THE ZOMBIE LITERATURE
It would be reckless to proceed with any discussion of the zombie
problem without first reviewing the literature on the subject.
Thankfully, the living dead are now the focus of rigorous scholarship,
as figure 1 demonstrates. The humanities are replete with cultural
decompositions of flesh-eating ghouls. Philosophers have chewed over the
conceivability and metaphysical possibility of zombies at some length.
The natural sciences have started attacking the zombie question.
Zoologists have looked at the presence of zombielike creatures elsewhere
in the animal kingdom. Biologists have researched the
disease-transmission properties of humans biting humans. Forensic
anthropologists have considered how long zombies can persist while their
body decomposes. Physicists have explored the best place to hide from
the "random walk" pattern of zombielike bodies. Computer scientists are
working frantically to ward off online zombies, or botnets.
Mathematicians recently modeled the theoretical spread of zombies, and
offered some sobering conclusions: "An outbreak of zombies infecting
humans is likely to be disastrous, unless extremely aggressive tactics
are employed against the undead.... A zombie outbreak is likely to lead
to the collapse of civilization, unless it is dealt with quickly." This
study has provoked some critical feedback, however.
This brief survey of the zombie literature reveals an immediate and
daunting problem. The humanities and the hard sciences have devoted
attention to the problem posed by reanimated corpses feasting upon human
flesh. The social sciences, however, are curiously absent from this line
of inquiry. As of July 2010, the advisory board for the Zombie Research
Society does not contain a single social scientist. When social
scientists mention zombies, they do so only for metaphorical reasons.
While economists have rigorously modeled the optimal macroeconomic
policies for a world of vampires, they have yet to flesh out a zombie
consumption function. Despite their mob tendencies, sociologists have
not analyzed the asocial sociability of zombies. Political science has
abjectly failed to address the policy responses and governance issues
associated with the living dead. When compared to work in cognate
disciplines, the social sciences in general—and international
relations in particular—suffer from a zombie gap.
This dearth of scholarly inquiry should gnaw at international relations
scholars and policymakers alike. Classical authors were clearly aware of
threats posed by the living dead, as the opening passage from Ezekiel
suggests. In The Art of War, Sun Tzu stressed the importance of
fighting when on "death ground," clearly anticipating the imminent
threat posed by the undead. In his History of the Peloponnesian
War, Thucydides recounted how a "plague that showed itself to be
something quite different from ordinary diseases" would lead to general
lawlessness and chaos. When Thomas Hobbes described the state of nature
as one of "continuall feare, and danger of violent death, and the life
of man solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short," zombies were either
on his mind or outside his door.
In contrast, recent scholarship has been either inarticulate or
brain-dead on the subject. Modern international relations theorists have
eagerly delved into other paranormal phenomena—including UFOs,
wizards, hobbits, and vampires—but not zombies. It is genuinely
surprising that more scholarship in world politics has not been devoted
to the living dead.
From a policymaking perspective, further research into flesh-devouring
ghouls is also warranted. As powerful decision makers have demonstrated
in recent years, low-probability events can elicit hyperbolic policy
responses if the predicted effects are severe. Former vice president
Richard Cheney believed that extreme measures were warranted if there
was even a 1 percent chance of a severe terrorist attack. If a policy
analyst applies this logic to the undead, then preventive measures are
clearly necessary. Even if the probability of a zombie uprising is much
smaller, the dead rising from the grave and feasting on the living
represent a greater existential threat to humanity than nuclear
terrorism. Indeed, the living dead literally embody what Jessica Stern
calls a "dreaded risk."
Because the postulated effects of zombies appear to be so dire in film
and fiction, more strategic planning should be devoted to this scenario.
It is certainly possible that any counter-zombie contingency plans will
disintegrate at first contact with the undead enemy. Nevertheless, the
planning process itself can improve future policy responses. If the past
decade of military incursions teaches us anything, it is the dangers of
conducting foreign policy with only a facile or superficial knowledge
about possible enemies. Traditional tools of statecraft like nuclear
deterrence, economic sanctions, or diplomatic démarches would be of
little use against the living dead. Zombies crave human flesh, not
carrots or sticks. A deep knowledge of zombies—and the possible
policy response to zombies—is required in order to avoid both
overreactions and underreactions.
