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Zombies, Social Strata and Today's Fears

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Even enduring entertainment reflects the era in which it was created, its concerns, its social structure, its sometimes-unspoken fears.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, the New Prometheus, for example, written in 1818, tapped into early 19th-century fears about new advances in science, and the understanding of the mysterious powers of electricity.

Jane Austen's novels (which are being rewritten by modern authors for contemporary audiences) rely on the strictures of Regency society to explore interpersonal relationships, social pressures, individual longing and moral virtues.

Melville's Moby-Dick, which is such a broad and profound examination of individualism at the cost of the greater good, the power of nature and the inability of man to tame it, among many other things, could not have been written outside an age of whaling, American expansionism and the shadow of transcendentalism.

In our own age, think of the movies and television shows that speak to us. One of the biggest hits is The Walking Dead, a cable series that often outperforms broadcast shows. The subject of zombies speaks to today's audience because zombies represent something everyone fears: Death that isn't death and a life that isn't life.

In other words, the monstrous effects of contemporary living when people fear not only for their jobs, but their health, the onslaught of fundamentalism, the fear of strangers, the intolerance of today's public discourse. As globalism grows, so too does anxiety about one's own place in the world. We live in an age that applauds community-mindedness, but that can be taken too far when we single out others for not being in the community.

This year has brought two movies that address in a much more direct way the subject of social inequity. This summer, Neill Blomkamp's Elysium, starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, was a modest success at the box office. It concerned the haves and the have-nots of the relatively near future: the have-nots toil in industrial and personal misery on a blighted earth, while the haves live isolated above Earth in a giant space station whose landscapes resemble Beverly Hills.

Another film, Snowpiercer (which hasn't yet opened in the U.S.), is an international production directed by Joon-ho Bong. It's an allegorical fantasy about, again, a future where Earth has become virtually uninhabitable due to mankind's reckless ways. It concerns a train -- the Snowpiercer -- that travels around the globe during this new Ice Age. Onboard, a strict class system exists; an uprising seeks to level the social field, as those in the back of the train try to make their way forward to the front, where the privileged live isolated from their fellow humans.

Neither film is subtle about social strata, but that's not the point. What's interesting is how compelling both are, because most of us are not members of the 1 percent and we watch how social inequities continue to grow, and how social mobility has become stymied.

We are also in an age where work is being redefined by the Internet yet where employment opportunities are often tied to old ways of doing business. Many people are feeling marginalized and hopeless about their chances not only to get ahead, but to stay afloat.

Zombies are, perhaps, a menace in the imagination of people in a community-minded age: the survivors band together to create a force against the ravaging undead. So too are these science-fiction films about class warfare: in our era of community, more and more people are outraged about the few trying not only to deny the needs of the many, but to deny many the means to move ahead.

You only have to look at popular entertainment to get a sense of building outrage.