The fate of energy — Wyrmwood: Road of the dead, ecology, and Baudrillard’s zombie

Brett Nicholls
University of Otago

This paper offers a reading of the Roche-Turner brothers film, Wyrmwood: Road of the dead (2014), in terms of Jean Baudrillard’s work on the fate of energy. Crowdsourced with a budget of $160,000 (Harvey 2015), it took the Roche-Turner brothers four years, working only on weekends, for the film to be completed (Internet movie database). What makes this a notable zombie film, is that a new form of zombie use-value emerges. The film opens with the familiar genre trope of a meteor shower that brings with it a virus that changes people into zombies, depending on their blood type (though once bitten everyone becomes a zombie regardless of blood type). And then via two intercut lines of action, we find the main characters (Brooke, Barry, Benny, and Frank) caught up in a struggle against the undead zombies in the post-apocalyptic Australian bush. One line of action consists of the conflict between the zombies and Barry, Benny, and Frank, who pool their mechanical skills to battle against the zombies for survival. They discover that zombies can be used as an energy source for fueling cars (one of the effects of the meteor shower is that conventional fossil fuel, such as petrol, is no longer combustible). On the other line of action, Brooke (Barry’s sister) discovers she can control the zombies with her mind.

The post-apocalyptic zombie film often engages with the problem of energy, and the reconfiguration of the social world around scarce resources—fuel, food, water and other supplies. Generally, these filmic worlds are riven with conflict over the control of these resources (Hamilton 2103; Bishop 2015). Wyrmwood takes a novel approach to this theme. The virtue of a low budget film, such as Wyrmwood, is that it pares back (necessarily) the essential elements of the genre—no World war z (Pitt and Forster 2013) casting level hereand, in the process, the zombie is represented as a form of surplus energy. I want to develop here what Erik Bohman calls zombie theory. This will involve Baudrillard’s corpse – the zombie Baudrillard – reanimated and returned not quite like he is remembered. As Bohman puts it, “Yes, that’s Zombie Baudrillard—another Johnny—at the boarded-up window with his dark, speculative eyebrows and cigarette stains between his fingers, but there’s something different about him” (2014, p. 152). What I want to do is animate and redevelop the zombie Baudrillard in relation to Wyrmwood, and the Wyrmwood zombie in relation to Baudrillard. The upshot will be a useful way of situating Baudrillard in relation to the question of ecology. As I will show, Baudrillard warns against, what we might call, the convenience of ecology, convenient in the sense that ecology relies upon a rational system of accounting.

I will follow the trajectory set forth in what is already an emerging and rich literature in the film-as-allegory tradition on the zombie and Baudrillard. Among this literature, the following stand out. In a suggestive reading, Datta and Macdonald traverse the familiar ground of the zombie as undead consumer, and contend that the figure of the zombie “mythologize[s] a central temporal contradiction facing the working class” (2011, p. 77). Romero’s reconstruction of the zombie in Night of the living dead (Russo and Savini 1990), and subsequent series of five films is, of course, the precursor text in this argument. The temporal contradiction that they outline, consists of the plight of the contemporary capitalist subject, “borrowing on time” by using credit cards to buy commodities. Contemporary subjects buy now and pay later, and this means that they become all the more subservient to the dead labour time of capitalism. The zombie as Datta and Macdonald put it, depicts the “undead life of consumption” that is “left over after work” (2011, p. 85). They explain via Baudrillard, in this capitalist context the commodity-sign becomes the “definitive feature of culture.” This means that collective representations that will give people their soul and so give them a life, are also commodities in the capitalist nexus” (2011, p. 86). But rather than see consumption as a form of zombie behavior, they contend consumption is, “a response to mindlessness, rather than its cause”. Following Bataille’s claims about excess and expenditure in relation to consumption, they claim subjects buy “in order to signify sovereignty” (2011, p. 87). And in an interesting, albeit bizarre, conclusion, they read the brain eating appetite of the zombie as a form of politics. In a twisted echo of Baudrillardian hyperlogic, they contend that the zombie “penchant for eating brains is suggestive of what might be done to return zombies to the human world” (2011, p. 78). “You are what you eat”, it seems, and “to eat the brains of capital” – the brains of capitalist subjects – is to consume the Geist that gives ‘life’ to capitalism” from within. This is characterized as a “sacrificial politics” (2011, p. 91), in which the mindless zombie returns as a dangerous product of capitalism to consume in final acts of sovereignty. The zombie has, from this perspective, a strange political life.

