The Dead Body Politic - How In The Flesh Mirrors Modern Society

The (Dead) Body Politic: How In The Flesh Mirrors Modern Society By Berry Giezen

Disclaimer: this article features spoilers.

Zombie flicks and films seem to go hand in hand with social criticism. Romero’s films about the ‘Living Dead’ have often been interpreted politically. Night of the Living Dead, for example, is a zombie film that came out in a time when America was divided and in social turmoil, with various figures and movements, such as Martin Luther King, seeking equality for minority groups. The hero of the film is an African-American man, Ben, who hides in a house, trying to outlive the roaming zombies outside. He rescues a woman, initially a very silent and catatonic character, who hardly manages to help out – this in contrast with other women who do their best to help out. Another illustrative passage is the interaction between Ben and Harry Cooper, a white, middle-class man, as they clash over the best way to survive. The government is broadcasting news updates and researching the phenomenon, but is too slow in rallying its forces to help the survivors.[1] It takes the posse of a local sheriff to help the local survivors, yet instead they shoot the only survivor when they mistake him for a zombie. Here, Romero already introduced the idea that the government will not always be there to save people, and broke away from the solid belief in the government as man’s saviour.

A very recent series with a similar theme and message  is In The Flesh, a drama mini-series by the BBC. The premise is that there has been a rising of the dead: some of the recently deceased have come back from the grave. In their hunger for human flesh, they have attacked humans. Mankind has been fighting them off, and in the meantime, they have also invented a drug through which they have been able to ‘save’ some of the zombies. The drug suppresses the neurons responsible for the hunger-frenzy and allows their personalities to return to their former selves. They are then observed for a period of time in a high-security facility whilst being given therapy to prepare them for their re-assimilation and re-immigration into society. They also need to come to terms with what they have done in their ‘untreated state’.

The series follows the ‘life’ of Kieren Walker, a young man who has come back from the dead, was treated, and goes back to his family in a small, rural village. His village was heavily struck by the hordes of the undead, and was the first to draft a local military service from its civilians. Through the depiction of the assimilation and immigration of these Partially Deceased Syndrome sufferers, as these ex-zombies are called, and the points of view of various parties in the town on the return of these PDS sufferers into society, the series holds up a mirror to our own society, in particular to the way we view and treat minority groups. In The Flesh adds a twist to the zombie flick narrative and allows the undead to re-integrate into society. In doing so, it opens up a new, parallel level of interpretation that allows it to reflect issues of minority groups in modern-day society.

Where Romero’s criticism was rather metaphorical, e.g. a silent woman and the discussion between an African-American and a middle-class white man, the criticism in In The Flesh tends to work through parallelism: through the opinions on and the treatment of the Partially Deceased Syndrome sufferers, it aims to portray how minorities are treated in modern society. As Romero already showed in 1968, zombie films and social criticism work very well together, and various arguments for the effectiveness of this combination have been put forward. One of the reasons could be, as John S. Nelson states, that the “gist of horror is facing evils in everyday life.”[2] This can be applied to both ‘proper’ horror films, in which familiar and safe environments are often invaded or corrupted, as well as to (drama) series like In The Flesh, which use horror themes and tropes andin which hell is, in a rather Sartrean manner, other people, rather than the horror genre elements themselves.

In addition, Paffenroth states that individual zombies tend to be slow and not too threatening; this means that for scenes with a manageable crowd of zombies, the real tension comes from the interaction between humans: “[…] the real enemy is within the group, with the fear and ignorance that tears them apart and sets them against one another. More than other genres of horror, zombie movies are deeply psychological dramas.”[3]Another reason for why horror works well for critical subtexts is because of its status as a medium: Ryan and Kellner state that it “provides a vehicle for social critiques too radical for mainstream Hollywood production.”[4]

Immigration and Assimilation
In In The Flesh, mankind has found a way to treat zombies and let them return to their old personalities through drugs and therapy. These ex-zombies are given the label ‘Partially Deceased Syndrome sufferers’. This is a sign that their affliction is treated scientifically and as a psychological, or in this case possibly psychosomatic disorder. It also means that people are treating it as an affliction, rather than a curse or something supernatural. Plus, it gives people a neutral term to use when referring to these people.

Yet, as in our society, people who feel negatively towards a stigmatised group will find and use their own, often pejorative, terms. In case of PDS sufferers, they are called ‘rotters’. In the second series, a slightly more neutral but still colloquial term will surface, as they are also referred to as ‘dead’uns’. The Undead Liberation Army (ULA) rejects names such as zombies, rotters, and even the label PDS sufferers for themselves; instead, they call themselves the ‘Redeemed’ on the basis of the Bible.

