Skip to content

The Zombie Movie Without Zombies

As unlikely as a “zombie apocalypse” remains, earnest discussion of how to prepare for such an event is a long-standing cultural standby. Amid a bloom of supernatural-orientated dramas culled from comics and B-Movies of the 50s, the zombie genre stands out as the most socially introspective. It raises the question of how to survive once society breaks down—a question that feels increasingly relevant. But the genre lets us approach the question sideways: it gives us enemies so slow and brain-dead that we can broach the subject playfully.

The reasons for the genre’s appeal are obvious. We can imagine its heroes blasting away hundreds of commoners approaching our castle without being bothered by the implications of class. Its villains are clear and uncomplicated, and the goal of the good guys is always to immunize themselves so as to remain human, while anchoring themselves to the sinking ship of civilization.

A new film, though, removes the comforting presence of that good-and-evil dichotomy. State of Emergence is a zombie movie without zombies. It’s the latest film by the Anti-Banality Union, an anonymous collective that re-edits genre blockbusters as a means of mocking their clichés and composing their own radical theses in the process. The result of this experiment is unsettling above and beyond their source material, and it cuts to the core of our angst over today’s emerging and intermingling global crises. (Watch the film’s trailer here.)

“The illness that society feels victimized by has metastasized to an irreversible degree,” Anti-Banality wrote in the announcement of its premier at Williamsburg, Brooklyn’s Spectacle Theater on October 19. “It can’t be cured with surgery, heavy medication, or even wholesale amputation…the virus is becoming stronger than its host, and its hostility is irrepressible.”

The film opens with a montage of panicked TV anchors warning, vaguely, of chaos on the streets, martial law, endless traffic jams, and brutal gunplay (a few actual news items are interspersed here), but there’s no sign of the actual enemy. Three protagonists emerge—Brad Pitt’s character in World War Z (2013), Charlton Heston’s in Omega Man (1971), and Vincent Price’s in The Last Man on Earth (1964). The film cuts between the footage and creates a new narrative in the process. In this new storyline, the three protagonists struggle to survive while keeping themselves at a distance from the societal collapse around them.

These stoic Cruesoes become stand-ins for civilization’s most ardent ideologies. Pitt is a heroic patriarch defending the nuclear family, Heston is a cultured aristocrat pouring himself high-balls in his velvet robe, and Price is clinging to humanism in a time of literal inhumanity. By the end of State of Emergence, a faceless secret society has emerged to assassinate these Modern Men in their castles; it then delivers its own message of rebuilding the world after disaster (hence the film’s uncomfortably optimistic title).

This is Anti-Banality’s third eschatological feature. In 2011’s Unclear Holocaust, which the Village Voice called “the funniest 9/11 movie ever,” every movie that portrays New York City’s destruction is edited together into one all-encompassing disaster. In Police Mortality (2013), hundreds of cop films are crafted into a narrative of a police strike that turns into a massive civil war: all of society is deputized and engulfed in one big shoot-out. Influenced by the insurrectionary joy of Occupy Wall Street and related uprisings worldwide, State of Emergence captures the malaise of these movements’ collapse into the reaction of right-wing populism, dictatorship, and war.

For Anti-Banality there is little difference between the zombie-creating contagion and those political forces that fight to reinstall the fallen dictatorships of Pitt, Heston, and Price as civilization’s heroic avatars. In between brief moments of dialogue, looting, and boredom, there are relentless montages of gunfire from police and military snipers. In this latest film, it is as if Anti-Banality could not build a plot as coherent as their previous ones without losing their focus in the shell-shocked cacophony of armed forces jockeying for control.

But twenty-four-hour news cycles and the disaster porn of contemporary cinema don’t need a built-in narrative thread—they create their own. As if patching them together in the Anti-Banality film-splice method, the media speaks of Ebola and ISIS in the same breath, linking them together in our minds as if they are both components of the zombie apocalypse we’ve being waiting for—a combination of Mother Nature’s wrath with the soullessness of the modern ideological foot soldier. Watch in fear as the outbreak spreads, through both disease and terror attacks. Stay in your homes, be prepared for the worst—but most importantly, don’t return to the streets.

Early on in State of Emergence, in a scene borrowed from World War Z, an officer swerving through a city-wide traffic jam barks at Brad Pitt to stay in his vehicle. Mid-sentence, a trash truck pulverizes the cop as it bulldozes through traffic, smashing every vehicle in its way, in a homicidal gambit to escape the city. The visual punchline is a rare one. While Police Mortality was like a blood-soaked update of the Keystone Kops, there are few such laughs in Emergence; it’s a chilling look at how our contemporary apocalypse-in-the-making terrifies us into passivity. For a second, I even wished the snarling cop would come back to life to keep traffic in line.