Zombie Western of the Post-Mortem South

I am reposting some of my old articles, lost when Red Wedge updated our website. Here is a review from two years ago of The Walking Dead. Some of the criticisms, particularly around gender, might no longer make as much sense due to some improvements in the show. Other criticisms, for example regarding the show's libertarian survivalism, might be too subdued.

The Walking Dead is now the most popular show on cable television. Over the past two Sundays millions gathered around their televisions to watch the first two episodes of the current season. The University of California-Irvine even offers an online course, “Society, Science, Survival: Lessons from AMC’s The Walking Dead.” Tens of thousands of students have enrolled. AMC has announced plans for a spin-off show. 

Zombies are everyone—and The Walking Dead is the epicenter of their cultural hegemony. While much of the above is rather silly, The Walking Dead is an excellent work of television that has tapped into deep cultural and social veins of American life—while at the same time being very problematic.

The Walking Dead is based on Robert Kirkman’s eponymous comic book series. Kirkman intentionally sees himself standing in the tradition of George Romero. Romero invented the contemporary zombie genre by fusing elements of Richard Matheson’s novel I am Legend (1954), classic Hollywood horror and the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s in films such as Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978). 

Kirkman sees his comic—and the show—as a Romero film that never ends. Kirkman’s zombies follow all of Romero’s classic rules. They are slow and shambolic. The “virus” or whatever it is that has animated the dead is never really explained. All the dead rise up and consume the flesh of the living. The manner of their death is irrelevant.

Judging by the ratings millions of people share Kirkman’s vision of never-ending horror. It is a macabre fascination that has only grown in recent years. As the Canadian Marxist David McNally argued on Jacobin:

“Driving the success of The Walking Dead is a doomsday fascination with zombie apocalypse. In the face of crumbling cities, soaring job loss, decaying social services and ecological destruction, impending doom can seem not only inevitable, but even preferable to the slow death march of late capitalism.”

“But the global economic slump that began in 2008 sent the popular infatuation with the undead truly viral. As millions entered the night of the living dead of mass unemployment, zombies invaded popular culture, prompting Time magazine to declare them ‘the official monster of the recession.’”

McNally criticizes The Walking Dead as representing a break from earlier more explicitly left-wing iterations of the zombie narrative. In particular he traces a break from the zombie-laborer of films like White Zombie (1932) and the consumerist zombies (who eat everything in their path) in Night of the Living Dead. But the zombie-consumers of Romero’s films were present in a moment of cultural and political criticism. The political and historical meanings of Night of the Dead or Dawn of the Dead are (and were) immediately clear. The Walking Dead, however, seems to stand outside that historical razor’s edge. It is like a child’s dream or the slow movement of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979).

George Romero’s films were, in a sense, prophetic warnings. Romero warned of the dangers of militarism, violence, consumerism, Reagan’s reheated Cold War (in Day of the Dead [1985]), of class polarization and war (in Land of the Dead [2005]), and of the contradictions of mass media (in Diary of the Dead [2007]). If Romero was the author of Revelations, than Robert Kirkman is the Beast.

In this sense, The Walking Dead is about life after the prophetic doom has come to pass. I do not simply mean that it takes place “after the zombie apocalypse” (although it does). I mean that The Walking Dead is produced by a world that long ago failed to heed Romero’s warnings. 

A few weeks ago in Philadelphia a twelve year-old African American girl died of an asthma attack because the school had no nurse. In Georgia—where The Walking Dead takes place—police recently shot a Black man to death after his family called 911 worried he had taken too much diabetes medicine. Racism, economic crisis and environmental catastrophe are closing in. Wars seem to go on endlessly. Neo-confederates shut down the U.S. government. America eats its young; and its old and its middle-aged. Just like a character in one of his movies Romero has fled to Canada. The barbarism of the United States seems unfettered.

