Let it be known here and henceforth by even the thickest-headed of trollful misinterpreters blowing Cheeto-dust nose-bubbles in their chocolate milk as they read this, that I am no firm friend of propaganda disguised as entertainment, and rebuke the notion that every cultural artifact has an underlying socio-political agenda.
But I also believe that it’s impossible to separate psychology and philosophy from art––even if you set out to create the most blithely escapist fare imaginable, you’ll inevitably leave at least a shadowy outline of the Very Serious Shit you’re running from. And that’s what makes entertainment into art, isn’t it, when it unselfconsciously weaves into the dream a silver cord that connects the dreamer to the real world we can’t otherwise make sense of. Like a dream, their weird internal logic shouldn’t tell us what to think, but they should point out to us what we’re not thinking about, but should.
So that said… sick of being sick of zombies yet?
David J. Schow called the phenomenon exhausted two full decades before it shambled into the mainstream and redefined the basic cable primetime soap opera. Milked and marketed long past the expiration of their shock value, apocalyptic, millenialist zombie scenarios have played for ironic humor and metastasized into every genre and medium, especially advertising. And it seems less and less like any kind of confrontation with our own mortality and potential inhumanity than it does a gritty validation of our unconscious collective mandate to stop giving a shit about each other.
When something loses its power to shock, we generally get over it and move on, but the message of the zombie apocalypse continues to hold the zeitgeist hostage. Zombie movies were never celebrated as overt propaganda, but in the hands of their creators, George Romero and John Russo, they had a very consciously articulated liberal message. The standard zombie film scenario gestated from Romero’s implicitly political recipe. The siege was a bald-faced metaphor for the disillusioned liberal’s ambivalence about collective action in the face of the ultimate threat, the revolting jetsam of the conservative anti-welfare state. His zombies were mindless but troublesome consumers, the castoff unwashed of Reagan’s conservative revolution, the lumpen proletariat distracted by fireworks. (Orwell would’ve loved to hate zombie movies.)
When the generation of kids who grew up with Night and Dawn as scripture (and who probably first encountered zombies before they even knew what death was) started writing and drawing and shooting, they wanted to get as far away as they could from political subtext. The badass action and exhilarating dread of the collapse of the lame old world of smug Boomers and sullen Gen X’ers was an end in itself for first-person-shootin’ dudes who grew up in the War On Terror and took the post-literate, school-shooting surveillance state for granted. Snyder’s frenetic, amoral Dawn Of The Dead remake strenuously avoided any subversive connotations even as it inadvertently testified that the consumer culture that Romero skewed in the original had swallowed America whole when the remake had to invent phony storefronts so as not to offend multinational retail chains.
But as reinventions of the zombie trope multiplied to become all things to all angry men, there was an unmistakable shift, consciously or otherwise, towards an embrace of laissez-faire libertarianism. The besieged group scenario gave way to the individual hero on a quest. Order and authority not only save no one, they’re usually as mindless and lethal as the undead, and often cause the catastrophe themselves because SCIENCE. Romero’s embattled group dynamic, usually undone by the obligatory One Big Asshole Who Lets The Dead In, gave way to a supporting cast of booster module characters who inform and outfit the hero between zombie attacks, only to be sacrificed to further deepen the alpha hero’s rugged, manly anguish. The individual faces insurmountable resistance by nosy zombie assholes while just trying to perform a simple routine chore, like going to the sporting goods store to enjoy one’s Second Amendment rights or pick up his child from his hogbitch ex-wife’s house. The world chockfull of assholes getting in his way cannot be reasoned with, but must be shot in its worthless, thoughtless, flesh-eating head in a free-fire Randian utopia of total personal responsibility.
The heroes of many modern zombie flicks and books are all too often exactly the kind of unhinged, selfish assholes whose antics put the group in jeopardy in Romero’s world. The ones who have to go across town to get their wives usually only manage to let a bunch of zombies in. In the new formula, it’s always the group itself that inevitably gets run down and split up, so John Galt can continue to Be Free.
Have we as a society failed to promote any meaningful notion of the collective good as a worthy end, as a goal worth saving? Has the surreal toxicity of growing up in a climate of pervasive cynicism and invasive marketing made us into a nation of Omega Men, each insulated by a personal mythology in which he is the Only One Left Alive? Or has growing up with the Internet and constant apocalyptic hype from bird flu to mail-order anthrax, school shootings and Al Qaeda hijinx that make us nostalgic for Cold War hysteria inculcated a certain healthy disconnect from the pressure of inheriting a world and a society fucked beyond all redemption by every generation to come before you?
In the seedy supermarket of the American collective subconscious, the Zombie Apocalypse seems only a slightly nastier brand of wish-fulfillment product than the Rapture. It’s a flexible, faith-free scenario that superimposes nihilistic violence and unexpected empowerment on the baffling and lonely, humiliating cake walk of modern life, that liberates us from trying to engage with those we’ve written off as mindless brain-eaters or maybe trying to, you know… fix shit.
The ongoing group dynamic and harsh naturalism of Walking Dead has been a refreshingly frustrating change from messianic action-porn for numbskulls, but it’s still a soap opera, by turns cheaply manipulative and stunningly incompetent. Those who haven’t given up on it by now root for or bitch about individual characters with exactly the same emotional attachment that dumber people gave to Survivor contestants. Its myriad discontents and infuriating oversights spill out into public discourse like the secrets of a bad marriage, but its only real message seems to be received with gusto: KEEP WATCHING, IT GETS WORSE.
Even if the authors and filmmakers are hell-bent on avoiding a political subtext, in its default state, the zombie apocalypse starts to do exactly what we don’t want horror to do, exactly what horror’s usually misguided detractors incessantly accuse them of doing––desensitizing ourselves to each other, and the need to live together, here and now, and not to wait for everything to fall apart to discover what we’re made of.