Pandemics in Pop Culture: What Zombies and Deserted Landscapes Tell us About Life After Lockdown

Representations of pandemics on-screen reflect and shape our beliefs about some of the most pressing social issues, like contagion, migration and urban life.

“Select a plague type” beckons my phone screen. Bacteria, fungus or bio-weapon?

Since 2012, and for less than a pound, the mobile game Plague, Inc has allowed players to become a viral outbreak. To “win”, you must evolve and proliferate across the globe. In the early weeks of COVID-19, between watching rolling news headlines and World Health Organisation reports, I found myself playing it almost every day.

I wasn’t alone. Plague, Inc, a long-term top seller, reached record downloads in the UK and many other countries as early as January. Within weeks, apocalyptic virus films like Contagion and Outbreak were trending on streaming platforms. For comfort, solace and to make sense of a moment laden with uncertainty, we reached for entertainment.  In his Sight & Soundlockdown diary, Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar wrote: “The current reality is easier to understand as a fantasy fiction than a realist story.”

Although they are often spectacular, film, television, and video game representations of pandemics should not be dismissed as mere escapist fantasy, however. They employ plot elements, metaphors, visual and audio cues that both reflect and actively shape — sometimes skew — our beliefs and perceptions. These representations have real-world consequences.

The Use of Metaphor

Metaphor and allegory are two of the most powerful devices in entertainment. They help us to make sense of the world by suggesting mental shortcuts that help draw connections between issues. When it comes to pandemics, few characters embody our own society’s anxiety over containment, among other concerns, as the zombie – a persistent staple of horror and fantasy genres.

Whereas bacteria and viruses are invisible assailants, zombies are conspicuous monsters. From the heaving masses in TheWalking Dead comics and TV series, to the flesh-eating, acid-spitting armies of Resident Evil games and movies, the threat of infection and its consequences are made visible – and therefore defeatable. A bullet to the head is better than a vaccine. First-person shooter games that put zombies at the centre of the action have boomed in the last two decades.

Even Call of Duty features “Nazi zombies” in its 2008 release World at War. As COVID-19 began to spread, gun sales spiked across the United States. For years, groups of “preppers” like Zombie Squad and Kansas Anti-Zombie Militia have touted survival strategies and preparedness kits in the advent of any disaster – from floods to nuclear war – while advocating for expanded gun-ownership rights. Their logic: if you are ready for zombies, you are ready for anything.

Dahlia Schweitzer, author of Going Viral: Zombies, Viruses, and the End of the World, suggests that today’s zombies represent a dystopian vision of what humanity could become, feeding into existing anxieties about social concerns, from globalisation to the climate crisis. Yet the “undead” have acted as stand-ins for various fears throughout history. Mary Shelley’s 1823 century novel Frankenstein interrogated what it means to be human in the enlightenment battle between science and religion – its full title Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus explicitly referencing the danger apparent when men act as gods.

Zombies, a concept appropriated from Haitian spirituality, made their first cinematic appearance in White Zombie just a year after James Whale’s acclaimed 1931 film adaptation of Frankenstein. By the 1930’s, “American empire” and its colonial legacy was suffering: the Great Depression was exacerbating existing inequalities, while the US was losing grip of its military occupation in Haiti.

White Zombie brought these anxieties to the fore, interrogating the consequences of slavery and forced labour through a villainous, wealthy slave-owner – Murder Legendre – who controls an island of Black zombies. The film swings between subverting and reinforcing racial hierarchies, constructing Haiti as dangerous and backwards, while letting the “less than human” zombies mindlessly topple over a cliff as soon as Legendre control is broken.

As neither dead nor alive, neither human nor inhuman, the zombie occupies an in-between zone, or what Penny Crofts and Anthea Vogl call a “transgression of borders.” Creators often play on this tension with actual borders: fences in Land of the Dead, a corn labyrinth in The Maze Runner, the wall around Jerusalem in World War Z – fortifications that seem to protect people from “outside” threats. Until of course, they are breached, and the “threat” becomes internal.

These visuals connect zombies to popular and dehumanising discourse around migrants. The Walking Dead is laden with aerial shots of nameless and faceless “hordes” traveling in packs. Thousands of zombies make their way over the border wall in World War Z, crawling up like a “slow-moving bacterial infection” and flooding back down like a river. An oversaturated “yellow filter” – reserved for countries the West deems to be “dangerous” – makes the scene look unnatural, unsettling and dangerous.

Yet zombie movies frequently reveal that man, not monster, is the true threat to humanity. Border walls and detention centres may be employed as strategies for safety but The Walking Dead repeatedly reminds us that it is armed human beings – not zombie “walkers” – that ultimately imperil our heroes’ survival. Ben, Night of the Living Dead’s Black protagonist, survives the zombie apocalypse only to be gunned down by a white militia vigilante who assumes he is one of the monsters they are pursuing. This social commentary has not lost its relevance over 50 years after it first hit cinema screens.

Visual Cues

Colour and Space

Images of eerily empty city streets are another mainstay of the Covid-19 lockdown era. These are hauntingly deserted landscapes we’ve seen before, however. As photojournalist Jonathan Jones notes: “Take a walk through quiet streets for your daily exercise and you come across vistas sci-fi has spent more than a century preparing us for.”