Kirkman, unlike Romero, is coy about what he thinks about the disasters of contemporary society. The Walking Dead has befuddled conservative, liberal, feminist and Marxist critics. This is because The Walking Dead is a fairly seamless fusion of two key American narratives and mythologies: the zombie apocalypse and the western. As Dan Hassler-Forest argues of Kirkman in Study of Comics

Dead conflates the western with the zombie genre. This combination of genres is all the more thought-provoking as the western genre traditionally stages the Grand Narrative of patriarchal power from within the historical context of colonialist imperialism, whereas the zombie genre is associated with the destablization of such forms of power.”

This inbuilt contradiction helps explain why critics have found it difficult to get a bead on the “deeper” meanings of The Walking Dead. In addition to these two key genre elements the show also evokes the mythologies of the “fallen South” during and after the Civil War, aspects of the Holocaust and fairly traditional (however well written) psychological studies of human beings under severe stress. According to The Atlantic, every Walking Dead writer was “required to read Vicktor Frankl’s account of concentration camp-survival” during World War Two.

This prismatic consciousness, reflected in the show and its viewers, explains why some conservatives can hail the show while others—like the morons at Fox News—can proclaim, “America’s obsession with The Walking Dead is hurting our society.” It is why some liberal commentators see The Walking Dead as a horrific object lesson in humanism while others can see it as a cesspool of patriarchy. It is, in a way, both.

The Post-Mortem South

While the Southern and racial motifs of The Walking Dead are less central to the daily narratives of the show they are hard-wired into its premise and location. The hero of the show, Rick Grimes, is a southern sheriff only a few decades removed from the days of Bull Connor (although one would never know this from the show itself). His “post-racial” bona-fides are established early on as he befriends a Black man and his son (in both the comic and the television show). In the television show Rick defends T-Dog, another African American character, from the stupid “red-neck” racism of Merle. But nowhere is race or racism explored in any great depth. 

The fact that Rick is a police officer does not in and of itself make the show racist. Two of the four main characters in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead were riot policemen. They fled the city not so much because of the zombies but because of the racism of their own police force. They were ordered to clear out a housing project of mostly Black and Puerto Rican residents, killing countless people in the process. They recoiled in horror. Rick does not recoil from his position. His entry to the zombie apocalypse comes as he wakes up from a coma—a coma he suffers after being shot in the line of duty.

Upon finding his wife and son—with a band of survivors outside Atlanta—Rick reprises his pre-apocalypse role rather than attempt to escape it. He leads the group in its attempts to find refuge from the chaos. He is the Southern Sheriff defending the community from the others. Ultimately he leads them to take refuge in a prison—the West Georgia Correctional Facility—the panopticon meets the ultimate gated community—and seizes dictatorial control of the group. In the comic he goes even farther, murdering to maintain his power and beating people to death to show his dominance.

A kind of democracy returns to the group—in the fourth season—in the form of a council. But it is already clear that Rick will have to assert himself once more to protect the living. More importantly, while the comic and show contain many characters of color (more in the current than past seasons), Black men in particular are not allowed to rise to the point in which they might challenge Rick for control. It is a world in which white men still rule. It is the undead version of the New South (the real life notion of the “New South” is all but forgotten): Do not mention the racism in polite company. But please do what the white sheriff says.

It is not hard to think of the last time Georgia was “destroyed”—as slaves rose up in defiance of their masters and joined General Sherman’s March to the Sea. One has to wonder what the end of civilization means to the thirty to forty percent of white Americans who are incorrigibly racist? When those crackers think of cannibalistic hordes do they think of war and inequality—or do they imagine the ghost of Nat Turner?

The Wild Bunch

The Zombie Western

The western was arguably the most important cultural narrative of the 20th century United States. It celebrated both the individuality of the cowboy and the taming of the “savage” west by civilization. Its central figure was the patriarchal hero who saved the idyllic settlement from “Indian savages” or “criminals” while carving out his own little kingdom from the frontier.

The inherently racist and imperialistic western could not survive the anti-war and civil rights struggles of the 1960s. The revisionist westerns of the late 1960s and 1970s—Sam Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch (1969) and Philip Kaufman’s The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1982) for example—used the language of the western to roll back its racist and expansionist mythology. By the 1980s the western had died its well-deserved death.

