Below you will see an excerpt from the February 8, 2015 episode of “Walking Dead” on the AMC cable channel. Titled “What Happened and What’s Going On”, it is about the latest futile attempt by the characters to find a safe haven against zombies, in this instance a middle-class gated community that was formerly the home of Noah, an African-American youth who joined the band recently.
Noah is accompanied by Tyreese, the older and powerfully built African-American who we see in the excerpt being attacked by Noah’s brother, who has been transformed into a zombie.
I want to direct your attention to the radios that are shown in Noah’s house as Tyreese lies bleeding on the floor and later on when he is being rushed away in a car driven by Rick, the band’s leader. In both instances Tyreese is hallucinating since radio and television, and all civilized life, has come to an end.
The radios play what sounds like BBC reporters commenting on Boko Haram or ISIS: “Four deadly attacks on the coastal district”. “The marauders continue their campaign of random violence”. “The country’s military forces in disarray”. And so on.
For me, the hallucinatory radio broadcasts came as an epiphany. I have made no effort to track down commentary on this episode but I interpret it as a sidelong glance at the barbaric nature of so-called Islamic radicals, even though they have very little to do with religion. More generally, the writer Scott Gimple is conveying the show’s major theme—that human beings are worse than the dreaded zombies and that civilization is entering a new Dark Age.
Over the past couple of years, the show has honed in on repeated and futile attempts to escape both zombies and predatory human beings. In season four they try to live at peace inside an abandoned prison that is protected by chain link fences from zombie attacks. You of course have to wonder how much difference there is between a prison and Noah’s gated community. Their miniature commune grows its own food and lives by its own fairly civilized standards until they succumb to a combined attack by zombies and human predators, led by “The Governor” who has presided over his own safe haven that in reality is a concentration camp ruled by force.
In season five we see Rick’s band on the move again, this time hoping to become part of Terminus, supposedly another refuge from the zombies. Once they enter through its walls, they discover that the inhabitants are cannibals.
The existential bleakness of “Walking Dead” is clearly a reflection of the mood of despair that is widespread in a society constantly bombarded by news of nonstop war, jihadist terror, looming climate catastrophe, species extinction including our own, and a general sense that there is no alternative to the Dark Age that we live in. The inability of Rick’s band to find any sort of solidarity or mutual aid is ultimately more frightening than any zombie’s teeth.
Zombie tales have only assumed social and political dimensions fairly recently. Before George Romero’s breakthrough “Night of the Living Dead” in 1968, the typical zombie flick was something like Jacques Tourneur’s “I Walked with a Zombie” that was set in the Caribbean and involved voodoo ceremonies that brought people back to life. Tourneur also directed “Cat People”, a film much admired by film scholars for its surrealist inflections.
Romero was not interested in making the typical voodoo film. His zombies were on the attack in rural Pennsylvania and their human prey took refuge in a farmhouse whose defense was organized by Ben, an African-American played by Duane Jones. Unlike “Walking Dead”, the zombies were routed by local law enforcement that regarded them not much more than a nuisance like bedbugs or rabid skunks, which is summed up by this priceless exchange in the denouement:
Field Reporter: Chief, if I were surrounded by eight or ten of these things, would I stand a chance with them?
Sheriff McClelland: Well, there’s no problem. If you have a gun, shoot ‘em in the head. That’s a sure way to kill ‘em. If you don’t, get yourself a club or a torch. Beat ‘em or burn ‘em. They go up pretty easy.
Rob Kuhn’s documentary “Birth of the Living Dead”, which can be seen on Netflix or Amazon, interviews George Romero and leaves no doubt about his determination to use zombies as a symbol of 1960s chaos and disintegration. In my review of the film, I noted:
Besides Romero, we hear from a number of knowledgeable film critics and scholars including Elvis Mitchell, an African-American who explains the importance of casting an African-American actor—Duane Jones—in the lead role. Jones is an authority figure just as much as the sheriff in “Walking Dead” but nobody ever says a word about not taking orders from a “Negro”. In its way, “Night of the Living Dead” was as much of a breakthrough for Black identity in films as the more obvious bids from directors working in the Blaxploitation genre.
