemplary figures of the intensifying visibility of the commodity-form and the "uninhibited flaunting of wealth," as well as the corollary vanishing of labor (288). The zombies that wander Dawn's mall are "nonproductive expenditure" writ large. "They squander and destroy wealth," he argues, "rather than producing it" (289). The survivors, of course, do the same: after their brief stint of labor (clearing the mall of the (un)dead), they too merely consume without producing. Kyle William Bishop has argued that by losing the ability to engage in productive labor, "the feckless individuals living in Romero's mall ultimately lose that which makes them essentially 'human'" ("Idle" 235). Fran alone seems to recognize the danger posed by the mall when she laments their having abandoned a plan to grow vegetables and to fish in the wilderness of Canada. She insists that the mall is a prison, that the men are "hypnotized," although she too, for a time, succumbs to the spell of plenitude.

The survivors are wrenched from their dream of luxurious consumption only to fall victim to the same fight for territorial control that proves so fatal in Night. A marauding gang of bikers attacks the mall, disingenuously demanding to "share" in its goods, but actually intent on possessing it as Stephen, Peter, Roger, and Fran did--by taking it, clearing it, and securing it for themselves. The battle with the bikers leads to the death and re-animation of Stephen, not coincidentally the character who most vehemently urged the fight in the first place, refusing to give up "his" property. Like Ben in the 1990 re-make of Night, Stephen dies and then returns as a literal zombie--symbolic of both men's inability to relinquish their life and their property even at the cost of life itself. Dawn's ultimate irony is that Stephen's undead body ends up wandering the mall, spectacularly mindless of the consumer goods for which he gave his life and which produced (first metaphorically and then literally) his monstrous state.

Of all Romero's films, Land of the Dead is the most self-aware in its representation of how the pursuit of property produces monsters. In the post-apocalyptic world of Land, the wealthy have established an exclusionary enclave in Fiddler's Green, where they shop in high-end stores and fill their luxury apartments with whatever expensive commodity they might desire, leaving everyone else to languish in squalor on the edges of their extravagant existence. This bastion of privilege is ruled by a ruthless businessman, Kaufman, whose workers supply the wealthy with goods by raiding nearby towns, now peopled only by the undead. So intent is the film on its message of the few exploiting the many that its propertyless zombies become proportionally much less monstrous, emerging, indeed, as the veritable heroes as they rise up against the incursions of Kaufman's minions and destroy Fiddler's Green and its inhabitants (including Kaufman himself).

Critics have argued that Land's zombies represent not only a challenge to exclusionary property relations and capitalist exploitation more broadly,7 but also the resistant uprising of Hardt and Negri's "multitude." Tyson Lewis writes that while the zombie "is a sign of total global destruction," it also embodies forms of liberation--the '"new monsters'" that Hardt and Negri claim are '"being born in the multitude'" (91). Lewis argues that, as incarnations of the liberatory "multitude," the zombie rebels in Land "usher in a post-vital, post-subjective, post-linguistic swarm politics that directly attacks the obscene foundation of the law itself' (95). R. Colin Tait has also argued that the zombies of Land, figures of the poor and lower classes, constitute the "network attack" Hardt and Negri describe in Multitude--a "display of absolute difference and leadership through the form of the network," a veritable "revolutionary consciousness" (Tait 67 and 70). Despite Lewis's and Tait's provocative readings, however, the only reason that Land functions as a recognizable and sympathetic parable of the destruction of property is because its zombies are not the multitude: they do not annihilate (all) property or usher in anything radically different; they are not "post-vital, post-subjective" (Lewis 95), or, indeed, posthuman.

