Sometimes you encounter unlikely bedfellows at exactly the right time. This happened to me with Yeon Yeon’s Train to Busan (2016), Wolfgang Streeck’s collected essays, How Will Capitalism End? (2017) and Black Friday. They sit together so well it’s frightening.
First, a quick precis of Streeck’s hypotheses: We’re screwed.
A slightly longer one is that capitalism is consuming itself at an ever increasing pace. We are fleeing a series of crises, from global inflation in the ’70s, to soaring public debt in the ’80s, to public debt in the ’90s and ’00s, reaching a peak in the global financial crisis. With neoliberal agendas of deregulation expanding and technocrat governments, shepherded by undemocratic bodies like the ECB and IFS, firmly established globally. The effects? Wanton inequality, and a slow-burn cataclysm on the horizon.
But what does that have to do with zombies?
The watershed ‘zombie moment’ for recent generations was George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Suddenly we were all vulnerable, as the domestic world turned on itself. Touching on racism, domestic violence, and the corruption at the heart of the American Dream, suddenly zombies weren’t individuals trapped in slavery, they were normal people. Zombification became amoral and our response to it the subject of judgement.
By Dawn of the Dead (1978) the focus had shifted to consumerism eating itself, where the only route to survival was to grab every luxury item you can and barricade yourself in the garret. Skip ahead to the 2004 remake and rage zombies trashed the shopping centres. Consumerism gets nihilistic as you take your jollies where you can, because isolation is only a temporary solution.
Come 2017, Train to Busan the tropes are established. Yeon lays waste to his nation in moments, leaving his heroes with the clothes on their backs. It’s not clear his zombies are vulnerable in any way until the final scene. This cannibalistic singularity is an assumed inevitability. And who are our key figures hoping to survive? Why, two proud exponents of the capitalist system, a system explicitly implicated in the release of the film’s virus.
There are obviously countless variations of the zombie metaphor, but it seems to me this trend towards rage zombies fetishises our impotence in the face of consumption. The weight of climate change and over-population is inescapable. The apocalypse will be anthropogenic because we are all aware, consciously or otherwise, our civilisations are eating themselves.
Busan offers two angles on neoliberalism – one deathbed redemption and one true to the system till the end – but they are token manifestations against a system gone mad. They are simplifications for us to anthropomorphise. Aspects of a narrative we consume. Flesh to be eaten.
Of the two – Yeon and Streeck – only Streeck offers any real solutions, however little faith he has in their actually coming to pass. Regulation and an enforced redistribution of wealth and power. Fundamental and wholesale changes to our financial and political systems. A democratic phoenix from the ashes.
It’s true that Yeon has the Redeker Plan to fall back on: Lock the gates and damn anyone outside them. But narratives need completing where reality doesn’t. And the despair of Song-ho’s completion seems all too reasonable when coupled with Streeck’s bleak warnings.
Perhaps this is why, on that Train to Busan, I found myself drawn to Yong-guk and Jin-hee, two teenagers betrayed by the older, richer, Yon-suk. This capitalist fuck (to use the scientific classification) throws a young girl to the monsters to save himself. Her boyfriend, overcome with grief and trauma, lets himself be eaten by her. The scene is staged like a corrupted Romeo and Juliet.
That despair is all too familiar in a UK where the older generation has betrayed the younger. The panacea of Black Friday doesn’t work on me. Worse, the feverish quality to our festivals of consumption disturb me.
The only question seems to be: When the end comes, will it be slow or quick?