In a second take, in “Undead is the new green”, Greg Pollock makes a similar argument about zombies, in the case of World war z, as an image of environmental politics. He draws Baudrillard’s earlier work on the remainder, from Simulacra and simulation (1994), into a discussion on ecological disaster. For Pollock the zombie corresponds “to the threat of ecological collapse”. The crucial point is that the zombie, as the remainder, no longer functions as an object, in the conventional object/subject relation. Instead we find a figure, the zombie, that is neither subject or object, dead or alive, and a figure against which resistance has no meaning (apart from survival). The zombie is a remainder, the residue that subsists once everything including life has been subtracted. For Pollock, the zombie is a “monster built on temporal disjunctions” (2011, pp. 175-176). Temporal disjunctions emerge in both the movement of Zombies, conventionally where despite a relentlessly slow pace they still manage to catch up with fleeing humans, and in World war z, where zombie infection moves incredibly quickly and overwhelms anyone caught in its way. As Pollock puts it, the zombie threatens “not as symbols of a taboo difference made flesh, but as non-difference between life and death in a general economy of motion (like fluid dynamics)” (2011, p. 176).

And in a third take on the zombie Baudrillard, Sconce employs his Fatal Strategies work to understand the figure of the zombie. The argument is as follows. In the context of postmodernity, an excess production has emerged, both of signs and objects. This proliferation of signs and objects presents subjects with two options. The first involves perpetuating the illusion of Cartesian control, a ‘banal strategy’, as Baudrillard calls it. The second is to adopt, what he calls, a ‘fatal strategy’. This strategy involves accepting that objects have won. Objects, Baudrillard tells us, “have always been regarded as an inert, dumb world, which is ours to do with as we will. […] But for me, that world had something to say which exceeded its use” (2003, p. 4). The point here is that objects exceed systems. In Baudrillard’s terms, objects proliferate “indefinitely, increasing their potential, outbidding themselves in an ascension to the limit” (1990, p. 25). The zombie represents this excessive object. Sconce writes, the zombie film consists of “narratives that are explicitly concerned with tracing the line between the subject and a hyperactive multiplication of encroaching objects, a band of humans fighting to preserve their precious illusion of autonomous self versus zombies who have passed over into the ‘evil genius’ of the object” (2013, p. 100).

In the aforementioned literature, with the zombie Baudrillard we encounter the zombie as revenge, the zombie as remainder, and the zombie as an untamable object. As can be seen, the term “object” is rightly understood in this literature in Baudrillard’s terms. In this context, objects have very little to do with objectivity, with the idea of objective reality. The object, in this view, exceeds thought. Objects are uncontainable. As Baudrillard puts it, “something has changed now: the world, appearances, the object are bursting out. The object, which we have tried to keep in a kind of analytic passivity, is taking its revenge” (2003, p. 91). In many respects, the figure of the zombie is an apt Baudrillardian object taking its revenge. I want to explore Wyrmwood in these terms, but the crucial point is that something different emerges from the typical zombie threat that marks the genre. Of course, we find the usual problem of the zombie object as a threat to social life in Wyrmwood, but this is an object that also embodies nature as energy. Indeed, this is an object with a use-value that opens up, at the same time, a new form of what Baudrillard calls a vital destiny. This exploration of the post-apocalyptic bush, as such, goes beyond social collapse and the scarcity of energy in films such as Mad Max (Kennedy and Miller 1979). The consequent power struggles of men against men and men and their machines– clearly referenced throughout the film – is transformed by the appearance of the zombie in Wyrmwood. I will turn to the zombie Baudrillard’s later work on the fate of energy to explore this point. In this essay, he discusses the inertia of the dead as a source of energy. We can stretch this argument to the Australian context of the film, where a jocular and ‘matey’ tone, along with a knowing (and perhaps dubious) play upon aboriginality, coincide around a struggle for the control of zombie energy as fuel and as weapon.

