Zombies and Me
So, it returns. The Walking Dead back for the second half of Season 8. I am hopeful there will be more of what I loved about this series: the focus on the characters, their struggle, the group bonding and the threat of the ever present undead out to get them. I like Negan, loved poor old Shiva the tiger and I am waiting for Carl Grimes to twitch back to zombie life now he has been bitten. Good, bad or indifferent, I am hooked.
When George A Romero brought us Dawn of The Dead back in 1978, he continued a cult of the undead which, quite simply, worked. The idea of the dead actually not dying but becoming animated and hungry was a perfect weapon of fear.
Firstly, your horror at corpses twitching, groaning, clawing and fixing you with that slack jawed gaze before they lunged at you. It was the archetypal monster under the bed made real. Then, the sickening realisation that the source of their hunger was you – your blood, your bone, your sinew and your brain and if they sank their human – if not dead – teeth into you, you joined their club. Immortality with the hordes of the undead, all staggering together.
The brilliance of Romero was that he centred their hunting ground in that symbol of consumption, the shopping mall. A place where the human goes to spend, a place where even a corpse remembers shambling down the aisles in search of happiness. A place now where the zombie is shopping and it isn’t looking for a new coat: it’s looking you. They own the mall and all its hiding places.
Of course, the zombie existed before Romero and Hollywood. It is the Resurrection, twisted and toxic but fundamental. In the Christian tradition, Christ rose and rolled away the stone and went to heaven. Smooth, clean and miraculous and the basis of an entire faith. Supernatural but in a hopeful, jaw dropping not jaw crunching way. In Haitian folklore the stories they told used magic to resurrect the dead. The Oxford English Dictionary says the origin of the word is West African where ritualistic practices and no doubt a fair bit of hallucinogenic juice helped the myth along. There is something relentlessly mindless about a walking corpse. They exist to eat. All humanity is erased. It reminds me a shark – a killing machine with flat, dead eyes.
Zombies don’t mess about nowadays.
The huge success of The Walking Dead has given us a far more tangible zombie. An post-apocalyptic world – them and us – a battle for survival and then the real eye opener – in the AMC version, whatever caused the dead to walk and want to rip your innards out – it will happen to you anyway, when you die, even if a zombie doesn’t get you. So, alive or dead, we are all zombies. I think that’s a bit of a leveller.
I came quite late to The Walking Dead, so binge- watched the first 6 series. What worked at the start for me was the close knit human groups working to stay alive, their relationships, that fabulous cast of characters. If I have any criticism of Series 8 is that it’s become a touch like Cowboys and Indians with a slow build up to a showdown. Negan is revoltingly attractive. I love that dichotomy. I can veer between loathing him and admiring his smile whist looking over his shoulder for a stray zombie to do us all a favour.
Although I like the peril a zombie brings in The Walking Dead – that moment one, or a hundred, start doing the zombie shuffle and you wonder who is going to get it next – and when a character does and starts twitching back to life, their humanity is gone, then what is truly terrifying is the moment of death … then one twitch… they are back, glassy eyed and hungry. For the onlooker, the human pain is of knowing death happened but then finding post death is even harder to take because this creature is not your loved one at all. It’s a bag of blood starved bones with a bite and a half and has gained all the instincts of a wolf which has been tied up outside a burger joint for a month and all it can smell is meat.
The zombie has something we don’t have: life after death. That for me is the fascination. I think that’s why the zombies rock. Think about it: weigh up eternal rest against eternal stagger – and clearly there are no zombie philosophers or thinkers mulling over their meaning of life or moaning about the daily commute. They just are. They don’t need to vote or pay taxes. They don’t need a mate. Their one basic instinct is to feed… on you.
We love horror because it is cathartic. We can experience fear with no real threat. Somehow, a zombie transcends vampires and spectres. The creature keys into that one element of life we all ignore, till it comes knocking and that is our inevitable death. Zombies give you hope. As long as you are not one. Or you see one standing outside your front door. No, keep your Thrones and Dragons and White Walkers. Keep your Freddy Kruegers and Annabelle dolls. You can always outrun a zombie. But if the apocalypse comes, keep out of the shopping mall.