That does not mean, of course, that the imprint the western left on the culture died with it. The genius of The Walking Dead is its fusion of the dead western genre with the living genre of the zombie apocalypse. 

It is an impossible (yet perfect) fusion. When the narrative logic of one genre threatens to bring the story to a conclusion the other genre can reset the story. When the patriarchal hero—the cowboy, the sheriff, the gunslinger—kills the savages or the criminals and should, therefore, be rewarded as the man who saved the town, the undead ensure that the story continues. When the undead threaten a gastronomic denouement the patriarchal hero saves the day.

It would be wrong to see this as a cynical fusion of genres. It is much deeper. The cowboy narrative is one of individual triumph and sacrifice against “savagery.” Order defeats chaos. But as Hassler-Forest argues:

“The zombie narrative on the other hand represents the exact opposite: this genre presents a world in which all forms of order and traditional patriarchal power have beendestroyed, leaving the small groups of survivors to reassemble themselves into new types of communities.”

Rick Grimes may be a southern sheriff, but more importantly he is a western sheriff. He rides a horse into Atlanta, with a satchel of guns on his back, wearing a cowboy hat. He is the archetypal cowboy coming into town. But he does not clean up the city. He is utterly defeated by Atlanta. He loses his weapons. His horse is eaten by the undead. He hides until he is saved by a young Asian-American man named Glenn. Rick redeems himself and helps Glenn’s group escape Atlanta. But it is not a heroic escape. They disguise themselves by covering their bodies with human remains.

Rick embodies the constant achievement and deferment of patriarchal power—he embodies the contradiction between the western and zombie narratives. In this way The Walking Dead is about (a particular version of) American culture facing oblivion. Rick continually tries to establish a new community—and those communities always must fail, succumbing to the savage others/zombies that surround them.

In classic westerns the city usually represented, as Hassler-Forest puts it, “dens of decadence and perversion.” In The Walking Dead the cities are full of zombies. They have become just as “savage” as the mythological frontier. There us no longer a civilization to counterpose to the wild. The entire world is a frontier. Every character is traveling up a river toward their own personal heart of darkness. In this sense the character of the “Governor” is Colonel Kurtz. It is only when confronting the Governor that Rick tries to salvage his humanity and turns power back over to his group.

But even with the governor defeated Rick can’t establish a new idyllic community. As the fourth season begins we see Rick as a farmer tending crops and tending to pigs. This is not Little House on the Prairie—it is the beginning of Unforgiven (1992). Rick is Clint Eastwood. He is a killer pretending to be a farmer. By the end of this season’s second episode Rick has strapped on his gun belt. He is ready, once more, to kill. He will win. But then he will also lose—more of his people, more of his humanity, more of his sanity. His patriarchal victory will be endlessly deferred.

In the comics Rick is both a hero and villain—saving lives but willing to murder those who stand in his way. He is willing to beat a man to death to prove his alpha status. In the television show is both a hero and a man collapsing under the weight of his sins. He wonders if he will ever be able to return from the things he has done. He won’t. There is no future or past in The Walking Dead. There is only the ruthless homicidal present.

Walking Dead lottery tickets

Libertarian Utopia vs. Undead Humanism

Oddly enough, the show’s western elements have allowed certain conservatives and libertarians to embrace it—not as a morality tale in a dystopian nightmare—but as a utopian paradise. Breitbart.com’s Kurt Schlichter writes, in an article actually titled “Walking Dead summons American spirit of independence, grit,” that:

The Walking Dead is a western, a show about life on the frontier, about the trappings of civilization being stripped away. This is uniquely American--the frontier is in our cultural DNA. In the world of TWD, it’s just a man and his gun against the savage hordes. Just substitute cowboys and townspeople for the characters and Indians for the zombies…

“Americans, prosperous, comfortable and (except for the .5 percent off at war) living in peace, wonder if at some level if they still have what it takes to do what the pioneers did. Americans’ fierce defense of their right to keep and bear arms comes from the same place. Unlike Europeans, liberals and other submissives, they believe it is their personal duty to act to protect their community and country in time of crisis—with an AR-15 if need be.”

