Like a lot of people, I eagerly awaited the premiere of the The Walking Dead spin-off. Fear the Walking Dead is set in the Los Angeles region and takes us back to the early days of the plague of zombism that has been the status quo since the first episode of the original show. The original show has a stark and recurring problem with race (I wrote about them here and here), particularly a revolving door of expendable black men. This problem culminated last season with the show’s writers/runners seemingly trolling us by killing a black man in a literal revolving door—a kind of middle finger to concerns about their expendability. I can’t quit the show, however, because I find it and its exploration of the moral landscape of a post-apocalyptic world infinitely compelling (however anemic that exploration may sometimes be). In other words, I love zombie stuff. I’m not saying I would watch anything with zombies, but I do enjoy a range of zombie media from Romero’s oeuvre to Brother Voodoo comics to the CW’s iZombie. I loved Colson Whitehead’s Zone One and found Nick Mamatas’s The Last Weekend to be a compelling Bukowski/campus novel/zombie mash-up. That said, as regular readers of this blog know, my love of a genre does not exempt its examples from criticism. If anything, that love makes me interrogate zombie media that much more stridently.
The few promo clips I saw for Fear the Walking Dead showed some promise in terms of course-correcting a bit on race and representation. Set in the LA. area, the inclusion of a good number of black and Latinx characters were prominent in the ads, which seemed more representative than The Walking Dead’s version of Georgia. That show’s Georgia seems to not be a state that is about 30% black, nor does its version of the the Atlanta area (where the show spent a lot of time its first season or so) appear to be 54% black, which it was back in 2010 when the show premiered. On The Walking Dead, Black people seem oddly both over-represented in living characters who die and under-represented among the zombie majority. And yet, watching the first two episodes of the spin-off, the new show seems to not have learned much of lesson. By the end of second episode not one, not two, but three black characters (all men) had all been infected or straight out zombified. Now, I am not arguing that black characters need to be coddled or protected or be immune to the setting’s high mortality rate, but rather that the choices that writers and showrunners are making suggest whose stories are considered important. In the case of Fear the Walking Dead it seems that whose story is important (so far) are a Latino family and a white family conjoined through Travis Manawa, who, if his last name is any indication, is Maori in origin, like the actor who plays him. Travis’s ex-wife is played by Elisabeth Rodriguez (of Orange is the New Black fame), and his current girlfriend is played by Kim Dickens (who I recognize from House of Cards and the atrocious Gone Girl film). There is also a second Latino family introduced in the second episode. They give shelter to Travis, his ex-wife and son. I think that’s great, but it remains to be seen how the narrative will treat them.
Now, the Fear the Walking Dead’ showrunner defends the pattern of black death, saying that the people who did the casting didn’t know the characters’ fates when the casting was done. They just cast “the best people” and the story played out as it was written regardless of race. He also claims that as the series continues, we will see more parity along these lines. I hope he is right, but I still find the pattern troubling. I find it hard to believe that scripts and character arcs are set in stone at the time of filming. I’m pretty sure that scripts get tweaked in filming all the time.
All of that aside, however, what I find most remarkable about the show is its attempt to leverage the #BlackLivesMatter zeitgeist and the increased awareness of the crisis of police brutality on black, brown and other disenfranchised people as a cultural touchstone that gives its depiction of social protest, upheaval, and eventual chaos some weight.
In the second episode of Fear the Walking Dead, “So Close, Yet So Far,” Travis’s son, Chris, comes across an impromptu protest against what we are told was police unloading on an unarmed homeless man. The multi-racial crowd roars in anger at the cops while Chris films the stand-off. A black man tells an Asian cop “This is wrong! Wrong! Wrong!” When the same cop tells the crowd to “Go about your business,” a Latino man replies, “This is all our business! That man was unarmed!” Chris tries to convince his dad of the political importance of what is going on, claiming “The people are taking action!” but Travis is only concerned with getting his son out of there. He has already come face to face with the reality of the zombie danger and thus has a sense of what is “really” going on. The scene is clearly meant to emulate the concern about police shootings in the United States, and in that context the gathering crowd and their evident anger eventually turning to “rioting” in response to the arrival of cops in riot gear (funny how that happens) makes perfect sense. However, there is a problem in this particular depiction. In the world of the TV show, where videos of people that they keep coming at cops, paramedics and others over and over despite being shot multiple times have gone viral, the cops are right to be doing all that shooting, or at least that is the perspective we have as viewers of the show who know the zombie apocalypse is nigh. The unarmed victims of these shooting really are dangerous and pose a threat to policemen and the general populace, however, this is not true of the real life counterparts in this allegory, thus the persistent need for something like the #BlackLivesMatter movement. It is not a stretch to go from the supposed fear of a policeman claiming an unarmed black man he shot, just kept charging and wouldn’t stop and appeared to be (in the words of Darren Wilson) a “demon,” to the figure of the zombie. When cops already see black people as inhuman, mindless, potentially unstoppable and always potentially violent creatures, this equation seems an apt possibility for exploration, but what is the result of the show making that view into a literal truth? What does it reveal or suggest about the reality it uses to give its fiction a sense of weight and depth?
