In a half-century on the planet, I’ve seen two horror movies, and regretted them both. Every time Bambi’s mother gets shot, I shut my eyes. Whenever possible, I prefer not to invite violence, death, and gore into my dreams.
But like 15 million other Americans who watch the show “The Walking Dead,” I’m consumed with blood-splattered zombies these days. They wander around my consciousness, drooling blood and flesh, heaving legless torsos over piles of laundry. And unlike the mom in Time-Warner Cable’s brilliant Super Bowl ad, I don’t even try to expel them. How could I? They’re everywhere: kissing mortals in theaters, chasing down runners in 5Ks, hawking emergency procedures for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What they say on “The Walking Dead” is true: We’re all infected.
To understand how rotting corpses came to be beloved of a nation, look to the genius that is called AMC. Formerly known as American Movie Classics, the cable network smartly rebooted a decade ago, recasting itself via acronym, just like KFC did. Freed of its previous mission to air movies that everyone has already seen a dozen times, AMC turned to original dramatic series to boost its ratings, and in doing so, put an arrow through the legacy networks’ bloated heads. AMC’s offerings are the best on TV today, not because of the gore, but because its characters traffic in stuff that’s important.
“Breaking Bad,” the network’s gutsy drama about a terminally ill physics teacher who cooks crystal meth to provide for his family, is a modern-day morality play, similar to the 15th- and 16th-century dramas that examined good and evil via the stage. Walter White’s rapid descent down a ladder of moral ambiguity makes Dante’s nine circles of hell seem antecedent, a preliminary for the main event.
The main event is “The Walking Dead.”
The series, which resumed Sunday night after a three-month hiatus, posits a contemporary apocalypse, in which Earth has been overrun by murderous re-animated cadavers. The zombies — or walkers, as they’re called on the show — lurch around in bloody herds, looking for live humans on which to feed. If it sounds like the stuff of comic books, well, it is. The series premiered on Halloween of 2010, based on graphic novels by the same name. And zombies as a concept are nothing new. In 1968, the film “Night of the Living Dead” created a similar world, though not nearly so terrifying, given the lack of modern makeup and special effects.
Our appetite for zombies has increased exponentially since then, in part because of the paucity of in-our-face warfare. Except for images of overseas bombing and erratic Taliban-driven atrocities, 21st-century America is a gore-free zone; the most disturbing scenes most of us saw last year were the opening frames of Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” It’s a luxury, really — a bizarre first-world privilege — to be so unaffected by dismembered bodies, to cheer as ridiculously photogenic characters, such as the dreamy zombie-hunter Daryl, impale ghastly corpses with spears.
Even in a country freshly unnerved by guns, zombie violence is safe and permitted because, well, they’re zombies. Zombies need killin’! And much to the enjoyment of young men and adolescent boys, they need killin’ with bow guns and spears and axes and other weapons that, admired in any other context, would result in intense therapy and police surveillance. As one T-shirt says, “The hardest part of a zombie apocalypse will be pretending that I’m not excited.”
But “The Walking Dead,” mercifully, is good for more than sating the urges for battle that we repress in a peaceful society. Its greatest value derives from the moral questions it poses: Does morality change with circumstances, or is it fixed, timeless, eternal, even in a world overrun by flesh-eating zombies who are after your kids? Is the murder of a child ever acceptable? Is it justifiable to sacrifice one person so 12 others might live?
To eager fans who dissect AMC’s show ad nauseam, the character Rick Grimes and his ever-diminishing band of survivors present a weekly exercise in values clarification — something that used to be common in public schools, but has now been replaced by weigh-ins and discussions about self-esteem. If it takes zombies to get my teenage sons to talk morals, bring ’em on. They may haunt my consciousness and interrupt my sleep, but so, too, will Daryl.