The opening scene in 28 Days Later glimpses the silent post-apocalyptic streets of London after the release of a highly contagious virus. Stills from the film have populated countless news reports over recent months.  In 12 Monkeys, Bruce Willis’s character roams through the streets of Philadelphia, surrounded by derelict buildings covered in graffiti. Survivors in The Last of Us and The Last of Us Part 2 make their way through cities like Boston, Pittsburgh, and Seattle now abandoned, overgrown and menacing.

Imagery of a city in ruins – so prevalent in films and video games about pandemics – signals a world on the brink of disaster or one that has already catastrophically ended. Many viewers are drawn to this aesthetic, as historian Dora Apel argues, which can elicit a sense of beauty, adventure and the promise of transgression. For example, through an open world setting in a post-nuclear apocalypse game like Fallout: New Vegas.

Many of these images are rooted in and speak back to the centuries-old idea that cities are dangerous – plagued by overcrowding, squalid housing, unsafe working conditions, criminal activity, poor sanitation – places to flee at the height of a pandemic. From “Spanish flu” and “Asiatic cholera” to the “Chinese virus,” racialised notions of who is to blame for disease have historically led to citywide xenophobic panics, forced quarantine and coercive controls. Dracula (1931), dressed in the cloak of a European aristocrat, stoked the same fears of infectious disease spread by the foreigner “other.”

This tension is the same one that plays out in many apocalyptic films and games, where extreme destruction and sudden deterioration as a result of viral outbreaks seem both sudden and inevitable. Contagion (2011), a film that was hailed as a more realistic portrayal of pandemics taking inspiration from SARS and flu outbreaks, still had the virus spread to 26 million people in a matter of days. It took four months for COVID-19 to hit one million infections globally. In 28 Days Later, it took less than a month for society to collapse; I Am Legend’s genetically re-engineered measles virus rapidly wiped out 90% of the world.

In the real world, however, the destruction of pandemics is neither inevitable nor sudden. For many, the realities of responding to COVID-19 has slowly reaffirmed the structural inequalities that already exist. The pandemic and decades of underfunding has ravaged care homes in the UK, while systemic racism and discrimination has brought high death tolls to BAME communities. As we’ve seen with climate change – and the popularity of The Day After Tomorrow – high-speed disaster films are much easier to sell than slow death and melting ice capsBut in the midst of COVID-19, we have an opportunity to imagine beyond the apocalypse.

Where to Next?

Arundhati Roy recently wrote: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”

How will creators of entertainment approach this portal and what genres will convey this moment? Will cinema and gaming stick to virus-spreading monsters and disaster imagery or opt for a different kind of storytelling?

Some answers are already emerging.

After the initial surge of interest in pandemic-centric media, viewers soon reached for the mundane. The reality TV show Gogglebox reflected the experiences of millions under lockdown and the disruption to our day-to-day lives. More than offering familiarity and routine, Gogglebox grapples with feelings of monotony, isolation, dread, and confusion (and anger) over government news reports – all while parked in front of the telly. Gogglebox doesn’t just contextualise the current moment – it is the current moment.

The game Animal Crossing: New Horizons has similarly brought semblance of normalcy and connection to millions of players. Marriages have taken place, protests have been organised, memorials have been erected and gifts have been exchanged – all on virtual islands populated by human avatars and animal neighbours. Far from spectacular, these activities revel in our desire for quotidian interaction – even more intimate when played on a handheld version of the Nintendo Switch. Even I Am Legend’sprotagonist Robert Neville relied on routine (though in his case that involved visiting the DVD store, urban deer hunting, and shooting Darkseekers).

Gamers are meanwhile foregoing high-budget graphics and veering towards low-fi intimacy. The fantastical game Solitary Spacecraft, made under lockdown, features stripped-down graphics and confine the player to a single room. This small “autobiographical fiction” game hits a complex emotional chord of life under lockdown. Similar lived experience is reflected in ITV’s four-part Isolation Stories, entirely written, filmed, directed and edited under lockdown. While compelling, these “bitesize quarantine dramas” highlight the technical challenges of TV production in a pandemic.

With lockdown measures making filming impossible, producers are turning to animation, “triggering a boom that may outlast the current crisis.” Infections and the apocalypse are not new areas for animators. The 2001 animated action-comedy Osmosis Jones shows the fight against a deadly virus from the perspective of a white blood cell police officer. WALL-E, a robot-themed love story and “cautionary dystopia,” sparked multi-generational conversations about hyper-consumerism and environmental degradation; and it didn’t even “star Al Gore or Greenpeace activists.” As the popularity of Inside Out revealed, animation is a powerful vehicle for many tough and complex issues, from mental health to pandemics.

Post-pandemic, there’s an opportunity to look beyond dystopian entertainment. The apocalypse is not the only storytelling of which we are capable of.  We have discovered that life under lockdown is not a zombie movie. We cannot defeat COVID-19 armed with weapons. We care about the people infected, and we recognize that survival requires cooperation, not fear-mongering. These realisations should continue to shape the media we make and consume – and the way we act in the world.

As for Plague, Inc, the team at Ndemic Creations is already working on a new game mode for Plague, Inc. This time players are trying to save the world rather than destroy it.