As if zombies weren’t scary enough on their own, Fear The Walking Dead brings about an apocalyptic scenario a little too close to home, screenwriting even the likes of Mr. Robot season 1 haven’t yet covered.
From anarchistic rioting to California blackouts, this past week’s episode took the breakdown of society to a grisly new level by incorporating flesh eating zombies randomly into the mix, and just when you thought the chaos would finally end, we saw a blackout occur over the entire city of Los Angeles as our main cast fled the outskirts of the riots into the safeways of the suburbs.
The postmodern realism interwoven into this prequel leaves little to the imagination and much to be feared if there were to occur a zombie outbreak in the here and now amongst the plethora of disgruntled political groups on the brink of becoming angry mobs. From liberal outrage at racial inequalities to libertarian refusals to disarm, and then to anarchist anti-authoritarian desires to dismember society outright, we’ve seen an ever-increasing phenomenon of protests and riots occurring around the globe. To say the title of this show is on the mark is an understatement.
Perhaps the scariest part of the riot scene in this weekend’s episode was the cop-on-cop zombie eating clip and one of our protagonists, a teenage boy, grabbing his dad’s attention to it. At this point, the demonstration turns from civilians against cops to an every-man-for-himself all-out riot; so much is happening at once that it’s difficult to even tell the difference between a protester and a zombie, a cop from the flesh-eating undead and a radical from a peacekeeping policeman. A dividing line is always there in a protest, but a zombie riot carries unforeseen consequences and violence that becomes unpredictable and outright senseless. You don’t want to be caught in this sort of unstable environment, and Fear The Walking Dead perfectly captures this sensibility.
Social media has yet to become the feeding frenzy it once was over The Walking Dead, but I give this show another month and a few more episodes of this unnerving beginning to the zombie apocalypse before people realize that it’s a much closer-to-home story than its predecessor.
Last night, the final episode of the fifth season of The Walking Dead screened on Australian television. The hit US series has for the last five years constantly reached larger and larger audiences around the world. In the US, each new season continues to break cable ratings records.
Swarms of downloaders accessing the show after each episode airs are evidence of its global following. But the stunning renaissance of the zombie in popular culture is reflected not only in the popularity of films and TV series such as The Walking Dead.
Zombies have become an urban phenomenon, with cities from Sydney to Santiago, Chile, organising annual zombie walks. Not long ago the University of Sydney was plagued by a mass of the undead during a Zedtown event, a humans-versus-zombies game involving hundreds of players.
It’s not just about the zombies
Many cultural theorists have explored the significance of the zombie and its continued prevalence in contemporary culture. With roots in Haitian folklore and precursors in West-African religions, the zombie of Afro-American creole beliefs was animated by magic, unlike the zombie of the late 20th century, which is re-animated by viral contagion.
British sociologist Tim May sees zombie films – from White Zombie (1932) to Night of the Living Dead (1969) and Dawn of the Dead (1972) – as expressions of racial anxiety.
Others examining the same films see the zombie as embodying the mindlessness of consumer society. In his recent piece on The Conversation, Joseph Gillings saw in the remorselessness and lack of self-regard an apt metaphor for the terrorism spawned by globalisation’s discontents.
More recently, film scholar Deborah Christie framed the zombie as means for thinking through anxieties about the post-human condition emerging at the turn of the 21st century.
“It’s their world now, we are just living in it.” That’s how one of the young characters in The Walking Dead puts it while hiding from “walkers” (the name the group gives to zombies) in the forest.
But what attracts our attention in The Walking Dead is not the zombies but the survivors. For them such arcane meanings are less important than finding a way to continue to live. Or to put it another way: the importance is less on containing the zombie apocalypse but understanding the new complexities emerging from a zombie aftermath in which bare life and community economies must be redefined.
In our view The Walking Dead reflects on the meaning of group solidarity in a brave new world. Rick Grimes, the leader of the survivors, played by British actor Andrew Lincoln, sees his group as a family bound by relations of mutual support.