I turn to this energy problem because, as I have suggested, this is a major theme in filmic explorations of social life in post-apocalyptic contexts. In such filmic contexts, the scarcity of energy tends to be a key line of action, as warring factions struggle to gain control of resources. Animated by a contemporary social fear of depletion and lack, the post-apocalyptic film presents the Hobbesian nightmare of the war of all against all. This is, perhaps, no accident. As Baudrillard points out, for Western culture energy is vital. Energy “is the first thing to be ‘liberated’, and all forms of liberation are founded on this model. […] Energy is a sort of phantasy projection which nourishes all of modernity’s industrial and technical dreams” (Baudrillard 1993, pp. 100-101). With a lack of energy this dream surely collapses. It is no surprise, then, that the capturing and unleashing of energy to keep the dream alive is a dominant theme in the post-apocalyptic world of Wyrmwood. In this world, the zombie takes on a new role. In typical fashion, they threaten the living but they also emit a flammable gas that can be harnessed as fuel. The zombies are, in fact, a self-producing form of energy. They are the “energy of the accursed share”, in Bataille’s terms, and a violent expression of what Baudrillard calls, the principle of evil.

The principle of evil is an abstract term Baudrillard uses to explore the fundamental rule of duality and reversibility. What he notices is that modern ‘advancement’, technological and cultural, tends to proceed on the basis of the good, that is, on the basis of improvement, increasing benefit, efficiency, certainty, and comfort. Within modernity, as opposed to symbolically managing evil, good practices simply work to eliminate evil, that is, dispel uncertainty, suffering, decay, inefficiency, and so on. However, this drive to eliminate evil in the name of the good perilously overlooks the true relationship between good and evil. As Baudrillard is at pains to remind us throughout his work, good and evil are inseparable. Life’s imperfections, that dimension of evil, is what animates the good in life, and eliminating defects merely allows evil to flourish with a greater force. Below Western modernity’s systems of control lies “the tenacity, obsessiveness and irreducibility of the evil whose contrary energy is at work everywhere” (Baudrillard 1993, p. 106). I would contend, the zombie figure reminds us that this process of elimination is fraught and, ultimately, fails. Wyrmwood, I think, is a poetic take upon this problem.

To undertake this discussion, I will briefly focus upon what I think are three significant aspects of the film. The first is the story of the coming of the zombie apocalypse; the second, the discovery of zombie energy; and the third, the rise of paranormal control. These aspects revolve around three spaces — the bush, the shed [garage], and laboratory — and three characters: Benny (Leon Burchill), Barry (Jay Gallagher), and Brooke (Bianca Bradley).

The film self-consciously plays on the trope of aboriginality and the mystical ‘dreamtime’. Through the aboriginal tropes of the bush campfire and knowledge of the mysteries of nature, the Benny character explains the mysterious origin of the zombie virus. He tells the story of Wyrmwood, a meteorite that crashed into the Earth and unleashed the virus that gave rise to the zombie onslaught, as well shut down existing fossil fuel energy systems. On the first line of action, battling to survive this onslaught, through the usual hack and slash method that marks the genre, Benny meets Barry in a shed full of machinery, owned by Frank (Keith Argius). Barry had managed to escape the zombies attacking his family home and found his way to the shed, but, as is typical of the genre, was agonizingly compelled to kill both his wife and daughter, who had been infected and were beginning to ‘turn’. Under siege but protected, momentarily, in the shed the men accidently discover that zombie breath is a fuel that can be harnessed to power machinery. The shed scene is marked by what would be familiar for Australian and New Zealand audiences, the jocular tone of representations of Australian masculinity. Amidst jokes about beer, the characters work together to capture zombies to harness this fuel and escape the scene of the zombie siege.