Schlichter also waxes poetically about Dale—a somewhat liberal elderly character—being killed off in season two. He also seems way too excited about the death of several female characters. But for him the zombie apocalypse is merely a chance to prove how manly a survivor you can be. He is oblivious to the fact that Rick lost his mind.

In other words Schlichter looks at aspects of the show inspired from the narratives of Holocaust survivors and says, “neat.” The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is shut down. “Excellent. This is my chance to be a self-made man.” This is the lunacy of the present political moment. But it also explains why the show is so popular among people of all political stripes—among those who fear we are already living in a nightmare, and among those who welcome the monsters.

The flip-side of this has been commentary by moderate and liberal critics that see The Walking Dead mainly about the struggle to remain human: Can you come back from the things (the horrible things) you have done? One critic, writing in an Atlantic roundtable on the Walking Dead, argued: “I’m … more inclined to see its ‘world suddenly dominated by radical inhumanity’ as (and admittedly gory) playground to discuss human nature in general.”

While this is an aspect of the show it is not nearly as important as the contradiction of the zombie and western motifs—and their associated “moralities.” Moreover, it is a weakness of the show that this “study of humanity” is treated so apolitically and outside of historical context. Human nature, as Marxists have correctly argued, is not static. It evolves and changes in various circumstances. 

In terms of the show itself, The Walking Dead’s power and impact does not arise from trite clichés about the human spirit attributed by milquetoast liberals. The power comes from that humanity being crushed between the cataclysm of the zombie apocalypse and the ideals of power and patriarchy. It is not, ultimately, the zombies that are destroying humanity. It is Kurt Schlichter.

The Zombie Flower of Southern Womanhood

Of the most criticized elements of The Walking Dead has been its treatment of women. While it is correct to say that the representation of sexism in literature, television and film does not mean the artworks are themselves sexist, in the case of The Walking Dead it is easy to make a case that the treatment of female characters is clumsy and relies on worn out (and sexist) clichés and stereotypes. This problem is highlighted by the fact the writing is otherwise of a higher caliber.

The most glaring stupidity was the second season confusion of emergency contraception and pharmaceutical abortion—as Lori decided whether or not to terminate her pregnancy. Leaving aside the question of abortion itself the lazy and stupid writing makes one wonder if there was ever a woman within 10,000 feet of The Walking Dead writers’ room. On the question of abortion itself Kirkman issued an ambiguously pro-choice statement, but the arc of the storyline left the question even murkier.

The love triangle between Lori, Rick and Shane—and Lori’s manipulation of Shane and Rick—has been pointed to as another indication of the show’s sexism. I have no problem with this storyline in and of itself.  People, male and female, manipulate each other. The problem is that the role of women in the show is starkly limited to such interactions. 

Moreover, women are repeatedly seen and described as objects that must be protected. In the show—in the first few seasons—women who tried to escape their roles as domestics and lovers were brutally punished—notably Andrea. In the comic, the Governor brutally and repeatedly raped the sword wielding Michonne.

There is no Fran (from Dawn of the Dead) or Dr. Sarah Bowman (Day of the Dead) to pose an alternative to pre-apocalyptic gender roles. The Walking Dead is Rick’s story. It is the story of the failure of the small patriarch—the male breadwinner, the small businessman, the blue collar (but white skinned) man of days long gone. We watch him win and then lose it all—over and over and over again. The women are just one more thing to win or lose.

An Endless Romero Movie?

And so it goes on—this endless Romero movie (with all the impact but without the racial, class, social and gender consciousness of an actual Romero movie). Whenever the story goes into a narrative cul-du-sac it shifts from one genre to the other, nothing is resolved or transcended. It is like the death rattle of a lung. Here is the victorious cowboy. Here is the end of everything. Here is the sad victorious cowboy. Here is the end of all things. 

"Evicted Art Blog" is Red Wedge editor Adam Turl's investigation of potential strategies for contemporary anti-capitalist studio art.