by Brennan Kau
Exploring Zombiepura through the framework of Singaporean societal inequalities
“Bo keng, bo chut peng (if you don’t malinger, you won’t be discharged from the army)”
Quotes such as these are doubtlessly familiar to a Singaporean audience, and especially one bonded together by a common experience – National Service (NS). This film, Zombiepura, is one of a long list of locally produced cultural texts such as films, plays, and books that draws upon this shared vocabulary and memory. Moreover, this shared corpus relates a perceived erasure of inequalities – that everyone, regardless of race, religion, educational level, or social class, shares in the same sacrifices. This continues even in the larger sub-genre of Singaporean military horror, which tends to focus on the ghostly experiences of unfortunate conscripts from all walks of life. However, Zombiepura deviates from the norm – being the first Singaporean film to touch upon the globally popular territory of the zombie apocalypse genre. These films have had over half a century to develop and catch on with audiences on an international scale – and as such, have adopted their own unique approaches to inequality. Notably, these approaches are not necessarily synonymous with the local assumptions and realities built into the framework of NS in this text.
In sum, Zombiepura incorporates an internationally popular genre which in itself may encode different assumptions about inequality, where foreign and domestic influences are encoded at different levels. Here, we explore how Singapore’s first zombie apocalypse film might reconcile its own rich vocabulary on social inequalities (within the language of NS), with that of an international genre well studied for its own take on narratives of inequality. How do these foreign and domestic processes of encoding assumptions about inequality reject each other, or even syncretise themselves, in Zombiepura? This essay argues that these two processes converge in imagining the zombie apocalypse as a critique of the modern bureaucratic conformism and the inequalities it conceals – however, they diverge in the identification of the specific disadvantaged groups within this critique. Whilst global zombie apocalypse texts tend towards viewing inequalities through a capitalist, post-colonial narrative, Zombiepura follows a local classist critique focusing on those side-lined by the predominant meritocratic order in Singapore. This stems from the film’s production for a mostly local audience preoccupied with inequality erasure – a defining feature of a national institution that remains omnipresent in the public memory.
Converging critiques: global and local conceptualisations of the zombie apocalypse as a critique of bureaucratic conformism and its resultant inequalities
Fundamentally, the plot of Zombiepura constitutes a discourse on conformism, as related by the main plot which involves two individuals with different degrees of conformity to military. On one hand, we have the protagonist Corporal Tan Kayu (Alaric Tay), a malingering reservist who expresses disdain for military regulation. On the other exists deuteragonist Sergeant Lee Siao On (Benjamin Heng), his superior and a stickler for the rules who insists on fastidiously following protocol and military etiquette. When their reservist army camp is attacked by a zombie infestation, they band together with civilians (Chen Xiuhuan and Joey Pink), whilst experiencing strife with fellow reservist Corporal Chua (Rayve Tay) and the camp’s ‘white horse’ medical officer Captain Yap (Edward Choy). The film presents a consistent critique of excessive conformity, as military protocol often serves as little protection against zombie attacks. Indeed, a military adherence to conformity serves as a façade for the real sources of privilege in familial ties, as Captain Yap – the camp’s medical officer and a ‘white horse’ as a government minister’s son – is the only character to be explicitly offered rescue from the camp by the army. Instead, individual ingenuity and creative thinking is what manages to save Kayu, Siao On, and Xiao Ling by the end of the film. Individualism is thus seen as an anecdote to the pseudo-nepotistic inequality that military conformism conceals.
The nature of this discourse as a commentary on conforming to military protocol is particularly illuminating, especially considering the parallels it has to the implication of zombies in cultural texts. With the growth of the zombie as a cultural phenomenon in the 20th century and its portrayal in film through landmark movies such as Dawn of the Dead (1978), it has captured the imagination of audiences by virtue of its very lack of individuality. Compared to other traditional monsters in horror such as vampires, ghosts, or werewolves, zombies completely lack any individual agency and follow their mindless desire to consume. In short, “the zombie horde is a swarm where no trace of the individual remains”, and zombified individuals follow their mindless impulses without thought or rationality (Lauro and Embry, 89). This constitutes a common theme in international zombie apocalypse films such as Dawn of the Dead where zombies mindlessly recreate their daily activities out of “[s]ome kind of instinct … a [m]emory of what they used to do” (Fehrle, 531). In Shaun of the Dead (2004), the protagonist Shaun has become so used to the mindless day-to-day actions of his fellow metropolitan city dwellers, that he initially does not notice that they have become zombified (Fehrle, 532). The zombie thus becomes the ultimate end-point of conformity, which implicitly highlights the capacity for independent thought that humans are endowed with.