On the second line of action, Brooke (Barry’s sister), is captured by the character Doc’s (Berynn Schwerdt) militaristic henchmen and taken to a makeshift laboratory to experiment upon her and other captured zombies. Doc runs tests on the blood of captured zombies, and phallically injects Brooke with this experimental blood. The unintended result of these inoculation experiments is that Brooke becomes-zombie, that is, she transforms into a hybrid human/zombie and learns how to control the zombies with her mind. With this mind control marshalling the support of zombies, she escapes the laboratory. In a showdown between Benny, Barry and Doc’s henchmen, and with Doc’s henchmen with the upper hand, she utilizes zombies as weapons. Brooke and her brother thus emerge as victors in this new post-apocalyptic world.

Significantly, though, in this final scene two forms of zombie energy are employed. In this scene, Doc’s henchmen manage to recapture Brooke and capture Benny and Barry. It seems all hope is lost. However, in the first form of zombie energy, a captured and injured Benny sacrificially allows himself to be bitten so that he would become zombie. In zombie form Benny is able to free himself from the chains by cutting off his now unfeeling arm. And seizing a weapon, he frees Brooke from the Doc’s men. Unsurprisingly for the supporting hero, in the process he is shot in the head (the only means for killing zombies). In the second form of zombie energy, Brooke, now freed through the heroic sacrifice of Benny, fully discovers the powers of her mind control over zombies. She employs the zombies as weapons against Doc’s men. With this zombie energy at her disposal, she and Barry emerge as victors.

It is significant that the horror evoked by the figure of the zombie, in the context of this film at least, is the loss of control over natural energy systems. The threatening zombies are the revenge of nature, the catastrophic result of a viral pandemic with no known origin. Wyrmwood is a low budget, negative (in the photographic sense) version of World war z. In World war z, the zombie takes an overwhelming fluid form. The sheer speed in which the crowded social space of the city becomes zombified is impossible to contain or harness. Instead, protection against infection comes only in the form of a kind of vaccination. The zombies prefer to bite and infect only healthy subjects, so injecting humans with an unhealthy, non-lethal dose of a virus sends zombies away. In the world of World war z, subjects must, paradoxically, become ill to stay well. In Wyrmwood, in contrast, zombies move at the genre’s standard slow yet relentless speed in the space of the bush. However, inoculation does not protect against the zombie; it transforms the subject into a hybrid human/zombie form. So while World war z protects the subject, Wyrmwood finds ways to harness and connect with zombie energy.

The key text here, as I have suggested, is “The fate of energy”, from The transparency of evil essays. Baudrillard’s argument in this essay surely points us to the logic of the zombie. We find, in this essay, Baudrillard engaging with the problem of ecological thinking in the context of runaway processes such as Nuclear disasters (Chernobyl) and, by extension, global warming. Questioning ecology, he writes the “dangers threatening the human species are […] less risks of default (exhaustion of natural resources, dilapidation of the environment, etc.) than risks of excess: runaway energy flows, chain reactions, or frenzied autonomous developments” (1993, p. 103). So rather than scarcity, that preoccupation of the post-apocalyptic film, the contemporary moment is one of excess. Here the figure of the zombie, as vertiginous and threatening energy, is fitting. Zombies are the revenge of nature in the Wyrmwood film, the nightmare of an excess of energy that is out of control. The film thus presents a nightmarish vision of the concrete effects of western modernity upon the objects of earth. Baudrillard understands these effects, these unavoidable processes, as potentially catastrophic. As he puts it in Impossible exchange, “Nature reduced to an energy source takes its revenge in the form of natural catastrophes” (2011, p. 58).

The idea of catastrophe comes from the French mathematician and topologist René Thom. As Thom puts it, the “cardinal merit (and the greatest scandal!) of CT has been the claim that provides for a theory of accidents […] essentially grounded in qualitative discontinuities one finds in the world” (2016, pp. 18, 31). When dynamic systems speed up uncontrollable forces can be unleashed. As Baudrillard puts it, the “dynamics of disequilibrium, the uncontrollability of the energy system itself […] is capable of getting out of hand in deadly fashion in very short order” (1993, pp. 101). This problem is precisely the focus of “The fate of energy” essay. The essay makes three provocative points, which, I might add, underscore key characteristics of Baudrillard’s more sociological ideas.