Hardt and Negri define the multitude as existing definitively beyond what they call the "identity-property-sovereignty" triad (344), yet the zombie rebels in Land visibly embody all three. They do not manifest what Lewis calls a "non-recognizable location for politics--a politics beyond the problematic of identity and recognition that defines multicultural liberalism" (95). Their destruction of Fiddler's Green is not the attack of the multitude, of the swarm, but the affirmation of precisely the kind of multicultural liberalism Hardt and Negri believe ultimately undergirds the republic of property. (8) Not least, the zombie rebels, far from being a "swarm," have a clear leader, "Big Daddy," an African-American zombie who, at the beginning of the film, still inhabits the gas station he owned in life. Big Daddy's name is emblazoned on his store-front and on his overalls, and he is thus defined both by identity and property as well as identity as property. As Big Daddy, consummate property owner, becomes the leader of the zombies, the others amass behind him. Indeed the zombie rebels tellingly adopt a hierarchical formation as they cross the river towards Kaufman's sanctuary--a kind of pyramid, with Big Daddy, alone, at the pinnacle.

Belying the claim that the film is beyond a recognizable "multicultural liberalism," Big Daddy's second-in-command is a white female zombie--always up with him at the front but just a bit behind. And far from the zombies existing beyond land or property, they not only rise up in defense of the property they owned in life, but their plan, after they've destroyed Kaufman's empire, is to find a "place to go, same as us," as Riley Dembo, the human protagonist, puts it. At the end of the film, the humans and the zombies set off to establish their own separate "place," and while they appear to have no intention of living together, they will presumably tolerate each other in the way of multicultural liberalism. Land of the Dead's particular form of utopianism, then, is a liberal-socialist redistribution of resources (figured, not least, in Big Daddy's hailing from Uraontown). The film represents the shifting of private property (and land) from the few to everyone. Land's zombies are thus not the posthuman multitude, and the film does not, in the end, dream radically of the abolition of private property. As Lauro and Embry astutely argue of the end of 28 Days Later, the ending of Land offers a "humanist rather than a posthuman future" (107).

Despite the failure of Land of the Dead to represent the radical multitude, zombies can potentially embody this terrifying force, but in ways that are much less recognizable and reassuring than the (humanized) zombie rebels in Land. The true zombie multitude does not just destroy the excesses of capitalism--the egregiously unfair appropriation of goods and property by a few. It destroys all private property, all of that which has long been deemed, in the US and most of the West, to be constitutive of the state, freedom, rights, identity, and the human itself.

A moment from AMC's The Walking Dead illustrates the truly monstrous multitude and the way it cannot (unlike the zombies of Romero's Land) be assimilated to a liberal political vision. In the season one episode, "Guts," Rick (formerly a police officer) and Andrea are trapped in a store in Atlanta, the undead pounding and moaning at the doors. Andrea is looking at a mermaid necklace she thinks her sister would like, and when Rick asks her why she doesn't just take it, she points out: "There's a cop staring at me. Would it be considered looting?" Rick replies: "Don't think those rules apply any more. Do you?" As Andrea and Rick look at each other, acknowledging what is in the process of being lost (the law of private property), the zombies finally manage to shatter the glass of the outer door to the store--getting closer to breaking in. In this moment, Andrea invokes "looting" to signal her own unwillingness to loot, her own continued recognition of the laws of property, even after the apocalypse. Even in Rick's assertion that the "rules" of proprietorship no longer apply, those rules nonetheless keep their vestigial hold on the survivors. The undistinguished mass of zombies at the store door, however, make no such acknowledgment of the "rules" of property, and they don't, moreover, even want the commodities the store holds. They want only to smash the store and demolish what's inside; they want only to destroy property and its owners.