As the seventies, eighties and nineties wore on, the zombie genre took on a bleaker character. If they were a minor inconvenience in Romero’s 1968 film, by 2002 they were a powerful force that had made civilized life impossible—anticipating in their way the message of “Walking Dead”. I speak here of Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later”, a brilliant film that for the first time depicts human beings as much of a menace as the zombies they supposedly protect mankind from. In the thrilling conclusion to the film, a young British civilian fends off a military unit that is planning to rape his girlfriend.
Three years later George Romero made a new zombie film that is even more of a social commentary than his 1968 original. Titled “Land of the Dead”, it puts a zombie army that is advancing on a gated city that is as brutally class divided as Rio de Janeiro or Mumbai. In my review of this film that can be seen on Amazon streaming, I quoted Romero who was asked about why the film was set in a Pittsburgh of the dystopian future:
When I got there — I went there to go to college and I’ve lived there ever since– the mills were all still open. Of course, you had to have your headlights on at noon and change your shirt three times a day. Nowadays, there are still people living in little towns like Braddock saying, “The mills will reopen someday. Don’t worry about it.” It is about lost potential. It was a thriving immigrant community. It was sort of the industrial American dream, but what nobody realized at the time was that it was the Carnegies and those boys who were keeping the city going. It seemed for a while like Pittsburgh was built on the backs of the workers, but it never really was. Those people have always been second-class citizens and the town has always been, at its core, very wealthy. So there’s a little bit of that in this movie too it just so happens that it’s now a reflection of the entire country.
Leaving aside the social and political implications of “Walking Dead”, I can recommend it as first-rate entertainment. Like other shows on AMC such as “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad”, the station has a way of putting together dramatic serials that are the equal or superior to anything on the premium channels such as HBO or Showtime. Frank Darabont, who was the screenwriter for a number of Stephen King adaptations, developed the show. It is not too hard to figure out that King’s darker than dark sensibility and supreme story-telling knack had a major influence on Darabont. There’s not much on Darabont in Wikipedia but this is worth citing:
Darabont was born in a refugee camp in 1959 in Montbéliard, Doubs, France. His parents fled Hungary after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. When he was still an infant, his family moved to the United States, settling in Chicago. When Darabont was five the family moved to Los Angeles. Darabont was inspired to pursue a career in film after seeing the George Lucas film THX 1138 in his youth. Darabont graduated from Hollywood High School in 1977 and did not attend college. His first jobs after finishing school included working as a forklift operator and as a busboy. He claims he got his writing skills from “endless hours” of writing at a desk on a typewriter in his free time.
Too bad so many screenwriters learned their craft in graduate school than in the way that Darabont did.
Finally, while on the topic of zombie movies or TV shows as entertainment, let me recommend two of my favorites: Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola’s “Dead Snow”, made in 2009 and the sequel “Dead Snow 2: Red vs Dead”. Both films can be seen on Netflix streaming and are brilliant pulp fiction.
In the first film, a weekend skiing trip by Norwegian students turns into a desperate flight from Nazi soldiers who emerge as the walking dead from beneath the snow. It is a splatter film filled with cartoon-like effects of power tools being used as weapons, one of which is used to saw off the arm of Martin, who has been bitten and infected by a Nazi zombie. Yes, I know it sounds idiotic but it is more fun than a barrel of monkeys. There are multiple beheadings but none that would give you the kind of feeling of dismay that ISIS gives. Your reaction is to laugh out loud in much the way that a safe being dropped on the coyote’s head in a roadrunner cartoon would.
In the sequel, there is even more merriment. I laughed so loud watching it that I was afraid my neighbors would complain to the doormen downstairs. Martin, who is the sole survivor of the first attack, gets the Nazi battalion commander’s arm that he has chopped off fleeing from the mountaintop reattached to his body in the hospital while he is unconscious. Meanwhile, the Nazi ends up with Martin’s arm. It all leads to inspired farce such as Martin not being able to control the reattached arm that seems to have a mind of its own. If you’ve seen Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove, you’ll get the picture.
The film gets its subtitle from Martin’s raising a battalion of Red Army soldiers who have been buried in Norway since 1945, after a battle with the Nazis now on the rampage. Using the power of his reanimated right arm, he brings them back to life or more accurately allows them to walk among the living. The final scene is a truly inspired gore-fest with intestines being pulled out of the victim’s stomach like a garden hose and dozens of beheadings. If you prefer “The Imitation Game” or “Birdman”, the hell with you.