Written by Alexander Greco
October 25, 2020
“They just want to calm your fraying nerves
They just want to be your comforters
They just want to clear your aching head
They just want to calm your fraying nerves
They just want to be your comforters
They just want to wake the walking dead
The walking dead”Mark Lenover, “The Walking Dead”
The Analysis that Became a Rant or The Little Article that Could
It might have been the pot, it might have been the acid, or it might have been the mushrooms, but I remember at some point in my nebulous collection of psychedelic adventures, zombies finally made sense. I figured them out.
I don’t like the word “zombie” though. “Living dead” is getting better—it’s a nice oxymoron. “Walking dead” though… they got it right with that name.
See, “Zombie” is too abstract—it’s not connected with anything tangible, it’s just a funny sounding name that we associate with mindless, autonomic bodies brought back to life.
“Living dead” is better because it hits closer to home. We have deeper associations with the words “living” and “dead”—they mean more to us than “zombie” ever will. But, there’s something wrong with the name.
“Walking dead” on the other hand hits it out of the park. It just nails it. Why?
It does the same thing that “living dead” does—it anchors the name and the idea of the creature into something more tangible than “zombie”—but then “living dead” goes wrong with the “living” part, because we instinctually know that part of the name is a cheap gimmick.
It’s clever, for sure, but we know the zombies aren’t “living”. “Living” for us as humans is something natural. We associate it with “the lights being on”, with a “soul” in the body, maybe even a ghost in the shell (wink, wink). And so, we look at the dead body moving on its own, and we know that it’s not “dead” in the normal sense, but we also know it’s definitely not “living” in any sense.
But, “walking dead”, that name works. You don’t have to think about walking at all in order to do it. You can literally walk in your sleep, it’s so easy and mindless to do. Walking is just your body moving in a pre-programmed way and it literally takes no effort at all—just try thinking about how you actually walk, I’ll bet you don’t even know how walking works.
“Walking dead” implies something that’s just robotic, mechanical, thoughtless or instinctual. It basically calls zombies objects capable of moving (and eating, of course). There’s nothing there. The body moves, but it moves like silt moves in a riverbed, or how snow falls from tree limbs or rocks fall down slopes—there is no thought: it’s purely mechanical.
That term, “walking dead”, removes any sense of agency, animacy, life or consciousness from the zombies: they’re corpses that move; they’re objects that walk.
But, what does this mean symbolically?
What are the walking dead?
They’re mindless people-shaped objects that incessantly consume anything and everything around them.
They’re the hungry, unthinking corpses that stalk the few conscious survivors of the undeath plague in herds.
They’re the masses of thoughtless, mechanical animals made of rotting flesh and decayed nerves.
They’re the shambling costumer, the bottomless, indebted consumer, the TV mind-slaves; they’re the drones, the sellouts, the zealous recruiters of self-dissolution; they’re the frenzied finger-pointers, the inquisitors refusing to look in the mirror, the self-anointed priests of popular opinions.
They’re the walking dead: they’re programmed, they lack self-reflection, they lack the ability to judge their own actions or beliefs, and they lack an understanding of where they’re beliefs and behaviors even stemmed from—more importantly, they even lack a desire to understand.
This idea—this symbol—reflects so succinctly the collective behavior of “the masses”. It’s the idea of herds of people who lack self-reflection or any deeper level of consciousness (perhaps the lack consciousness altogether) and who act on basic instinct and primordial, emotional drives.
So what is the point of the zombie or zombie survival flick?
I began this article with a quote from one of the greatest unknown lyricists, Mark Lenover. Here’s a quote from one of the greatest known lyricists:
“Run desire, run, sexual being
Run him like a blade to and through the heart
No conscience, one motive
Cater to the hollow”
Maynard James Keenan & Billy Howerdel, “The Hollow”
“Screaming feed me, here
Fill me up, again
And temporarily pacify this hungering”
The zombie narrative reflects humanity’s social reality in that a vast majority of the population is turned “off”—the lights aren’t on, no one’s home, some thoughtless machine is pulling levers behind the scenes—while a small minority of people are survivors.
Perhaps the plague, virus, disease, etc. is society itself—the pressure of millions of people-shaped objects wanting to turn you into one of them—wanting to consume you and degrade you to their mindless level. Perhaps it’s culture, or a specific kind of culture which infects people, or maybe it’s a natural symptom of a society.
So, what about the survivors? Who are they?
What do they represent?
They’re the people fighting to survive the thrall of society or culture—the people who fall prey and become another walking dead are those who give in to apathy, lethargy or self-destruction; or they fall prey to some trauma—physical, social or psychological; or they are overwhelmed by the herd and succumb to the swarming mob of people-shaped meat-objects.
