In searching for a Halloween topic, I observed that over the last few years something has transpired between America and flesh-eating zombies. Zombies used to be relegated to being just another niche in the fan boy/nerd movie consumer landscape, not any bigger or more compelling than the next “Batman” or “Ironman” movie. But something has changed. Flesh-eating zombies seem to have become Americana. I would place them somewhere between classic ‘70s muscle cars and those rubber fish on a plank of wood that sing songs when you hit a button.
It’s not as odd as you might think. Halloween has gone from one night of fun for kids running around in costumes to an almost month-long festival involving elaborate haunted houses at amusement parks and those done as folk art in people’s homes, followed by billions spent on candy and plastic spiders from China. The zombie movie genre has grown to become the subject of satire (2009’s “Zombieland,” which I heartily recommend) and the successful TV series “Walking Dead” which now has its own fan-driven talk show, “Talking Dead,” both of them on AMC.
Why zombies? What do flesh-eating cadavers have to tell us about ourselves? In the early going, there was director George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” which is impressively 43 years old and still scares the hell out of people. Romero followed that by creating a series of “Dead” movies, which were more about realizing a level of previously unrealized gore on screen than actual frights and scares. One could have easily dismissed Romero’s work with that argument, except that with “Dawn of the Dead” Romero’s zombie ghouls gravitated to a shopping mall and that supposedly layered some kind of dark commentary about patterned middle class behavior over the proceedings. I think Romero just liked filming at a mall, which allowed the fleeing undead protagonists to access weapons and assorted hardware that exuberantly ended up in the skulls of the zombies.
But the TV show “Walking Dead” may actually have something to tell us. It’s at least interesting to watch a portrayal of a present-day America devastated not by the things we’ve told over and over to fear (terrorists, immigrants, gays) but rather by our dead relatives rising up and waddling around trying to eat our flesh. Zombies are not treated like humans who have suffered some bad luck, but like insects or walking debris that needs to be eliminated with a screwdriver or hatchet driven into the skull to keep from bothering us. That’s not too far off the reduction of human life (and racism) that can find its way into keeping soldiers focused in warfare. If a soldier starts thinking about how the enemy has a family and kids like they do, it complicates killing. That zombies can be thought of as walking organic garbage (the series calls them “walkers”) means there’s no brutality you can inflict on them that’s wrong. Is that part of what happened at Abu Ghraib when photos revealed the grim pleasure taken in inflicting humiliation and abuse?
There’s possibly more to be considered in the way the protagonists of the “Walking Dead” apocalypse treat each other in their various efforts to work together toward the common goal of surviving. In last week’s episode, a young boy was accidentally shot and his father carries him across a farm field to get help. At the farmhouse there just happens to be a doctor with a family of daughters who all seem to understand surgical technique. Thank you, magic TV circumstances! But then, after the boy has been in the doctor’s care for hours, the parents learn that the doctor is in fact a veterinarian. The mother reacts to the level of (free) care her son is getting, as she might if she were a Tea Party candidate attempting to thwart Obama’s health care program. Yes the nation is being overrun by flesh- eating zombies, but what if this health care reform means a vet is working on my son? What death panel assigned a horse doctor to my kid?
Even with rotting flesh all around you, there’s always time for sex and what sex brings: Sexual jealousy and anger. “Walking Dead” has a story line in which one woman’s separation from her husband gives another dude a chance to move in. Then the husband shows up. “Do we tell him? Hang on a minute; I have to drive a crowbar into this thing coming through my window. Now, about our tryst…” It’s at least curious that sexual fidelity could matter so much in post-apocalyptic America. Would bigoted tribes of survivors drive the gays out of their camp, where they are eaten by zombies with the same fair and equal gusto that a heterosexual dinner would have provided?
Ultimately, I think American families fighting to survive in our current economy can see a little something of themselves in the family-like groupings of the struggling survivors in “Walking Dead.” One man keeps his Winnebago running by doing all the repairs himself and getting spare parts where he can. A macho guy wields a crossbow, showing how old traditional values still hold up even in a zombie-intensive environment. And guns are necessary and handed out to everybody trying to defend their loved one’s security.
When viewers of the “Talking Dead” zombie talk show were polled and asked to choose from four possible “explanations” for why the dead had risen, they overwhelmingly selected “A man-made toxin.” Not climate-related retribution or an alien space event. Rather, something we did that we thought was going to be good and it turned out to be the worst thing that ever happened to the country. If “Walking Dead” runs for eight years on TV, will a really smart and articulate guy then take charge and work in earnest to straighten out all the damage that’s been done by those who would eat us without a second thought? That would be a really Happy Halloween.
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