The latest iteration of the zombie zeitgeist, The Walking Dead premiered on British TV last night. Based on the comic books of the same name, it has all the originality of a Westlife album and deals in tropes so tired they ought be interred in a nearby retirement home. But despite that, the pilot episode - 'Days Gone Bye' - works very well.
Sheriff's Deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln, or Egg from This Life) is wounded in a shoot out and wakes up in a hospital bed. In scenes reminiscent of 28 Days Later and Day of the Triffids he gets his bearings and staggers through a deserted but battle scarred hospital. Rick comes across a half-eaten nurse, walls daubed with blood, and a locked door bulging with trapped undead. He gropes his way down a murky stairwell into the corpse-strewn grounds. It is a quiet desolate scene punctuated only by the buzzing of feeding flies. There are unmistakable signs of battle but vehicles, military equipment and battlefield positions are all intact. It's not long before Rick is confronted with the full gravity of what's happened. Pausing to pick up a bike on his way home he notices a badly mangled decomposing corpse ... and it notices him.
And so the scene is set for a gripping and gritty pilot episode. The production values are very high and the characters are very believable. Walking is the first zombie serial for TV, but if it maintains this standard it need be the only one.
Assuming the first season is deemed a success by notoriously fickle television executives I expect some elements of the comic book won't cross over to the small screen. Sex and violence is one thing, but torture, rape and paedophilia are quite another. But I expect the plot - which is little more than a spin on the classical 'group of survivors find a hold out, gets overrun, finds a hold out, gets overrun' template - will survive without many changes.
But what is it about shambling bags of bones bent on eating your brain that commands widespread cultural attention and popularity? Why now? Why zombies? I have a couple of sketchy ideas.
In one sense the rise of zombie culture condenses a number of ambivalences and anxieties haunting the 'bourgeois condition'. As I've argued before, Charlie Brooker's Dead Set could be read as a revenge-of-the-working-class allegory (despite his injunction that the mini-series is "not a chin-stroking exercise"). And the same is true of wider zombie culture as manufactured by various media interests. Despite burying the Soviet Union and having things their own way for 30 years (at least in Britain and the US), the end of history has proven to be a period as uncertain as any other. Far from ushering in a von Hayekian utopia, capitalism has been rocked to its foundations by a financial crisis few of its apologists saw coming. Keynes has been dug up and reanimated to get things going again, but at the same time the spectre of Marx has been disturbed and has taken to haunting their imaginations. On the one hand there's the geopolitical challenge represented by the Chinese (communists!). And on the other the declining salience of mainstream political parties, the retrenchment of irreverence, and the uncertainty around the character popular opposition to the cuts will eventually assume make the dangerous classes ... well ... dangerous again.
Zombies as a horror staple are the result of some unfathomable biological or supernatural crisis that cannot be reversed. They are mindless. They are faceless. They are ugly. And they want to invade your home and feast on your flesh. If this does not work as an allegory for bourgeois attitudes to and fears of the working class, I don't know what does.
But this in itself cannot explain why zombies are so zeitgeisty. It might go some way to help explain how effortlessly the media's creative minds churn out undead product, but does not account for how this continually finds an eager market. I would suggest this has something to do with consumer capitalism. Since Romero's classic Dawn of the Dead, the point has been repeated to banality that zombies are a satire of a society that encourages people to find their souls in consumption. This, in my opinion, is no longer the case. Neoliberalism has assiduously cultivated an individualism that is not stupefied by the aura of the commodity. Instead contemporary capitalist culture offers choices, which in turn demands an active individual subjectivity capable of making them. Hence consumption is less a matter of finding one's self in objects and more objects being a means of marking and displaying personality and identity. This is not dumb mass culture as Adorno and the Frankfurt School would have it, but massified bourgeois culture: of the penetration of the social fabric by the common sense, outlook, and individuating practices of the ruling class.
What's this got to do with zombies?
1) Neoliberalism and bourgeois culture places the individual (the self) at the centre of the universe. From this perspective the bulk of society appear as an immense collection of herd-like Others engaged in an array of apparently meaningless and mundane activities. You and your immediate circle are the individuals. The rest are a homogenous mass.
2) Sometimes so many choices can be tiring.
Zombie product can appeal to both these coordinates of neoliberal individualism. Zombiescapes of The Walking Dead, Zombieland, World War Z are very simple. It's an escapist world where choice is taken away. There is no ambiguity - all zombies want to nibble on your innards. None of them will pretend friendship or seduce you by guile. It's a black and white world of life and death. Your fellow survivors might be dodgy characters, but you won't wake up in the night to find them chewing your leg.
But at the same time zombies offer an opportunity for asserting superiority, mastery, contempt, and individuality against the mass. Zombies are slow and stupid. Humans are quick and intelligent. Zombies are limited by their reach. Humans can use all manner of weapons. Provided they are not swarming in great numbers, humans run rings around them - lopping off a limb here, beheading another there, removing their teeth, chaining them up, what fun can be had! And all without a troubled conscience too.
In other words zombie settings offer a simple fantasy where one can assert the self - sometimes heroically - against the world. You have to beat the undead hordes. Unlike the ever-popular vampires, one cannot join them. Zombies tune into ruling class anxieties and a popular longing for recognition and simplicity. And as long as capitalism blindly lurches from crisis to crisis in the mindless pursuit of profits, so the popularity of the zombie will endure.