Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 19, 2015

What the zombies tell us

Filed under: Film,television — louisproyect @ 6:24 pm

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.



  1. well, I appreciate the guilty pleasures owed to a Marxist film critic (seems like that term should be some kind of oxymoron, but . . .) to engage in political review of a schlocky (sp.?) drama of a schlocky genre and then (!) go on to justify it with the dark morbidity of watching really gross movies as entertainment. It’s a bit like seeing what an advanced stage of socialist realism would look like if we ever get past capitalism. Don’t get me wrong, I think we should all accept each other’s peculiarities in what entertains us. But damn! A critical review commenting on the madness of society as illustrated by the worldview of the George Romeros or the makers of “Walking Dead”?! . . . .?!

    Sorry, Louis, you’re a great revolutionary, but damn!

    Comment by mtomas3 — February 19, 2015 @ 8:01 pm

  2. Check out Z Nation on SyFy. Pretty funny (deliberately so).

    Comment by Max Sawicky — February 19, 2015 @ 10:30 pm

  3. I’ve always thought the increasing popularity of gore slash and murder movies corresponds directly with an increase in sociopathy in Americans. You have to be mentally damaged to be entertained by seeing a human being injured or cut to pieces, fictional or not. The rise in these kinds of movies started as the 60’s and the potential for revolutionary change it carried came to an end, and become more prominent along with the collapse of the inner cities and the rise of criminal gangs, the end of employee healthcare with mental health benefits, and the rise of the militarized police state.

    Comment by jomacoy — February 20, 2015 @ 9:07 am

  4. The zombie genre often falls into subject heading apocalyptic- reactionary -Ayn Rand- gated communities, Supposedly Brad Pitt’s World War Z is a primo example of that with Israel and South Africa being lauded for their walls (by Brad Pitt) as “security measures.” Except the original target of those walls wasn’t zombies. It might have been for instance, Palestinian farmers separated from their farms.
    TV syfy genre in general falls into slash, hack and torture porn. It’s totally disappointing.

    Comment by mui — February 20, 2015 @ 3:26 pm

  5. I will have to register a defense of Louis’ review and enjoyment of The Walking Dead, I enjoy it myself. There is an element of this band of people trying to recreate a cooperative functioning society despite having to do it in the worst of circumstances. Other critics say the characters are flat and cardboard, but I see them as just stoic because that is all you could be in a world that is totally fallen apart.

    Comment by Sheldon — February 20, 2015 @ 6:01 pm

  6. I know I wasn’t harping on Louis’ review. I just feel tv’s syfy genre is inundated w/zombies and post-apocalyptic monsters. SF/F is supposed to be the literature of dreamers (who dreamt of the internet, and laptops and now dream of post-scarcity, better medicine, space travel etc), not just nightmarers, and yet it seems the zombies keep on coming and too often there’s body parts flying.

    Comment by mui — February 21, 2015 @ 1:55 am

  7. re: “The zombie genre often falls into subject heading apocalyptic- reactionary -Ayn Rand- gated communities”

    Which in and of itself has its origins in films about settler colonialism.

    Take “Zulu” for example.

    (Zulu was also ripped off by Peter Jackson for LOTR. The influence on Two Towers is obvious)

    Comment by srogouski — February 21, 2015 @ 5:59 pm

  8. srogouski I haven’t seen that one.

    Comment by mui — February 21, 2015 @ 9:19 pm

  9. Peter Jackson certainly saw it.

    Comment by srogouski — February 21, 2015 @ 9:27 pm

  10. srogouski I didn’t see that one either. But the Zulu clip since the warriors on one end were unarmed and completely massacred.

    Comment by mui — February 21, 2015 @ 9:57 pm

  11. I’ve read a lot of criticism of Lord of the rings (the book itself) as reactionary. Lots of criticism made by China Mieville, syfy writer and self-described communist. I generally don’t criticize Lord/Rings because it’s such a holy grail in skif fiction. But you’re right the menacing orcs are often seen as a stand in for “The Other.”

    Comment by mui — February 21, 2015 @ 10:04 pm

  12. I mean to say Zulu clip was kind of horrifying.

    Comment by mui — February 21, 2015 @ 10:05 pm

  13. Zulu’s actually less racist than the (film version) of LOTR.

    But both films (as well as many zombie films) have their origins in settler colonial image of circling the wagon trains against the Indians.

    You could probably throw in the final scene of Birth of a Nation.

    I’m not sure if I find the idea of zombies as “consumer culture” entirely convincing, although “Sean of the Dead” managed to succeed pretty well on that score.

    Comment by srogouski — February 21, 2015 @ 10:11 pm

  14. er yeah, generally I stay away from Rings and zombies criticisms unless it seems to be saying something positive about apartheid. But if you think Rings is bad, you haven’t seen Ender’s game where spoiler: little Ender blows up a whole planet so humans can settle that galaxy.

    Comment by mui — February 21, 2015 @ 10:22 pm

  15. LOTR (and zombie films) slip their pro-colonialist agendas into films that (simultaneously) have liberal or even left agendas. A big budget Hollywood film has to have something to offer every demographic.

    So you can bill zombie films as a critique of consumerism. People on the left will see it that way. People on the right will see zombies as marauding blacks trying to steal your doomsday prepped canned goods.

    There’s a reason LOTR is a hit with liberals but also with white nationalists. Mass culture is always written to have the broadest possible demographic/ideological appeal.

    Comment by srogouski — February 21, 2015 @ 10:30 pm

  16. Enders Game sounds more as if it dispenses with the attempt at a broad appeal and goes directly for the fascist demographic, possible with a novel in a way it’s not possible with a big budget film.

    Comment by srogouski — February 21, 2015 @ 10:32 pm

  17. There’s something in it for everyone. Zombies, I guess. Except for those who object to explicit apartheid scenes. Ender’s is very famous. Loved by some. Hated by others. It’s also been required reading at military schools(?) I don’t know how it did at the box office.

    Comment by mui — February 21, 2015 @ 11:17 pm

  18. I blame filming on Bush/Obama era and drones.

    Comment by mui — February 21, 2015 @ 11:19 pm

  19. They probably did soften film up for demographic. For instance, in book the enemy is referred to as “bugger.” Some take that to be Card’s infamous homophobia. They also soften his infamous chauvinism and make more women characters(there are really only two girls/women in the book) and take out the part where Ender kills a French boy.

    Comment by mui — February 21, 2015 @ 11:34 pm

  20. I enjoyed your piece Louis, but I think “I Walked with a Zombie” with its drama involving the family of a white plantation owner on an island where the locals are descended from slaves is worthy of closer examination in regard to its “social and political dimensions”.

    Comment by kim — February 22, 2015 @ 3:06 am

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