I spent much of my early life as an avid fan of horror. I watched any film with monsters, serial killers, or vengeful ghosts. The stark moralism of horror movies was easy to discern and follow. I was familiar with the genre’s ethics. I was ready for the gruesome punishment that awaited those who didn’t follow the rules. Horror made sense because actions had consequences. Terrible people met terrible but expected fates, unlike in everyday life. There was comfort in knowing that, at least in the fictional universes of horror, rules were enforced. It is really no surprise that I started writing about zombies and horror in American culture. I was primed to do so; but more than that, I wanted to understand the relationship between fantasy and reality. How did they inform one another? How did fantasy affect us? I sought to figure out how pop culture trains us to approach our world. What I found is that horror no longer comforted me. Instead, I’m left queasy and anxious by the ethics of zombie apocalypses. Zombies keep me up at night. I worried about what zombie media teaches us to do. The following excerpt from The Zombies Are Coming! shows my disquiet about the relationship of zombies to guns.
“Dear Lord, please let there be a zombie apocalypse so I can start shooting all these motherfuckers in the face.” —Someecards user card
In pop culture, killing zombies requires weapons, lots of them, and usually, these weapons are guns. Zombie films often feel like homages to the gun, with characters taking out one zombie after another, and protagonists making improbably accurate shots. Guns emerge as crucial for survival against zombies. Fans, preppers, and interested others avidly discuss which weapons will best serve you if the undead appear. Not surprisingly, gun and ammunition manufacturers as well as outdoor merchandisers create, market, and sell a variety of zombie-killing tools and accessories. Remember, preparation equals survival . . . or so they hope.
Hornady offers Zombie Max ammunition in nine different cartridge sizes, ranging in price from $21 to $39. The promotional materials urge, “Be PREPARED—supply yourself for the Zombie Apocalypse.” This is ammunition specially designed to kill zombies, though Hornady warns that this is “live” ammunition, not a toy. Thus, “[n]o human being, plant, animal, vegetable, or mineral should ever be shot” with this ammunition. Gerber Gear provides an Apocalypse Survival Kit ($349) that contains three machetes, three knives, an axe, and a durable carrying case. This kit appeared on the second season of The Walking Dead. The product description references zombies:
What if it happens? What if our worst fears are realized? If the Dead walk, the continuation of the human race will become a daily struggle. Are you prepared to protect and defend your family and friends? Your best chance lies in the Gerber Apocalypse Survival Kit.
Knives, axes, and bullets were marketed as especially for killing the walking dead. These products are marketed as actual weapons and gear, but their intended targets are imaginary. Fans can purchase these bullets or machetes, but no zombies exist for the weapons’ use. Yet.
Intriguingly, in December of 2012, the Huffington Post reported a spike in gun sales and background checks after Black Friday. ABC News reported that gun stores could not keep up with the demand for guns and ammo. Gun store owners attributed this to the reelection of President Obama, zombies, and doomsday prep more generally. Steve Parsons, the owner of the Houston Armory (a gun store), told ABC that he couldn’t keep Hornady’s Zombie Max in stock. While the reelection of President Obama and fears about gun control might seem expected (yet still troubling) as reasons for gun sales, how are we to understand the inclusion of zombies? Why were zombies on the minds of gun purchasers? When did a movie monster become a reason for purchasing weapons?
The popularity of zombie films and The Walking Dead definitely contributed to the rise of zombie marketing for weapons and zombie targets, but it doesn’t entirely explain this interest. Guns and Ammo produced a special issue (“Zombie Nation”) about this fad with a featured article on an AR-15 assault rifle modified for zombie killing. At Salon, Marc Herman reports on Spike’s Tactical, a Florida company that created a zombie trigger assembly for the AR-15 with a selector that has three options—”live,” “dead,” or “undead.” The zombie trigger sold so well that it has been on back order. Herman notes that the zombie fad in guns and ammo allows for new weapons and accessories that “dance on the edge of gun-law loopholes.” While high-power weapons might appear useful for killing the resurrected dead, Herman emphasizes, “it’s harder to justify in non-zombie settings.” I certainly hope this is the case.
