Does the current vogue for Zombies say something about the state of our society? Tony McKiver invetigates…
There is meaning to our monsters. Zombies, for example, keep coming back to life to haunt us. “Duh,” as they might themselves moan: That’s what Zombies do. But over a century of movies and comic books—and, more recently, video games and TV shows—they keep coming back in different ways. These variations have been interpreted as corresponding to concerns within broader society. Such a reading allows George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead to be seen clearly in relation to the unfolding crises of the time, with the Zombies playing second-fiddle to the real villains of racial and gender discrimination, or unchecked militarism. In these films, there is little to be mourned about the world that has been overrun by the undead.
So what are we to make of the current Zombie revival? These monsters are enjoying an extended shuffle down the cultural catwalk, appearing in radically diverse contexts, from predictable video-game first-person shooters (Resident Evil), to the unexpected Regency pastiche of Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, to the downright surreal release of advice on how to survive a Zombie Apocalypse by the U.S. government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Arguably, the most successful manifestation of this revival is The Walking Dead, the second series of which is currently being broadcast in the U.S. by AMC, the cable television channel responsible for the equally zeitgeisty Mad Men and Breaking Bad. As in Romero’s films, the Zombies in The Walking Dead are mostly a slowly moving backdrop to the interpersonal conflicts of the few still-living characters, who struggle to remain alive and distinct from the undead. Invariably, there is talk of “us and them,” “holding on to our humanity.” Just as the 1950s B-movie threats of giant ants and mutants spoke to real-world fears of nuclear devastation, these Zombies speak to our current anxieties. Writing from the perspective of Ireland today, it is perhaps a little easier to decode their meaning. Just look at the how the undead are presented. The Zombies shuffle and slouch about aimlessly, they congregate in an undifferentiated mass. They have no power of articulate speech. They loiter in starkly out-dated, unfashionable clothing, dispossessed and disgusting. They suddenly come to life when they come into contact with the living, and only then to rip them apart and consume them. Isn’t it obvious? They are the unemployed. More specifically, they are the image of the unemployed in the minds of those who remain employed.
In The Walking Dead, the view of the undead held by the living is an analog to the way the employed view the jobless. In these parallel tracks, there are expressions of pity when the afflicted is at a safe distance, shifting to fear, or even pure scorn, when the unemployed/undead imperil their own existence. Just as the Zombies are the jobless, the survivors are those still holding onto a wage, conscious of the moaning and banging outside the secure walls of their employment. Invariably, indeed repeatedly, one of our heroes is put in the position of having to destroy a loved-one-turned-Zombie, learning the crucial lesson that there is no room for sentiment in the struggle to survive.
Other values are encoded in The Walking Dead’s metaphorical depiction of the consequences of economic devastation. The stashing of weapons and great stockpiles or food—viewed as a sign of dangerous paranoia in a balanced society–becomes a commendable virtue in the human-eat-human circumstances of the apocalypse. As the zombies gather outside, a shop becomes a refuge, all property becomes accessible and the plenitude of consumerism is celebrated in an ecstatic manner that would make Don Draper blush.
There is also an implicit moral approval of the heroes, the people who survived by taking some decision, or enjoying some stroke of good fortune, that has spared them Zombiehood. Their foresight equates to the wisdom of the worker who has upskilled, lived frugally, or invested prudently during the good times. Under the new regime, these survivors are also encouraged to adopt a merciless attitude in their dealings with the undead. Do not approach them, do not even touch them, because the misfortune of becoming one of the living dead is clearly contagious. Be brutal, be selfish and survive at all costs. The characters in The Walking Dead quickly learn that there is no easy cure, if there is one at all, just as the government and economists have discouraged any false hope about a quick recovery from Ireland’s economic malaise; a catastrophe dominated by the wasted efforts to revive Anglo-Irish Bank, our very own Zombie bank.
What The Walking Dead offers is coded advice on surviving an unemployment apocalypse, but strictly for those still living/employed. This one-sided allegorical handbook is undoubtedly entertaining, but it contains no helpful advice for those who find themselves among the hordes of the Zombie unemployed. From within our contaminated ranks, dispossessed and drifting, we Zombies take in the appetising but untouchable spectacle of normal life carrying on.