It seems to me that there is a shift in genre fashion coming, as winter approaches and the nights draw in, we seem to be heading for some new horror. The public may have tired a bit of fantasy, of epic battles fought against legendary backdrops of cgi grandeur. Boys with sharp teeth and lower selves, men who turn into wolves and girls who give themselves to them, even women as random victims of painographic torturers seem to be fading in the public taste. Instead, the undead or even the dead are stalking our screens. Mindless human shapes, stagger through our media craving the flesh of the innocent, blindly grabbing the foolish. Zombies are making a return, reinvented from the strange myths of voodoo and reimagined as a disease. George Romero, Sam Raimi and, of course, Simon Pegg have resurrected zombies throughout the years and it doesn’t take a genius to spot the metaphors. Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) wasted no time in putting Pegg on the W6 or some similar Crouch End bus and drive him past the avenues of my own London haunting ground accompanied by ordinary workers zombified by their lives (by the time you’ve pushed a double buggy up the hill past Stationers Park, with two heavy kids in it I defy anyone not to look like a zombie!)
What’s different about recent zombies then? Personally I’m not over fond of the gore and decay aspect, and I have always thought that zombies were rather flawed as a weapon. They are not very fast on their feet and they do have to get up close and personal to infect. Danny Boyle’s version in 28 Days/Weeks Later of diseased human beings who become enraged, but pretty speedy, cannibals sort of corrects that flaw, but then they are not technically zombies. The themes are similar though: isolation; infection; cannibalism.
It’s those themes that fascinate; typically the protagonist is isolated often ignorant of the calamity that his befallen the world. The innocent wake, some literally from a coma like John Wyndham’s Bill Masen of the Day of Triffids, in themselves plant zombies. Either that or the innocent find themselves trapped in isolated cabins, managing to barricade themselves in using apparently endless supplies of rough wood that they can use to block windows, although always leaving gaps for light and a decent purchase for leverage for zombie fingers. The standard zombie rule is never stand against a window boarded up or otherwise. This was a convention cleverly reversed in Season 2 of The Walking Dead, a series that even for a sceptical old zombiephob like myself has redeemed, for me, some of the less interesting aspects of the gory massacres that accompany the average zombie herd (as they are termed in the series). The Walking Dead has the conventions represented and subverted, right down to the coma, the diseases, the staggering cannibals, oozing decay and the inarticulate dead and dangerous. That’s all typical stuff, but it is the survivors who are interesting. These are not the panicked victims of the isolated cabins, quick with a hammer nails and well supplied with boards. These survivors are the remainder, the representatives of our society with all its controlling ideology and half buried inhumanity. These zombies pose moral questions about how to survive them: who to rescue; who to leave behind; who to ally yourself with; who to trust or love, most of all what measures must you take to protect yourself not only from zombies but from and for fellow human beings. Themes of loyalty, betrayal and class infuse the representation of the war with zombies. Society restructures itself, morality is revisited, property, community, the qualities of leadership are examined. The question is raised, should humanity actually try to survive? Like The Road, The Walking Dead gnaws at the question: what should you do if you cannot keep your child safe?
But what is it that attracts us again and again to the theme of the undead, and while zombies do haunt the society of survivors in The Walking Dead, the survivors are not in control, neither did they cause the calamity that has befallen them. Every moment they live they risk being consumed, they are the food of the nameless and the corrupt who can barely be stopped except by mass slaughter to the head, a method that requires intimate contact. Moreover, as in 28 Days Later, and Day of the Triffids before it, Rick Grimes, of The Walking Dead was asleep at the time. He wakes to find that while he wasn’t looking the world around has changed.
Zombies exist in the same time and space, but cannot communicate with the humans and, what’s more, they have no interest in communication. They do not wish to convert or indoctrinate, only to consume and use for their perpetuation and the protagonists have been caught napping and can only survive by avoidance. They face a tsunami of social change and there is nothing they can do to reverse it.
Henry A. Giroux, suggests a link between the idea of zombies and the all consuming consumerism of the Republicans and the materialistic politics that supported the system that changed the world of money while we were all in a shopping coma.
Another characteristic of an emerging authoritarianism in the United States is the correlation between the growing atomization of the individual and the rise of a culture of cruelty, a type of zombie politics in which the living dead engage in forms of rapacious behavior that destroy almost every facet of a substantive democratic polity. There is a mode of terror rooted in a neoliberal market-driven society that numbs many people just as it wipes out the creative faculties of imagination, memory, and critical thought.
It’s a cheap trick to associate the behaviour of the banks with zombies. Zombies represent all that is cruel and that cruelty is not confined, by any means, to the rich or thoughtless, but that sense of lack of control. That feeling that nothing you do will make it better, that slowly your job, your standard of living, your pension, your future is being consumed, by nameless, faceless ghouls, that seem indestructible who grasp at the fabric of society infecting the jobs market, shopping, society. All the protagonists in The Walking Dead are unable to control their new life, whatever illusion they had has gone, and they stagger from one day to the next, only hoping that they don’t make it worse. They have no more control over the zombies than we do over banks, they are at their limit and all that must give rise to metaphors of new societies, different dystopias and re-imaginings of a recurring monster.