Throughout The Walking Dead (both the graphic novels and the TV series), the walkers remain a terrifying nomadic presence, driving the survivors from place to place and threatening whatever space they try to stake as their own. As a deterritorializing force, the zombies emphasize (and intensify) the survivors' entrenched territorial impulses: Rick and his group are always looking for a place that's theirs, but in the post-apocalyptic world of The Walking Dead, ownership is fraught with all manner of danger. Early in the graphic novel series, for instance, the survivors discover a gated community (Wiltshire Estates) that seems to offer the promise of a new life, not unlike that promised by the shopping mall in Dawn of the Dead. When Donna first sees Wiltshire Estates, from beyond its imposing fence, she enthuses over being able to have a house "all to ourselves." If all the houses, she continues, "are as nice as this one we'll all be happy. This place--it's perfect," linking happiness to home ownership in time-honored American tradition (Miles Behind Us). When the group goes out to make sure there are no lurking undead, Rick tells them to look out for a house they particularly like. "This is going to be so fun," Donna says, "like one of those home shows but better." Donna happily sees what they're doing as shopping, but she is killed by a zombie lurching out of a house only two pages later (Miles Behind Us). The world of commodity goods is gone. Like the dazzling array of consumer goods in Dawn's shopping mall, the new home "purchase" that captivates Donna leads only to her death. What remains, though, is the possibility that one can earn property and land through labor. (9) Indeed, The Walking Dead turns its back on practices of consumption and offers a nostalgic reversion to the early republican equation of property with land: "In the young republic, land and property were almost synonymous terms," writes historian William Scott (58). Land became property because it was an extension of a person's property in his or her body, specifically that body's labor: "all property rights should be based on labor" (Scott 55). (10) The right to property was "natural," then, precisely because it was mixed with the body, which a person was presumed to own, along with having "a full claim to the fruit of his labor" (Scott 53). (11) Shaviro has noted that as the commodity-form has triumphed over the course of the twentieth century, "labour is hidden as the source of value" (288). Reversing what has seemed an inevitable process, however, The Walking Dead figures commodities vanishing and labor re-emerging.

Rick Grimes quickly adopts the view of land as property, earned through labor. Waxing enthusiastic about the prison, he implicitly apprehends it as representing a very different conception of property than Wiltshire Estates. "Look at all the land inside the fence," Rick says, "safe, secure. We could make a life here." "This is too good a place to pass up," he continues. "It's perfect. We're home." Unlike the ill-fated Donna, who had seen houses to shop for, Rick sees land to work. As in other zombie narratives (including Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead), the kind of labor by which one first earns the right to own property is destroying zombies, and as the group enters the prison, Rick repeatedly refers to killing and burning zombies as "work" (Safety Behind Bars). Through the labor of clearing the land of the undead, and then clearing it to farm, the survivors earn the right to call the land their own. Such ownership comes, though, at the cost of the relentless slaughter of the drifting, menacing propertyless class: a fact that hints at the dehumanization that will encroach on those survivors who engage in such violent labor.

The idea of acquiring "my house" through labor is rendered quite starkly in the television series when Rick and his group discover a prison and decide to live there. In a recapitulation of the fatal conflict between Ben and Cooper in Night of the Living Dead, one of the surviving prisoners, Tomas, resists Rick's authority on the grounds that the prison is "his"--that he was there first: "My house, my rules," Tomas proclaims, adding, "I'll do what I damn well please." Rick, however, responds with an argument based on his conviction that property is earned through labor: "We took out these walkers. This prison is ours." When Tomas asserts the rule of priority, objecting that the prison is theirs because "We were here first," Rick reiterates that his group earned it: "We took it. Set you free. It's ours. Spilled blood" ("Sick," season 3, episode 2). Even though the prisoners have been locked in the cafeteria for ten months, Rick denies their claim to ownership (deeming it mere passive squatting) on the grounds that his group has worked, has spilled sweat and blood killing walkers, and thus, by clearing land, now owns it. (12)

