I didn’t tune in last Sunday night to watch The Walking Dead with millions of my fellow Americans, but once I realized the oversight I downloaded the pilot immediately. My mom and I watched it the next morning, sipping coffee, and wincing slightly as zombie brains splattered all over the screen, while the dogs gamboled at our feet, making suspiciously zombie-like noises.
There’s a lot of preoccupation with death in America these days. Or rather, undeath. Of course, vampires and werewolves have long been part of the popular consciousness, but I would argue that their influence has been increasingly widespread, and their myths have been transformed to suit our cultural needs culture at this particular juncture in history.
Zombies originated as creatures of Voodoo, lone corpses or soulless bodies under the control of a witch doctor. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that the idea of the “Zombie Apocalypse”–hordes of zombies taking over the world–started to become widespread.
Scary movies were one thing, but it wasn’t until after the publication of World War Z that the idea of zombies began to percolate through the national consciousness, to come up in the casual conversation of normal people. The premiere of AMC’s new series The Walking Dead had the highest ratings of any cable show in 2010. Given that everyone has cable nowadays, that’s saying something; some 5.3 million viewers tuned in to watch undead monsters rip civilians apart. Moreover, another zombie show is already in production.
It makes sense that we morituri should turn to our old stories and try to find comfort in them. As Téa Obreht notes in her excellent article “Twilight of the Vampires,” the “Americanized vampire is the ultimate fantasy for a nation in decline: the person who has been able to take it all with him when he dies, who has outlived the vagaries of civilization itself.” We hope that we can somehow defy our fate and live forever…but deep down we know it’s impossible; we may want vampires, but what we’re going to get is zombies.
The zombie apocalypse is particularly interesting when taken in the context of the War on Terror and the recent rise to prominence of the Tea Party. What typically happens after the zombies invade: electric grids go down; radio and TV broadcasts stop; the might of the police and the military are overwhelmed. The noiseless streets are deserted, ridden with the detritus of society. One of the most striking things in 28 Days Later is when the main character is first exploring, he comes across piles of pound notes, which he proceeds to stuff into his pockets; he doesn’t realize that they’re now useless; the only currency now is blood.
Then there are the zombies themselves: deathless, merciless, ubiquitous. There is no way to reason with them. Zombies and terrorists have a lot in common. Terrorists are similarly merciless, and while they are able to be killed, they are certainly numerous, and their threat is certainly pandemic. Reasoning with them does little good, for there is nothing we have that they want; they simply want us dead.
Then there is the Tea Party, that cadre of gun-toting extremists who have fixated their hatred on the government, for lack of a better target. They are lashing out because they are afraid–afraid of what will happen when they grow old or get sick, afraid of where they will live and what they will eat. Right now, the world is not a very kind place. The news is bad, and it keeps getting worse, and even if something good does happen all the caveats attached render it moot. Who do we blame, what can we do? These questions are frustratingly difficult to answer. All we can see is our world spiraling downwards, out of our control.
The survivors of zombie invasions are hard-working and loyal, but ruthless. Bitten by a zombie? No fancy health care for you! They’ll just take you out back and pump a few rounds into your head. These desperate men and women band together to take care of their own, and they do it w/o paying taxes. Yeah, the Tea Party would fucking embrace the zombie invasion. Quite frankly, in some ways it would come as a relief for us all. At least then we’d know what we were up against. While zombies are fairly easy to dispose of–a clean shot to the head sends them to their final rest–terrorists are much harder to suss out. Zombies are unambiguously evil, but none-too-smart; difficult to defeat, but not insurmountable. They present us w/ a conflict we could understand, less nebulous than East vs. West or Christian vs. Muslim. It’s a problem w/ a v. simple solution, where the only variable is the direction in which you point your gun.
So this is where we are. We know the end is coming; it’s not Morning in America, it’s Eternal Night. We no longer imagine for ourselves enchanted kingdoms filled with treasures. No, nowadays our idea of a happy ending is that we might go down on our own terms, fighting the good fight against an enemy that will show its face (or what’s left of it, anyway).
Read more about the phenomenon here!