The rising popularity of zombies is in and of itself another reason for
further investigation. Research suggests that exposure to paranormal
narratives increases the likelihood of individuals to believe in their
existence. Such beliefs have a viral quality—that is, exposure to
other people's beliefs will increase the likelihood of accepting that
same belief, regardless of its logical plausibility. As zombies bleed
into popular culture, more people will come to believe, fear, and dread
their existence. Fear is a powerful emotion that can profoundly affect
policymaking across several dimensions. A phobia of the living dead
could lead to self-defeating policy responses in the same way that the
fears of terrorist attacks led the post-9/11 U.S. military to torture
prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Clearly, public fears of being devoured by
flesh-eating ghouls can only be allayed by rigorous scholarship.
In many ways, international relations is the missing link in most
discussions of how to cope with a zombie uprising. The undead menace
usually goes global in the zombie canon. These stories lack a basic
grounding in world politics, however. Narratives about the living dead
use small communities or families as their unit of social analysis. The
effect of national governments or international relations is barely
discussed—even though logic suggests that the living dead would
provoke some kind of policy response. As Jonathan Maberry
observes, "most of the major entries in the genre have military, police,
or civilian defense as part of the backstory." The problem is that these
responses are either dismissed or glossed over quickly to get to the
apocalyptic portion of the story. Even if official policy responses are
suboptimal, they should be factored into our expectations about how the
world would respond when the dead walk the earth—and how
international relations would look afterward.
What follows is an attempt to satiate the ever-growing hunger for
knowledge about the interaction of zombies and world politics. Alas,
some lines of academic inquiry are simply not feasible. Human subjects
committees would impose a formidable barrier to experimental methods.
The rare nature of zombie outbreaks make statistical approaches
unsuitable. Nevertheless, there are many possible ways to
proceed—develop a new theoretical model, interview experienced
policymakers about their experiences with zombielike scenarios, create
powerful computer simulations, or search for other modalities.
Looking at the state of international relations theory, however, one
quickly realizes the absence of consensus about the best way to model
world politics. There are multiple existing paradigms that attempt to
explain international relations. Each of them has a different take on
how zombies affect world politics and how political actors would respond
to the living dead. I have therefore decided to flesh out how existing
international relations theories would predict what would happen in
response to an outbreak of zombies. What would these theories predict
would happen? What policy recommendations follow from these theories?
When will hiding and hoarding be the right idea?
This analysis is useful not merely because of a possible zombie threat
but as a way to stress test our existing theories of international
politics. Scholars, commentators, and policy analysts rely on deductive
theories as a cognitive guide in a complex world. The more observational
implications that flow from these theories, the greater their
explanatory leverage over known unknowns and unknown unknowns.
One measure of their explanatory leverage is their ability to offer
useful and counterintuitive predictions in the wake of exogenous shocks
to the system. Surely an army of the ravenous living dead would qualify
as such a shock.
Zombie denialists might argue that since there is minimal chance of the
dead rising from the grave and feasting upon the living this exercise
will yield little in the way of enlightenment. This ignores the ways in
which world politics is changing, and the need for international
relations scholarship to change with it. Traditionally, international
relations has been concerned with the interactions among nation-states.
Many current security concerns, however, center on nontraditional
threats. A growing concern in world politics is the draining of power
from purposive actors to the forces of entropy. In the most important
ways, flesh-eating ghouls are an exemplar for salient concerns about the
global body politic. Zombies are the perfect twenty-first-century
threat: they are not well understood by serious analysts, they possess
protean capabilities, and the challenge they pose to states is very,
I will rely on two sources of evidence to buttress the theoretical
paradigms. The first data source is the social science literature on
events akin to an attack of the undead: pandemics, disasters,
bioterrorism, and so forth. Past responses to calamitous events can
inform our expectations of how states and nonstate actors would respond
to the presence of reanimated and ravenous corpses.
The second data source is the fictional narratives about zombies that
exist in popular culture. In recent years, policymakers have relied on
the creators of fictional narratives for insights into "out of the box"
threat scenarios and outcomes. Similarly, international relations
scholars have branched out beyond standard statistical analyses and
comparative case studies for their empirical analysis. These scholars
have used simulations and agent-based modeling to test their theories.
The use of fictional narratives as a data source for theory
building—particularly horror and science fiction—has become
more common in recent years.
