The Working Dead: Reviving the Crowd as a Protagonist

Humanity is not disposable. But disaster films — and neoliberal politics — sure act like it.

In the final scene of 28 Days Later, a 2002 movie about a virus that transforms people into rage-filled monsters, a fighter jet scrambles over the English countryside. Two survivors spell out a message using sewn-together bedsheets on a bucolic green field: HELL, it reads, as they race to add an O before the jet passes overhead. They jump up and down, wave their arms, and hope that this time it will notice them.

Life imitated art in September 2005, as President George W. Bush looked down from his helicopter at spray-painted pleas for help on the rooftops of New Orleans, two weeks after Hurricane Katrina. It echoed again in early May 2020, as health care workers demanding sufficient personal protective equipment, living wages, and regular testing to support their efforts to battle the COVID-19 pandemic instead got a state-sponsored flyover from the Blue Angels.

It has become cliché to call health care workers our “heroes,” but by invoking the precise label that we give to those we are sending off to die in war, at least we are being honest. Indeed, hundreds of thousands of people have already died from COVID-19, and many more surely will — especially those who are forced back to work amidst the pandemic. The virus is unmasking an ugly truth: racial capitalism treats workers’ lives as utterly disposable, and — as the knee of Derek Chauvin on the neck of George Floyd painfully reminds us — the lives of Black people especially so.

The logic of human disposability is woven into much of the cinema of the last three decades, after the “end of history” and the global triumph of neoliberal capitalism — particularly in movies about zombies, plagues, and apocalypses. In such movies, the directors ask us to grow emotionally attached to the central protagonist’s efforts to survive, to save those close to him (and it is usually a “him”), and very often to save the world, too. If others in the film drown in a tsunami, get tackled by zombies, or succumb to a bloody cough, their deaths carry very little emotional weight, if any.

We may feel some anguish over what happens to the peripheral people, but as a rule, disaster movies convey the idea that they do not matter: they are just faces in the crowd. If a crowd appears at all, it is as a set of weaklings in need of rescue, or as rubes who can be ignored or kept in the dark, or even as the movie’s antagonist — a horde that must be eluded or obliterated. The crowd is never allowed to make an intervention as a protagonist; in most of these imagined futures, the crowd does not have a place.

On the movie set, the crowd is called the extras — they are literally surplus people. In the film itself, they become texture, non-characters, dissolving into the background. Larger crowds are made of computer-generated images, people who never even existed in the first place. The movie audience is itself a crowd — one that is not supposed to speak, but only listen. Caught up in a movie’s narrative, we may identify with the central characters, but as we shuffle out of the darkness of the theater or watch the credits start to roll from our couch, we know that most of us belong to the crowd. What fate awaits us?

The Weaklings and the Rubes

In many Hollywood disaster films, the crowd is portrayed as potential victims who have no role to play except to await rescue or annihilation, or as panic-prone dimwits incapable of handling difficult truths. The powerful figures in these films are engaged in projects that are more important than the lives of those beneath them. Widespread suffering and death are inevitable, irrelevant, and maybe even the point.

One example is Outbreak (1995), which opens with an Ebola-like illness tearing through a guerilla army camp in Zaire in 1967. US military doctors arrive to “help”, taking a sample of the virus to develop a biological weapon, and then wiping out the guerillas (and anti-colonial struggle) with an airstrike. Fast-forward to the 1990s: the virus is back, and people begin suffering hemorrhagic fevers in a sunny California town, overwhelming the hospital. The army imposes martial law and intends on bombing the town to preserve its biological weapon. Doctors race to find a cure and save the town, deus ex vaccinum.

The US military’s semi-fictional arsenal continues to grow in The Core (2003), as a seismic weapons test stops the earth’s center from spinning, initiating a chain reaction which will soon cook the planet with solar radiation. The film’s elites are so worried about how people would react to the news of the imminent destruction that they hire the world’s best hacker to prevent all related internet posting — though it becomes hard to ignore the Golden Gate Bridge (but somehow not the hoods of the cars on it?) melting into a boiling San Francisco Bay. The plot exudes a distinctly Musk-y odor: the masses are saved by a small group of technocrats who drill down into the core and reboot it with nuclear bombs.