Consequences and rehabilitation
Getting a second chance after one has died has both positive and negative points to it. From the start of the series, it is clear that the PDS sufferers have to deal with the consequences -and most of all, the memories – of what they have done in their uncontrolled and ‘untreated’ state, which usually involved the murder and eating of a human. While some dismiss this as having been necessary for their survival, others, including Kieren, feel the burden of the guilt for having murdered someone – even if they weren’t consciously in control at the time.

To blend in with society, PDS sufferers wear contact lenses in their original eye colour and have to put on cover-up mousse (foundation) to disguise their pale colour. They also cannot go outside as often as they would like, since acquaintances know that they have died and seeing them returned from the dead would startle them. When the PDS sufferers are reunited with their families, they are back in society and have to face the people and their prejudice. In Kieren’s case, he is kept inside his house by his parents because anyone could be a threat to him, since the villagers are not too keen on PDS sufferers in their midst just yet. Even at home, Kieren has to keep up certain appearances. The atmosphere is such that nothing can be out of the ordinary and that some subjects are not brought up to maintain the mental peace. Kieren’s mother actually states this after a while, where she says “we try to avoid anything divisive.”[5]This can be seen, among other things, in the fact that Kieren joins the family at the dinner table and has to pretend that he is eating his meal –despite him not being able to eat or drink anything.

This notion of keeping up appearances gets another, more social dimension through the character of Rick. He was a soldier who died, but returned from the dead as well. His father pretends that he is still  human and Rick does too: he sits in the human area of the local pub, and not in the hallway reserved for PDS sufferers, and he drinks and eats as a normal person would, despite the fact that he has to throw it all up later. He also shows off drinking alcohol in the pub. His father is captain of the Human Volunteer Force, the civilian militia that once protected the village, and he pre-emptively overrules criticism by praising Rick’s status as a war hero –despite the fact that many other soldiers see this as hypocritical, since he has been rather unsupportive of the PDS returning to the village. One night, Kieren prevents the HVF from killing some wild zombies. Rick’s father tells Rick to kill Kieren, but he cannot –instead, he sticks up for Kieren, saying that he is a PDS sufferer too, and his father kills him. Kieren and Rick were romantically involved, and so Rick is not only keeping up appearances of not being a PDS sufferer, but through some small comments by Kieren to Amy, it is revealed that Rick had still been in the closet to his father too. The heavy focus on characters that feel that they have to keep up appearances is part of the social criticism as well. It shows how people feel that they need to or that they are expected to quietly assimilate and pretend that nothing is out of the ordinary.

Amy, a fellow PDS sufferer that Kieren meets when he goes back to visit his own grave, has a radically different approach and vision to her ‘second life’:she does not want to stay inside or hide, she wants to enjoy her second life. She sees it as a gift and a blessing. She is very much bent on being in control of her own life. She feels liberated since she is already dead; she thinks that a fear of death keeps most humans trapped or prevents them from living life to its full potential. This mindset could also be tied to her death: she died of leukaemia, and felt that she had died too soon to make something out of her life. And so, to enjoy her second life, she tends to go on day trips in public and public space.She also mentions that she is thinking about going “au naturale”[6], meaning without the lenses and cover-up make-up.When she is at Kieren’s house, she will not sit down and pretend to eat with them, and bluntly tells them that she cannot hold anything down because she is undead.

The contrast between the two personalities is verysignificant. Kieren fully re-assimilates into society, but for this he has to pretend to be like everyone else. Amy, however, intends to live life as herself, and does not want to pretend to please others, even if this might antagonise others. Besides the fact that these points reflect on personal freedom, they can also  be translated to our society and how minority groups are treated: whether they are minorities groups based on sexuality, religion or cultural background, some will feel the pressure to assimilate fully and quietly and give up a part of themselves, or pretend they are someone they are not just to fit in and stay out of trouble, whereas others will stay close to themselves and their identity, even if that may antagonise some people. It also reflects the expectations that some people have towards minority groups: they expect them to fit in, even if this means giving up or hiding their identity.

