Fumbling around in a mindless, ravenous hunger for human flesh, groaning and grunting without point or purpose, zombies exist as Horror’s most manky metaphor. Void of intellect, passion, power, psychosis, sexuality, romance, reason, method or madness, zombies represent humanity at its most contemptible.
The concept of a ‘zombie nation’ has always been difficult for the world to swallow. Through the brain-addled ‘living dead’, Horror implies a scenario in which thought is contrived and action is manipulated. In an effort to expose the great human UnaMind – the weaknesses of human nature and the moral corrosion of society – Horror talks in a language of excess; so severe, so visceral, so literal that it is largely unpalatable but never invalid. Under the guise of the impossible, truth is exposed… and the truth ain’t always pretty. So we ignore it, giving zombies the visual and intellectual cold shoulder; blaming the ‘guts and gore.’ It is much easier for us to deny our intrinsic need to identify, to familiarise, to conform than to acknowledge our shortcomings, more specifically; our penchant for lapsing into a state of ‘virtual amoeba.’
And then came “The Walking Dead.”
Frank Darabont’s TV adaptation of the same-name comic has imbued the zombie-horror with a profundity of prestige and power.
It forces us to look.
But why? How?
The show’s context is not atypical: set in a post-apocalyptic world overrun with zombies – moms, dads, brothers, sisters, friends, neighbours, aunties and uncles who have succumbed to a mega virus for which there is (obviously) no cure – survivors are forced to adapt to their new surroundings in a do or die approach. The narrative is recognisable. The guts and gore is plentiful, and executed with great skill and mastery – enough to alienate the averagely squeamish.
Yet “The Walking Dead” is watched, and not only by horror fans.
So what is it? What has this show got that zombie films do not? What is the ‘something’ that draws in the gawking masses?
The answer is: time.
Time has nurtured a show that has divulged the human condition in a manner so true and so tragic. Its voice is powerful.
Some of the best TV series produced over the last few years are shows written in ‘novel form’ – “The Wire”, “Breaking Bad”, “Game of Thrones” (to some degree), “Sons of Anarchy” are examples. With this type of script the characters drive the intensity of the show – plot is used to pace episodes but, more importantly, functions as a tool to expand on and develop character. Story arcs are long and dialogue between characters is important. A further characteristic of ‘novel format’ is that series often have to be reviewed in retrospect. Characters do not flesh out in the space of a single episode; it can take seasons. Viewers are required to invest in the long term. Series as a genre affords the time to do delve deep into personality and motivation.
“The Walking Dead” protagonist Rick Grimes (played by Andrew Lincoln), aka sheriff’s deputy, perfectly illustrates the intricate character progression inherent in the ‘novel form’ series. In season 1, Rick wakes up from a coma in a world he does not recognise – chaos reigns and death lurks around every menacing corner; the season focuses on Rick’s coming to terms with the zombie apocalypse as he searches for his family.
The second season focuses on Rick’s rise to power – as leader of a group of survivors, which includes his wife Lori and son Carl, he operates in contrast to ousted leader and best friend Shane (played by Jon Bernthal), and what starts out as petty warfare turns into something seriously homicidal. Rick, desperately clinging onto a pre-zombie cop-code, becomes a caricature of good and moral thinking whilst devilish Shane has been turned by zombie-land into a personification of immorality. In the midst of this ethical power struggle is a zombie war that escalates in juxtaposition to the ascending animosity between Rick and Shane. The zombies operate as an outward manifestation, a symbol, of the moral decay that is taking over the few human beings left on earth. Zombies describe a pestilence of the soul. As the season progresses Rick is, time and time again, thrust into situations that challenge his moral code. And he is forced to change. In “18 Miles Out” (season 2, episode 10), ever-altruistic Rick is prepared to cut his losses and leave Shane for dead and ultimately he is forced to kill his pal when Shane pulls a gun on him (“Beside the Dying Fire”, season 2, episode 13) – who then turns into a zombie. Shane’s moral decay rots him inside and out: the message is clear.
But Rick turns out to be not so clear. And this all comes to a head in season 3. Everything that has happened to Rick up until the start of the season incites a brutal internal struggle and in the name of self-preservation, he withdraws emotionally and opts to run his group with bitter ruthlessness. Over the course of seasons 1 and 2, Rick morphs from mild-mannered law enforcer into a zombie-slaying badass who will do what it takes to protect the group over and above himself – kill, lie, steal whatever. The change completes itself during the course of season 3 but what happens when a man is forced to defy the essence of his character? – He freaks out a little, is all. And then Lori dies and Rick descends into an abyss of insanity, albeit temporarily. Forced to compromise his moral integrity on so many occasions and faced with the reality of loss and regret, Rick struggles to forge an identity that is compliant with the horrors of zombie-land. Rick has to work his shit out not just for his own benefit but for the sake of the group.
It takes three seasons for all this fleshing out to occur. And Rick is just one character.
Zombie-land does not pander to passivity; it forces change. Sometimes change is slight – some characters merely become exaggerated versions of themselves (Merle, for example) – but for others it is acute (as with Andrea). The show’s uncompromising context offers the perfect petri dish for the study of human nature – to what lengths will we go to survive in world enveloped in utter loss and complete devastation. And don’t we all want to know what we would do? – The show offers us insight and answers.
“The Walking Dead” exposes the recesses of the human heart, mind and soul.The show is a meditation on the human spirit – how we can be utterly shit a lot of the time and yet simultaneously magnificent in our tenacity and magnanimity. The zombies’ reign of terror merely amplifies our contradictions and embellishes our complexity. And it is as entertaining as hell!
“The world as we know it is gone but keeping our humanity? That is a choice.” Dale