Indeed, high-power and high-caliber weapons for zombie killing employ fantasy to justify guns that might otherwise violate gun laws. Do products made for killing zombies allow fantasy to trump reality? It seems so. I can’t help but wonder about the consequences of marketing real weapons for fantasy targets. Weapons for zombies can also maim, harm, and kill humans. Who are these zombies that purchasers want to eradicate? Who might these zombies represent?
In addition to zombie weapons, there is also a burgeoning market for zombie targets, both paper and 3D, to practice using those weapons and others. Paper targets offer a variety of zombies, from clowns to brides and grooms. But, simulating a zombie apocalypse becomes easier with eerily realistic 3D targets. One such producer of these targets is Zombie Industries. They offer a line of 3D bleeding zombie targets “designed to help YOU prepare for the next Zombie outbreak that our World’s leaders, even to this very day, are keeping top-secret.” The hand-painted zombies are made in the USA, and seek to “resemble an infected human that just finished gnawing your neighbor.” This supposedly realistic appearance helps “you really feel the hate.” The line of bleeding targets contains fifteen different models: five animals (including a zombified pig or kangaroo), an alien, a clown, a Nazi, a terrorist (who looks like Osama bin Laden), a TV director/producer, an ex-girlfriend, a grave-digger, “Chris,” “Leo,” and “Rocky.” The prices range from $49.95-$89.95. Additionally, they offer a “Sons of Guns” Apocalypse kit ($15, 999.95), which includes 250 3D zombie targets as well as 250 ZOMBOOM! exploding rifle targets that can be placed inside the zombies to make them explode when shot. The targets ooze paint and come apart graphically when shot. Trust me on this. The website provides YouTube videos to document what happens to the targets when they are shot. With repeated shots, hunks of synthetic flesh falls off, and the faces and torsos become obliterated beyond recognition. The effect is haunting. These zombies never stood a chance.
Two 3D zombie targets, “Rocky” and “Alexa,” have recently brought negative attention to Zombie Industries. Zombie Industries describes Rocky “as a fighter from Detroit,” who received his “nickname” after “a few matches left him rutted in the head.” Heroically, Rocky staved off an undead attack, but later succumbed to bites. Yet his newly zombified state shouldn’t fool you: “Be warned, Rocky is HIGHLY dangerous due to his quick wit and strength…. He was last seen screaming something like ‘Zombie Industries believes in America!’ That we do.”
The controversy that surrounded this green-skinned zombie is that he appears reminiscent of President Barack Obama. (I can see the similiarity.) BuzzFeed reported that this possible resemblance led the National Rifle Association (NRA) to ban Rocky from their exhibit hall at the 2013 NRA Convention. Zombie Industries displayed Rocky for two days at the convention before removing the model at the NRA’s request. A booth worker told BuzzFeed that the NRA feared “a liberal reporter would come by and start bitching.” When BuzzFeed asked if the resemblance was intentional, another worker noted, “Let’s just say I gave my Republican father one for Christmas.” Yet Zombie Industries CEO Roger Davis told MSN news that the NRA did not ask them to remove Rocky from their booth. Instead, the booth sold out of Rocky zombies, which is why the model was suddenly off the display. Moreover, Davis took issue with the claim that Rocky looked like Obama; rather, Rocky is supposed to look African-American, but the target was not geared to resemble a certain person.
On Zombie Industries’ webpage, the company placed the blame for this controversy on liberal news outlets. The front page announcement declared, “Don’t let the liberal media allow your imagination run wild with silly ideas. . . there is no political motivation . . . we hate ALL zombies.” More importantly, the target manufacturer emphasized that just like the zombie virus does not discriminate among human victims, neither does the company. Davis explained to MSN news, “Zombie Industries does not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, or gender. Our zombies represent the current demographic in America today.” The company turned the controversy into a promotion—if shoppers enter DEBATE at checkout, they can receive 30% off their entire purchase. While Davis attempted to distance Rocky from the claims that he looked like Obama, a YouTube review of the target purposely conjured the likeness. The video review, which has since been removed by the user, renamed Rocky “Barry.” While his preschool-age son looked on, the reviewer shot the target with arrows and then two separate guns. He enthusiastically noted that “Barry never stood a chance” against the twelve-gauge shotgun.