I am not sure that in this case it really reveals anything of note. The allusion comes off as an empty ploy to seem relevant and poignant, but ultimately saying nothing. I spent some time considering the political themes of the zombie genre in order to explore the possibility that my gut feeling was wrong.
There is a long tradition of zombie fiction and cinema not only excavating colonial anxieties, but also serving as a critique of late-era capitalist consumption. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead is probably the origin of the latter—as actor Howard Sherman explains, in Doc of the Dead, how can we see the hordes of shoppers at malls on Black Friday and not think of the film? But early films like 1932’s White Zombie makes the fear of abject blackness and the slave that rises against its master as a central fear. As Simone Brioni reminds us in his Cinergie article, “Zombies and the Post-colonial Italian Unconscious,” Frantz Fanon compared the result of the psychopathology of colonization to the condition of the zombie. The Afro-Caribbean roots of the figure of the zombie make such connections obvious. The zombie apocalypse genre itself then represents the fear of the colonized chickens coming home to roost, making a new home in the Euro-American places that used their self-styled narratives of civilized exceptionalism as a tool to justify their centuries of exploitation. So, if colonized peoples were to accept as truth the virtues of the colonizer, why would they not seek out the source of their abjection and the final destination of their siphoned wealth in hopes of getting a piece of it? In other words, cinematic zombism is the dark reflection of imperial hunger turned back on itself.
Even the end of the original Night of the Living Dead points towards a racialized anxiety regarding the consequences of the displaced subjects of colonial rule. Ben, the lone survivor of the zombie attack on the farmhouse—who is African American—is murdered by a posse gathered up by local lawmen to sweep up the remaining ghouls. A posse of white police, firefighters, and deputized locals with dogs hunting people must not have been an unfamiliar sight to people of 1968 America, and certainly echoes lynch mobs and parties seeking escaped slaves in antebellum America. Ben’s death—he is presumably mistaken for a zombie by the rural Pennsylvania sheriff, who has one of his men take the shot—is a sharp contrast to the young man’s confidence and leadership throughout the previous night’s conflict. Regardless of his competence, Ben lurks in the farmhouse wary of that posse (as any black man would be in rural PA in the 60s), and as such is conflated with the zombie threat. Ben’s awareness of his own historical jeopardy in such a position becomes (obliquely) the justification for his death. In that final scene the parallel between the marginalized subject and the figure of the zombie is made clear. In a scene in its 1978 sequel that recreates the setting of Night of the Living Dead, the new protagonists fly over that part of Pennsylvania, and one of them comments, “Those rednecks are probably enjoying the whole thing.” The film then shows the glee with which the locals swill beer and shoot zombies, like an apocalyptic tailgate party, echoing the tradition of lynching as a social event, a raucous gathering to cement white dominance. The violence freely perpetrated against the zombie figure, a figure deprived of humanity reminds me of the American tradition of destroying the black body that Ta-Nehesi Coates writes about in Between the World and Me. As Coates explains in his book, Ben, as a black man, need only be in the general vicinity of danger and violence to become the target of it, and in America the black body is always in the vicinity of danger, because as he writes, “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage.” It is impossible to separate those indiscriminate posses in Romero’s films from that heritage.
Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) (you can watch the whole film on youtube) may seem to de-racialize the zombie trope, but its critique of conspicuous consumption as a means of achieving cultural status is intimately entwined with mutually defining capitalist and colonial ideological modes that make varying degrees of promises about better lives, eventual democratic freedoms and civilizing culture a signature strategy of its physical, economic and spiritual exploitation. All you need do is consider the economics of payday loans and rent-to-own businesses and their exploitation of deeply entrenched poverty in a society that values owning things to see the degree to which the least among us are targeted by this vampirism at home, as they are abroad. Even before the “redneck” comment mentioned above, which speaks to the potential empowering joy of participating in repressive ideological practices, the film spends a good amount of time in a Philadelphia housing project populated by “blacks and Puerto Ricans.” The scene’s chaos and police’s lack of differentiation between the dead and the living black and brown residents of the building reinforces the end of Night of the Living Dead. The slippage between the zombies and living marginalized/colonized people is a way of voicing the voiceless. As Steven Harper writes in his 2002 Americana article,
the [tenement] scene invites the audience to consider zombiedom as a condition associated with both racial oppression and social abjection and, therefore, sanctions socio-political interpretations of the film as a whole.