If we follow Baudrillard, it would be absurd to think that the earth would always behave obligingly relative to the liberating processes of modernity. This is because the extraction of energy, both physically and culturally, is built into the fabric of modernity itself. Physically, cheap fossil fuels power machines designed to increase the productive capacities of the human body. Culturally, the dynamics of the human will is liberated to accommodate this liberation of energy. The human subject rose above the dark, mysterious forces that characterize life before the enlightenment and became the prime mover of history, master of destiny. No doubt, with the advances of science and rise of democracy, life in the  post-enlightenment world for many, though not all, became more tolerable and comfortable. At the same time, though, the post-enlightenment world has now entered a phase in which the climate, as a consequence of burning fossil fuel for energy to drive advancements, is becoming more extreme and less inhabitable, where viruses wreak havoc upon populations, and economies move from one crisis to the next. In Baudrillard’s language, the liberation of energy comes with an unavoidable condition. It also unleashes, as the aforementioned passage contends, catastrophic and reversed processes.

Ecology is clearly the most rational response to the depletion of resources. This view is, by now, well entrenched. However, if we follow Baudrillard, rationally limiting expenditure, restoring balance, and so on, are dangerously reductive. The problem is that ecology takes a one dimensional view of the world (we might read, in fact, Baudrillard’s entire corpus as a critique of one dimensional thinking). “While risks of default”, he writes, “can be addressed by a New Political Ecology […] there is absolutely nothing to counter this other immanent logic, this speeding up of everything which plays double or nothing with nature” (1993, pp. 103-104). In more scathing moments he describes ecology as “the prolongation of pollution” (2006, p. 225). In other words, ecology merely allows established systems, industrial or otherwise, to appear to be ethical while potentially catastrophic processes continue unabated. We should note that Baudrillard’s is not an anti-enlightenment position here. His contention is not that ecology is useless or that energy should not be harnessed, it is that like the drive for good, which must always contend with the indelibility of evil, ecology must always contend with reverse, potentially catastrophic effects. What image would offer a more apt characterization of potential catastrophe than the zombie? What marks all zombies, from the zombie consumer in the shopping mall in Night of the living dead, to the zombie as excessive, overpowering wave in World war z, to the zombie as the relentlessness of nature in Wyrmwood, is the vertiginous processes of energy systems

It is precisely the figure of the zombie that appears as an exemplar of vertiginous processes in “The fate of energy” essay. Along with the example of New York City, which “feeds on its own hubbub, its own waste, its own carbon-dioxide emissions — energy arising from the expenditure of energy” (Baudrillard 1993, p. 102), the zombie carries on through sheer inertia. He writes:

In The Supermale, Alfred Jarry describes a superfused energy of this order in connection with sexual activity, but it may also occur in the cases of mental and mechanical energy: as Jarry’s quintuplette crosses Siberia in the wake of the Trans-Siberian [train], some velocipedists die, yet carry on cycling. Rigor mortis is replaced by mobilitas mortis, and the dead rider pedals on indefinitely, even accelerating, as a function of inertia. The energy released is boosted by the inertia of the dead (1993, p. 102).

In this scene, five cyclists compete against the Trans-Siberian train in a Ten-Thousand-Mile race. The cyclists are testing the efficacy of “perpetual motion food’, invented by the novel’s main character, André Marcueil, who was convinced of the “limitlessness of human strength” (Jarry 1999, p. 51). Crucially, Baudrillard is struck by the mobilitas mortis of the zombie-like rider, who is dead but continues to pedal indefinitely. The scene sums up perfectly the argument of “The fate of energy” essay and reveals two crucial points.

First, the waste byproducts of expenditure — such as carbon emissions, plastic bags, food, illicit economies, and so on — continue to be “productive”, that is produce effects. Waste, of course, is unavoidable and, in some instances, desirable. Take the example of New York City. In this city, waste byproducts are essential for the system to function. New Yorkers draw an “abnormal energy from” the “vices, ills, and excesses” of the city (Baudrillard 1993, pp. 102-103). Excesses are what characterize this place. And Jarry’s velocipedists enjoy the benefits of the excess energy of the pedaling of the zombie rider in the Trans-Siberian race. In both instances, excess energy is fed back into the system. Yet, and here we get to the crux of the argument, modern rational logics and practices, as Baudrillard contends, fail to adequately account for the excessive effects of waste. Excess is generally passed off as a loss and no longer productive. It thus disappears from official economic and social calculations. In Baudrillard’s terms, this passing off characterizes modernity. “All previous cultures”, he contends, “have depended on a reversible pact with the world, on a stable ordering of things in which energy release certainly played a role, but never on the liberation of energy as a basic principle” (1993, p. 100). In contrast, with modernity comes the one-sided logic of liberation as an end itself (New York City would thus be more pre-modern than modern).

