The Unrealized Dreams of the Undead


Giving Oprah the Dickens | Site unseen: I’m guessing zombies have no secrets to conceal. Like Oprah, they’re all about “keepin’ it real”: Lurch, dismember, eat, repeat.

The irony of the recent, popular AMC series “The Walking Dead” is that even as it was being hailed by critics — The New York Times’s Alessandra Stanley called it “surprisingly scary and remarkably good” — and fans as a fresh addition that strengthens the zombie genre, its zombie antagonists were fading into the backdrop. The series format itself is symbolic. The producers and writers of “Dead” have said their intention is to reanimate the zombie myth with what comes after the first frenetic scenes of scheming and survival, i.e. what comes after the two hours you see in a movie.


Frank Darabont, one of the series’ writers, told The Times last year that he was interested in telling great stories about people under stress. “The zombies are really the context to tell that story,” he said. Or as Joel Stillerman, the senior vice president for original programming at AMC, put it, the zombie itself “almost doesn’t matter on some level.”


Sooner or later, though, it does matter. Because I will tell you what happens after those first terrible, brain-splattering moments: the zombies will rot away to nothing.


What is a zombie, after all? “First principles, Clarice,” Hannibal Lechter advised Clarice Starling in “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991). A zombie is a nearly or formerly dead person under the control of a foreign entity, something like a virus, radioactivity, a supernatural other, etc. Is it mindless? We are led to believe as much, but zombies remember too much of their former lives (e.g. they know what doors are) to be completely so. More accurately, their humanity is overwhelmingly suppressed by violent urges.


What is its nature? A zombie is possessed of a poignant, singular simplicity. It is an antagonist of a pure utilitarian stripe, reflecting with perfect resonance any of a host of evils. Zombies can come from anywhere (underground or from the attic), manifested as anyone (man or woman, giant or waif), and standing for anything (Nazis or strippers). They are also imbued with deep symbolism, perhaps more so than the sexually charged vampires that are fast being overcome by equally erotic werewolves in mass-market paperbacks.


Zombies are a truly American invention, the struggle against them is a fight for individualism. At their core, zombies represent conformity and mindlessness. As a whole, they embody the chilling fear that civilization is dangerously fragile, that even the most promising plan for survival can dissolve without warning into backbiting — and real biting.


But zombies are also in need of reconstructive surgery. Even if you allow for some extraordinary limitations on putrefaction, how many doors must a zombie really break down before you realize it’s just a man (or woman)? Two weeks in a Georgia summer, the setting of “The Walking Dead,” would reduce most zombies to loose piles of sinew in days, to mere bones in two weeks.


What will become of the human drama then?