- Introduction:Early and Modern Biospheres, Politics, and the Rhetorics of Plague
I know positively . . . that each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it.— Camus, The Plague (229)
"The plague of the age is upon us," rasps an anonymous phone caller to the shock-jock radio talk show host, Logan Burnhardt, early in the recent film Dead Air (2009), just as a deadly pathogen has been unleashed by terrorists in major urban centers across the U.S. In the chaos that ensues, Burnhardt and his coworkers at station KCBP, ostensibly in Los Angeles, witness events familiar in the cinematic subgenre now often called biohorror: the infected victims suffer, approach death or actually die, and then transform into zombie-like "crazies" or "maniacs" that attack their fellow citizens with a compulsive frenzy that spreads the virus further and produces widespread public upheaval. "American Cities Under Siege," reads one television news CNN -styled headline, as the number of victims careens into the thousands.
For all its morbid bravura, however, what distinguishes Dead Air is not its portrayal of rabid pandemic, which borrows heavily from earlier films such as 28 Days Later (2002), or the striking similarity of its narrative scenario to that in Pontypool (2008);1 instead, it is the way Dead Air makes the theme of plague explicit on two registers. First, it confirms the sense that viewers of biohorror movies, especially those involving zombies, may have had for some time—that the stories they tell have revived the logic of plague devastation, as Stephanie Boluk and Wylie Lenz argue in this issue. Only a few months after the release of Dead Air, in fact, Ruben Fleischer's Zombieland (2009) reconfirmed the zombie-plague connection when, early in the [End Page 1] story, the character named Columbus remarks that zombies are "the plague of the twenty-first century." Second, and more broadly, Dead Air and successors like Zombieland help identify a development during the past three decades in which scientific, cultural, and political representations of biological catastrophe, especially in the U.S. and Europe, have renewed and refurbished the notion of "plague," while often doing so in oblique or implicit fashion.
In these terms, it is striking to recall Michel Foucault's comment in 1976 that "the biological risks confronting the [human] species are perhaps greater, and certainly more serious, than before the birth of microbiology" (History 143). Nearly thirty-five years later, that sense of biological risk appears all the more palpable, since the more recent threat of diseases such as AIDS (once called the "gay plague"), Ebola, avian influenza, mad cow disease, and most recently, the H1N1 flu has profoundly changed our perception that the phenomenon of plague has merely been a thing of the past—whether as the specific pneumonic, septicemic, or bubonic versions caused by Yersinia pestis, or other similarly devastating diseases ranging from cholera to yellow fever to Spanish flu. When Foucault wrote those words in The History of Sexuality, the possibility of nuclear destruction would probably have seemed the most critical menace to human survival, as it had in the previous decades. While that prospect continues to loom, however, the biogenetic equivalent has lately been the more predominant possibility contemplated in scientific reports, the media, and popular culture. The difference between George Romero's landmark modernization of the zombie myth in Night of the Living Dead (1968) and more recent treatments in the past decade such as Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later offers a case in point: while Romero's corpses were vitalized by an unspecified form of radiation (often identified as nuclear) and seemed able to remain "alive" indefinitely, Boyle's zombies are created by biological pathogens that take their course by ultimately destroying the zombies themselves. As part of that paradigm shift, in the past ten years the number of fictional movies and television programs devoted to the theme of deadly epidemics has grown exponentially, including Shawn of the Dead (2004), Re-Genesis (2004-08), Pathogen (2006), The Plague (2006), 28 Weeks Later (2007), Blindness (2008), Doomsday (2008), Quarantine (2008), The Happening (2008), Fringe (2008...