Throughout the series we see characters transformed by this practice of solidarity. Daryl, the group’s consummate survivalist, is transformed from a stereotypical redneck into someone deeply concerned with the group’s welfare.
Rick’s communitarian family contrasts with other failed collectivities the group has crossed paths with during this and previous seasons. We’ve seen a dystopia under the control of a threatening “governor”; cops holed up in an Atlanta hospital with patients who amount to slaves. We’ve watched a biker-gang collective being decimated by a few zombies because of a lack of group cohesion; we’ve see a non-zombie cannibal collective dispatch other hapless survivors with bureaucratic efficiency to save themselves.
Rick’s family is also quite different from the utopian walled eco-village it finds itself in during the fifth series. Even though there is enough room for them to live separately, initially Rick’s group refuses this return to the nuclear family. Rejecting the trappings of civilisation, they prefer to remain in collective life.
In different ways, the characters express their desire to “not forget” what has allowed them to survive thus far.
At this moment in The Walking Dead, the real challenge facing the characters in Rick’s family is not whether or not they can survive but rather whether or not they can survive as a “collective” in a setting that promises a return to individual existence.
The dilemma facing Rick’s family may seem to have little to do with our present circumstances – but learning how to value collectivity and act collectively in the face of profound crisis is something we must all embrace.
Zombies have been incorporated into innovative educational tools aimed at disaster preparedness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US recently put together a sort of toolkit for emergency-preparedness for disasters and catastrophes: Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse. The use of a zombie apocalypse allows us to think of possible disaster responses and the relation between collectivity and resilience.
This might be seen in the containment strategies of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The xenophobic responses that followed the outbreak led nowhere whereas the collective response has been far more effective in containing the spread of the virus. Climate change is yet another example of the need to think seriously about solidarity as a key instance of disaster-preparedness and response.
The Walking Dead is a useful metaphor to think with. As we wait for the sixth season, we can contemplate its role in debating how we anticipate events that may threaten the economic order of things. So, does a zombie apocalypse signify the end of capitalist civilisation, or its perverse consummation?
We take it for granted but acting – or failing to act – in advance of possible futures is in fact an essential aspect of contemporary neoliberal democracies, whether we are talking about terrorism, climate change or a zombie pandemic, as the CDC toolkit implies.
A show like The Walking Dead helps us think through the challenges we face as a species; it helps us reflect on the critical importance of how to make new economies possible, and not just in the aftermath of major disaster.
The final episode of season 5 of The Walking Dead screened on FXTV last night.
The zombie invasion is here. Our bookshops, cinemas and TVs are dripping with the pustulating debris of their relentless shuffle to cultural domination.
A search for “zombie fiction” on Amazon currently provides you with more than 25,000 options. Barely a week goes by without another onslaught from the living dead on our screens. We’ve just seen the return of one of the most successful of these, The Walking Dead, starring Andrew Lincoln as small-town sheriff, Rick Grimes. The show follows the adventures of Rick and fellow survivors as they kill lots of zombies and increasingly, other survivors, as they desperately seek safety.
Since at least the late 19th century each generation has created fictional enemies that reflect a broader unease with cultural or scientific developments. The “Yellow Peril” villains such as Fu Manchu were a response to the massive increase in Chinese migration to the US and Europe from the 1870s, for example.
As the industrial revolution steamed ahead, speculative fiction of authors such as H G Wells began to consider where scientific innovation would take mankind. This trend reached its height in the Cold War during the 1950s and 1960s. Radiation-mutated monsters and invasions from space seen through the paranoid lens of communism all postulated the imminent demise of mankind.
By the 1970s, in films such as The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor, the enemy evolved into government institutions and powerful corporations. This reflected public disenchantment following years of increasing social conflict, Vietnam and the Watergate scandal.
