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Can government learn from the zombie movie genre?

The political science department presented a Zombies and Politics evening Thursday, Oct. 30. Attendees viewed “Night of the Living Dead” followed by a political discussion about how the government and citizens react to crisis situations.

“The basic idea behind the evening is to get people to think about political science in different ways,” said Political Science Assistant Professor Debra Leiter, who organized the event. “I would like to get people excited about our program.”

Leiter began the event with a screening of the original 1968 version of “Night of the Living Dead” directed by George Romero. The plot of the film surrounds a fictional group of people who take refuge in a farmhouse during an uprising of the undead—corpses that have come back to life and are wandering the countryside looking for flesh to consume. Conflicts arise over who should be in charge, where the safest place in the house is and whether the group should stay in the shelter of the house or leave to seek safety at one of the rescue facilities set up by local communities.

Leiter informed the group that the film fell into the public domain immediately after its making because Romero was not aware of copyright law regulations at the time. It is available for free viewing on websites such as YouTube, Hulu and others.
After the film, Leiter led a discussion which connected the zombie movie genre and current events.

“‘Why hasn’t the government responded to flesh-eating zombies is the editorial that would happen [today] if all of these people were getting eaten by zombies,” Leiter said. “In the movies … no one knows what to do when the zombies come.”

Leiter brought up the point that the zombie movie genre doesn’t seem to exist within zombie movies, so the characters don’t have a plan of action.

“Zombies come and then society basically disintegrates. People can’t cooperate with one another; they are unable to coordinate a response,” Leiter said. “Does that seem like what would really happen?”

The initial response from those in attendance was no, that wouldn’t happen. Leiter, however, mentioned crises like Hurricane Katrina, after which society does seem to break down initially. Specifically with Katrina there was looting, and in relation to zombie movies there was fear and confrontation, with loyalties forming among different groups.

Leiter discussed that in the zombie movie genre, after the zombies appear, people move from not really wanting to kill another former human to merely doing what it takes to survive. In real-life crises, this survival mode can bring about conflict over territory and resources. Her questions for the group were “Do zombies (or crises in general) preclude democracy? What is it about crises that lead us to prefer a more authoritarian means of decision making?”

“It goes back to that fear factor,” said Junior Michael Scassellati. “You’re scared and you need somebody very strong-willed to take charge and figure out what we’re going to do.”

Leiter discussed the occasional overreach of government in times of crisis, which can sometimes backfire.

“People fear that the person with the gun might not be a good person,” said Senior Erick Ramos. “They might actually be the bully of the group and they only follow him simply because he has a gun and he can always shoot them down whenever he wants. So that’s not always the person I would trust.”

Communication is also important in times of crises, and coordination of defense and resources is dependent on that communication.

“If you’re going to maintain legitimacy, you have to act fast and contain it,” Scassellati said.

Leiter wrapped up the parallels between the zombie movie genre and a real-life crisis by emphasizing the importance of a government that communicates with its citizens and coordinates a rapid response to a threat.

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