The acquisition of land as property has a problematic history in the US, however. Maureen Konkle has astutely written, "the legal fiction of real estate itself, of fungible geography, is a technology of dispossession, just as the legal fiction of human private property is a technology of slavery" (12). In the US, African-American slaves were considered property (as opposed to having the ability to own property), and property rights were denied to Native Americans who, while they lived on the land, had not "subdued" it and thus had no right to own it. (13) These qualifications of the Utopian promise of earning property through labor (and its status as morally preferable to idle consumption) is marked in the TV series in that the two main characters who challenge Rick's proprietorial right to the prison are visibly not white. Indeed, Rick's decree that the dark-skinned Tomas and his even darker-skinned ally Andrew have not earned the right to the prison uncannily recapitulates the English colonists' claims about the Native Americans who occupied the "vacuum" of the "wilderness" of North America--that they "had not 'subdued' the land" and therefore had no "civil right" to it (Ladson-Billings and Tate 53). Already, property begins to have its exclusionary and brutalizing effects on the survivors. In his struggle over the right to "own" the prison, Rick will kill Tomas and condemn Andrew to an even worse fate by locking him out in a zombie-infested yard.

In The Walking Dead, then, once the survivors believe they have claimed land as their property, through their labor, they prove willing (like Ben in Night and Stephen in Dawn) to kill to keep it. As deadly as it is, property is increasingly central to what it means to be human in both the graphic novel and TV series, as the survivors are under continual onslaught from the deterritorializing zombie hordes; yet defending that property ushers in reversion to a state that is no longer human (as seen, again, in the fates of Ben and Stephen). This paradox of property is first crystallized in The Walking Dead graphic novel series in the fourth volume, The Heart's Desire. After the survivors have cleared sections of the prison of zombies and are beginning to anticipate a future, even plowing and planting a garden, one of the former inmates of the prison, Dexter, tells the group, at gunpoint, that they have to leave. During a renewed battle against a horde of walkers, which Dexter unwittingly released from a sealed off cellblock, Rick intentionally shoots Dexter in the head, making it look like an accident. Confronted by Tyreese, Rick justifies his murder: "Dexter had threatened to kick us all out of this prison. To send us back on the road. I couldn't let that happen. I wouldn't." He adds, "I killed Dexter to protect us all. He was threatening to kick us out of this place, our sanctuary. He was going to force us out into the wild." Rick makes the dichotomy clear between safety (a bounded, secure property) and "the road" or "the wild." In the prison, they can preserve both their lives and their humanity--assert rules, for instance, that maintain civilization of some kind. The road and the "wild," however, are spaces where their humanity dissolves, where their difference from the zombies whose company they would keep, is eroded. With the zombies on the other side of fence, and the boundaries of property and identity maintained, the survivors' difference from the monsters outside appears, at least, to remain intact.

Of course the irony is that, within the fences of the prison, within the realm of the "sanctuary" seemingly necessary to preserve the "human," Rick has just contravened the very rule that supposedly defines their sanctuary and their humanity. Rick had decreed that they only kill the dead, not the living. But after Rick kills (the living) Shane, and Tyreese kills (the living) Chris, and the group executes (the living) Thomas (who butchered Hershel's two young daughters), Rick changes that rule. It becomes "You kill? You die" (Safety Behind Bars). But Rick's murder of Dexter defies even this newly-made rule since Dexter had not killed anyone--hence Rick's defense of his action on the grounds that Dexter was trying to force them "into the wild." Trying to justify his transgression of his own rules, Rick says that in order to stay alive they have to evolve. Rick's next new rule is: "You kill--You live." In order to stay alive, in other words, they will have to kill the living--indeed, they already have. Even Rick, who kills the living and rationalizes it, recognizes how doing so compromises them, potentially turning them into savages, and worse. At the culmination of volume four, he points at the zombies clamoring at the fences and declares: "You see them out there. You know that when we die--we become them. You think we hide behind walls to protect us from the walking dead! Don't you get it? We are the walking dead!" (The Heart's Desire). As Rick makes this speech, the accompanying panels show the prison's fences, the zombies on the other side. Yet the survivors' humanity is clearly imperiled, the "fence" a thin fiction. Right at the moment when the line between the living and the dead, the propertied and the propertyless, seems most clear, when the humans own a physical sanctuary, and seem to construct a human world within it, Rick argues that there is, in reality, no line at all. That line has dissolved, moreover, precisely in the effort to keep the line intact. This vicious cycle, in which the survivors need property to remain human yet lose what's human in the battle to keep property, is at the heart of the survivors' (losing) battle to maintain their humanity.

