Christina Bieber Lake
Earlier this year the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta released a report to reassure Americans that there is, in fact, no impending zombie apocalypse. Although the CDC certainly had its tongue firmly in cheek, it was also answering a number of genuine internet queries about zombies. Apparently, some people were seeing a connection between the incident of a Miami man eating another man's face in a drug-induced frenzy, and one in which a Maryland man killed his roommate and then ate his heart and brain. While of course there is no evidence that actual zombies exist, zombie-themed entertainment has freely proliferated. We have books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, The Zombie Combat Manual, and World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. There are innumerable computer games, apps, movies, television shows, and comic books. We have become, it seems, a zombie nation. Why?
Most of it is just for fun. As gamers know, zombies make for a great frag fest. But it is also the case that zombies, like all topoi of science fiction, horror, and fantasy, indirectly get at something that is actually quite serious in the culture in which they appear. Just as vampires have always been about sex, zombies have always been about death—both the inevitability of actual death, and the symbolic suggestion that we are trapped in a living death. There are, it would seem, some fears and frustrations bubbling up under the crust of American satiety, and the zombies are coming out to pierce the pie.
While much of the proliferation of zombie entertainment on television is as B-grade as you might expect, there is one notable exception: AMC's The Walking Dead. I have not watched a television premiere in over ten years, but I am going to be watching as the show begins its third season this fall. While the show is certainly not for everyone (it is very violent, and the camera never shies away from spilled brains and black zombie guts), those who can stomach the gore will be rewarded with a lot to ponder and appreciate.
First, The Walking Dead is a brilliant adaptation of a multi-volume survival-tale graphic novel (or comic, depending upon your proclivities) by the same title, written by Robert Kirkman, well-known to fans of the genre. While often translations of graphic novels are disasters on the big screen—Watchmen and Surrogates were unworthy of their sources—The Walking Dead succeeds by capturing the best of the static images from the original, and by making important changes when action dictates. The images are unforgettable not because of the horror, but because they frame poignant moments. Each scene makes the most of space, contrast, color, and shadow. In the best Hitchcockian tradition, things unseen are as important as things seen, and a first-rate soundtrack is used deliberately and sparingly for emotional emphasis.
At one point a man and his son are boarded up in a house, afraid of leaving, horrified by the zombification of their wife and mother, who is now roaming around outside with the other walking dead. When she hears noises coming from the house, she stumbles toward it (zombies have just a bit of brain stem left, and will respond to noise). From inside, we see a character look through the peephole, his eye illuminated by an eerie glow. Then we see what he sees: the zombie woman's distorted face, leaning into the peephole, staring blankly back at us. In the next sequence, we see the slow turning back and forth of the door knob, which is gleaming slightly in the dark. It is truly creepy. The show is equally good at creating and returning to iconic images: there is a shot of cars piled up on a highway in front of Atlanta, which is smoking in the background; and a shot of a windmill in front of a idyllic country farm and barn, hiding its joys and secrets alike. And my favorite: the protagonist's broad sheriff hat with its shining gold tassles. As long as someone is wearing it, it seems, we have a chance.
The Walking Dead is great precisely because it knows that it is not about zombies. It even defends itself by never once using the word "zombie"; they are instead "walkers," "roamers," or "geeks." Like the best survival fiction, the show insists that it doesn't really matter what causes the apocalypse; what matters is the battle to remain human when the world around you completely tanks.
To tell that story, you must develop characters that viewers care about, and The Walking Dead does the trick within the first ten minutes of the first episode. We meet two of the primary characters: the sheriff, Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), and his partner, Shane Walsh (Jon Bernthal). It's before the apocalypse has taken place, and the two are talking in their patrol car, unknowingly eating the last french fries they will probably ever eat. Shane asks Rick if he knows the difference between men and women, and then laughs as he sermonizes about how women don't know how to turn off light switches in the house. As the two men talk, Shane gets Rick to admit that his marriage with Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) is in trouble because he has difficulty communicating his feelings. Rick reports that Lori had blurted out to him, in front of their seven-year-old son, that "sometimes I wonder if you care about us at all."