Minority groups in a new or hostile environment have a tendency to stick to their own group and values. For PDS sufferers, even if they cannot go outside and connect withother sufferers face to face, there is an underground website, with pro-PDS messages and propaganda, that many turn to for mental support. The website belongs to a cult-like figure called the Undead Prophet, who has a commune on the Continent. Later it is revealed that he is connected to the ULA, the Undead Liberation Army.  The ULA are blamed for the PDS terrorist attacks, in which PDS sufferers take a blue drug that reverses the effects of their medication and turns them into violent zombies. They take these drugs in public places and in this way kill and harm people. These claims are denied by one of the ULA members, Simon. He states that they are there to protect the undead from the living, and mentions the case in which a human went on a PDS killing spree and was sentenced to five years, because PDS sufferers only count for half a life. He quotes the motto of the ULA: “when injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.”[7]

Again, ties can be found to modern society and how minority groups sometimes react to how they are treated. The motto of the ULA reflects the belief that some have that when the judiciary system fails, resistance or action is needed. Some may also cling more to their own culture or religion when the system fails them, some of them becoming radicals. The show explains this when one of the side characters says: “When people feel they’re picked on, they lash out. But that’s not the answer, is it?”[8]The show seems to want the viewer to at least understand the motivation between these people, and indirectly points at the solution: perhaps it is better not to condemn the radicals, but instead try to prevent them from feeling bullied or picked on.

In the second season, a campaign is started in which the PDS sufferers have to ‘give back to the community’ in order to regain their citizenship. They need this in order to have valid passports, because rumours have it that life for PDS sufferers is better on the continent. All PDS sufferers are signed up by the local council and attendance is mandatory if they want their re-citizenship. There is an interesting piece of dialogue here, between one of the PDS sufferers and the one handing out the necessary items and forms to the subscripted:

“Why do I have to do this programme?”
“Because of who you are, mate.”
“I’m a small business owner.”
“You’re also a PDS.”[9]

There seems to be a political message behind this dialogue, namely that the occupations or professions, or perhaps even personalities of integrating minority groups are at times overlooked, and that people from minority groups are often stigmatised as being part of that minority group and not for their individual merits.

Xenophobia, religion, and militarism
The other side of the coin of socio-criticism in In The Flesh is xenophobia, religion, and militarism. The villagers of Roarton, where the series is set, have suffered greatly under the attacks of the hungry zombie hordes. They first turned to the government, which had promised military support to the country, but it turns out that clearing the cities from the zombies took longer than expected. So they were forced to found the Human Volunteer Force. Roarton was the first village to draft and arm civilians in the fight against the zombies, and in doing so, inspired other cities to do so as well. The force became a militia, wearing army-coloured clothes,berets, and ribbons. As the ones fighting off the hostile zombies, they have only seen their hostile side, and have lost comrades to them. This is probably why they are also portrayed as the main source of discrimination and xenophobia towards the PDS sufferers when they return to society.

When in a crisis situation, people tend to also seek spiritual guidance, and religion is a very adaptable tool and guiding force. The local parish in Roarton is well attended by the HVF soldiers, and their captain is seen asking the vicar for a mental boost and rousing sermon in several occasions. These two parties, then, go hand in hand. Yet, the church is portrayed as the source of the xenophobia and small-mindedness that the HVF and some villagers display. The vicar often quotes from the Biblical book of Revelations, which includes passages on the rising of the dead. He is also fond of the metaphors of wolves and sheep: he praises the captain of the HVF as the shepherd who led his flock to safety, and calls the zombies the wolves. He states that a wolf is a wolf, no matter how much you drug him; “it is in the nature of the beast.”[10]

The show also illustrates people acting on their xenophobia: the first time that the HVF hear that PDS sufferers have re-integrated into their village as well, they go on a hunt and execute a harmless, elderly, female PDS sufferer on the street. The soldier is reluctant to shoot her at first, because she looks human, but after he has asked her to remove her contact lenses, which dehumanises her, he is able to pull the trigger. This can be interpreted in the way that discrimination and violence against minority groups happens or is made easier because they also tend to be dehumanised and undervalued.

Politics, or; the paper shield of the law
As stated before, one of the themes that In The Flesh shares with Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is the failure of politics. Phillips states on the portrayal of the government in Romero’s film: “military and scientific officials seem more interested in […] explanations […] than providing for the survival of the citizenry.”[11]The failure of politics in In The Flesh is most clearly shown in the first episode when an MP appears in the local church to talk to the villagers, many of whom  are HVF. He must soon answer for the fact that the government forces came very late to the (rescue) party, which forced Roarton to found the HVF. He explains this by the fact that the clearing out of the cities took longer than expected. He reminds the villagers of the Protection Act, which is there to protect the PDS sufferers, to which one of the soldiers responds “And who will protect us?”[12] The MP also reminds them that the PDS sufferers form no threat to them because they are treated and in control. When asked what happens in the scenario that one misses or does not take his medication, he states that “let me assure you that, legally, they should take their medication,” and he also mentions the information on their website.[13]This causes an outcry in the church. This scene shows the stark contrast between theoretical legislation and its practical consequences.

