Zombies: They’re Alive!
Zombies: they don’t amount to much, but they’re surprisingly persistent. Having originated in Africa (like mankind itself), they traveled from there to Haiti and in the early 20th century began their stumbling march across America, eventually to infect Hollywood and our imagination. In the 50s, pop-culture horrors such as the giant ants of Them! and the Japanese-born Godzilla had been associated with the abstract threat of The Bomb, and when George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was released in 1968, the connection was maintained. For some, however, zombies represented as well, or instead, the equally abstract threat of soulless Communism. In terms of cultural ideas, then, from the beginning they’ve been pretty careless of the company they keep, thriving just as well, or badly, in whatever territory one placed them in, and this, along with their ravaged flesh and sometimes absent body parts, is what I meant by insubstantial. They can’t even find their own nickname, sometimes relying on the “undead” term that had already been adopted by vampires.
They’re a virtual Swiss army knife of plotting. Take them to the mall and they become an emblem of mindless consumerism, as we’ve seen in the two versions of Dawn of the Dead. In the streets of our upscale residential sections, the zombie’s relentless attention stands for over-parenting—or so says one reading of Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive—while across the tracks, those hungry hordes should be seen as an oppressed underclass seeking its share. At the university, zombies have gotten into the philosophy department, somewhat transfigured to be sure: they represent a question about the nature of mind that goes back to Descartes. And in the E-school, computer-science nerds can be heard to speak of zombie process.
The bookstores are no safer. Zombies have begun munching on the classics, with Jane Austen perhaps the earliest victims, in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. To my knowledge, none of Shakespeare’s plays have been zombified with a genuine rewrite in blank verse, but in 1936, Orson Welles leaned that way in his voodoo Macbeth. New fiction isn’t immune either. Colson Whitehead, a 2002 MacArthur Fellow, this fall published a novel called Zone One which dramatizes the human revolt against a near-total zombie takeover.
You can’t hurt the zombies’ feelings, since on most views they don’t have any, so physical comedy comes easily to them. Thus Woody Harrelson in Zombieland can gleefully whack at the things with a shovel. The wit of Shaun of the Dead easily works too (things are getting “a bit bitey,” says a character in that film, as if noting a slight shift in the weather), and satire, which need not be overtly funny at all, isn’t far away. This leads us back to the critique of consumerism in Dawn of the Dead and to the multiple implications of George Romero’s original film: its carnage echoes the Vietnam War, the black hero’s death at the hands of rednecks acknowledges persistent racism, and the zombie girl munching on her father’s severed arm suggests, as one critic saw it, “disillusionment with … [the] patriarchal nuclear family.”
Zombies allow for other potentially serious readings as well. First, like the transi (partly decomposed corpse) of medieval funerary and pictorial art, zombies can show us our destiny in the decay of the flesh. Second, it’s not only in their form that they possess traces of the human animal. Moving but not speaking, their sole drive is usually hunger; apparently unthinking as well as unfeeling, they nonetheless recognize us, though only as a source of food. (I wonder whether any parents have seen their infants that way.) They’re another version of the beast within. And, of course, zombies used to be us.
That’s the theme lurking in a few corners of The Walking Dead, a TV show dramatized with substantial deviations from a series of comics. Sometimes, as in season one’s first episode, the “walkers” (as they’re termed) seem to retain connections with their former life. A little girl, wandering through a maze of abandoned cars, is glimpsed from behind by a sheriff’s deputy as she stoops to pick up a doll; only when she turns do we realize what she has become. A woman who’s one of the walkers approaches a house where our deputy hero is hiding out with another man and his son; we discover she used to be the man’s wife, hence the kid’s mother, and she’s returning—more out of longing than hunger, it seems—to the house where she once had been holed up until she, too was taken. Other episodes remind us of the walkers’ human past in other ways or make something rich from the process by which one of us becomes one of them.
What really sold me on the show’s dramatic gravitas was something else from its premier episode, involving two encounters with a half-demolished creature dragging itself through a spacious, green park. Lacking lower legs and so no longer much of a zombie, barely recognizable as having once been a woman, she’s apparently returned to a site of former pleasures. She proves to be more a thing to pity than to fear, and the second encounter struck me as remarkable, a moment of genuine pathos.
Most of the time, The Walking Dead pursues other concerns. It’s not only the humanity of the walkers that has been lost but also almost everything the other characters have known as normal life. Some of them talk of “when things get back to normal”; others lose all hope or come close to it, feeling the world to have become an alien region where they have no place. The latter is often a recipe for suicide, which in this series has its payoff in more than one outcome. The cities have become uninhabitable. While an individual walker may be recognized for what it once was, in the mass they’re simply ravening beasts, dominating Atlanta—the series takes place in Georgia—and presumably all the other urban centers on the planet.
It’s a smart piece of work to leave the zombies with traces of human individualism and also link them, subtly and admittedly rather vaguely, with the dehumanization long associated in Western thought with metropolises. As in Shakespeare’s As You Like It and many other works, our central characters must leave the cities behind to seek what restoration they can find. But there’s no Forest of Arden, at least not yet. Our hardy band isn’t exactly living on the run, but by the end of season one they had already abandoned more than one hoped-for refuge. Have they found it in season two? Time will tell; readers of the comic will suspect they know, but the series has departed from its source before.
The Walking Dead is currently airing in the United States on the AMC cable channel, Sunday nights at 9 PM Eastern.