So while at a certain level, Romero’s film does seem to deracialize the zombie trope (in that zombies are of any race and conspicuous consumption appears to be a class-based, not race-based issue), his zombie films do not make the mistake of assuming the latter is completely subsumed by the former. While the white yokels inhabit their own economically and politically marginal position in relation to state power, they still participate in the state-sanctioned violence that marks off American belonging. Meanwhile, it is a housing project full of black and brown people that resist the government’s call to abandon their homes, to give up their dead, to quietly acquiesce to military power for their own good. What indication do they have that their lives matter to those in power? The racist cop who uses the raid as an opportunity to indiscriminately kill “spics and niggers,” whether they are zombies or not, makes that really clear, but even without such an over the top overt example, Dawn of the Dead establishes that issues of race compound social crises that on their surface might appear to not have anything to do with race.
The slippage between zombies and marginalized national subjects points towards the danger of colonial forces pointed inward that make black and brown bodies into commodities that must be either controlled or destroyed. The zombie plague, then, is a useful metaphor by nature of its own shifting demographics. When actually thoughtful, the zombie genre answers Gayatri Spivak’s question, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” by replying, “No, but the subaltern can groan in hunger.” The world’s adoption of capitalist values leads to a self-destructive avarice that seeks to exploit any resource down to the very flesh. Ultimately, the contemporary zombie genre is most compelling as a class-based critique of culture and imperialism that does not leave out how race intersects with those issues.
The idea that the zombies could be the victims of those desperately struggling to remain in power despite a shifting population is threaded throughout the zombie oeuvre. In George Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985), the figure of Bub presents the audience with their first sympathetic zombie, but by 2005’s Land of the Dead, zombies are starting to learn, strategize and organize, suggesting a shift in the how the audience is meant to think of the zombie condition. In Doc of the Dead, George Romero explains that his zombies only act from the memory of their living selves, and if that is the case then his zombie hero “Big Daddy” in that film has a memory of resistance to power that is poignant, and cannot be separated from his racial and economic status. In the The Walking Dead TV show (and its comic book source), Hershel and his family seem to be the only ones willing to consider the possible humanity of zombies, and thus keep them trapped in a barn for their own safety and the safety of the living, in hopes of returning them to their living state one day. However, by the end of the second season Hershel is convinced to abandon that possibility and joins with Rick Grimes and his group of survivors. The idea of their possible humanity is not brought up again. The best example of shifting the consideration of who is the real “monster,” however, comes from Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend (1954)—a primary influence on Romero’s films—in which the infected people seemingly transformed into undead represent a new society, and the protagonist, who had killed so many of them turns out to have been in the wrong all along.
Returning then to Fear of the Walking Dead, it becomes clear that its allusion to our contemporary concern with police brutality and the over-policing of black and brown people is a variation on a tradition of the genre (at least in the last 45 years or so). As I suggested above, however, I am not sure that the show is succeeding in doing anything but reinforcing its predecessor’s callous attitude towards black lives. Especially since, save for a scene where the consideration of the possibility of racialized attitudes by a feverish T-Dog is quickly dismissed, The Walking Dead TV show lacks an awareness of race except as something only connected to outright racists. That said, I am not ready to outright condemn the show because I think even flawed work can be thought-provoking and entertaining. (Shit, despite my deep appreciation of Romero’s films, they are not without serious problems of their own). There is still hope. For example, in the scene with the protest and riot, we as viewers don’t get to see the homeless man shot by police. (Something I realized by listening to Chico Leo discuss the show on the Fan Bros Podcast). This creates a possibility of ambiguity in the actions of the police, since the show also shows some of them stocking up on water and other supplies to escape the city, in other words using their authority to start the looting early, since they have a better sense of what is happening than civilians do. As such, it could be Fear the Walking Dead takes place in a world where the violence already regularly perpetrated against the subaltern becomes a point of contact for the world-ending plague. Zombism, like drugs and crime, become another reason to malevolently police communities of black and brown people, and when that threat expands beyond the confines of those communities, the symptom becomes conflated with the patient. Unfortunately, The Walking Dead franchise has not given me much reason to believe that it will do more with its allusions than milk the current political moment to appear relevant. Furthermore, re-watching the scene I find it less ambiguous, since a bitten policeman and the appearance of a walker suggest the homeless man was indeed one of the infected. Furthermore, the third episode’s depiction of rioting and then abandonment of the urban setting suggests that those allusions were indeed simply set dressing.
There is a cathartic pleasure to watching stories in the post-apocalyptic zombie setting. There is a sense of freedom that accompanies the terrors of a world set loose from the West’s exploitative overabundance. I think for many viewers the setting serves as a site for identification with its easy violence, and the ability to kill people with impunity, without legal or moral consequences through the mechanism of zombification. There’s that sense that you could bury a fire axe into the head of your sonuvabitch neighbor without it being murder. However, while I can’t deny enjoying the idea of a world wiped clean of institutions and the pretense that comes along with the commodification of just about everything, what appeals to me is the sense of comeuppance that the genre allows for—to imagine that the walking dead are the payback for a hunger let loose on the world in order to build the civilization whose destruction in which we revel.