Walking Dead and Zombie Ethics, or “Don’t Fight the Zombies. You Can’t Win”

Season Four of The Walking Dead premieres this week, and fans anxiously await the fate of the ragtag group of survivors holed up in a Georgia prison. What new threats will they face? Who will be the next to die in this post-apocalyptic drama?

The Walking Dead premiered in 2010 with a record breaking 5.3 million viewers, the highest ratings for a cable premiere. The third season’s premiere smashed the previous record, garnering an impressive 10.9 million viewers. (To put this in perspective, the series of finale of Breaking Bad had 10.3 million viewers).

As AMC’s President Charlie Collier noted at the time, “It is a good day to be dead.”

Zombies, an exasperated colleague told me, are everywhere. Indeed, they are, and they are unavoidable: these monsters are a five billion dollar industry. They appear in cell phone ads for Sprint, they chase runners in 5Ks, and they scare crowds at haunted houses and theme parks. With The Walking Dead and World War Z, zombies cemented their reign as the favored monster of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.  

The zombie’s ubiquity begs for explanation, and there is no shortage of theories. David Denby, writing about World War Z for the New Yorker, notes, “The zombies aren’t like us; they are us, just degraded a little.”

But what do zombies symbolize really? Are they us or aren’t they? Or are they symbolic of larger themes like consumerism, terrorism, neoliberalism, or epidemics? And how did these monsters become representative of our current moment?

Much of this ambiguity comes from the nature of the zombie itself. Zombies were once human, and then, they aren’t. They are both/and. They are dead, but not emorganntirely. They walk, they run, they bite, and they infect. Zombies are also alive, but not. They are, after all, shambling corpses. They fall apart. Their wounds remain. Yet, they soldier on.

Zombies are inherently liminal, that strange place betwixt and between. They are ambiguity.

And then, of course, they can’t speak for themselves. They can moan and groan, but usually they cannot talk. In World War Z, these monsters growl like jungle cats as they dart after human prey. Zombies can’t tell us what they mean, so they become a blank slate for creators and audiences to work out anxieties, both social and personal.

Zombies become the perfect monsters to communicate cultural demise and apocalyptic longing. While they moan, shamble, and run, they also signify.

Rather than stake a claim about whether zombies are/aren’t us (like the zombie, I prefer ambiguity), I want to think about what’s at stake in how we interpret the zombie. What might be the appeal of the zombie apocalypse, a remarkably bleak dystopia, to audiences?

Zombies Aren’t Us: Dehumanization, Violence, and Zombies

In World War Z (based very loosely on Max Brooks’ book of the same title), zombies or “zekes” are remarkably inhuman. The infection changes humans into fast-moving, twitchy monsters.

Zekes are predators, whose primary purpose is to infect. Not surprisingly, hordes of zombies, unidentifiable masses, are the center of the film’s big budget effects. Zekes scale walls, cling onto jets, and take down helicopters. Yet the most compelling scenes of World War Z focus on the Lane family, who start the day eating pancakes together and get caught up in the outbreak.

Karin Lane (Mirielle Enos) anxiously awaits word from her husband, Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), as he jets around the world seeking the cause of the epidemic. Of course, Lane, a former United Nations investigator becomes the key to global salvation.

The disruption of this white middle class family’s life appears alongside global collapse, and I am unsure which the film wants us to care about more. Zekes are clearly a dangerous threat, and the film plays on existing fears of global pandemics, terrorism, and the breakdown of governments and infrastructure. World War Z does not attempt to humanize the monsters, nor does it register concern for the masses of victims. It’s a familar idea: people unlike us as repositories of potential danger.

This resonates with the now-classic opener of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978). When cops raid a tenement building, one cop begins to shoot residents indiscriminately while shouting racial slurs. This cop takes advantage of a chaotic situation to gleefully murders zombies in a violent acting-out of his racist dehumanizing of anyone “other.”

Zombies can be killed with no questions asked.

The destruction of zombies, of course, is a hallmark of the genre. In Zombieland (2009), Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) seeks ever novel ways to get rid of zombies. He uses shears, a guitar, and a bat. The film even features “zombie kills of the week” with the most memorable kill involving a nun who uses a piano to crush a monster.

The joy of destroying zombies is not limited to popular culture. Zombie Industries (click at your own risk) produces exploding and bleeding 3D zombie targets in 19 distinct types (12 human zombies and 7 zombified animals). In recent months, the company faced controversy over two of its targets, Rocky and Alexa. For many critics, Rocky looked eerily similar to President Barack Obama, and the Alexa character, originally titled “the ex,” seemed to encourage violence against women.

Zombification allowed for consumers to act on vengeful fantasies. If they are zombies, violence can’t be wrong, can it? Shooting targets in the face is not real violence, if they are monsters.

Zombies Are Us: Humanity and Its Discontents

In the first season of The Walking Dead, the protagonist Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) is saved by Morgan (Lennie James) and his son, who are holed up in their home while zombies roam the street. While Morgan nurses Rick back to health, we find out that Morgan’s wife is a zombie. More importantly, she stays near their home and attempts to open the front door again and again. The doorknob rattles, and the family’s pain is palpable—it is almost as if she remembers that this house was once her home.

In a pivotal scene, Morgan decides to shoot this zombie who was once his wife, an agonizing decision. He tells his son to cover his ears. From a second story window, he takes aim at his wife as she shambles near the house, but he breaks down and sobs, unable to pull the trigger. What if part of the woman he loved is still there? How can he kill her? What if something human still remains?

In the third season, the viewers discover that Morgan’s zombified wife turned his son. Morgan blames his own weakness for this tragic turn of events. He had viewed the walker as still somewhat human, and this proved to be a fatal mistake.

Zombie media makes clear distinctions between the human and the zombie—and killing them saves us. Yet, there are resonances of a more complicated vision of the zombie. What if remnants of humanity linger in those resurrected corpses? Or what if zombies represent something fundamental about humans that we need to examine?

In the original Dawn of the Dead, the zombies flock to the mall, as if they remember that this place somehow provided them comfort. This comfort, of course, comes from rampant consumerism. Something about “us” seems to linger as zombies wander throughout the desolate shopping space. What is it?

Warm Bodies, a recent teen zombie romance, presents more aware zombies with habits, routines, and interior lives. They still consume brains, but they might feel bad about it. The narrator and protagonist, a zombie, is healed when he falls in love with a still-human girl.

In Warm Bodies, what really separates the human from the zombie is that zombies are not quite alive or fully dead. But if zombies are no longer antagonistic to humans, the dynamics have changed. It becomes harder to separate the two. Zombies are us, almost. They talk, they feel, and they think. It is harder to shoot an articulate, feeling monster that looks pretty much like you.

I come back to Denby’s assertion that zombies are us. They can be in our worst forms, but sometimes in our best. Mostly, I know that if they are us or they aren’t, we still must reckon with their rampant destruction in zombie media. Killing these monsters becomes a thorny problem either way, and yet so much of the genre relies upon brutality of obliterating these enemies. Us or them. Survival at all costs.

The glorification of violence in zombie media bothers me. Zombies are either killed because of dehumanization of the enemy or their uncanny closeness to the human. What does this say about us? What might the destruction of the other or the too-familiar tell us? Why zombies? Why now?

There is a stark clarity to the zombie apocalypse. Right and wrong are easy to discern: no need to agonize, just shoot the monsters in the head. The zombie apocalypse provides a moral clarity that we lack, as violence becomes the preferred method of engaging the world.

We save the world, bullet by bullet, and we feel fine.

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