We may witness a converging agreement between the assumptions about inequality encoded in local texts such as Zombiepura, and those within global zombie apocalypse texts. The choice of a zombie apocalypse satirises the rigid conformity espoused by soldiers – where zombies, even in death, continue to mindlessly stand at attention for the anthem. A mindless adherence to regulation is often lampooned in NS films such as the Ah Boys to Men franchise (2012-2022), and even in other Singaporean films such as Just Follow Law (2007) (Velayutham, 108). Individual creativity and defiance of the rules thus becomes a platform from which individuals are empowered – for example in the climax of the film, where Xiao Ling deliberately plays the national anthem so as to stop all zombies dead in their tracks, and enables Kayu and Siao On to pass unmolested. Interestingly, zombie-like conformity is where true equality is found in all zombies sharing the same mindless desires – as opposed to military-like conformity which conceals the inequalities that place people like Siao On at a permanent disadvantage to Captain Yap. Just like international zombie films which expose the prevailing societal structures as serving those at its pinnacle rather than those who conform to it, the implicit message is that embracing one’s individuality is the only alternative to experiencing inequality as part of the living, or equality as part of the dead. Zombiepura thus intertwines local and global approaches to bureaucratic conformity with similar views on the inequalities it conceals.
Diverging ‘others’: the global capitalist post-colonial and local elitist narratives that identify different victims within the zombie metaphor
However, this convergence ends when we continue our analysis deeper into the theme of bureaucratic conformism – and discover a divergence between the specific victims identified as being disadvantaged. Here, global zombie apocalypse films’ reasons for criticising conformity and the inequalities it conceals is situated in capitalism and its effect on post-colonial society. These themes feature prominently in the historical origin of the zombie itself, being introduced to the American popular consciousness during the U.S. occupation of Haiti. For a country formerly subjected to slavery, the popular memory of Haitians remained fixated on the slave’s desire for death and the release of a peaceful afterlife – and subsequently, the fear of reanimation and continuance of the slave existence as a zombie (Lauro and Embry, 98). The power of U.S. capital to conduct exploitative post-colonial activities in a post-slavery Haiti thus invigorated the imagination of a zombie, forced to continue working even after death. Lauro and Embry provide an illuminating analysis of this line of thought’s development into a critique of modern-day consumerist capitalism (100). Here, the act of consumption is conceptualised as producing more consumers in other zombies. Fehrle expands the post-colonialist aspect of the argument, highlighting capitalist structures which ‘infect’ developing countries and create a large surplus population, subjugated to the demands of exploitative industries (530). The polysemic nature of the zombie as a critique of capitalism identifies the subjugated worker as the victim of inequalities, trapped within their own conformance to a bureaucratic regime. This narrative finds less purchase with a domestic audience – where instead, the local vocabulary of NS is leveraged upon to draw out a different critique of elitist narratives. As Knee points out, Singaporean horror is a genre replete with references to divisions amongst gender, geography, or regulation, but much less references to capitalism or post-colonial society (57). Not only has the Singaporean narrative deeply ingrained capitalism as a guarantor of pan-societal prosperity, but also by virtue of Singapore’s mercantilist origins, the ideas of post-colonial exploitation (through slavery or mass labour) tend to not resonate with local audiences.
Narratives which wish to broach it tend to focus on the topic of meritocracy instead – which is purported by the state mythos to be an ‘equaliser’ allowing people from all classes to obtain fair opportunities. Implicitly, the reservist experience which Zombiepura takes place in weakens this narrative, where those in in-camp training yearn to leave and return to their unequal lives outside. Moreover, Captain Yap’s nature as a ‘white horse’, being a government minister’s son, affords him an unequal degree of comfort – possessing a cushy indoor job as the camp’s medical officer. This turns explicit when it is revealed that he is the only one subject to an actual rescue attempt – completely upending the narrative of equality in the NS discourse, and confirming that those with particular familial ties are especially privileged above the rank and file. In contrast, consider Mad Dog Lee (Richard Low), Siao On’s father – a Hokkien-speaking soldier or “Hokkien peng” whose implied humble background is made up for by his many badges showing his military experience, and bravery in personally leading the counter-zombie attack at the end of the film. However, he remains a Master Warrant Officer, still out-ranked in theory by Captain Yap. This is the case with many Hokkien peng in the enlisted ranks who have distinguished records of leadership and service, but are placed at a permanent disadvantage to officers by virtue of their educational qualifications alone. As such, we can observe that the critique of bureaucratic conformity does not suggest embracing one’s individuality against the mindless movement of capitalist, post-colonial structures. Instead, the critique suggests doing so to defy a system inherently geared towards favouring a select group, within the ‘equalising’ narrative of NS. Just as Kayu and Siao On survive through their own non-conformist ingenuity, Zombiepura implies that those side-lined by ‘meritocracy’ should defy conformity and seek other paths to success, undefined by prevailing societal structures.
The foreign and domestic encoding of assumptions about inequality do converge in Zombiepura – agreeing that both the global zombie apocalypse genre, and the local cultural portrayal of NS, share the same critique of bureaucratic conformity and the inequalities it conceals. However, where these assumptions begin to diverge is in the global text’s preoccupation with post-colonial capitalism, whilst Zombiepura adapts this to a local context. For an audience concerned with the narrative of NS as erasing inequalities, the film provides a resonant critique sympathising with those side-lined by the predominant elitist, meritocratic order.
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