Wednesday, October 26, 2011

There may not be zombies

As you probably guessed from yesterday's post, I'm rather fond of science fiction--of most imaginative fiction, honestly. I like alternate universes and interesting timelines and sci-fi tech stuff; I enjoy some fantasy settings and stories (but not all), and have a sneaking fondness for the quirky, the campy, and the fun in all those things.

I have not, however, had a similar fondness for the horror genre. Some early horror, like Dracula and Frankenstein, sure, but the modern iterations in which people go off into the woods on the slightest pretext and are then chased around by axe-wielding psychopaths, flesh-eating aliens, or axe-wielding flesh-eating alien psychopaths who are secretly also werewolves or something have not, by and large, appealed to me. The gore, the blood, the violence, the inherent stupidity that always makes some idiot go off completely alone after being warned by his friends, the creepy old dude who shows up and gives that sort of warning, and an entire film industry not to do anything so blatantly foolish--none of that is really entertaining, as far as I'm concerned.

Which is why it's puzzling to me that I'm so much enjoying AMC's zombie drama, The Walking Dead.

Of course, The Walking Dead is not typical horror-movie/horror-TV fare. It is extremely well-written Southern Gothic horror, so much so that I told Thad yesterday that my question before as to who on earth would publish Flannery O'Connor today had an answer: AMC would. If "publish" is still the right word; "produce" works better, of course.

And when I say that I'm "enjoying" The Walking Dead, I have to qualify that statement just slightly. I'm not enjoying it in the same way that I recently enjoyed this quirky, fun British sci-fi show (no, it's not the one you think it is). The Walking Dead is much darker, much heavier, much more serious than the sort of TV I usually watch, primarily because I think of TV as mind candy and a chance to shut off the part of my brain that wants to analyze everything to death, not as something to stimulate that part to the point where I lie awake until nearly 5 a.m. drawing parallels in my brain between what I've just seen on the one hand, and dozens of unrelated bits of literature on the other. Which is what happened to me last night, after I'd finished watching the first two episodes of season 2 of TWD.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have to give Thad credit for getting me interested in TWD in the first place, and for being willing to "preview" each episode for me so that I can be warned in time not to view the most graphically violent or gory scenes. I don't have an extremely high tolerance for on-screen bludgeoning or beheading, for instance, and as there's quite a lot of that in a zombie show I appreciate Thad's willingness to tell me when to shut my eyes for a minute. To be honest, I doubt very much that I could watch the show without that.

But what, then, makes The Walking Dead worth watching? If the violence is too much for me personally, why watch it at all?

I think that the story that is being told shows signs of being ultimately positive and hopeful. It's hard to be sure at this point, but I'll just share a couple of unrelated moments from the first two episodes of this season to back up the notion--spoiler alert, though I don't plan to spend a lot of time covering plot points:

The unlikely group of survivors from the first season, already down several members after last season, exhausted, hopeless, and out of options, are fleeing Atlanta in the wake of the destruction of the CDC, where they had hoped for answers, or at least for safety. They come upon a "traffic jam" of abandoned cars, many of them still holding dead and decaying bodies which have gone past the "zombie" point, if they ever were zombies. But there are no signs of life, or of "walkers" (the "z" word isn't really used in this series). While trying to figure out a way through the cars, the group begins to salvage usable goods from the cars. One character expresses discomfort at the prospect. "This is a graveyard," she says--and the words are jarring, because were it not for the unnatural stillness and silence of the cars on the road, we could be looking at any urban highway in the midst of any ordinary traffic jam.

A "herd" (as one character tags them) of "walkers" approaches, and the terrified group hides, most of them under cars. Just as you think the worst is over, one of the two children in the group, a little girl, is seen by the zombies and ends up fleeing from the highway into that perennial horror-story set scene, the woods. Things don't then proceed in normal horror-story fashion; the girl is saved from the pursuing zombies, but she herself goes missing, and must be searched for the next day.

So daylight finds most of the group searching in the walker-infested woods for the little girl. Standard, right? Except that the girl's name is Sophia--wisdom--and the search takes the group to a Baptist church (which inexplicably has an absolutely lovely crucifix in it). Interesting, I think. A handful of "walkers" are in the church, but when they have been dispatched two separate characters address the figure of Christ on the cross--the missing girl's mother, who begs for mercy for her child, and the main character, Rick, who admits that he's not much of a believer but asks for a sign. Moments later his only child, a little boy, is shot by a hunter who is trying to bring down a deer--but the hunter comes from a group hiding in a farmhouse, and the farmhouse's owner seems to be a doctor, and despite various perils which many characters are still in the boy is clinging to life as the second episode ends--but the little girl is still lost.

The undercurrents of faith, of family, of the impact of our decisions, of the need for guidance and direction and the ability to take leaps of faith--these are the things I find interesting and intriguing about this show so far. And while I never underestimate the ability of television producers to start out with something with incredible potential and end up with something laughable and trite, there seems to be something more than the usual fare being offered here.

