Last night, the final episode of the fifth season of The Walking Dead screened on Australian television. The hit US series has for the last five years constantly reached larger and larger audiences around the world. In the US, each new season continues to break cable ratings records.
Swarms of downloaders accessing the show after each episode airs are evidence of its global following. But the stunning renaissance of the zombie in popular culture is reflected not only in the popularity of films and TV series such as The Walking Dead.
Zombies have become an urban phenomenon, with cities from Sydney to Santiago, Chile, organising annual zombie walks. Not long ago the University of Sydney was plagued by a mass of the undead during a Zedtown event, a humans-versus-zombies game involving hundreds of players.
It’s not just about the zombies
Many cultural theorists have explored the significance of the zombie and its continued prevalence in contemporary culture. With roots in Haitian folklore and precursors in West-African religions, the zombie of Afro-American creole beliefs was animated by magic, unlike the zombie of the late 20th century, which is re-animated by viral contagion.
British sociologist Tim May sees zombie films – from White Zombie (1932) to Night of the Living Dead (1969) and Dawn of the Dead (1972) – as expressions of racial anxiety.
Others examining the same films see the zombie as embodying the mindlessness of consumer society. In his recent piece on The Conversation, Joseph Gillings saw in the remorselessness and lack of self-regard an apt metaphor for the terrorism spawned by globalisation’s discontents.
More recently, film scholar Deborah Christie framed the zombie as means for thinking through anxieties about the post-human condition emerging at the turn of the 21st century.
“It’s their world now, we are just living in it.” That’s how one of the young characters in The Walking Dead puts it while hiding from “walkers” (the name the group gives to zombies) in the forest.
But what attracts our attention in The Walking Dead is not the zombies but the survivors. For them such arcane meanings are less important than finding a way to continue to live. Or to put it another way: the importance is less on containing the zombie apocalypse but understanding the new complexities emerging from a zombie aftermath in which bare life and community economies must be redefined.
In our view The Walking Dead reflects on the meaning of group solidarity in a brave new world. Rick Grimes, the leader of the survivors, played by British actor Andrew Lincoln, sees his group as a family bound by relations of mutual support.
Throughout the series we see characters transformed by this practice of solidarity. Daryl, the group’s consummate survivalist, is transformed from a stereotypical redneck into someone deeply concerned with the group’s welfare.
Rick’s communitarian family contrasts with other failed collectivities the group has crossed paths with during this and previous seasons. We’ve seen a dystopia under the control of a threatening “governor”; cops holed up in an Atlanta hospital with patients who amount to slaves. We’ve watched a biker-gang collective being decimated by a few zombies because of a lack of group cohesion; we’ve see a non-zombie cannibal collective dispatch other hapless survivors with bureaucratic efficiency to save themselves.
Rick’s family is also quite different from the utopian walled eco-village it finds itself in during the fifth series. Even though there is enough room for them to live separately, initially Rick’s group refuses this return to the nuclear family. Rejecting the trappings of civilisation, they prefer to remain in collective life.
In different ways, the characters express their desire to “not forget” what has allowed them to survive thus far.
At this moment in The Walking Dead, the real challenge facing the characters in Rick’s family is not whether or not they can survive but rather whether or not they can survive as a “collective” in a setting that promises a return to individual existence.
The dilemma facing Rick’s family may seem to have little to do with our present circumstances – but learning how to value collectivity and act collectively in the face of profound crisis is something we must all embrace.
Zombies have been incorporated into innovative educational tools aimed at disaster preparedness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US recently put together a sort of toolkit for emergency-preparedness for disasters and catastrophes: Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse. The use of a zombie apocalypse allows us to think of possible disaster responses and the relation between collectivity and resilience.
This might be seen in the containment strategies of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The xenophobic responses that followed the outbreak led nowhere whereas the collective response has been far more effective in containing the spread of the virus. Climate change is yet another example of the need to think seriously about solidarity as a key instance of disaster-preparedness and response.
The Walking Dead is a useful metaphor to think with. As we wait for the sixth season, we can contemplate its role in debating how we anticipate events that may threaten the economic order of things. So, does a zombie apocalypse signify the end of capitalist civilisation, or its perverse consummation?
We take it for granted but acting – or failing to act – in advance of possible futures is in fact an essential aspect of contemporary neoliberal democracies, whether we are talking about terrorism, climate change or a zombie pandemic, as the CDC toolkit implies.
A show like The Walking Dead helps us think through the challenges we face as a species; it helps us reflect on the critical importance of how to make new economies possible, and not just in the aftermath of major disaster.
The final episode of season 5 of The Walking Dead screened on FXTV last night.