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What the undead tell us about the living

New series The Walking Dead makes a good Zombie drama of contemporary society’s fear and self-doubt.

David Bowden

Topics Culture

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In common with a lot of one-time Catholic schoolboys, there will always exist a small part of my mind devoted to keeping a list of things I do which would upset the local Father. It’s a bit like those social networking sites which promise never to properly delete your data even when you leave: if you can remember to confess everything, you can come back anytime you like. I don’t know where writing about a programme called The Walking Dead in a column before Easter comes in the litany of must-not-dos but if the day ever comes, I’ll make sure I stand next to those clever souls who stuck an advert for it on the side of a funeral parlour.

Those not so theologically or philosophically challenged, or in possession of the Holy Grail of a subscription to cable channel FX, may be already aware that The Walking Dead is the big new US drama from Mad Men network AMC, and which has just started showing to free-to-air mortals on Channel Five these past few weeks. It comes with some considerable pedigree too: developed by The Shawshank Redemption director Frank Darabont and based on a hit series of well-respected comic books, it has already been commissioned for a second series. As is to be expected after Hugh Laurie’s success on House, Ian ‘Lovejoy’ McShane’s rehabilitation on Deadwood, and the numerous British and Irish actors still struggling to recapture the heights after breaking through on The Wire, The Walking Dead also features This Life’s Egg (Andrew Lincoln) and Lennie James in leading roles. Oh, it’s also about zombies.

The zombie genre occupies a curious place in the collective cultural consciousness. While Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein may have furnished the Romantic imagination with a proto-zombie, the constant reinventions and reimaginations of that classic tale through the years reveal something about the lack of gravitas the undead otherwise carry. The zombie belongs to the B-movie films, comic books and video games of the teenage boy: kitsch entertainment which is good for a few scares and cherished nostalgically by those forced to sit through contemporary ‘torture porn’ blockbusters such as Saw and Hostel as a nice reminder of a time when people got their kicks from watching representations of dead people being brutalised and ripped to shreds.

Yet, partly as a result of its mass market appeal, zombies have a great deal of seriousness thrust upon them. Zombie films, the goriest of them all, have always found themselves at the forefront of modern battles over free speech, deriving much of their energy and popularity from censor-baiting. Certainly anyone today watching Sam Raimi’s wittily kitsch classic The Evil Dead would be astonished to discover that it fronted the original 1980s ‘video nasty’ moral panic pursued by Thatcher’s pseudo libertarian government.

As such, the calibre of its zombies are always an interesting, if fantastically unsubtle, barometer of each generation’s social and political attitudes. In George A Romero’s monumental Dawn of the Dead films, the zombie film as anti-consumerist satire provided a dominant motif for the post-Sixties disillusion of Seventies America, overtaking the ‘enemy within’ Cold War paranoia of the alien invader.

The Eighties saw the emergence of clever postmodern self-referentialism as Generation X took hold and home entertainment was thrust into the middle of the growing culture war. The Nineties saw the rise of the video game, from the Romero-inspired Doom through to Bioshock and Resident Evil. It took Danny Boyle (currently directing the Frankenstein stage revival) with 28 Days Later to kick-start the genre by tapping into the culture of fear and pre-empting post-9-11 security worries with its deserted London cityscapes and military rule. It even inspired a sudden run of generally rotten remakes of iconic zombie blockbusters. More recently, as in Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set or Shaun of the Dead, the zombie film has been turned into self-congratulatory comedy fodder, representing a view of the public as an unthinking mob.

There is something telling, therefore, about the zombie revival on the small screen – increasingly displacing film as the home of serious American introspection – as the US faces up to fading economic might and a domestic political sphere dominated by bitter internal strife and the absence of strong leadership. The hero is a small-town cop, played by Lincoln, who wakes up after recuperating from gunshot wounds received during a drugs bust to discover himself in a big city – Atlanta – in which society has collapsed and the undead roam.

As has been noted by some, zombie films differ from other fantasy genres in being almost entirely uninterested in the disaster porn common in the contemporary apocalyptic blockbuster: we invariably enter the stage after the zombies have taken over. These are predominantly survival stories, where the resourceful creativity of human beings is pitted against their basest instincts, either in the form of the undead or in their ability (or otherwise) to work alongside their fellow survivors.

It is no surprise that Darabont has been drawn to the project. Previously he tackled Stephen King’s studies in survival and belief in The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, and he nearly tackled King’s apocalyptic tale The Stand. What is being depicted in The Walking Dead is a nation battling for survival. Like Cormac McCarthy’s magnificently subtle The Road the interest here is no longer anti-consumerist digs or celebrating the destruction of the arrogant follies of mankind. Instead, as in all of America’s most interesting artistic output at the minute, including The Arcade Fire’s recent elegiac album The Suburbs, there is only a sense of disorientation, fear of the future and nostalgia for a long-gone past.

While the comics were acclaimed for their social commentary in a slightly different age, the strength of the television adaptation seems to lie in the infinite malleability of the zombie: a dumb, lifeless shell driven only by the unblinking need to consume. Whether they act as a metaphor for the rise of China, the Tea Party-supporting public, the liberal elite waging war on homely American values or plain old guts-loving villains is really up to you. With the war on terror limping away from the foreign policy stage and even the liberal chattering classes becoming increasingly ambivalent about democratic uprisings in the Middle East, no-one even pretends to know who the real heroes and villains are anymore.

Certainly, much of The Walking Dead is naff: the dialogue is particularly risible. Anybody perplexed by the phenomenal popularity of Darabont’s films will not have their mind changed by what is still, at heart, a B-movie dressed up in modern clothes. But he has definitely shown a talent for tapping into the American cultural psyche before, and seems to have repeated the trick here. The good news is that, in American pop culture, humanity is no longer the bad guy in need of alien invasion or ecological disaster to rip it up and start again. But it is also not much clearer as to where it goes next from here, which is pretty scary stuff. Watching where The Walking Dead takes us, therefore, will be compelling viewing.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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