To be sure, there are some dangers with this approach that should be
acknowledged at the outset. First, the narratives of film and fiction
might be skewed in ways that could bias our analysis. Perhaps people
would respond to a real night of the living dead in a different manner
than George Romero or Max Brooks posit. This possibility will be
considered—but as we shall see, there is a hidden heterogeneity to
the zombie canon. There are a sufficient number of variations to the
traditional ghoul narrative to illuminate each of the major
international relations paradigms.
Second, pursuing a paradigmatic approach to explain the field of
international relations has some drawbacks. Some might argue that
paradigmatic debates have yielded much more heat than light. The
predictive power of these approaches has been underwhelming. Other
scholars posit that calling these different theoretical approaches
"paradigms" gives them a coherence and completeness that they lack. As
will be seen, some of the concepts in one paradigm bleed over into
others, as they rely on similar actors and processes.
Nevertheless, these paradigms do help to clarify what different
international relations theorists believe is important in world
politics. Whether researchers admit it or not, all coherent
international relations work proceeds from some paradigmatic
assumptions. A theoretical attack of the undead can further reveal how
these different approaches diverge in their predictions. In eliding some
internal theoretical disputes, however, I fully acknowledge that I am
committing some conceptual violence to these paradigms. In fairness,
however, the undead would likely do far worse.
Before proceeding with the variegated predictions of different
international relations theories, a few definitions and distractions
must be addressed.
DEFINING A ZOMBIE
Definitions of zombies range from the philosophical one of a human being
without consciousness to the anthropological one of a person buried and
then resurrected by a conjurer. Consistent with the Zombie Research
Society, I choose to treat the zombie as a biologically
definable,animated being occupying a human host, with a desire to eat
human flesh. This definition is at variance with the etymology of the
word zombie in West African and Haitian voodoo rituals. Those
reanimated corpses, however, do not represent a transnational security
threat—indeed, these "traditional" zombies are usually described
as the most obedient of laborers. All modern works in the zombie canon
are rooted in the kind of ghoul that first appeared in George Romero's
Night of the Living Dead (1968). Because they can spread across
borders and threaten states and civilizations, it is flesh-eating ghouls
that should animate the concern of international politics scholars and
From a national security perspective, the three relevant assumptions
about zombie behavior are as follows:
1. Zombies desire human flesh; they will not eat other zombies.
2. Zombies cannot be killed unless their brain is destroyed.
3. Any human being bitten by a zombie will inevitably become a
Every modern zombie narrative adheres to these rules. These criteria do
eliminate some of the urnarratives that laid the foundation for the
zombie canon, such as Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I Am Legend
or Don Siegel's 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Nevertheless, any zombies that satisfy these rules would have a
pronounced impact upon international relations. In turn, however, the
nature of international relations would affect the global response to an
attack of flesh-eating ghouls.
DISTRACTING DEBATES ABOUT FLESH-EATING GHOULS
There is significant variation in zombie capabilities across the
canon—and vigorous debate within the zombie studies community over
these differences. In most of the literature, zombies cannot talk, and
do not retain any attributes of their human identities. There are
distinguished exceptions, however, in both film (Dan O'Bannon's
Return of the Living Dead, 1985; Robert Rodriguez's Planet
Terror, 2007) and fiction. 2 In most of the narratives, only humans
can turn into zombies; in the Resident Evil franchise, however, dogs and
birds are affected as well. It is usually assumed that there are no
gender differences among the walking undead, but recent films provide
some unusual exceptions.* Whether zombies have desires beyond the
consumption of human flesh is unclear. Most narratives do not discuss
this question, but the Italian zombie films of the 1980s, as well as
Peter Jackson's Dead Alive (1992), suggest that ghouls lust after
other ghouls. There is no consensus about how long a zombie can exist
before decomposing. Obviously, most works assume that a human being
needs to die before becoming a zombie—but most scholarship also
counts Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (2002) and Juan Carlos
Fresnadillo's 28 Weeks Later (2007) to be part of the canon. In
those films, the "rage virus" does not exactly kill the infected; they
merely transform into bloodshot, bloodthirsty maniacs in less than
Excerpted from "Theories of International Politics and Zombies" by Daniel W. Drezner. Copyright © 0 by Daniel W. Drezner. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.