Every week or so, I browse our most excellent local library’s website for new ebooks to borrow. I really am trying to do better about borrowing books rather than buying them, and although success in that regard has been limited, I am trying, I swear! I got a pleasant surprise when I saw this book, We’re All Infected: Essays on AMC's The Walking Dead and the Fate of the Human, edited by Dawn Keetley.
You all know how much I love the show, so this was right up my alley! I put a hold on it and got the notification a couple of days later that it was available. (Seriously...what a great feature of most libraries now!)
Some might see the show and the zombie genre as mere pop culture fluff, but I’ve always felt that there was more to it than that. This collection of essays takes a scholarly look at zombies and the show in particular, looking at various sociological, psychological, and anthropological aspects. These aspects include the impact of violence and death, America’s cowboy mentality (Rick is basically a Western hero, isn’t he?), law enforcement, mourning or lack thereof, reliance on fossil fuels, the importance of language and communication (zombies can’t communicate beyond inarticulate growls), and a biomedical discussion of zombie function and breakdown.
There is a bit of history of zombies in pop culture, and that is fascinating in its own right. When zombies were first introduced to the U.S., it was as the Haitian voodoo zombies, and their portrayal in ‘30s and ‘40s-era movies was as a shambling slave under someone else’s control. Movies like “White Zombie” and “I Walked With A Zombie” reflected a fear of becoming a zombie and the loss of autonomy.
George Romero changed things in 1968 with “Night of the Living Dead,” with the zombies becoming something to fear, not just to fear becoming. This was seen as a metaphor for an increasingly violent world, and the zombie outbreak was said to be the result of some sort of massive radiation event, reflecting the fear of the Cold War. The zombies were still slow and shuffling, but overwhelming in their numbers.
This changed again in 2002 with “28 Days Later,” a movie in which the outbreak is a result of some type of viral infection. The outbreak moves quickly, and so do these zombies. This possibly reflects a fear of pandemics and terrorists, or a world moving rapidly out of control.
One of the most interesting essays to me was the one that focused on the question of time and the loss of it. The author of this essay, Gwyneth Peaty, showed how the show focuses on the lack of time. There is never enough time to mourn the dead, to process what is happening, to take a breath and focus on something other than mere survival. The one time everyone seems to relax a bit around the campfire while eating fish that Andrea and her sister Amy caught that afternoon, they all have a few laughs as Dale explains why he continues to wind his watch every day. This moment of relaxation and light-hearted camaraderie is taken away from the survivors—and from us—as the camp is attacked by zombies, and several people are brutally killed, including Amy. Andrea keeps vigil over her sister’s corpse, waiting for it to reanimate, and tells her she thought there would always be more time. Even at the end of Season 4, Hershel’s watch is still making an appearance and playing a big part. Time is important.
The zombies themselves are a constant reminder to the survivors that time is short and that humanity is lost. We mark our own mortality by the passage of time, with the inevitable outcome of death. We (hopefully) make the best of the time we have been granted. The reanimation of dead human beings into walking, cannibalistic zombies takes that outcome away from us. The zombies “live” in suspended time and take away our future. Without the prospect of a future, there is little hope to be found.
It’s a lot of fun to speculate and discuss what zombies say about our current state of mind as a society, but Romero himself is quick to point out that sometimes a zombie is just a zombie (paraphrased). He has said, “The zombies have always just been zombies...my stories are about humans and how they react, or fail to react...I’m pointing the finger at us, not at the zombies.”
I think this is an important thing to note in the context of “The Walking Dead.” I often see people freaking out online because the writers are focusing more on the people than on the zombies. Some people complain that there aren’t enough zombie kills, too much dialogue, and too much focus on the human survivors. It seems to me that they are missing the entire point of the show (and the graphic novels), as well as Romero’s point about his own groundbreaking movies.
In the TV show, it’s not really the walkers who are the walking dead...it is the human survivors. The show is ultimately about the breakdown of society and how those who remain deal with it: can they manage to form a new society? How? If so, what form will it take? Will they be able to keep their own sense of humanity? When the world goes to shit and almost everybody gets bit (from a scene with Daryl and Andrea), what will our individual and group reaction be? How will we deal with not just the zombies, but with the sometimes more dangerous human survivors?
These are fascinating questions to me, and it’s why I love the show so much. This book got a little bogged down in psychobabble in a few places (it’s okay to use regular words, folks...not everything needs to be couched in psychological terms), but I found it very thought-provoking, and it gave me some insights into the show that I had not thought of before. Because of these essays, I will watch it with a newly discerning eye when it returns in the fall.
Is it October yet?!