The Zombie Appeal, part 7: The slow lumber towards the end.

18 Nov

Part 7: The slow lumber towards the end.

a.

I’m skipping the nineties.

Zombies represent decay, crumble, ruin, the passage of time, the inevitable end. The nineties were too vibrant with positivity. The end of the Cold War, the Clinton surplus, the dot-com boom. Even the culture wars—not our finest moment as a nation—were crackling with life; they now feel like the squabbling buzz of teenage siblings. The world was our oyster. The cocaine of the 1980s was passé. The drug of choice was ecstasy. Rave music and jam bands and loose clothes and a sense that history itself was finally over[1]. Zombies were nonexistent, silly remnants from another era. Even the alien invasion movies, (re) kick-started with Independence Day, were essentially tales of human ingenuity overcoming the apparent end of days.

But the 2000s found the zombies in their ascendancy. Two things happened. The sudden explosion of data concerning climate change—we were wearing the world out much faster than we thought—and 9/11 (and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan and, later, Iraq). Resources were growing scarce. We are/were running out of phosphates, helium, the ozone layer. And there were huge swaths of death-obsessed people motivated by the destruction of the American empire.

The world was once again a treacherous place. The more uncertain the world feels, the more potent the metaphor of the zombie is. Thus in the 1970s, with the big cities failing to blight and white flight, the zombie became a stand-in for the crumbling of American civilization. And after 9/11, the zombie paradigm gained new virility. The end of the world was once again nigh.

Viola! Zombies were back in vogue.

b.

Zombies have always been the most political of horror metaphors. They are AIDS, the passage of time, the barbarians at the gate, the plague, terrorists, and so on. They represent magic, the occult, death itself. In the post-9/11 world, zombies were the threat of total civic and societal disintegration. 28 Days Later, followed by the remake of Dawn of the Dead, brought the zombie paradigm back to the fore.

28 Days Later is, at its heart, a study of the madness of the military mind. A British man wakes up from a coma in an empty hospital. He wanders outside to an empty London. The film follows him as he joins up with a band of survivors who eventually take refuge in a military outpost. And there the whole thing falls apart.

A variation on the theme of the world’s last man.

Director Danny Boyle uses the AIDS/monkey connection for his zombies. The outbreak is a government-backed virus created in a lab.

There’s a scene, near the end, where soldiers blast the surrounding trees with heavy caliber fire, pointlessly shooting into the night, a scene ripped straight from Heart of Darkness. There’s a racial undercurrent to the movie. Look at the zombie the soldiers have tied up. He’s black, and he’s bound by a metal chain around his neck. The argument is clear; humankind has brought this on itself. It harkens back to Romero’s major point in Day of the Dead. Armed isolation leads to paranoia and destruction.

It’s a pretty good movie, too, although after the fantastic first fifteen minutes the movie sort of disappoints.

The remake of Dawn of the Dead is in some ways very straight-forward. The big difference is the zombies are fast. The movie also has plenty of jokes, and a terrifying scene with a zombie baby.

The remake offers us something new: a zombie baby.

Planet Terror, 28 Weeks Later, Zombieland, Quarantine, Shaun of the Dead[2], The Horde—zombies were everywhere. Romero returned with his latest installment of the zombie movie with Land of the Dead.

Zombies were everywhere, including in comics. The Walking Dead the comic was a surprise indie hit. Very quickly it moved from cult following to a major title. The story was pretty good, the art was strong, but I felt like it was a rehash of the Romero movies. I picked up a few titles and then moved along.

But the idea had legs. Writer Robert Kirkman invaded Marvel comics with a title called Marvel Zombies. The idea was that there was an alternate reality where the Marvel superheroes were infected by zombies. These characters eventually became big villains in the regular Marvel universe. These books were fine, too, although not really cutting edge or anything.

All of my heroes are now zombies.

But then the comic got optioned for television, just as AMC was breaking out with its hits Mad Men and Breaking Bad. And, against expectations, it became the biggest hit in the history of the network.

Which brings me back to where I began. The Walking Dead isn’t just bleak, but hopelessly bleak. It’s entertaining, but marbled through with a brutal, off-putting philosophy[3].

So why is it so popular?

c.

In Seeing is Believing, author-critic Peter Biskind[4] offers a simple thesis about the political philosophies of (1950s) movies. If the hero is a specialist, a scientist or an expert, then the movie is left-leaning. These types of heroes tend to achieve victory through community-building, scientific know-how, or by the strength of their intellect. If the hero is a common man, a man who thinks with his gut, then the movie is right-leaning. These heroes eschew any type of formality, they hate the rules, and they tend to kill their way through the obstacles they face. They tend to be cops, firemen, and so on. Die Hard is the perfect example of this type of movie.

Left-leaning movies—which are rarer—tend to portray the gut-men as obstacles to peace or survival. Right-leaning movies tend to portray scientists as amoral narcissists willing to risk the lives of others for their discoveries. (The Thing, Aliens, and so many others.) Left-leaning movies respect process; the consequences of fighting for consensus may be messy, but necessary. Right-leaning movies honor decisive action; waiting around for paperwork, or falling protocols, almost always gets somebody killed.

Using Biskind’s approach, The Walking Dead is all common people. The only scientist in 20 hours of television is the CDC’s Jenner, a deranged creep who tries to kill them all in a blast of suicidal rage. The show’s hero is a cop. No one is an expert on anything. The veterinarian in season 2 is, until near the end, seen as obstinate and foolhardy.

I think this is a major part of its appeal. We can see ourselves acting in the very same ways. These characters are us.

Zombies are easy to kill, and yet dangerous. They represent the failure of civilization. The characters must engage in the daily tasks of survival that most Americans are utterly removed from. Survival requires violence against others. Life is simple under the new rules; there’s no money and no grind, and therefore existence takes on a kind of Edenic purity.

These qualities have combined with our current geopolitical uncertainty to make this strange, sad little show a smash.

And perhaps it’s a good thing. The writing is fine, the acting is fine, and the direction is often spot on.

But if the zombie paradigm is really about giving up, giving in to the forces of darkness and despair; if the zombie idea is really about accepting the indifference of the universe and throwing in the cosmic towel, then the show’s popularity is very disturbing indeed.

Do we want the world to end?


[1] Right-leaning theorist Fukuyama said that history was over; the whole world was entering a phase where Western-style, liberal democracy was “the final form of government.” Al Quaeda had a pungent rejoinder.

[2] Which I absolutely love.

[3] The Road, the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, also hopeless and bleak but thrilling, was a big flop.

[4] Biskind, Marx, and Romero—these are the founding fathers of the zombie ideal.

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