The crowds are not so lucky in 2012 (2009). The planet is accelerating towards its “expiration date” — a geological and climate crisis that only a small circle of high-ranking political, economic, and military figures know is coming. They sell billion-euro tickets to spaceship-sized arks, making room for the Mona Lisa and other valuable works — but not for the workers who built the ships. As the floodwaters rise, a crowd begs for passage, but those on board pull up the ladders. A small group of unauthorized people sneak into one of the boats, but nearly capsize it in the process. The rest of the planet perishes.

In the overwhelming and seemingly-uncontrollable tumult of events in these movies, the crowd should not expect to survive; there is only room in the future for a select few. If humanity lives, they owe it to the very experts responsible for the crisis in the first place. People must remain in their place; those who go where they do not belong endanger everyone. This idea is taken to an extreme in zombie films, where the crowd, by breaching protective boundaries, becomes the enemy.

The Horde

Marx once observed that the tradition of dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living — and in many zombie movies, they gnaw on those brains, too. In Train to Busan (2016) and 28 Days Later (2002), however, such “zombies” are not reanimated corpses; rather, they are human beings morphed into monstrous creatures by an infection. These zombies are capitalism’s worst nightmare: an unruly and destructive crowd whose ascendancy breaks down the existing order that produced them. The bourgeoisie has finally conjured its own — and unfortunately, everyone else’s — gravediggers.

Train to Busan and 28 Days Later are “fast-zombie” films: in contrast with the meandering pace of earlier iterations of cinematic undead, the infected here pursue their quarry at full clip. They swarm over their victims in a gnashing and terrible blur, transforming them almost instantly into another member of the horde. Those who become infected cannot be cured; they can — indeed they must — be either killed or outrun. The crowd cannot be saved; it is the calamity and the people must be saved from it.

The main characters in both films begin as strangers to one another. To survive, they must learn to work together in a world where they can be their brother’s keeper or their brother’s reaper. They must look out for one another in a double-sense: caring for those close to them and guarding against others who are not. The films deliver moral lessons about solidarity and self-sacrifice, but only through individualized and microscopic examples; the great and growing mass of others is excluded.

What makes someone an “other”? In 28 Days Later, just as in real-world categories inscribed by antiblack racism, all it takes is one drop of blood. When Frank, a taxi driver and protective father, is accidentally infected, he quickly tells his teenage daughter that he loves her — and then demands she keep away from him, his words contorting to animalistic snarls. In Train to Busan, the various train compartments segment different groups of survivors from each other and from the infected. Some survivors refuse to open their compartment to another group of survivors, and demand that they leave after they manage to get in — recalling the exclusionary deportation politics of our own world.

Many of the films’ most gruesome events are not what the infected do to the people, but rather what the people do to one another. Yet these actions always take place in the shadow of a threatening horde. While the zombies clearly have some significant intellectual limitations (for example, they struggle with both language and doorknobs), the horde has something that other disaster movies’ dimwits and weaklings do not: collective power. It is telling that such power only features as a diseased and destructive force in our films. As mainstream punditry’s false equivalencies remind us, populism is dangerous.

The Carnage

Workers are not zombies, of course. They have brains and can think, and they perform work that enables life and on which our world depends: caring for the elderly, stocking grocery store shelves, delivering packages, cleaning hospitals, driving busses, and more. These workers — usually women and people of color — have jobs which have been designated as essential. But as their lack of safety protections and high infection rates show, their lives are not granted the same status.

