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The Walking Dead in an Age of Anxiety

After the release of my zombie novel, Resurrection, City Journal asked if I could explain why so many people worldwide are obsessed with zombies. Here’s the first part of my essay:

“Wild, dark times are rumbling toward us,” the German poet and journalist Heinrich Heine wrote in 1842, “and the prophet who wishes to write a new apocalypse will have to invent entirely new beasts, and beasts so terrible that the ancient animal symbols of Saint John will seem like cooing doves and cupids in comparison.” Heine wasn’t thinking of zombies, necessarily, but 170 years later, many of us are. Zombies seem to be everywhere these days. Barnes and Noble called the decade from 2003 to 2013 a “Golden Age for zombie fiction.” Max Brooks—son of comedian Mel Brooks—has written several zombie-themed books, the most popular of which—2006’s World War Z—sold more than 1 million copies and inspired the blockbuster 2013 movie of the same name, starring Brad Pitt. (I recently jumped into the genre myself, with a novel called Resurrection, which has been optioned for film.)

Zombies dominate the video-gaming world. Dead Rising 3 for Xbox One and Microsoft Windows, released last November—the latest in a zombie-killing franchise—has already sold 1.2 million copies, at $50 a pop. In May 2014, CNN reported that the Department of Defense had come up with an elaborate (fictional) zombie-based contingency plan for a military response to “a planet-wide attack by the walking dead.” Pentagon planners liked CONOP 8888 (a.k.a. Counter-Zombie Dominance), the report claimed, because it allowed them to avoid “casting” the role of the bad guys in their training scenario with denizens of real countries. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has posted a Zombie Preparedness page on its website, meant to be “a tongue in cheek campaign to engage new audiences with preparedness messages.” The Wall Street Journal recently noted a surge in dissertations and academic books with the word “zombie” in the title. Zombie characters show up frequently in everything from road races to flash mobs, as well as at the expected Halloween parties.

But when it comes to zombies’ hold on our collective imagination, AMC’s The Walking Dead, starting its fifth season October 12, is in a class by itself. Based on Robert Kirkman’s long-running comic book of the same name, the show chronicles the efforts of a small group of survivors of a zombie apocalypse to stay alive in the ruins of civilization. Ratings were good for the first season, in 2010, and have grown every year since, making The Walking Dead a massive hit—indeed, a cultural phenomenon. According to Variety, 16.1 million viewers watched the season-four premiere—a record not just for AMC but for basic cable—and that’s before counting everyone who saw it on Hulu, Netflix, and other on-demand outlets. The Walking Dead’s popularity has spawned a small industry of related products, from video games to action figures, and regularly put stars Andrew Lincoln and Norman Reedus on the covers of big magazines like Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and GQ.

Why so much enthusiasm for a show filled with gruesome violence and almost unbearable tension? Why all the interest in the end of the world generally?

The ongoing story of The Walking Dead begins with sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes (Lincoln) waking in a hospital bed, dazed, from a three-month coma—he’d been wounded in a gun battle—and finding himself in a world gone mad. The hospital, located near Atlanta, is seemingly empty, with signs of violence, including the mangled corpse of a woman and blood-splattered walls, all around. Outside, the dead are piled high in bags. Stumbling about, Rick heads home to find his family. On the way, he comes to a park—where, to his horror, a severely decomposed body, missing its lower half, begins to crawl toward him.

At first, Rick doesn’t understand any of this. He slept through the apocalypse—a virus has animated the dead with a mindless, relentless urge to consume human flesh, spreading the plague further by their lethal bites, and civilization has collapsed—and it’s too much to comprehend. But he soon meets a live human being, Morgan Jones, who gives him shelter and a rude education.

“Hey mister,” Jones says. “You even know what’s going on?”

“I woke up today in the hospital,” explains Rick, “came home, and that’s all I know.”

“But you know about the dead people, right?” Jones asks.

“Yeah,” Rick says. “I saw a lot of that, out on the loading docks piled in trucks.”

“No,” Jones says. “Not the ones they put down. The ones they didn’t. The walkers”—what The Walking Dead’s protagonists call zombies. “They might not seem like much, one at a time,” Jones later warns Rick, “but in a group all riled up and hungry, man, you watch your ass.”

Rick sets out to find his missing wife, Lori, and son, Carl, and, against the longest odds, succeeds, becoming the leader of a small group of ragged survivors, struggling against infection and death in a world where everything is shattered and danger lurks around every corner. The suicidal Dr. Edwin Jenner, whom the group meets at the abandoned offices of the Centers for Disease Control, sums up the bleak reality in the season-one finale. “This is what takes us down,” he says. “This is our extinction event.”

Read the rest at City Journal.

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