Night of the Living Wonk

By Kevin Sullivan

Editor's Note: In his latest book, Theories of International Politics and Zombies, political scientist, commentator and blogger Daniel Drezner examines different schools of international relations and how each one might respond to ... zombies (yes, you read that right). RCW had a chance to speak with Drezner about his new book, his favorite zombie movies and what's behind the new golden age of undead fantasy in pop culture. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

RealClearWorld: What made you write this book, and what is the "Zombie Gap"?

Daniel Drezner: The original impetus was a paper published by a bunch of mathematicians at Carlton University that basically treated zombies like an epidemic, and they developed models of what a zombie attack might look like. They concluded that unless this was counteracted rather quickly civilization as we know it would end - basically what you see in every zombie movie.

I read this paper and was shocked to find no politics in it; they just sort of assumed that zombies would cross borders effortlessly, and that there'd be no variation in how states would respond. So I wrote a blog post addressing how different international relations paradigms would react to zombies, and eventually heard from a couple of professors who thought this was great: trying to explain something like Constructivism to an eighteen year old isn't easy; they just don't get it. But they do get zombies.

I realized then that this might be an interesting little pedagogical exercise; maybe I could write a small book and end the title with "and zombies" - which is always funny. But while researching for the book I discovered that there had been peer reviewed scholarship dealing with international relations and wizards, vampires, aliens, Star Trek - you name it - and found there to be an actual "Zombie Gap." So at that point I could honestly say that I was making a contribution to the literature.

RCW: You mention in the book that Danny Boyle's film 28 Days Later really opened your eyes to the world of Zombism.

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DD: Right, well when I wrote the blog post I had seen some zombie movies, but I was not a horror movie guy growing up. I stumbled upon 28 Days Later, which - setting aside the fact that it's a zombie movie - is simply a great film. That helped piqué my interest, but I still had a lot of research to do. I was a zombie novice when I started writing this, but one of the sublime pleasures of this experience was getting to buy all of George Romero's films and charging it as a research expenditure.

RCW: Fast vs. slow zombies - this is kind of a big deal in fan circles, yet you call the debate a distraction. Why?

DD: From an international relations perspective I think it's a distraction, yes. When you have fast zombies in the movies you also tend to have extremely fast incubation, and when you have slow zombies the incubation takes longer. If someone is bitten by a zombie in 28 Days Later they've only got 30 seconds before the "Rage Virus" takes control of them; if it's a Romero-type zombie then they usually have around 24 hours before they turn. This matters, because it becomes an international relations problem if these things cross borders. If it's a slow infection it becomes much easier for individuals to cross state lines.

Fast zombies, on the other hand, would require a more vigorous global response; otherwise it's going to go global rather quickly.

So even though this is a debate that rankles zombie nerds, from a social sciences perspective you want to know whether or not a variable matters. If you get the same outcome - in this case the spread of zombies across borders - then the speed issue becomes irrelevant. Speed no doubt factors into tactical decisions a great deal, but what I address in the book is whether or not this would become a cross-border security problem.

RCW: Why are zombies so hot now?

DD: Part of it is timing. I wouldn't stress this point too much, but there is some mild evidence suggesting that the more turbulent times we live in the more interest there is in zombie movies - over one-third of all zombie movies ever made were made in the last decade, post-9/11. I'm not entirely sure I buy that argument, and I think another big reason for the zombie resurgence is due to how well Resident Evil and 28 Days Later did at the box office.

I think the other factor is that zombie films allow us to see people killing other people without feeling any remorse about it - because they're zombies. But the most interesting action in any zombie movie is never about the zombies, but about how the living choose to react.

RCW: You seem to be feeding - no pun intended - off the recent trend in zombie-inspired literature. Do you think you'll start a trend of your own? Could we possibly see an analysis of the "Zombie Lobby" from Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer?

DD: Well I'm certainly not the only one who has taken pop culture and used it to analyze politics - there really is a book out there on Harry Potter and international relations. In some ways I think this is useful, because IR can be rather stuffy at times. But if economists can develop whole models devoted to widgets that don't even exist then I think social scientists are allowed to tackle zombies.

RCW: You're clearly a fan of Max Brooks' epic zombie novel World War Z, and there's allegedly a film adaptation in the works. Will the zombie genre finally get its Gone with the Wind?

DD: Well I talked to Max Brooks about this, and he has decided to sell the rights and not get involved with the movie, which is one concern. But it's intended to be a summer blockbuster, and Brad Pitt is slated to star in it. One could argue that Hollywood has gotten a little better at these pop culture adaptations, and if the film turns out similar to Watchmen then I'd be happy. But World War Z may be the first effort, post-Zombie Land, to make a movie that actually appeals to a lot of people, and not just those who go to Comic-Con or Zombiecon.

RCW: Are you using this extreme, supernatural scenario in your book to poke holes in the various schools of IR thought?

DD: I'm an equal opportunity mocker in the book, no question. But I think I came away from the exercise with more optimism about humanity. Almost all zombie movies begin in a post-apocalyptic world, or zombies are created and five minutes later you're already in that post-apocalyptic world. But it turns out that most international relations paradigms predict more hope for humanity that you would think.

On the other hand, I came away with the conclusion that international relations paradigms are perhaps a bit too statist and in need of more theorizing about the kind of transnational threats that zombies in some ways represent.

Kevin Sullivan is editor of RealClearWorld.

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