As Kirkman's graphic novel series has continued, Rick seems to have not only recognized but tried to stay his slide toward walking death--and this recognition is integrally about the dangers of possessive individualism. After the survivors successfully defend the community at Alexandria against a herd of the walking dead, Rick has a revelation about what the survivors can do if they work together, if they defend property in common (No Way Out). He tells Andrea that he has been driven by selfish interests: "I was overlooking the most important part of survival in this world. Community" (We Find Ourselves). It may be no accident that after Rick has his insight about the value of working together, the group meets a man named Jesus who takes them to Hilltop, a place of which Rick declares: "I saw the future." Hilltop is secure, bounded, yet cooperative; everyone works (they grow their own food), and the community trades with other groups of survivors rather than struggling to exclude them. It's the "start of something historic," Rick says (A Larger World).

The "future" Rick sees resonates uncannily with the past (and in fact he calls Hilltop both the "future" and "historic"). As Rick enthuses about Hilltop as a shining beacon, it's hard not to hear echoes of John Winthrop's "city upon a hill" speech, as he and his fellow travelers gazed upon Massachusetts Bay from the deck of the Arbella in 1630. In his sermon, "A Modell of Christian Charity," Winthrop exhorted his group to work always for the "common good"--saying "we must be knit together in that work as one man." Working together, for each other, the community Winthrop envisioned would be one body. Hilltop fleetingly seems to materialize this kind of community--a shared common, collective labor, free from the monstrous excesses of private property or the equally monstrous multitude of the propertyless (the latter always produced by the former). Hilltop seems to realize Winthrop's hope that "the rich and mighty should not eat up the poor." In turn, the poor will not be dispossessed and will not devour the rich. Or that's the brief Utopian hope.

Just as most would say that Winthrop's ideal was never realized, neither is that of Hilltop. Rick may have pulled back from the monster he was becoming in his desire to acquire and defend what is his, but other characters in The Walking Dead do not. A new monster has emerged: Negan--avatar of what he calls "the new world order." Negan's law, as he tells Rick and his group, is "Give me your shit or I will kill you." "You work for me now," he tells Rick and his group, "You have shit--You give it to me. That's your job." In the new world order, everyone labors for Negan. Their property is his. There is no place one can secure or defend against him. "Next time someone comes to your door ... You fucking let us in," Negan tells Rick. "We own that door. You try to stop us--we'll fucking knock it the fuck down." The "rich and the mighty" will indeed "eat up the poor," despite Winthrop's (and Rick's) hope it could be otherwise. Like the walking dead themselves, Negan will knock down doors--not to annihilate but to take. And he respects not only doors but also bodies as little as do the insatiable walkers. Shockingly, he beats one of Rick's friends (and a mainstay of the series) to a bloody pulp in a random act of "punishment" (Something to Fear). Like the zombies, Negan destroys and devours; unlike them, he also takes. While The Walking Dead can only imagine the propertyless multitude as terrifying, as utterly destructive of an integrally-bound property and humanity, it also recognizes that, sometimes, the monsters bred by property's excesses are worse. The survivors are forced to go to war with Negan and his group--a long war that is fought, like most in this world, over land and property. (14)