And why do the walking dead wish to feast on other humans? Specifically, the flesh of humans who are still alive? Why are they unable to or have no desire to sustain themselves off dead or undead human flesh?
Because people have no desire to kill and consume other people who are already a part of the herd: we have no desire to transform people who are already transformed, and nothing can be gained from consuming what we already are.
The people who survive the gauntlet of society and culture become targets for zealous conformists and mindless consumers. People don’t “consume” products created by people similar to them, people from the same socio-economic class as them, or people from that they’ve conformed to/with—the people who create the things we consume aren’t like the pepole consuming their goods.
The people who remain original, the people who remain conscious, the people who remain alive and passionate: these are the people the masses wish to feast on.
The herds of walking dead feast on Disney, Walmart, Amazon and others—and while the living may still use these companies, they do not “feast” on them, they are not consumers in the same sense.
The “herd-minded” consumer consumes to blindly satiate an instinctual hunger; the living, thinking individuals understand their actions, and they “consume” to fulfill a conscious, understood necessity, or to aid in assisting some goal.
So there are two elements to this: a hatred of life—an anti-life (an unlife)—driving people-shaped objects to destroy life; and then there is an absolute desire to consume that life. It is a hunger or desire to obtain something, which results in the destruction of the desired thing.
And the emotional kicker to this all is the endless nihilism and suffering of hope.
Those who survive remain conscious, remain thinking, calculating, rationalizing agents—they remain alive—and yet their life is infinitely more difficult because of this. They remain alive and conscious only to be conscious for their own unending peril, pain and hardship. So why continue? Why go on?
Why go on—why struggle so hard against the smothering night and the bitter cold—when one can just let go, become a part of the herd?
Why struggle against something that seems so inevitable? Why wage an impossible war? Why stand against the ocean of mindless walkers?
What is it that is so important about life that people are capable of weathering the most violent storms in order to maintain life—to keep the fire lit, and to carry and pass the torch into the lightless chaos of tomorrow?
The possibility of something better and the hope for a cure: the hope for an end to the infinite dark.
This is what ever zombie narrative inevitably teases us with, and this is what life teases us with: what if, one day, we could end all this pain?
What if, one day, we could cure the walking dead, restore humanity and restore a society into one that loves life and living? What if we could cure the disease of anti-life and mindless consumption?
That’s what keeps us watching, and that’s what keeps the fire lit.
“And these words changing nothing as your body remainsMy Chemical Romance, “Early Sunsets Over Monroeville”
And there’s no room in this Hell, there’s no room in the next
And our memories defeat us, and I’ll end this duress
But does anyone notice? But does anyone care?
And if I had the guts to put this to your head
But does anything matter if you’re already dead?
And should I be shocked now, by the last thing you said?
Before I pull this trigger, your eyes vacant and stained
And in saying you loved me made things harder, at best
And these words changing nothing as your body remains
And there’s no room in this Hell, there’s no room in the next
But does anyone notice there’s a corpse in this bed?”
Conclusion: Episode/Issue #1 of The Walking Dead
A good story reflects reality.
A good symbol reflects a deeper, more complex truth about reality that a literal description cannot.
Zombies, living dead, walking dead: a society moving in herds, which no longer cares for life nor its continuation, and seeks its annihilation and assimilation through mindless consumption.
The Survivors: the ones who rage against the herds of people-shaped objects.
A good narrative speaks in a language of symbols, characters, events and associations.
In the first issue of The Walking Dead comic series and in the first episode of the show, the protagonist, Rick Grimes—a protector and upholder of law, and thereby a protector and upholder of culture and society—is shot and put into a coma. He wakes up in a hospital to find the world in shambles.
He is weak and barely alive. The previously orderly, clean and sensible world he lived in has become a ruined hellscape, devoid of life. He finds that society has been overrun by the Walking Dead, and then finds that a small number of people are still alive.
He then begins protecting these people, these individuals, and upholding life itself.
Rick himself “dies” and returns to life—he goes to the abyss, the place of chaos and darkness, common mythological trope—and returns to the “overworld” or the “normal” world.
Here, we can take a literal interpretation of the story: he wakes up after an actual zombie apocalypse.
Or, we can take a symbolic interpretation of the story: he wakes up to see the world for what it really is.
He wakes up and realizes his own weakness and vulnerability; he wakes up and realizes how important life and consciousness really are; he wakes up and devotes his life to protecting and leading people, not dictates of society.
Perhaps Rick didn’t wake up and see a transformed reality; perhaps Rick woke up transformed and saw reality.