Zombie Fever!

Behind the scenes with Sheriff Deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and a walker. "The Walking Dead," Episode 1: Days Gone Bye. 2010.

Though I make non-fiction television, I am loving scripted tv these days.  “The Walking Dead” just aired its Season 2 nail-biting, budget-busting finale on Sunday, and once again, I’m eagerly awaiting the next season.   I’ve read a lot of reviews about how uneven this season has been and how deadly (excuse the pun) the farm as been to the forward momentum of the show.  But despite its slow, zombie-shuffle to the end, I’m hooked, damn it.  The season finale contributed a new twist on the familiar theme [SPOILER ALERT] with the revelation that our heroes are already infected!  So now, the apocalyptic survival tale is even more unsettling.  It doesn’t matter if you die from a zombie bite or from falling off the roof – the body will reanimate, and it will be very hungry.  Mwaahahaa!

I just love a good zombie story.  Why, you ask?

Zombies are a metaphor for the times in which we live.  They represent distrust of government, feelings of disempowerment, fear of pandemic disaster and loss of identity.  I think zombie stories become popular when we are feeling the most helpless, and I think they are cyclical.

Consider this brief History:

1932:  “White Zombie” is widely considered to be the first zombie feature film.  Horror super-villain Bela Lugosi stars as a sinister voodoo master, enslaving the Haitians around him as well as an American woman who must “perform his every desire.”  In the shadow of the dark days of the Great Depression, this plot is a not-so-subtle observation of class conflict and a critique of US imperialism.  (Click here for an analysis of “White Zombie.”)

1964:  “The Last Man on Earth,” starring creepy Vincent Price was the first movie adaptation of the 1954 novel “I Am Legend.”  One man struggles with isolation and despair when a world-wide plague has turned all of humanity into the undead.  This zombie-like disease, resulting from a man-made virus, is typical of the popular apocalyptic scenarios seen in nuclear age cinema – when fear of the bomb and total annihilation was less scary than the thought of surviving the bomb.

1968:  “Night of the Living Dead,” a cult classic directed by George A. Romero, reinvigorated the genre and shocked audiences with its brutality – there is no hero and nobody gets out alive.  Much has been written about the themes of NOTLD and how the graphic violence reflected racism in America and the increased pessimism of the Vietnam War era.  (Click here Elliott Stein’s Village Voice article.)

2009:  “World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War,” a novel by Max Brooks, takes on government ineptitude, border fluidity, greed and public panic in this collection of first-person accounts of a world wide zombie crisis.

I suspect today’s popular resurgence of the zombie genre is directly related to the state of the world economy.  Once again, we sit on a precipice of debt and doubt, as workers are laid off and homes are foreclosed upon.  “The Walking Dead” tv series is an exaggeration of that loss; in this season finale, Hershel literately LOSES THE FARM.  By that rationale, are the undead actually bankers?

What demons do you think the zombie stories are exorcising today?

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