In the end, The Walking Dead can only describe a thoroughly ambivalent relationship between property and the human. On the one hand, the walking dead themselves embody the dread with which many westerners view the prospect of a monstrous republic of the deterritorialized propertyless class. Private property indeed "creates subjectivities" (Hardt and Negri 39). The knot of property and human is tight--and zombie narratives exploit the terrifying prospect of that knot's untying. On the other hand, from George Romero's Living Dead films to The Walking Dead, zombie narratives have also elaborated the deadliness of what Hardt and Negri call the "republic of property" (39), which continues the apocalypse by very human means. Even in the face of their own extinction, survivors continue to kill each other over things and land. The fatal coils of property are manifest perhaps most clearly in The Walking Dead's villains, who combine a terrifying proximity to the walking dead as they exploit, rob, rape, and kill--as they deny everyone even the most basic of properties in their own bodies--in order to grasp everything for themselves. (15) But even the heroes share this proximity to the monstrous: as Rick declares, "We're all infected." Rick himself has to battle back from his own slide toward a soul-destroying territoriality. The common--the sharing of the resources of the earth--remains an elusive ideal, even after the demise of most of the world's population. The earth belongs, it seems, either to the monsters of property or to the hordes of the propertyless.


(1.) Elizabeth Grosz puts this form of posthumanist project perfectly, interrogating "the inhuman--the animal, plant, and material forces that surround and overtake the human" (11).

(2.) Esposito describes the liberal tradition that sees the person as constituted by its ownership of the body, citing John Locke, '"every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself,'" as well as John Stuart Mill, '"Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign'" (92). Athanasiou also notes that "the definition of the ownership of one's body as property is a founding moment of liberalism" (Butler and Athanasiou 13).

(3.) For discussions of the zombie as posthuman, see Lauro and Embry; Christie; and Keetley's We're All Infected, especially essays by Boehm, Aldana Reyes, Farnell, Keetley, and Peaty, all of which take up the multiple ways in which zombies generally, and the zombies of AMC's The Walking Dead in particular, figure posthumanity.

(3.) Kirkman, The Heart's Desire and the last episode of season 2 of AMC's series, "Beside the Dying Fire."

(4.) No one has explicitly considered Night in terms of property, although Barbara Bruce does write about the failure of Ben as a hero, and she sees him, as I do, as reduced to one of the walking dead: "He cannot stand apart from the others or raise them up, because he is just as much the living dead as they are, symptomatic of society's decay" (72). Bruce sees Ben as equally culpable, particularly in displaying "the tenets of American individualism," which have been "demonstrated by black and white equally," and "have led to utter selfishness and broken down any sense of group cooperation and social cohesion" (72). Property and ownership are integral to individualism, and their excesses integral to the breakdown of cooperation and cohesion.

(5.) See Harper; Loudermilk; and Bishop, "The Idle Proletariat." Bishop notes how the survivors, while trapped in the mall, indulging in pure consumerism, start to see everything, "including each other," in terms of commodification (244).

(6.) See Tait; Lewis; Lowenstein, 108-116; and Bishop, American Zombie Gothic, 191-196.

(7.) Bishop affirms this point when he argues that the zombies of Land are the "same" as the humans: zombies "stand in as representatives for humanity" (American Zombie Gothic 196), and he discusses how the zombies, notably Big Daddy, have evolved such that they communicate, use tools, exhibit rational feeling and empathy, and have "transcended their ravenous appetites" (194). All of which demonstrates that, far from being "post-subjective," they are moving toward recognizable, human subjectivity. Lowenstein, too, talks about Big Daddy as a figure of "social justice," leading zombies who "seem to assume increasingly 'human' traits" (110).

(8.) In "The Idle Proletariat," Bishop argues that the fatal mistake the survivors make in Dawn of the Dead is to lose "their productive labor"---thus losing "that which makes them essentially 'human'" (235; see also 246). As I go on to argue, though, in The Walking Dead, even property produced through one's own labor is potentially dehumanizing.

(9.) Walker also notes that "Lockean property begins with the individual's own body, with property rights in oneself providing the basis for personal autonomy" (87).

(10.) Of course, those who owned their bodies, and thus their labor, were men--specifically white, propertied men.

(11.) Walker makes this point, too, about the comic series. He writes that the four prisoners trapped in the cafeteria "were not mixing their labor with the property, and thereby using it" (91). The fact that the prisoners had little choice in this state of affairs does not seem to make a difference to Rick and his group.

