Warning: This post contains pretentious writing and emotional necrophilia (in other words, zombie lovin’). The Walking Dead is back, and I’m about to go undead on yo’ butt. Read on…
American zombie movies and TV shows have replaced the Western as the go-to genre for exploring our culture through film. Classic Westerns address issues of American identity, racism, loyalty, friendship, moral obligation and ambiguity, and alienation by placing its characters in lawless environments that require them to make choices without a defined societal structure for guidance.
Hot damn! I should totally write articles for Film Comment, no? I just made that up off the top of my head.
Anyway, remove the phrase “Classic Westerns” from the beginning of that long, indulgent sentence above, and replace it with “American zombie movies” and it still holds true. I believe that explains the continuing popularity of zombie stories, and why people keep writing them. After all, good fiction writers strive to create worlds that explore those topics with subtlety and nuance and that force characters to make moral choices… even ones with potentially tragic downsides.
That’s why The Walking Dead so compels us to watch. Sure, everyone loves to see entrails ripped out and zombie heads cleaved with machetes. But gratuitous violence without characters or a story doesn’t make us tune in week after week, shout at the TV, or discuss, discuss, discuss the next day at work. On TWD, as with other great Zombie stories like Night of the Living Dead, the zombies are there to scare and thrill, but they are mostly there as the impetus for human conflict.
As writer Andi Marquette excellently discussed on her blog today, TWD’s characters can be both heroic and cruel, or brave and selfish, often at the same time. They have no congress to write laws or police to enforce them. Some turn to the Bible for guidance, others pretend the rules of civil society are still in effect, and still more take advantage of the freedom to act with legal impunity. The show asks us to consider which of these choices is best, and it asks us to imagine what “best” means. Does best mean taking whatever action is necessary to ensure the survival of you and your family? Or does it mean remaining loyal to your pre-apocalypse ideals, even if doing so results in your own physical destruction.
Sometimes I feel that TWD has a conservative bent. Shane, who espouses self-reliance and a well-armed (if small) populace, is often the one who saves the day in a crisis, while those who represent egalitarian ideals and gun control, such as Dale, are depicted as ineffectual and even dangerous in their passivity. On the other hand, Hershel’s adherence to biblical principles nearly gets everyone killed. And remember when Rick, the ostensible hero, stood before a statue of Christ in an abandoned church, asking for “a sign.” He was promptly attacked by a zombie.
The overarching question of The Walking Dead is this: Is morality a universal ideal or a human construct?
I prefer to avoid labeling my beliefs, because labels equate to ideology, and ideology has set a bad precedent in human history. That said, if you want to call me a secular humanist, I won’t argue. I believe nature is amoral. Stars explode, lions eat gazelles, babies are born with fatal diseases. Morality is simply necessary for society to function. I also happen to think morality, when wielded without judgment, is the greatest of all human constructs. Imagine the day when our testosterone-fed, caveman brains finally catch up with it.
In The Walking Dead, the characters are asked to evolve a bit faster than they were expecting in that regard.
What do you think?