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When a zombie bloodbath seems less scary than reality

Frank Ockenfels/3/AMC

“Weaponized diseases” are a hot topic at the moment. The story goes that a superbug secretly developed by our government has boomeranged on the homeland. The fever is spreading, and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention couldn’t stop it even if they wanted to.

No, not Ebola, silly.

This viral tale emerged two weeks ago on AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” It offered a possible explanation for the zombie plague that has left a ragtag band of heroes fighting to survive physically and emotionally in a devastated world. A new episode airs Sunday night at 9.

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The grisly dystopian drama is one of the most popular shows on TV. It drew a cable record 17.3 million viewers to its fifth-season premiere on Oct. 12, even beating “Sunday Night Football” among viewers 18-49. The episode featured the ultraviolent conclusion of a cannibalism cliffhanger and the can’t-unsee-it image of a guy having his face eaten off by a zombie that was on fire.

Of course, that’s not necessarily more frightening than what you get when you google “Ebola conspiracy theories.” “The Walking Dead” and the Ebola story are both peaking just in time for trick-or-treat — and the midterm election. The resulting crossfire of cultural signifiers is impossible to dodge. Instead of holding congressional hearings on treatment protocols, “The Walking Dead” producers blew up CDC headquarters way back in Season 1, a move some conspiracy trolls may envy.

To link the untold suffering and deaths of thousands of Africans with a TV series based on a comic book is both juvenile and inevitable. Now that it’s reached our shores, as a nation we will both freak out over and trivialize Ebola. It’s just how we roll.

“Walking Dead” characters were oft-seen on Halloween in recent years, notably Daryl with his crossbow and Michonne with her katana. This year? “Guesstimate for how many ‘Dallas Ebola Nurse’ costumes I’ll see this Halloween: 7” said a tweet from David Weigel of Bloomberg Politics (@daveweigel). He got the name of the costume wrong, though. It will, of course, be Sexy Ebola Nurse.

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Jokes and Halloween parties and horror movies are arenas in which we empower ourselves by co-opting the things that frighten us. The chances of getting Ebola are microscopic, but in the post-9/11 era, the odds are never long enough for us to relax, at least according to cable news. The approaching election hasn’t exactly calmed the debate over the Obama administration’s precautions. Or stopped the jokes. After the recent White House appointment of Ron Klain to manage the federal response to the disease, novelist Stephen Blackmoore (@sblackmoore) tweeted, “The Ebola Czar unleashes his infection through the land, raising an undead army.”

The modern zombie genre begins with George Romero’s low-budget 1968 “Night of the Living Dead,” Ben (Duane Jones), who is black, heroically if unsuccessfully defends a houseful of people from hordes of reanimated dead, only to be shot by a zombie-hunting posse.

It’s a given that horror films often symbolize the fears of the moment. Romero’s black-and-white aesthetic and alarmed TV newscasters made the film easy to read as commentary on the tumult of its era. The zombie threat he defined suggests violence in the streets and the druggy counterculture. But the film also seems to condemn the repressive reaction to the civil rights and antiwar movements.

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Zombie allegory is endlessly mutable. Romero’s 1978 “Dawn of the Dead” took zombies to the shopping mall for a black-humored take on Me Decade consumerism. “Shaun of the Dead” (2004) might be a plea for Britain’s embattled pub culture. Zombies can suggest fear of The Other or fear of dehumanization, primitive terrors or biotech hubris, but their staggering, shuffling, decomposing threat can also be easy to laugh at.

“The Walking Dead” has mostly eliminated the laughter.

Still, it seldom gets mentioned in the same think pieces as “Mad Men,” “The Good Wife,” and “Breaking Bad,” though it outdraws them all by a wide margin. Because entrails. And brain splatter. (It has been ignored by the Emmys except in technical categories, winning twice for its stunningly gruesome prosthetic makeup.)

Our heroes are led by white dudes, notably sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes (played by Andrew Lincoln) and the chopper-riding redneck Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus). But the violent heroics are parceled out widely among a cast that also includes the female, African-American self-made-ninja Michonne (Danai Gurira), and the now scarily well-adjusted-to-killing Carol Peletier (Melissa McBride).

The show’s politics are less easy to unpack than those of Ebola panic. Divisions of gender, race, and sexual identity are mostly forgotten in the desperate struggle to survive. But the decisions the heroes face are far more extreme than the moral questions tackled by Alicia Florrick on “The Good Wife” or the who-to-torture-next quandaries of Jack Bauer on “24.”

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In last spring’s relatively quiet but gut-wrenching episode “The Grove,” Carol stood behind a young girl whose mental illness made her dangerous baggage, and she raised a gun to the child’s head. No one who saw it will ever hear the gentle phrase “look at the flowers” quite the same way again.

The air of pervasive dread on “The Walking Dead” is addictive, and persists even when the characters think they are, however temporarily, safe. That’s a familiar feeling in an age of terrorism, global warming, and nervous jokes about that guy with the hacking cough at the coffee shop.

We wait on the edge of our seats for “The Walking Dead” to show us the unshowable, and when it does, we survive. That’s one way to conquer the awful in a world where TV news brings us woefully inadequate African Ebola wards and hostage beheading videos that stop just short of climax. On the Internet, of course, you can see the rest of those videos if you really want.

Watching “The Walking Dead” offers strange comfort in a world where the worst thing is always going viral.


Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.