(12.) See Ladson-Billings and Tate, 53-54

(13.) The war with Negan has continued through the latest volume of the series to be published at this point, volume 20, All Out War, Part One. Serving almost as a gloss on this extended war, David Livingstone Smith demonstrates that the origins of human warfare are inextricable from the ownerships of land. He traces evidence of war to the moment in prehistory when groups became "permanently tied to specific tracts of land upon which they depended for their survival" (46).

(14.) Walker points out that Chris (of the Hunters) and the Governor do not respect "the self-ownership of other persons" (94)--something also certainly true of Negan.

Caption: Fig. 1. Ghouls battering farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead. (p. 3)

Caption: Fig. 2. Walkers at the fence, "Beside the Dying Fire," The Walking Dead. (p. 3)

Caption: Fig. 3. Ben shoring up the house against the ghouls in Night of the Living Dead. (p. 6)

Caption: Fig. A. Zombies at the shop doors in Dawn of the Dead. (p. 8)

Caption: Fig. 5. The zombie "resistance," led by Big Daddy, Land of the Dead, (p. 11)

Caption: Fig. 6. Zombies at the mall doors, "Guts," The Walking Dead. (p. 13)

Works Cited

Aldana Reyes, Xavier. "Nothing But the Meat: Posthuman Bodies and the Dying Undead." Keetley 142-55. Print.

Anderson, Brian. "Brothers in Marx." Wall Street Journal. 7 Oct. 2009. Web. 29 Dec. 2012.

Bishop, Kyle William. American Zombie Gothic: The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popular Culture. Jefferson: McFarland, 2010. Print.

--. "The Idle Proletariat: Dawn of the Dead, Consumer Ideology, and the Loss of Productive Labor." The Journal of Popular Culture 43 (2010): 234-48. Print.

Boehm, Chris. "Apocalyptic Utopia: The Zombie and the (r) Evolution of Subjectivity." Keetley 126-41. Print.

Boluk, Stephanie and Wylie Lenz, eds. Generation Zombie: Essays on the Living Dead in Modem Culture. Jefferson: McFarland, 2011. Print.

Braidotti, Rosi. The Posthuman. Maiden: Polity, 2013. Print.

Bruce, Barbara S. "Guess Who's Going to Be Dinner?: Sidney Poitier, Black Militancy, and the Ambivalence of Race in Romero's Night of the Living Dead." Moreman and Rushton 60-73. Print.

Butler, Judith, and Athena Athanasiou. Dispossession: The Performative in the Political. Maiden: Polity, 2013. Print.

Christie, Deborah. "A Dead New World: Richard Matheson and the Modern Zombie." Christie and Lauro 67-80. Print.

Christie, Deborah and Sarah Juliet Lauro, eds. Better Off Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie as Post-Human. New York: Fordham UP, 2011. Print.

Esposito, Roberto. Third Person: Politics of Life and Philosophy of the Impersonal. Trans. Zakiya Hanafi. Maiden: Polity, 2012. Print.

Farnell, Gary. '"Talking Bodies' in a Zombie Apocalypse: From the Discursive to the Shitty Sublime." Keetley 173-85. Print.

Grant, Barry Keith. "Taking Back the Night of the Living Dead: George Romero, Feminism, and the Horror Film." The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austen: U of Texas P, 1996. 200-212. Print.

Grosz, Elizabeth. Becoming Undone: Darwinian Reflections on Life, Politics, and Art. Durham: Duke UP, 2011. Print.

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. Commonwealth. Cambridge: Belknap P of Harvard UP, 2009. Print.

Harper, Stephen. "Zombies, Malls, and the Consumerism Debate: George Romero's Dawn of the Dead." Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture 1.2 (2002). Web. 28 Dec. 2012.

Keetley, Dawn. "Human Choice and Zombie Consciousness." Keetley 156-72. Print.

Keetley, Dawn, ed. "We're All Infected": Essays on AMC's The Walking Dead and the Fate of the Human. Jefferson: McFarland, 2014. Print.

