Based on the long-running comic book series by Robert Kirkman, AMC’s new zombie drama “The Walking Dead” (aired on the FX channel in the UK) is approaching the end of its first season. It has explored the nightmare of the apocalypse with a sustained dread unequaled since George Romero first picked up a film camera back in the 1960s. I watched the first episode on my own, in the dark, and felt every jangled nerve in Rick Grimes’ body as he stumbled, horrified, from the charnel house of the hospital where he had woken up.
The tropes of the zombie film are by now familiar, and TWD doesn’t necessarily add anything new to its store of iconography, although its budget and the scale of its ambition does make it a great deal more spectacular. Where it differs from the classic zombie films of the the 1960s and 1970s, and the modern updates such as “Shaun of the Dead”, is in the weight of symbolism it places on the undead. Zombies, like vampires, have proved peculiarly adaptive to symbolism or allegory. In the horror world, vampires are the dark side of the human character. Existential loners or Romantic heroes, they represent the untrammelled will, or can act as a metaphor for sexual disease (Francis Ford Coppola’s clunking adaptation of “Dracula” being the best example of the latter). In the hands of Joss Whedon, in the peerless “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, vampires become the seductive and horrifying promise of adolescent female sexuality. In Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead”, the hordes of zombies shuffling around the shopping mall become a pointed critique of late period consumer capitalism – the zombies are us. In his later “Land of the Dead”, they become the threatening “other” outside the city gates, the outcasts, the exploited, while “Shaun of the Dead” uses them as a catalyst to force the eponymous character out of his apathy and out of the blind alley in which his life has fallen. It took me a while to realise what TWD is doing with its undead, and what role it wants them to play in the series’ wider structural and thematic picture, but in the end I understood that the zombies have less of a part to play than do the characters who survive them. Even in the best zombie films, the survivors are little more than props to hold the shotguns and dispatch the hordes in an entertainingly violent style. In TWD, the focus stays on the characters, it zooms in to show in unflinching detail the heroism and cowardice of ordinary people under extraordinary stress. Andrew Lincoln (who, amazingly, played Egg in 1990s British drama “This Life”) has spoken in interviews about the influence he has taken for his character from Gary Cooper; the High Noon-style moral grandeur of the man who confronts violence and corruption with a steady gaze. Other characters are unable to shake off the failings of their previous lives, and remain lazy or cynical, or as brutal as they have always been. The apocalypse gives some people a backhanded chance to show what they’re truly made of; with others, it just confirms what they always will be.
In this dramatic set-up, the zombies don’t represent mindless consumerism, or the white conservative’s fear of immigration. They are nothing more than our effluent, the tide of filth and decay that sits under our comfortable delusions. There’s something of the sewer about them, and they show what happens when the plumbing breaks down, and the filth threatens to rise up and swamp us. In the end, “The Walking Dead” is not really about the walking dead; it’s about the living who try to run away, and who have to confront the collapse of everything they thought was there to support their lives.