Zombie films are war films in which civilians fight an easily defeated invading army. The prospect of zombies is frightening only in their definition: they are undead, which is unsettling to those of us who previously considered death a permanent state of immobility (such as religious people). But they are also slow, stupid, unorganised and as it turns out killable, which makes avoiding or fighting them not especially difficult.
Consider which would be worse: to be stalked by a dozen zombies, or by a dozen hungry tigers? The latter is never the basis of a movie even though it was the basis of human civilization for untold thousands of years.
The function of zombies is to destroy the social order without the chance of it being revived quickly or replaced with a new central authority. There is no cure, and neither the radio nor the TV work. In fact, those two symbols in themselves are code to prove society is finished and civilization depends now on the few survivors. No cure is equivalent to hopelessness, because to modern narcissists doing the work to discover a cure is out of the question. That’s for the experts, and they’re all (un)dead.
The Walking Dead spends most of the time screaming that the survival of civilization means we should cling to remnants of that now-dead society, by maintaining traditional conservative values in the face of their complete obsolescence, as if those values are the sum of civilization.
The zombies (note: they never call them “zombies” in the show) represent that clinging to the past, the unspoken tension between the people who want to settle down, and the bottled rage of those who want to “win it all back.” But beyond that, the zombies are little more than a quick jolt of action to break up the tedium of dialogue about property rights, gender roles, the sanctity of marriage, gun rights and every other conservative talking point.
The Walking Dead reinforces a suspicion I’ve long held: that television can never be countercultural. It is always slightly right-of-centre, even as that centre flows leftward. It is always safe and predictable, reinforcing the status quo. It is never stridently progressive, never threatening. Film can be countercultural, challenging the status quo. And it can be dangerous.
At no point in the Walking Dead does any character suggest they don’t need to ask for permission to stay with the group because the idea of property ownership died the moment the first call to the police went unanswered. But no one suggests that if society has collapsed, this is a chance to finally build a socialist utopia in which everyone owns everything in common.
If the dead walk the earth, might actually does make right. But no one says anything about this. In such as world, property can be owned if possession can be enforced with direct violence. If Group A has more guns than Group B, Group A automatically owns everything Group B thought it owned. If a group shows up on a farm armed to the teeth and the farmer doesn’t carry a gun, therefore the farmer is trespassing on his farm, not the other way around. Priority is irrelevant.
Likewise, there are more scenes of women performing the classic maternal housekeeper role and men being the hunter-gatherers than I could possibly list. Wouldn’t women be just as frightened and nervous about the lack of a predictable food and medicine that they would seize any opportunity to forage, scrounge or hunt for food or supplies as well? But we don’t see that. Once they set up camp, it is Father Knows Best every time. Women make the food, women hang the laundry, men keep watch, men plan the next move.
Post-apocalyptic stories are typically about how the survivors carry on, about how civilization lasts. No literary work has addressed this better than Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. But these stories usually show civilization surviving because civilization, at its most basic, is simple: we self-organise to help each other. Everything else on top of that, the rules, the morality, the norms are context-sensitive and unique to the circumstances.
But The Walking Dead confuses civilization with modern society, which in some respects is monstrously uncivilised. Would the homeless be better or worse off after a zombie holocaust? In The Walking Dead, civilisation survives only while the traditional ideas of property rights, gender roles, and family relationships survive, because, for the show’s viewers, those things constitute the entirety of our existence.
We know of no other form of civilisation. But we only have this institutional and moral baggage because of society, which must reinforce these assumptions to capitalise on them for the benefit of the many, even if it is to the detriment of the few. Yet if the few are all that remains, does it make sense to keep carrying that baggage?
If society collapsed, civilisation might be better served by abandoning these ideas. In fact, a scenario like the one depicted in this show – in which the social order collapses but society’s collective knowledge is still retained – might call for an entirely new set of ideas, ones that turn the small population, the vast stores of knowledge, the complete absence of central authority and the consumer society into advantages.
Yes, the dead walk the earth, hungry for the flesh of the living. But look on the bright side, nothing has to change.