One thing Thad and I talked about yesterday was the reason why post-apocalyptic scenarios like the aftermath of a zombie virus remain such compelling settings for these kinds of stories. I pointed out that we in the comfortable first world forget how for so many of the seven billion people on this planet, a daily struggle for basic survival is simply the way of life. Sure, there may not be zombies, but there are wars (including those which steal children to serve as soldiers), famines, oppression, unimaginably excruciating daily toil, shortages of basic necessities like water or medicine--deprivations and hardships and suffering and loss beyond most of our experiences, and beyond even most of our imaginations.

It's almost as though in order for us even to begin to touch base with the reality of life for so many, with such a universal human experience of the uncertainty of existence and the constant presence of things like fear and pain, we have to wipe away all the material clutter we've accumulated; we have to envision a world so destroyed that our pretenses at safety and stability no longer mean anything; we have to recognize our glorified caves and technological voodoo for what it all really is, and what it's all really worth, against the brevity and coldness and harshness of life at its most basic level. In such a fictional setting, we can see and value the mere works of human hands for what they are--and when we place them in the balance scale against the certainty of death, we can finally know them for their true worth.

And yet, the characters in The Walking Dead have not quite stopped hoping. Like the third-world farmer who is barely managing to feed his family, like the child soldier who hides behind a granite countenance the memories of better days and the hope of freedom, these fictional characters illustrate how powerful a quality is the hope that rises in the human spirit, when the man himself no longer cherishes the illusion that he himself is powerful. This O'Connorian paradox is the sort of thing that draws me to the show, and I hope that, by the time The Walking Dead reaches an eventual conclusion as all human endeavors do (though as of this writing it has been renewed for a third season already), this and other elements of meaning will have received the exploration and treatment within the story that they deserve.


Red Cardigan said...

Okay, so nobody at all wants to talk about zombie TV and Flannery O'Connor? :) Guess I'll get back to politics, religion, and cultural dysfunction...

eulogos said...

I would like to recommend the Harry Dresden series by Jim Butcher. My husband bought me some CD's at a yard sale, since I like to listen in the car, and new ones are expensive. I would never have chosen this book at a bookstore. But I got hooked.
Some quirky and cammpy parts, but most of all the wizard Harry Dresden is an essentially decent guy. Religion is well treated in the book. And there are serious messages about the seriousnes of sex, too. I think you will like them. Not on a Flannery O Connor level of course. But for entertainment, they are quite good.
Susan Peterson

Jeff Miller said...

Very nice reflection on the series. I also am a fan of the show and for many reasons you suggest.

It is interesting in that in the more serious takes on the Zombie genre that the word Zombie is often absent with another word taking place such as in the 28 days films.

Your reflections remind me of a book I read earlier this year "The Reapers Are the Angels" which is a serious take on zombies and a very good read. It was recommended by Julie D. of Happy Catholic and Scott D. of SFFAudio on their "A Good Story is Hard to Find" podcast which looks at movies and books from a Catholic perspective.

Erin said...

Red--First of all, thanks for totally breaking your promise to blog less frequently! I love your blog and am happy to see new posts every day.

OK, I haven't read the whole post about TWD because I think there might be spoilers in it. But I love the show and wanted to agree with you about how well-written it is, and how it sparks conversation!


For example, my husband and I had a long convo a couple weeks ago about the moral actions of 2 of the characters who died:

1. Jim, who got bitten, and chose to leave the caravan to die on the side of the road.

2. Jacqui, who chose to die at the CDC rather than leave and face the zombie hordes.

We were talking about it in light of Catholic social teaching, because I viewed Jim's decision as choosing how to live while he died, while Jacqui chose to willingly embrace death rather than help support the remaining characters in their struggle to survive.

Kind of a debate about assisted suicide versus declinign burdensome treatment, I guess.

Also, we talked about what, exactly,the Zombies are--are they sick humans? Are they human at all? What makes someone human?

And, finally, I am glad that someone besides me (the commenter above) also noticed that the word "Zombie" is never used in the show!

Anonymous said...

I liked Walking Dead because the Sherrif is kind of a classic hero rather than the bevy of awful super-heros on the one hand and the (blech) Cool heroes on the other (see here). Just regular people rising to the challenge.

Anonymous said...

For a perfect setup of zombies rent Shaun of the Dead

David Meyer said...

Bizare. I just watched the episode you describe this past weekend, and was struck by it as well. I did laugh out loud at the crucifix in the Baptist church though.

I believe we like zombie movies because they show us what we know to be true: humans are more than animals. Our culture around us knows this too, though they continually try to deny it by degrading human life through abortion, porn, etc. But in the end, they love zombies, because when they look at a zombie, they get a reasurance that to be human is to be more than a walking meat bag. Strangely, watching zombie movies can bring them/us closer to God.

David Meyer said...

I elaborated more on my blog if you are interested. Thanks again for your post. I always felt a bit guilty about loving zombie movies, but they always have made me contemplate life so profoundly, I knew they couldnt be bad.