Kirkman, Robert, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn. The Heart's Desire. The Walking Dead. Vol. 4- Book 2. Berkeley: Image Comics, 2011. Print.

--. A Larger World. The Walking Dead. Vol. 16. Berkeley: Image Comics, 2012. Print.

--. Made to Suffer. The Walking Dead. Vol. 8. Book 4. Berkeley: Image Comics, 2012. Print.

--. No Way Out. The Walking Dead. Vol. 14. Book 7. Berkeley: Image Comics, 2011. Print.

--. Safety Behind Bars. The Walking Dead. Vol. 3. Book 2. Berkeley: Image Comics, 2011. Print.

--. Something to Fear. The Walking Dead. Vol. 17. Berkeley: Image Comics, 2012. Print.

--. This Sorrowful Life. The Walking Dead. Vol. 6. Book 3. Berkeley: Image Comics, 2012. Print.

--. We Find Ourselves. The Walking Dead. Vol. 15. Berkeley: Image Comics, 2011. Print.

Kirkman, Robert, Charlie Adlard, Stefano Gaudiano, and Cliff Rathburn. All Out War, Part One. The Walking Dead. Vol. 20. Berkeley: Image Comics, 2014. Print.

Kirkman, Robert, Tony Moore, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn. Miles Behind Us. The Walking Dead. Vol. 2. Book 1. Berkeley: Image Comics, 2011. Print.

Konkle, Maureen. Writing Indian Nations: Native Intellectuals and the Politics of Historiography, 1827-1863. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2006. Print.

Ladson-Billings, Gloria, and William F. Tate IV. "Toward a Critical Race Theory of Education." Teachers College Record 97 (1995): 47-68. Print.

Lauro, Sarah Juliet, and Karen Embry. "A Zombie Manifesto: The Nonhuman Condition in the Era of Advanced Capitalism." Boundary 2 35 (2008): 85-108. Print.

Lewis, Tyson E. "Ztopia: Lessons in Post-Vital Politics in George Romero's Zombie Films." Boluk and Lenz 90-100. Print.

Loudermilk, A. "Eating 'Dawn' in the Dark: Zombie Desire and Commodified Identity in George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead." Journal of Consumer Culture 3 (2003): 83-108. Print.

Lowenstein, Adam. "Living Dead: Fearful Attractions of Film." Representations 110 (2010): 105-28. Print.

Moreman, Christopher M., and Cory Rushton, eds. Race, Oppression and the Zombie: Essays on Cross-Cultural Appropriations of the Caribbean Tradition. Jefferson: McFarland, 2011. Print.

Nayar, Pramod K. Posthumanism. Maiden: Polity, 2014. Print.

Peaty, Gwyneth. "Zombie Time: Temporality and Living Death." Keetley 186-99. Print.

Scott, William B. In Pursuit of Happiness: American Conceptions of Property from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1977. Print.

Shaviro, Steven. "Capitalist Monsters." Historical Materialism 10 (2002): 281-90. Print.

Smith, David Livingstone. The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War. New York: St. Martin's, 2007. Print.

Tait, R. Colin. "(Zombie) Revolution at the Gates: The Dead, the 'Multitude' and George A. Romero." Cinephile 3 (2007): 61-70. Print.

Walker, Jason. "What's Yours Still Isn't Mine." Yuen 81-95. Print.

Winthrop, John. "A Modell of Christian Charity." 1630. Web. <>. 30 Dec. 2012.

Wolfe, Cary. What Is Posthumanism? Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 2010. Print.

Yuen, Wayne, ed. The Walking Dead and Philosophy: Zombie Apocalypse Now. Chicago: Open Court, 2012. Print.
COPYRIGHT 2014 The International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2014 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:George A. Romero and Robert Kirkman
Author:Keetley, Dawn
Publication:Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Mar 22, 2014
Previous Article:Living as a Zombie in Media is the Only Way to Survive.
Next Article:Thinking Blind.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters