Post-Apocalyptic Design

Zombies are everywhere these days.  From the Walking Dead to Zone One to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the undead have infected our popular culture like a flesh-eating virus.  In a recent interview on Studio 360, Colson Whitehead, author of Zone One, explained our fascination with zombies as having to do with an embedded fear in the human psyche that our friends, family, and neighbors really are secretly out to get us, and, as zombies, that fear comes out into the open.  Much of zombie fiction, from Zone One to Shaun of the Dead, include scenes where the protagonist has to kill their parents, which seems, to me, to be a rather ham-handed homage to Dr. Freud.  

My own fascination with zombies, and, by extension, the post-apocalyptic genre in general, has been about the design of the world after the collapse.  Many of these films and books, are, by nature, on the corny side, but the visual imagination involved is always great.  I started in elementary school with the classic of classics, Mad Max, the beginning of a trilogy starring Mel Gibson as a road warrior in Australia.  Filmed in 1979 in brilliant wide-screen, it pioneers what would become a familiar dystopian story line -- the collapse of the oil economy.  The main design innovations in that first movie are Max's sawed-off pistol shotgun (something that would also become a familiar trope in future post-apocalyptic movies) and his Ford Falcon hardtop Pursuit Special.  It had a huge engine, backed up with massive dual fuel tanks in place of a trunk and back seat.  Weapons were hidden everywhere.  In various sequels, more attention is paid to the urban design, following Max to various cities inhabited by small groups of scavengers safe-guarding precious supplies of gas and water.  

The Interceptor.

This post-oil concept is a central conceit of a number of other works of post-apocalyptic fiction, including the Kevin Costner debacle Waterworld, James Howard Kunstler's books World Made by Hand and The Witch of Hebron, and the Discovery Channel reality series The Colony.  Waterworld came out when I was eleven, and, while kind of terrible, I loved the vision of it -- the creaky, patched-together trimaran; the floating collage-cities known as atolls; Dennis Hopper's belching oil tanker; and the surreal sequence where Costner dives into the depths of a ruined city now sunk underwater.  

The Waterworld atoll, courtesy of Infamous Kidd.  

Kunstler's World Made by Hand novels, which he seems to be trying to extend into an indefinite series, concern a small town in upstate New York after a vague set of catastrophes befall the United States, including a deadly flu of some sort, a lack of oil, and a race-based civil war.  The capital is exiled to Minneapolis, paper currency is worthless, and, most importantly, oil and electricity disappear.  Kunstler is a well-known Cassandra on issues of oil, having published the quite scary non-fiction book The Long Emergency, predicting a bleak future for us should we continue to rely on petroleum, as well as one of my favorite books on urbanism, The Geography of Nowhere.  Having converted his fears into fictional form, Kunstler explores, somewhat clumsily, a future without oil.  The book has many compelling moments.  My favorite are passages following the main character, a carpenter, as he builds and repairs things around town, describing a deconstruction and salvaging process not unlike what we do at the ReBuilding Exchange.  That said, we don't have to try and salvage and re-use nails and screws, or build without electricity.  

Movies like Contagion, I Am Legend (based on the Omega Man), and 12 Monkeys, work off the other central post-apocalyptic plot point, that of a loose infectious disease.  This has the potential to rapidly depopulate the world, much like the Black Death in Europe in the Dark Ages.  Such a depopulation would not all occur at the hands of the disease -- a lot of it certainly would come from fighting, fear, and the secondary effects of breakdowns in food transportation, medicine distribution, and health care services.  These movies are chock-full of labs and rubber suits and astronaut helmets, as if a high-technology veneer serves as an antibody to the unseen viruses.  Survivors fashion castles and caves out of salvaged materials, holing up and riding out the disaster.

Survival design is taken to a whole new level by Les Stroud, in his series Survivorman.  With only a handful of equipment -- knife, flint and steel, water bottle -- and some cameras, he goes deep into the bush around the world.  His main competitor in the survival TV market is Bear Grylls, a British fella whose stunt-laden show has been shown to be faked, assisted by a team of producers.  Stroud makes riveting films because he is his own documentarian, using long tracking shots to show him walking back to retrieve his camera equipment, proving he is truly alone out there, absent production crew or backup.  In essence, he is designing his own myth -- out in the woods, isolated, armed with knife and harmonica, creating tiny shelters and trapping small animals.  This myth-making plays on two elemental parts of the American psyche: the concept of frontier and the gnawing fear of the apocalypse, visited upon a soft population unable to cope with the demands of a newly difficult world.  

Stroud particularly draws my attention to design, because he is in situations devoid of design, or any man-made objects at all except for his own manipulations of the immediate environment.  Post-apocalyptic fiction of all kinds focuses on these manipulations, as there is no longer any design smoothing out the natural world.  Everyone becomes a designer, thrust into the role in an effort to make survival easier, existence more stable, and the future more predictable.  In the end, that's probably what's drawn me to these movies over the years -- the elemental parts, what happens when all our technology breaks down, and we're left with the natural world.  This is a return to the raw guts of architecture, staying warm, dry, and safe.  

All of these movies and books also illustrate the fundamental fragility of our way of life -- a level of ease, comfort, and convenience unprecedented in human history.  The average American, with his array of electronic devices, car, and house, lives as comfortably as a Roman emperor.  Recent events -- the great Recession, the SARS and swine flu outbreaks, famines in Africa, political instability the world over, and the slowing flow of oil -- point to how easily our lifestyle can come apart at the seams.  It's not so hard to imagine a few of these catastrophes happening at once, compounded by a Katrina-like event, or a terrorist attack . . . 

I'm not stockpiling canned goods and ammo, but I am ready for a little cabin, shingled in road signs, walls built of jersey barriers, wood stove humming merrily along, greenhouse out back, still bubbling up with moonshine . . . 


  1. don' t forget : The Road - Cormac McCarthy. ;-)

  2. Yeah, Stephane, glaring omission, but I left it out because I haven't seen/read it yet. Got to get on that . . .