In the 1980s and 1990s it was the threat of AIDS that was embodied in the monsters of the era, such as “bunny boiling” stalker Alex in Fatal Attraction. Alex’s obsessive pursuit of the man with whom she shared a one night stand, Susanne Leonard argues, represented “the new cultural alignment between risk and sexual contact”, a theme continued with Anne Rices’s vampire Lestat in her series The Vampire Chronicles.
Risk and anxiety
There’s a monster to suit every period.
Zombies, the flesh eating undead, have been mentioned in stories for more than 4,000 years. But the genre really developed with the work of H G Wells, Poe and particularly H P Lovecraft in the early 20th century. Yet these ponderous adversaries, descendants of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, have little in common with the vast hordes that threaten mankind’s existence in the modern versions.
M Keith Booker argued that in the 1950s, “the golden age of nuclear fear”, radiation and its fictional consequences were the flip side to a growing faith that science would solve the world’s problems. In many respects we are now living with the collapse of this faith. Today we live in societies dominated by an overarching anxiety reflecting the risk associated with each unpredictable scientific development.
Now we know that we are part of the problem, not necessarily the solution.
The “breakthroughs” that were welcomed in the last century now represent some of our most pressing concerns. People have lost faith in assumptions of social and scientific “progress”.
Central to this is globalisation. While generating enormous benefits, globalisation is also tearing communities apart. The political landscape is rapidly changing as established political institutions seem unable to meet the challenges presented by the social and economic dislocation.
However, although destructive, globalisation is also forging new links between people, through what Anthony Giddens calls the “emptying of time and space”. Modern digital media has built new transnational alliances, and, particularly in the West, confronted people with stark moral questions about the consequences of their own lifestyles.
As the faith in inexorable scientific “progress” recedes, politics is transformed. The groups emerging from outside the political mainstream engage in much older battles of faith and identity. Whether right-wing nationalists or Islamic fundamentalists, they seek to build “imagined communities” through race, religion or culture and “fear” is their currency.
Modern zombies are the product of this globalised, risk conscious world. No longer the work of a single “mad” scientist re-animating the dead, they now appear as the result of secret government programmes creating untreatable viruses. The zombies indiscriminately overwhelm states irrespective of wealth, technology and military strength, turning all order to chaos.
Meanwhile, the zombies themselves are evolving into much more tenacious adversaries. In Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later it takes only 20 days for society to be devastated. Charlie Higson’s Enemy series of novels have the zombies getting leadership and using tools. In the film of Max Brooks’ novel, World War Z, the seemingly superhuman athleticism of the zombies reflects the devastating springboard that vast urban populations would provide for such a disease. The film, starring Brad Pitt, had a reported budget of US$190m, demonstrating what a big business zombies have become.
Why zombies, why now?
This is a relentless enemy, seeking to cause death and destruction with little or no regard to their own safety. They may be your neighbour, a friend or teacher – but now they want you dead. Sound familiar?
Today, at home and abroad the primary weapon is terror, aimed at local populations but also, thanks to globalisation, world audiences. The terrorists ramp up the atrocities to provoke violent overreactions or attacks on civil liberties. These acts slowly turn the people against the established authority.
In these conflicts, the strategic target is no longer the opposing army but the hearts and minds of the people, both at home and abroad. It is in this context that the popularity of the zombie genre has grown. A cursory look through zombie entertainment reveals that the vast majority of it has been produced in the last ten years.
Like those of previous generations, our fictional nemesis reflects deep-seated concerns. The shock of the Paris Charlie Hebdo attack, the Copenhagen shootings and the Sydney siege are still fresh in our memory.
As the survivors in the Walking Dead have found, such relentless enemies may force even the most upright citizen to confront their moral codes. Rick’s struggle to hold onto his old values is one of the most fascinating aspects of the programme. In the battle for TV ratings, survival, no matter what it takes, may be enough, but, in the real world, holding on to our moral compass may be the greatest weapon we possess.