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."
These few minutes not only draw us into these characters' lives, they also reveal why post-apocalyptic narratives are inherently interesting to a late-modern culture like ours. In a world where everything is handed to us with little work or risk, we become the walking dead. We are soulless people who go through lives and relationships on autopilot, with little gratitude, and few challenges to our mettle. But when life suddenly becomes a simple matter of survival, a person's true character emerges, for better or for worse. On the day of this conversation, Rick gets shot, falls into a coma, and recovers weeks later, only to find the world as he knew it completely overrun by zombies. He immediately becomes love-in-action. He searches for his wife and son, Carl (Chandler Riggs), actually manages to find them, and then emerges as the leader of a ragtag group of survivors. The comic's promotional material describes it well: "In a world ruled by the dead, we are finally forced to start living." By the end of the first season, Rick is able to express the love that he has lived, making him come alive, in some ways, for the first time.
But the show doesn't end there. Like Cormac McCarthy's The Road, The Walking Dead reveals how exceptional suffering forces all the tough Job-like questions to the surface. "Why so much death now?" "Why death in this horrible way?" "Where were you, God, when this happened?" All these questions lead inevitably to "Why am I even alive to begin with?" and "Why bother now?" The characters do not have much time for metaphysical speculation, so when such moments emerge, they are particularly poignant.
At the beginning of the second season, Rick and his group have survived a harrowing escape from Atlanta, which they had erroneously thought to be under control and in search for a cure. They barely escape from a herd of walkers, and they lose one of the children, who they now believe to be dead. Almost as an afterthought, Rick goes into a church to pray to a figure of Jesus on the cross, covered with blood (that such a crucifix would not likely appear in a Baptist church apparently did not occur to the writers). He looks up to it, asking God for a sign, a nudge, something to let him know that he is doing okay in leading this group. Shortly thereafter, he and his son, Carl, are walking in the woods and come across a deer. Carl is enchanted; his life prior to this point has been filled with fear, and here is a moment of pure beauty and grace. We see Rick watching his son from behind, wondering if this could be the sign he asked for. Carl walks slowly up to the deer, a smile on his face for the first time we can remember. The camera stays focused on the deer, and … and …. (spoiler alert!) … BLAM! Carl and the deer drop to the ground. There are no zombies in sight; Carl was shot by another survivor who was stalking the deer. The episode ends, leaving the audience unsure of Carl's fate.
Like the Book of Job, the show is not going to provide any answers to horrific contingencies like these. Some characters have faith and hope, others do not, and the choice becomes a grid through which they see everything that happens to them, good and bad. Carl does not die; he is saved (through surgery) by a Christian named Herschel (Scott Wilson), who encourages Rick to view the fact that his son survived the bullet as a grace. The audience, like Rick, is left with a difficult question: which story is more true? The despairing one, in which your son manages to escape all kinds of evil, only to get shot during an otherwise transcendent moment; or the hopeful one, in which you thereby happen to land on the property of a veterinarian who knows how to remove the bullet and repair the damage? Or is the story told by Carl's mother the truest one, when she wonders aloud why they are saving him at all, when the world is full of such evil?
If all this is starting to sound like a zombie version of every novel Cormac McCarthy has ever written, that is exactly my point. McCarthy insists that fiction must be about matters of life and death because those are the only things that matter. He also stares unflinchingly at raw human nature in the face of death. An episode from the second season, "Pretty Much Dead Already," highlights the show's interest in these issues (and here I give another spoiler alert). The group of survivors discovers that Herschel has been keeping walkers in his barn because when he looks at them, he sees them for the people they once were—including his wife and stepson—not the corpses they have become. Herschel, because he has been relatively safe on his farm, has been isolated from the worst of the world "out there" and so can afford to hope for a "cure." This is a perspective on the walkers that the show itself has not permitted to this point, and it is stunning to recognize how quickly we had accepted a video game dichotomy of good and evil, how quickly we had assumed that the only thing to do in this situation is lock and load. As the episode progresses, viewers are reminded again that the challenge of a world dominated by walkers is merely an exaggerated version of our own. In the face of the unfolding horrors of real life and inevitable death, who will we become? A Darwinian animal or a civilized human being?
Survivor fiction is something of a reversal of the usual story of growth in a protagonist because the key is to learn how not to be changed. Rick succeeds in that he strives to remain the best version of himself in apocalypse (though compromised in many ways); Shane, however, slides almost completely into mad despair and selfishness. Shane sacrifices someone else to keep himself alive, later saying that it doesn't much matter if he shoots anyone, because "when you think about it in the cold light of day, you're pretty much dead already." But, of course, it does matter if you shoot someone or not. Characters are forced to choose, all the time, whether to become Rick or Shane. The importance of this choice is why the show often zeroes in on the seven-year-old Carl. He is the one whose humanity hangs in the balance. Every time he is forced to "put down" a zombie to keep himself or others alive, he slips away from the child who had looked with wonder upon the deer, toward becoming a man who would say, as he does to his mother, "we are all food for something else." In this way, the show does McCarthy's The Road even one better, for in that story, the boy's hope and faith in some kind of goodness seem never to be in question. With Carl, both his life and his humanity are in grave danger.
Finally, The Walking Dead is successful because it effectively employs an ancient artistic strategy used by writers ranging from Francois Rabelais to Flannery O'Connor to Cormac McCarthy: the grotesque. The grotesque works by the shocking and revelatory conjunction of things that we do not normally put together: a gargoyle peering down from a cathedral; a child who looks prematurely ancient; a man with a string of human ears around his neck; God distorting himself into the form of a man. It exaggerates the incongruence in order to get us to pay attention to something significant, something that we would rather not notice. It works like a proverbial train wreck, or like a Jerry Springer episode featuring a 600-pound man: you don't really want to see it, but you somehow can't stop looking at it, either. The Walking Dead is that kind of show. It unrelentingly sticks death in your face. This is why I can't help but imagine that Flannery O'Connor would have appreciated it, for reasons beyond the rural Georgia setting and some great backwoods characters. O'Connor was brave enough to write a story in which an entire family is brutally murdered, including a grandmother, and to have the murderer declare that "she would of been a good woman … if it had just been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." O'Connor knew that it is far better to look death in the face, pump your fist at God and ask him the hard questions, than it is to wander through life in a satiated haze. We need the walking dead because we have met the walking dead, and they are us.
Christina Bieber Lake is associate professor of English at Wheaton College.
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