- Going Viral: Zombies, Viruses, and the End of the World by Dahlia Schweitzer
Dahlia Schweitzer. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2018, 238 pp.
Although traditionalists may side with Robert Frost’s poetical prophecy that the world will end in either fire or ice, today’s pop-culture doomsayers love to boil down Earth’s eve of destruction to two equally grim, often symbiotic scenarios: viral pandemic and/or zombie apocalypse.
Both of these dire finales are put under the microscope in Going Viral: Zombies, Viruses, and the End of the World by Dahlia Schweitzer. In 230-odd pages (and several evenhanded revelations), Schweitzer clinically details the epidemic of apocalyptic outbreak narratives in film, television, books, and other media since the 1990s and before, ultimately asking where they came from and why they are spreading faster than flu at a grammar school. Her diagnostic answers, though reasonably [End Page 105] well researched and supported, surely will not be the last word in explaining this metastasizing—and enormously moneymaking—mass-cultural phenomenon.
Going Viral ambitiously goes deep into a network of factors contributing to a multimedia genre that has spread from such major vectors as Richard Matheson’s 1954 neo-vampire novel I Am Legend and George Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead to modern Hollywood iterations such as Contagion and Outbreak and on to the AMC channel’s grisly and ghoulish The Walking Dead, astonishingly the most popular drama running on basic cable TV. But Schweitzer—a faculty member at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design—also takes the temperature of the hot-button medical calamities that have fed these insatiable horror/sci-fi stories since the 1980s (e.g., HIV-AIDS, Ebola, SARS, avian flu) ad nauseam. Schweitzer would have been remiss had she not also examined the real and metaphoric flip side to such terrible outbreaks—international terrorism, most horrifically, the 9/11 attacks.
All this would be a lot for anyone’s scholarly petri dish, and while the author diligently supplies a valuable and insightful overview, she is also partial to meandering fact-finding detours. It feels obligatory if not gratuitous when she injects de rigueur critical names such as Baudrillard, Deleuze, and Foucault into the mix even when their presence seems tangential at best. She is more effective when surveying the various front-page contagions that have plagued the world in recent decades, ironically just as the miracles of twentieth-century medicine seemed to have vanquished so many of the world’s historic viral and bacterial killers.
Schweitzer is also deftly acute in her visual analysis of such big-budget box office hits as Contagion (e.g., director Steven Soderbergh’s use of barriers and glass to isolate characters) and 1995’s Outbreak, as well as key forerunners such as 1971’s The Andromeda Strain, based on an early Michal Crichton best seller. Among the central narrative tropes in the genre is that of a globalized America suffering the downside of semi-porous national borders. This unintended consequence in a new era of turbocharged trade, far-flung immigration, and globe-trotting tourism invites not only contagion but also the all-too-real stealth invasion of international terrorism. After all, we now know that the 9/11 Al Qaeda hijackers entered the country legally, blending into their host country before emerging full-blown as fanatical suicide attackers. In our anxious age of Ebola, HIV, and other viral killers, just as our national borders are vulnerable, so are our mortal bodies—magnets, sponges, and sieves for a Pandora’s box of pestilence, including hitchhiking viruses.
In terms of a chronological “patient zero,” Schweitzer zeroes in on 1994 and 1995, the years in which the viral-centric zeitgeist hit a fever pitch. In rapid succession, in the wake of the 1980s AIDS crisis as well as new African Ebola outbreaks, popular books and articles with alarmist titles such as The Coming Plague, “The Gruesome Ebola Crisis,” and The Hot Zone ignited public awareness, if not outright hysteria—all this despite sobering medical evidence that, for instance, Ebola was indeed so deadly (yet, crucially...