Zombies: Industrialized Alienation in the New World

16 January 2011


I was just re-watching the classic horror film White Zombie with Bela Lugosi and I was reminded of something I wrote in regard to another classic film. I’m not sure if you would want to call Fritz Lang’s Metropolis a horror film or a science fiction film, as it contains elements of both. It is almost amazing in retrospect how many early film classics are horror films — think of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Golem, Vampyr, and Häxan, inter alia — as the horror genre is not today known for its cinematic excellence.

An industrial worker carries the weight of the industrialized city on his back.

An industrial worker carries the weight of the industrialized city on his back, lit glowing red from below like Hell or a blast furnace.

In Fear of the Future I wrote the following:

Disaffection with and alienation from industrialized society is a function of the failure to achieve a social consensus for living in industrialized society. Without a social consensus, society drifts and is utterly at the mercy of the dehumanizing forces of industrialization. Fears of dehumanization manifested themselves early in the history of cinema, most notably in the classic 1927 Fritz Lang film Metropolis. The film is perhaps best remembered in science fiction annals for its elegant female robot, but just as central are the relentless images of mechanized and industrialized dehumanization. There are not only dark and looming cities, a Stygian labyrinth in which the unwary are consumed by the beast that is industrialization, but we are also shown industrial workers who are literally crucified on timeclocks, sacrificed to mind-numbing labor.

The figure of a worker crucified on a timeclock is a powerful and disturbing image, and the image that stuck with me from Metropolis much more than the robot who is usually cited from film. But this particular image of industrialized alienation is particularly applicable to the European cultural context of which Fritz Lang was part. A worker crucified on a timeclock, sacrificed to dehumanizing industrial labor, is a factory worker from one of the large industrialized factories of Europe. This typifies the experience of industrialization in the Old World, and holds good also for the large industrial centers of the New World, but there are other forms of industrialized labor in the New World.

Crucified upon the face of a clock: hourly wage labor as a sacrifice demanded by industrialized society.

Crucified upon the face of a clock: hourly wage labor as a sacrifice demanded by industrialized society.

Europe, which industrialized before the rest of the world, made itself the first workshop of the world, and in so doing covered itself in factories that drew in the raw materials of the world, only to produce commodities from these raw materials which could then in turn be exported. With most of the value-added production performed in Europe, many other parts of the world first experienced industrialization in the form of the industrial scale extraction of raw materials. Everyone has heard of the Gold Rush of 1849, which had peculiar characteristics because of the cultural resonance of gold, but this was not the only rush to wealth in resource extraction. In the Pacific Northwest, timber and fishing were the resource extraction industries. In Appalachia and parts of the Mid-West, coal mining was the resource extraction industry.

Before timber and coal, many early fortunes in the New World were won in sugar production, and sugar production was centered in the West Indies. In fact, in the West Indies it was so profitable to produce sugar that it didn’t make sense to produce anything else, and so it rapidly came about that much of the Caribbean was devoted to a monoculture export crop of sugar. The Carolinas were settled not directly from Europe, but from the West Indies, from where the Carolinas were developed to produce food and supplies for the sugar industry.

One of the most striking scenes early in White Zombie is a visit to a sugar mill where we see the zombified workers dumping raw sugar cane, as well as operating the mill. Their movements are robotic; the faces are without expression; the workers are utterly dehumanized. No doubt the size and profitability of the sugar industry in the West Indies rapidly produced an industrialized economy in places like Haiti, where the film is set, which also had the folk traditions of West Africa at its disposal from the large slave population. A large scale industry like the sugar industry in the Caribbean produces not only the commodity that is its raison d’être, but also the conditions of alienated labor.

The zombified workers in the sugar mill represent industrialized alienated labor in a resource extraction industry in the New World in the same way that workers crucified upon mechanized timeclocks represent industrialized alienated labor in the factory system of Europe’s industrialized revolution. We note that zombie films are well represented — in quantity if not quality — in the history of film. Even today, zombie films are produced in significant numbers and can be quite popular. It is impossible not to notice in this connection that some of the most recent successful zombie films have identified zombies with the alienated labor of the office workplace, which in advanced industrialized society is the primary form of industrialized labor as the factory system has moved to what was once the Third World.

The image of the zombie is one of the most haunting and sinister of cinema, and we see here that the famous Shakespearean formulation of theater holds as well for cinema:

“…the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ’twere the
mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own
image, and the very age and body of the time his form and

What has changed is that “playing” now holds the mirror up not to nature, but to the unnatural surrogate for nature that has emerged since the Industrial Revolution and which defines our lives in the industrial paradigm of integral history.

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One Response to “Zombies: Industrialized Alienation in the New World”

  1. […] also this January 2011 blog: “Zombies: Industrialized Alienation in the New World”: writing: One of the most striking scenes early in White Zombie is a visit to a sugar mill where we […]

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