The political system, then, seems to be portrayed as pure bureaucracy, and the government functioning, not as a powerful, physical force, but as a powerless paper shield for its people. What is also striking in this scene is the contrast between the colloquial or common language of the people and the very artificial, politically correct language of the MP. It shows how disconnected politics is from the people and how they cannot communicate with one another. It is also the reason why some of the more populist political parties gain a huge popularity by reconnecting with the common man. They tend to employ colloquial terms and language, or show themselves doing things that the common man can relate to, such as UKIP leader Nigel Farage celebrating good results in the pub.[14] This is exactly what the new MP, Maxine Martin, in the second season of In The Flesh does. She belongs to a popular, nationalist party called Victus – one that is rather outspoken in its anti-PDS policies.

The founding of the ULA also stresses the failing of politics, since the Protection Act seems to work insufficiently. The PDS sufferers feel the need to start a movement on their own to secure their protection; the Protection Act clearly did not protect them from, for example, the mass murderer who got a lower sentence because a PDS sufferer only counts for half a life. They feel unprotected and undervalued. They feel that they have to stand up for themselves because the political system has failed them.

In conclusion, In The Flesh makes clever use of the zombie film tropes to convey critical moral and socio-political messages. By rewriting the plot to one in which the zombies reintegrate into society, the series is able to mirror and reflect modern, real-life society and its issues relating to the immigration and acceptance of minorities. The way that the PDS sufferers are treated, and the great discourse of all the individuals and parties involved, gives the viewer an overview of all opinions on all sides of the debate around immigration and assimilation of minorities. Politics, too, is criticised and portrayed as a failed system.The government has lost its ability to communicate with the common man, and believes that its laws will be upheld because they are the law.

As said before, the way in which In The Flesh differs from works like Romero’s is in how it employs parallel structures to convey its criticism, instead of doing so metaphorically. Besides this, it can also be said that while regular horror works dehumanise the undead for the sake of the contrast with humans. Yet,In The Flesh actually seems to humanise its undead and dehumanise the living.

Perhaps the Second Rising that is sought in the second season should not be sought among the dead, but among the living: for the living seem to be mindless zombies, trapped in routine and unable or unwilling to adapt to new groups entering their collective self. The undead, on the other hand, seem more alive than ever, and have more of a life than everyone else. Perhaps the living should rise again, above themselves, and show themselves in a new, better form.

Works Cited:

1. Phillips, Kendall R. Projected Fears: Horror Films and American Culture. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005. Print. p. 97.
Nelson, John S. “Horror Films Face Political Evils in Everyday Life” Political Communication 22.3. Iowa, IA: Iowa UP (2006). Print. p. 382.
Paffenroth, Kim. Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero’s Visions of Hell on Earth. Waco, TX: Baylor UP (2006). Print.
Ryan, Michael, and Douglas Kellner. Camera Politica: The Politics and Idealogy of Contemporary Hollywood Film. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1988. Print. p. 169.
“Season 2 episode 4” In The Flesh. Writ. Dominic Mitchell. Dir. Damon Thomas.BBC Three, 2014.AVI.
“Season 1 episode 2” In The Flesh.Writ. Dominic Mitchell. Dir. Jim O’Hanlon.BBC Three, 2014.AVI.
“Season 2 episode 1” In The Flesh.Writ. Dominic Mitchell. Dir. Jim O’Hanlon.BBC Three, 2014.AVI.
“Season 2 episode 1” In The Flesh.Writ. Dominic Mitchell. Dir. Jim O’Hanlon.BBC Three, 2014.AVI.
“Season 2 episode 2” In The Flesh.Writ. Dominic Mitchell. Dir. Jim O’Hanlon.BBC Three, 2014.AVI.
“Season 2 episode 1” In The Flesh.Writ. Dominic Mitchell. Dir. Jim O’Hanlon.BBC Three, 2014.AVI.
Phillips, Kendall R. Projected Fears: Horror Films and American Culture. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005. Print. p. 97.
“Season 1 episode 1” In The Flesh.Writ. Dominic Mitchell. Dir. Jonny Campbell.BBC Three, 2013.AVI.
“Season 1 episode 1” In The Flesh.Writ. Dominic Mitchell. Dir. Jonny Campbell.BBC Three, 2013.AVI.
“European election: UKIP’s Nigel Farage celebrates at the pub.” BBC.BBC.com. 26 May 2014. Web. 20 May 2015.

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