What the Walking Dead Say About the Living
By Aimee Terravechia
When White Zombie debuted in 1932, a reviewer by the name of Frederic Commonweal wrote that the film was "…interesting only in measure of its complete failure." It was the dawn of a new genre, and zombie films were already being misunderstood and undervalued. What Commonweal (and nearly every other critic) missed was the zombie as a metaphor. Even in its infancy, filmmakers were using the undead to make social and political commentary.
White Zombie was released in 1932 with Bela Lugosi in the lead. The film might seem like just another creature feature. In fact, it follows the 30s horror archetypes closely — beautiful woman is compelled to sully her good name and reputation through the control of a sinister supernatural force. The film opens on a burial near a Haitian plantation. A horse-drawn carriage transports a young and lovely white couple. The woman, a frail blond thing — the very definition of 30s femininity -- finds herself disturbed by the spiritual songs and ritual practice. It isn't until the carriage is stopped by an angular and dark Lugosi that we see our first zombies emerging from a graveyard. Unlike modern zombies, these creatures aren't undead virus-infected animals, driven only by their quest for food. White Zombie's incarnation of the lore sticks relatively close to source material, employing mind control as a way to disrupt a wedding and woo a woman. White Zombie is a romance story gone awry.
Despite all of this, there's so much more to the narrative beneath the surface. Lugosi's character, a man named Legendre, uses his mind control abilities to convert people into a docile workforce for his sugar mill. The sullying of the bride-to-be might have been the plot at first glance, but the scenes of faceless workers marching in time to the groaning of the sugar cane grinder become haunting when a worker falls into the machine unnoticed by even those only inches from him. The machine grinds on.
Much care is given to these scenes. The lighting creates angular shadows and dramatic landscapes within the sugar mill. The workers are ever present, yet never discussed. The camera lingers on their faces, on their scarred bodies and blank eyes. And all the while, we hear the grind of the machines. It's no wonder that so much importance was given to the shots of the unidentified victims of the narrative when you consider the time in which this film was produced. The Depression-era movie's not-so-subtle commentary on the plight of the working class set a precedent for how this horror device would be handled in the future.
A decade later and King of the Zombies opened with WWII on the horizon. The focus was on using the supernatural for evil and building the influence of the Axis. Mind control was the central focus — an obvious reference to propaganda and blind nationalism taking place in Germany.
Twenty-five years and another war later George Romero debuted Night of the Living Dead. With the Vietnam War waging and social and political unrest at home, Romero's film was positioned to make pointed social commentary.
Night of the Living Dead is rife for dissection. Everything from the style of filming to the casting has been studied. Film historian Joseph Maddrey likened the black and white film to a wartime newsreel, saying it "seem[s] as much like a documentary on the loss of social stability as an exploitation film." Another film historian, Robin Wood, interpreted the classic as a critique on capitalism. Elliot Stein, a writer for the Village Voice, saw it as a commentary on the Vietnam War. There are feminist interpretations, civil rights interpretations, and anti-government interpretations of the film.
Whatever the exact message intended by Romero, he was able to capture the social and political strife of the era. People who were disenfranchised saw themselves in this film. It spoke to the unrest of the 60s and touched on the fears of both the working class and the establishment. The world was being devoured, literally. The nihilist ending for the characters who begin the story creates a finality — a break point. And the new era is ushered in by the hero of the film — a man of color who effectively puts a bullet in the last standing hold-out.
Night of the Living Dead was one of five Living Dead films that Romero would go on to, continuing to tackle social and political issues through his use of zombies. The undead in Dawn of the Dead can't help but blindly amble towards the mall, like so many Americans wrapped up in consumerism in the late 70s. Those who tried to enslave the zombies in Day of the Dead had parallel thinking to 80s conservatives when it came to viewing the individual as chattel. Romero's films brought in a new wave of zombie narratives, now swelling with social and political commentary.
Modern zombie representations raise big questions too. Shows like The Walking Dead and movies like 28 Days Later examine issues of class, gender, sexuality, race, parenthood, etc. within the frame of the zombie apocalypse. When asked what 28 Days Later was really about, Danny Boyle said "social rage... There's a very specific social intolerance of each other... It's not just road rage. You get it in hospital waiting rooms and you get it in airplanes and airports. It seems to be a speed fixation. When it's not delivered at the speed desired, people just lose it."
When you consider these statements in conjunction with the film — the rage not just of the infected, but also of the healthy (physically, at least) characters -- the bigger picture becomes obvious. The behavior of the soldiers when they conduct rounds, or how they treat Selena and Hannah when they first arrive, begins to create an uneasiness in the audience. It's a sort of subtle rage — an undercurrent that is as present in real life as it is in the film. It isn't just sexism that compels these characters to feel entitled to the female bodies that Sasha and Hannah inhabit, it's an unrelenting anger. The climactic moments when protagonist Jim comes back to save Selena and Hannah transfer the rage of the zombies to the living in a much more immediate way. Suddenly, the lines are blurred. We see that everyone is filled with this intensity, and the question becomes when is it necessary?
The Walking Dead toes the same line. Throughout the six seasons audiences have witnessed Rick and gang grapple with love, loss, parenthood and politics. All pretty mundane subjects in and of themselves, but with zombies clawing at the door, they feel much more dramatic. It isn't just about how the characters handle the undead — it's about how they handle each other. There's a flux in the group dynamics and people either get stronger or they die. They adapt or they die. They come to terms with the situation in their own ways.
Modern zombie narratives call upon the most primordial parts of ourselves. They give characters permission to execute deadly force. It's a genre for the modern gunslinger — the American who once would have idealized the old west through watching Clint Eastwood in spaghetti westerns now focuses on the same spirit of individualism and rough-and-tumble morality through the guise of the zombie apocalypse. These end-of-the-world scenarios represent the ultimate survivalist fantasy. With society gone, so too have the rules of civilization disappeared. With that comes fear, but also a certain freedom to create your own moral code. It's liberating. It's American.
But if the zombie apocalypse is somehow representative of the opportunity to live out the promise of American freedoms to the fullest, how are audiences supposed to interpret the zombies themselves? They act as antagonist forces within these narratives. Whether running or ambling along, zombies are chasing away the ideals of these fictional worlds. They are infringing on safety. They are the undercurrent to propel plot and compel characters. They are the physical manifestations of the social and cultural fears, and the political enemies. The zombie narrative is one prolonged logical fallacy. They provide audiences the opportunity to witness these fears get taken down with a single bullet to the head. Much like vampires, werewolves, and other mythical creatures that dominated the horror genre before them, zombies are terrifying only to those without the tools to defeat them. They are the strawmen, easily taken down with a blunt impact. The viewer feels empowered with their knowledge. Yes, these creatures are fearsome, but you, dear audience member, will survive them. You have the skills, the know-how and the gumption. The survivors of the zombie apocalypse are the successors of the American dream. Anything is possible, even in the face of social strife, stalled economies, and zombies.
Published May 11th, 2016
Aimee Terravechia is a writer, teacher, and grilled cheese connoisseur. She is currently working on her second novel Memes Anonymous . She has written for The Powder Room, Scary Mommy, and The Cubic Lane. Her fiction has been published in Apocrypha and Abstractions. When not writing she can be found teaching college composition and creative writing, herding cats, or wrangling her toddler.