In addition to the news coverage over Rocky, the “Alexa” zombie also proved controversial. This target was supposedly an ex-girlfriend, who, according to the Zombie Industries website, had “a wicked mean streak” and a “nasty disposition.” She was originally named, “The Ex-Girlfriend,” but her name was later changed to Alexa. Unlike Rocky, who had green skin, the original Alexa target had fair skin splattered with blood. Her pink bra was visible under her white tank top. Simply put, she appeared more human than the rest of the zombified targets. This difference from the male zombie targets seems intentional, as their skin colors range from green to grey.
Moreover, the comments on the Alexa product page at Zombie Industries are distressing. One male commenter describes the target as “this Zombie Bitch” who reminded him of “a girl he knew in high school.” The Huffington Post noted that one commenter wrote, “The dark haired one looks like my bitch ex-wife, who I HATE! I can’t wait to shoot her face off for taking my shit.” This particular comment has been removed from the page, though the other comments remain. Most of the reviews of Alexa are five-star reviews by male reviewers, though now two female reviewers have given the product one-star reviews. Zombie Industries’ website stated, “To discriminate against Women by not having them represented in our product selection would be just plain sexist.” To exclude women might appear sexist, but the description of, and the reaction to, the Alexa target appear rife with misogyny.
Many feared that this target encouraged men to enact violent fantasies about women using guns, a troubling concept in light of the fact that domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women in the U.S. As I read the reviews of Alexa, it was clear that reviewers weren’t excited about shooting the target per se. Rather, they were eager to shoot a target who represented women they imagined had wronged them. Alexa became a conduit for their rage, and this target became a method to vent vengeance, frustration, and hate against living and breathing women. Several petitions encouraging Amazon to remove Alexa emphasized that this target made violence against women seem like a joke, and Amazon has since removed the target from their store. However, CEO Davis iterated that the goal of Zombie Industries was to provide fun, entertaining targets that promote gun safety. Shooting a target must be better than shooting a person. It is just harmless fun. Isn’t it? I remain unconvinced.
Despite Davis’s claims, the targets seem to suggest something else: the unhindered glee of destroying zombies promotes a vision of acceptable violence. Anyone can become a target as long as they are zombified. But the line of separation between zombies and humans seems murky here. These zombies appear too reminiscent of humans, and they allow violence directed toward a zombie president or ex-girlfriend to be marketed as fun and safe. I am not convinced that it can be either. Real life often mimics fantasy, or maybe, fantasy is dress rehearsal for real life, good or ill. I have so many questions for the men who buy this target: Does shooting a target that looks like your ex-girlfriend help you? Or does it just encourage you to dwell in negative emotions about her? Why would you purchase one in the first place? What do these targets do for you?
When I look at Alexa, I see all the negative ways in which women are viewed in American culture. Objectification. Sexualization. Violence. Alexa, after all, is literally an object. Her bra is exposed, and her body oozes and falls apart when shot. This does not suggest a move away from sexism or violence against women but rather an exploitation of it. The fragility of this target, and all the others, highlights the fragility of human bodies, which can be broken, destroyed, and maimed. Flesh is delicate and easily harmed. Watching the destructions of Zombie Industries targets makes me uneasy because of the comparison. Bodies come apart, and the lauded realism makes it hard for me to look. What is the relationship between zombies and humans? What are zombies stand-ins for?
This violence against zombies dramatizes the close relationship of the pop-culture monster to the American culture of violence. This attention to preparing for zombies mirrors the presence and perception of gun violence in the U.S. In zombie media and zombie prep, guns appear as both offensive and defensive, guarantors of the peace and the causes of unrest. They prove necessary. They are stockpiled. They are glorified. Americans simultaneously love and hate them; we are ambivalent. Some legislate for stricter control, while others seek protection of their cherished rights. The ubiquity of guns appears to be the unquestioned given. Guns, controlled or not, appear here to stay. Gun violence has become ordinary and common. With the mass shootings at Charleston, Newtown, Aurora, and Columbine, gun violence splashes into national attention. Assumed safe places no longer seem safe.
It should be no surprise, then, that visions of the zombie apocalypse rely so heavily on firepower and weaponry. If guns are a dominant component of American culture, the pop culture merely reflects those norms. While gun violence has declined 49% from 1993 until 2011, Americans still largely perceive that gun violence has increased and prepare for perceived threats with weapons. The larger question for me is: Does gun violence against zombies lead to violence against humans? Or is all in good fun, as Zombie Industries claims? The answers seem complex and fraught with tension.
Still, I worry.