Many other workers have already been cast aside: over 42 million people in the US have lost their jobs, and they have lost their employer-based health care coverage if they had it to begin with. Now they risk losing their temporarily-improved unemployment benefits if their boss demands they go back to work. None had the kind of job that could be accomplished by jockeying a laptop all day. They worked in places where they sweated and got hurt, where supervisors monitored their bathroom breaks, a computer algorithm determined their schedules, and where they could only open the cash register with a fingerprint scanner under the watchful eye of an overhead security camera.

The reactionary #Reopen protests of this spring aimed to put workers squarely back in their place. The shouts of “Give me liberty or give me death!” were beyond deceptive: these protestors were not seeking liberation, but rather license to decide that others should die so that they might be served. Scrambling to maintain their own race and class position, they planned to shove service workers towards the infection, below the flood, into the fire.

These protests offered a decayed reflection early days of the #Resistance, where highly-memed placards like “If Hillary Was President, We’d All Be at Brunch” rendered invisible the lives and work of the immigrant farmworkers, line cooks, waitstaff and dishwashers who would be preparing that brunch and mopping up afterwards. Those being served by our current system — a bipartisan coalition similar in class character although tonally distinct — are quite used to being asked: may I take your order?

To capital, workers are only essential insofar as they serve to support the existence of the real protagonists and generate profits through their labor. Otherwise, they are disposable: the working dead.

The bodies of two workers — one Black, one Latino — are still half-buried in the construction site rubble of the New Orleans Hard Rock Hotel, decomposing since its collapse in October 2019. Like the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, or the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, or thousands of others at the hands of police in the US, they are as devalued in death as they were in life. Black victims of police murder are often killed several times — their bodies left in the street for hours, their names dragged through the mud of racist propaganda and media speculation that seeks to blame them for being killed.

The reassertion — via mass mobilization — that their lives held intrinsic meaning is cast as a monstrous and violent act, regardless of whether any windows are broken. The real tragedy is that wealthy white people can no longer frolic in our cities, as a Trump ally recently lamented: “We could lose it so easily.” Order must be restored. The horde is at the gates. The others are threatening to go where they do not belong.

Corpse Reviver

To find a heroic crowd intervention on the big screen, we must look to a slightly different genre: 2002’s Spider-Man, which was rewritten and reshot after 9/11 to marshal the pseudo-solidarity of the day. A group of New Yorkers help Spiderman symbolically defeat terrorism by tossing bricks, balls, and bats at the Green Goblin from the Queensboro bridge, proclaiming “If you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us!” This minor flirtation with collective action did not last: in 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, half of all existence is simply erased by a snap of Thanos’ fingers.

The catastrophes portended by the neoliberal cinematic imagination — taking shape before our eyes today — can still be averted. But it will require different protagonists. Defeating fascism will require a mass movement of historic proportions led by the multi-racial working class. So too will the battle against climate change. Defeating COVID-19 also demands mass participation — in ongoing social distancing, and in escalating actions to win stronger economic relief, social insurance, and health care for all. Those in the streets protesting our nation’s murderous and militarized police are leading the way.

A crisis — from the Greek root krísis, meaning a decisive turning point in a disease resulting in either recovery or death — is upon us. Death has already arrived for too many. For any hope of recovery, we cannot cede the public square, but rather we must reclaim it — courageously and with care for one another. “The people must defend themselves,” Salvador Allende counseled the Chilean people in his farewell address, “but they must not sacrifice themselves… Go forward knowing that, sooner rather than later, the great avenues will open again where free [people] will walk to build a better society.”

Just as in our disaster movies, the politics of the last few decades has offered little room in the frame for the crowd. Though we shout, the powerful do not hear us. Their vision is lacking; they do not see us waving and unfurling our banners on the lawn. But we should not despair that they ignore and overlook us. Our slogans are not truly meant for them, for they cannot rescue us from the reality that they created.

From COVID-19 to killer cops to climate change, morbid symptoms abound. Social movements are breathing life back into the world, reclaiming it for all of humanity — and we are planting our flags to summon others to our side, to build a more powerful crowd.

This essay originally appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books blog on 6/25/20.