The cast of “The Walking Dead”
Lately I’ve been watching episodes of the hit TV series “The Walking Dead”, in which a small group of desperate Americans struggle to survive in an apocalyptic world populated by zombies of the slow, get-bitten-and-you-turn, variety. Now in its fourth season, the show has enjoyed excellent ratings and has been nominated for numerous awards.
Setting aside the horrors of the marauding undead, there’s something about the adventures of those weary heroes that resonates with the anomalies of modern life, and may explain the show’s significant appeal.
First is the freedom that comes with a nation overrun by mindless undead. As with any good post-apocalyptic scenario, no place is off-limits anymore. Banks, prisons, hospitals, armouries, military bases and private homes are all accessible, all subordinate to the overwhelming moral imperative of survival. There’s a constant thrill of seeing ordinary human rules, customs, and uses subverted by our heroes in a way that any child will understand but few adults ever allow themselves to indulge: the imagination of repurposing homes into forts, everyday objects into weapons, and the bare necessities and small luxuries of life into stockpiles of treasure.
No wonder the zombie concept has spawned a sub-culture of fantasy survivalism, with online forums over the last decade or so turning their collective imaginations toward the gripping question: what’s the best melee weapon when the zombie hordes appear?
The atrophy of the adult imagination explains a great deal about the zombie genre. Unlike children, we need an excuse to imagine ‘what if’ and free ourselves from the deep-set obligations and expectations of daily life. This is another kind of freedom depicted in “The Walking Dead”, the freedom from the encapsulating details of modern civilisation. Though they barely survive, survival is all the protagonists really have to worry about. They don’t have to think about jobs, mortgages, utility bills, school fees, office politics, and the countless unnamed or even unconscious burdens we regard as normal. There’s a kind of purity to the apocalyptic fires that burn away the trivial and reduce the complexities of a safe and comfortable civilisation to the single measure of survival.
The weird symbolism of the zombie is that the survivors become more ‘alive’, more free within their dire fate, a minority awake in contradistinction to the masses who are dead to everything but hunger. While some have argued that the zombie represents our fear of mindless consumerism, the metaphor is more potent as a recognition of our yearning for a more meaningful life, and an escape from deadening burdens and routines.
The zombie trope allows us to identify with the minority who have broken away from the masses, retained their humanity and realised a greater freedom and intrinsic value to their lives. Their story speaks to our parallel longing for some unknown goal that is to ordinary life in a modern Western society what survival is to those trapped within the zombie apocalypse. Deep down, we all desire an equivalent transcendence of our ordinary lives; not by watching 90 percent of our compatriots succumb to a mindless, flesh-eating state, but by somehow being lifted up into a supranormal reality where we in turn will be more ‘alive’, more aware, more truly human than we are now.
But it’s not just the positive ideals of freedom and transcendence that appeal: the weakness and incapacity of the survivors also resonate with us strongly. As archetypes of modern Western civilians, the survivors are distinguished almost to a man by their lack of life-saving skills, practical knowledge, or aptitude for self-sufficiency. We can relate to them in their urban uselessness and vulnerability.
The ‘consumerist’ zombie critique tends to focus on the zombies themselves as consumers. But the more fearsome analogy is the hopeless consumerism of the survivors. The protagonists in “The Walking Dead” are scavengers, picking over the corpse of a modern industrial society. And though we enjoy prosperity and comfort ensconced within our complex economic system, at heart we are nonetheless as dependent and helpless as the survivors, as they wander from town to town looking to restock their dwindling supplies of food and water.
There is a spiritual poverty in our dependence on remote and impersonal systems that deliver us great luxuries and conveniences, but at the cost of the ability to meet our own basic needs: food, drink, clothing, shelter, and transport.
Though we might live like kings with hot and cold running water plumbed directly to our homes, most of us would die of thirst within days if the water was cut off. To be at once so comfortable yet precarious is deeply unsettling. We trust in increasingly remote and complex systems to do for us what we can no longer do for ourselves and instead invest our time and efforts in equally complex and remote sets of activities or ‘careers’, through which we maintain our place in this vast economic symbiosis.
In this sense, the existence of zombies signifies a complete inversion of the forces that drive our present civilisation. The cities and urban centres that are focal points of wealth and population become the most devastating centres of zombie infection. Conversely, it is the relative independence and physical remoteness of farms and homesteads that offer greater security and, at last, the microcosm of economy (from the Greek words oikos and nomos ‘household management’) through which the heroes can begin to sustainably draw their own food and water from the land itself.
As a TV series, “The Walking Dead” has achieved what a mere zombie movie never could, going beyond the brief thrill and horror of discovering the zombie plague and showing us what long-term survival might look like. The subtext of abandoning the deadly urban centres and escaping to the countryside plays upon our longing for freedom and our sense of weakness, both of which stem from our dependence on an increasingly remote and inhuman economic system. The question is, can we do something about it without the zombies?
Zac Alstin is a freelance writer living in Adelaide, South Australia.