Christopher Lockett / Memorial University
What are we to make of AMC’s The Walking Dead? The question is perhaps overly vague, so I should clarify: if we proceed from the truism that filmic monsters express certain fears and anxieties in the cultural imaginary, what are the walking dead of The Walking Dead telling us?
The question proceeds in part from the unavoidable sense that we seem to be approaching zombie exhaustion—a critical mass of the living dead on film, television, prose fiction, and video games. If we start from 1932’s classic White Zombie (not the first zombie film ever made, but as good an arbitrary starting point as any), between 1932 and 2002, there were 224 films produced featuring zombies or the living dead—which gives an average of just over three zombie films per year during that period.1 Since 2002 however those numbers have snowballed. 2003 saw twenty-six zombie films; 2004 and 2005 thirty-eight and thirty-nine, respectively; and those numbers continued to rise, topping out in 2010 at sixty-nine films, for a total of 378 films over the past seven years—an average of fifty-four films per year. And that doesn’t include the predictable glut of prose fiction about the living dead or gimmicks like Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice with Zombies; nor does it include such video games as Left for Dead. At what point does this trend exhaust itself? 2
One way to view AMC’s adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s graphic novel series The Walking Dead into an original television series is as a natural evolution, a move from the B-movie horror ghetto into the respectable neighborhood of “quality television.”3 It has been happening elsewhere in the recent zombie renaissance: well-made auteurish films like 28 Days Later, smart well-written comedies like Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland, as well as burnished glossy Hollywood films like the Resident Evil franchise, the last of which—along with Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead and the Will Smith vehicle I Am Legend—do not represent critically acclaimed films but exhibit the zombie genre in the Hollywood big-budget mainstream. Such an evolution is natural to the extent that success engenders imitation, and though the larger proportion of zombie films remain in the B-movie, straight-to-DVD category, the critical mass of the living dead crowds into higher-profile cultural spaces. That AMC would, in its ongoing attempt to set itself as HBO’s principal rival, opt for an ongoing zombie apocalypse narrative, speaks to the genre’s transformation from horror schlock to potential art.
Certainly, though the short six-episode first season was uneven and garnered mixed reviews, the pilot episode—directed by executive producer Frank Darabont—was masterfully done, especially in terms of its cinematography and pacing, eschewing the often forced exposition and rushed plotting of Kirkman’s graphic novels. Whether the rest of the season lived up to the promise of the first episode is a matter for another discussion, but Darabont demonstrated the same thing Danny Boyle did with 28 Days Later—that a zombie apocalypse can coexist with good filmmaking and writing, and can further provide the basis for a useful consideration of human psychology and ethics.
My initial question, however, has more to do with the walking dead themselves in The Walking Dead. One can speculate that zombies are a popular filmic monster in part because they are malleable, representing a host of fears of anxieties from creeping conformity, mindless consumption, infection and disease, or the spectre of groupthink and dystopian mass culture; conversely, one of the great attractions of the genre too has been its survivalist ethos, which has spawned a host of online discussion groups in which people share zombie contingency plans (in the words of one Facebook group, “The hardest part of a zombie apocalypse will be pretending I’m not excited!”). The zombies of The Walking Dead, perhaps reflecting the genre’s exponential growth, are more ciphers than anything else, not representing any particular anxiety but acting more as backdrop to the human drama unfolding in the foreground. As Matt Zoller Seitz argues in Salon, the acting and writing may be uneven, “But as a case study in situational ethics, it’s terrific.”4) It perhaps goes without saying that this is frequently a component of the zombie film, but the translation to television series, with its potential to be drawn out over many seasons, provides much greater potential to explore the erosion of community, ethics, and sanity over time.
That being said, perhaps the innocuous nature of the zombies in The Walking Dead is not merely a reflection of the genre’s new excess, but of excess more broadly: the embodiment of the nightmare of detritus, surplus, the indivisible remainder. Zombies are, after all, quite simply dead that won’t stay dead; and not only will they not stay dead, they want to turn you into one of them, and will keep coming, mindlessly, inexorably, until you destroy their brain. That, in a nutshell, is the Romero conception, and while it may suffer variations on that theme, it has become more or less the norm—which is to say, we don’t often see voodoo-raised zombies any more. Zombies and their rage-infected fellow travelers exert the fascination they do because they are the ultimate embodiment of what Julia Kristeva figures as “abjection”—the abject, she says, has the singular identity of “that of being opposed to I”; it is something inescapably Other, that which is excess to us. It is that which is “ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated.”5
The haunting images of Rick Grimes picking his way past shrouded bodies after waking from his coma to the nightmare of the new reality are balanced in the first episode by his sudden, shocking encounter with a massive mob of walking dead in Atlanta—the horrifying abjection of excess that refuses to be ignored any more.
1. Walking Tall: AMC’s The Walking Dead
2. The Undead Horde: Walking Tall‘s Zombies
3. Among the Living and a Teeming Genre
4. The Facebook group: “The hardest part of a zombie apocalypse will be pretending I’m not excited!”
Please feel free to comment.
- The numbers provided here may not be exact, as they were gleaned from Wikipedia. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_zombie_films), and are not limited to film, but include such television shows as Dead Set and The Walking Dead. For the sake of argument, we can also count from 1968 and George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, which (along with http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi215942681/ in 1978) arguably came to define the genre. In the thirty-four years between 1968 and 2002, the lion’s share—212—of those films were made, which averages 6.25 per year. [↩]
- Wired magazine asks this question from the economic perspective in tongue-and-cheek fashion, querying when the zombie “bubble” will burst and opining that zombie films tend to indicate economic anxieties (http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/09/pl_zombietv/). [↩]
- It is worth noting the cultural shift that underwrites this observation, in which a certain subsection of television (epitomized by HBO, but including such stations as AMC and Showtime) has reversed the standard conception of television’s embodiment of the lowest common denominator of mass culture. [↩]
- (http://www.salon.com/entertainment/tv/2010/11/15/walking_dead_gore [↩]
- Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. (New York: Columbia UP., 1982), 1. [↩]