Second, as the logic of liberation implies, ignoring waste is risky. It can return in the form of revenge. Better to symbolically embrace excess and waste, and allow it to perform its productive function. As Baudrillard maintains:

Once certain limits have been passed there is no relationship between cause and effect, merely viral relationships between one effect and another, and the whole system is driven by inertia alone. The development of this increase in strength, this velocity and ferocity of what is dead, is the modern history of the accursed share. It is not up to us to explain this: rather, we must be its mirror in real time. We must outpace events, which themselves long ago outpaced liberation. The reign of incoherence, anomaly and catastrophe must be acknowledged (1993, p. 108).

Catastrophic systems, such as New York City, are vital and alive when waste energy continues to be productive; we might say when the accursed share is incorporated into the system.  However, some systems can gather strength and speed up and flip into a catastrophic condition. In this condition of “superfusion”, energy defies the rules of regular operation. Instead, it exceeds the principles of this operation, becomes unpredictable and threatens the very system that liberated it in the first place. This is why, I would maintain, Baudrillard’s work continues to be vital. The question that confronts the planet, and these days a broad term such as ‘the planet’ is appropriate, is how to respond to both physical and cultural runaway processes.

This idea of a system exceeding the rules of its own principle is central in Baudrillard’s work. I want to suggest that Baudrillard’s work can thus be best characterized as engaging with the problem of the zombie rather than the ghost. The figure of the ghost haunts us with the deeds of the past, while the zombie figure confronts us with the problem of energy. Derrida takes up the problem of the ghost in Specters of Marx with his hauntology of the present. As he puts it, to be is to inherit. “All the questions on the subject of being or of what is to be (or not to be) are questions of inheritance”(Derrida 1994, p. 54). The problem, however, is that the past does not appear for us in a straightforward fashion. The past, for Derrida, is like a ghost whose appearance can be easily dismissed as a mere aberration or trick of the light. Derrida thus enjoins us to consciously adopt an ethical relationship to the ghosts of the past, to believe in them and be committed to them like Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In contrast, with the zombie there is no doubt about existence. The ethical relationship with the zombie is one of necessity. Kill or be infected. The zombie is an object that looks analytically familiar to us, but, at same time, is utterly foreign. If the ghost’s existence is to be inferred through light and shadows or moving objects (the slamming door, for example. Is it the wind?), the zombie exists as relentless and threatening energy moving at varying speeds (usually slowly). The zombie represents the brute and unavoidable existence of destiny.

To return to Wyrmwood: Road of the dead by way of conclusion, we find two means for coping with the zombie pandemic. One is to develop a vaccine to limit zombie effects, as is undertaken by Doc. The other is to harness zombie energy and ride along with the catastrophe. Wyrmwood is thus a replay of the fantasy of control, a banal strategy perhaps, in which the zombie becomes a useful object for the controlling modern subject. It is significant that it is the aboriginal subject, the character Benny, who sacrifices himself to further this aim. To be sure, this is a heroic sacrifice, but in this post-apocalyptic context, it seems that aboriginal death – or in this case the undead submission to control – remains essential for the white community to overcome nature. However, in order to effectuate this fantasy of control, the film also crosses the line that divides good and evil. The character Brooke has been transformed by the experiments and become a powerful intermediary between the human and zombie. She is both human, in the conventional sense, and zombie. She is both alive and dead at the same time. The relation between subject and object collapse. Wyrmwood is thus a notable film. The paranormal intersects with the zombie genre and produces the beginnings of what Baudrillard surely means by a “vital destination” (1993, p. 104), a destination that is a total risk but which opens up a form of beyond good and evil. The human would thus be a species that is experimental-like and without future guarantees.

Works cited

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