Here is my review of Brian Merchant’s review of the zombie genre, which I call,”Why You Really Shouldn’t Be Afraid of the Zombie Apocalypse,” as Brian Merchant’s article is called “Why You Really Should Be Afraid of the Zombie Apocalypse.”
Right from the start, Merchant notes “the repetitive quality of every zombie plot line in nearly every film, TV episode, and comic book,” suggesting a genre that is predictably stale. In other words, this is most likely not written by a fan of the genre, which one should note. That’s not a huge problem to me. A lack of “fanhood” doesn’t mean one can’t write well about a subject (indeed, this article is food for thought). However, it means one will probably not be immersed in the subject the way a fan would be, and therefore not appreciate its nuances. That makes one more likely to mischaracterize and oversimplify what they’re addressing.
Sure enough, Merchant suggests that “Zombie apocalypse logic inevitably paints humans—the ones who survive, anyway—as selfish, dangerous, and ready to turn on one another when confronted with hardship. It’s a vicious, social Darwinist vision of a society that unravels quickly and easily; the only things apparently holding us together are police departments and electricity.”
His assessment will have some people scratching their heads, because quite often that’s what happens in real life. Should we fault the genre for realism? Should zombie movies depict people as getting along when a global crisis strikes? Are they at fault for pointing out what could happen? Does that mean it’s what their creators feel should happen, or must happen? I do not see things that way, and neither do many fans of the genre. Even when studying the Walking Dead (which is mainly what the article discusses), one can easily get a different picture. For starters, there is no single personality type on the show, or any single type of logic promoted. Quite often, the selfish, dangerous and non-cooperative characters get killed precisely for being selfish, dangerous and non-cooperative. At the same time, sometimes people are killed for being too calm and non-violent (which actually can happen in the real world, I regret having to say). The characters deal with hardship in in many ways. Some are vicious and some are surprisingly easygoing. Many characters end up making decisions they regret (if not all of them). More to the point, the show suggests that police departments and electricity were not enough to hold society together — the exact opposite of what Merchant states. Without greater social bonds, society falls apart. This could be seen as a clear message behind many zombie movies.
Merchant goes on to simply ask: “If we believe things are bound to fall apart, after all, what’s the point of doing much of anything? Best just to stock up on canned goods and bolt the door.” Yet again, it’s a gross oversimplification and mischaracterization of the standard zombie premise. This is not what the main characters in the Walking Dead have done. In fact, they are almost constantly on the move, and have formed much solidarity as a group. The supposed flaw in the premise is that outside groups are necessarily dangerous, and that this situation “greatly exaggerates the fragility of society” (here Merchant quotes Daniel W. Drezner, professor of international politics at Tufts University). Merchant says: “While zombie tales hone in on collapse, and the media often chooses to emphasize looting after a natural disaster, the reality is that humans more typically band together, and help provide food, shelter, and resources to those in need.”
However, in reality, people do not bond together like that often enough. Yes, human beings are often versatile during times of disaster, but any notion that chaos does not often occur is simply untrue. There are people out there who are not trustworthy. How do we know who we can trust? We don’t always know. Boom! You have a major theme not just for zombie stories, but for the humanities in general. We do live in a rather cruel world. As I write this, there are laws in certain US cities banning the feeding of homeless people. If I write about such a thing, it does not mean I advocate the policy. I am merely noting that it exists, and could exist. Similarly, if someone writes about societal collapse, it does not necesarily mean it’s what they want. The zombie genre emphasizes the angle that we can’t always trust, which is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a genre that does not offer all of the solutions for us. If we were really in such a crisis, we would have to figure things out as we go along. It also shows that people cannot always trust themselves.
Again, the zombie genre is not alone in suggesting this. Look at the news. Talk to people you know. We live in some chaotic times. There are very real threats to human survival — some of them manmade (intentionally or otherwise), some of them decidedly external (natural disasters). For every example of people successfully banding together to face adversity, there’s a counter-example of a proverbial Governor showing up with a tank. And this brings me to the next point.
Merchant claims that, under “zombie logic,” we “Stay alive…by respecting the authority of strong individuals, executing troublemakers and deviants, and assuming everyone outside the walls is going to try to kill you. It’s a pretty toxic outlook, even for the apocalypse.” Yet again, this is not necessarily what the show tries to advocate. It suggests such a world may exist, but doesn’t suggest the outcomes are always positive. There is no single “zombie logic.” We are shown events and can draw whatever lessons we want from them. We may see these as suggestions of what not to do. Quite simply, the Walking Dead does not make Rick look flawless, or like he always makes the right call. In fact, I often watch the show to see how group dynamics will dissolve because of their choosing to side with a fearless leader (be it Rick or somebody else).
And The Walking Dead often does criticize authoritarianism quite clearly. Look at the Governor! He was villainous precisely because he was a strongman who executed troublemakers, and has most of the hallmarks of an authoritarian. At the same time, in the story we were shown the complex motivations and feelings behind the Governor’s authoritarian tendencies. But, presumably, Merchant wants us to forget that and favor some simplistic interpretation (either he’s good or he’s bad). He wants us to approach this story in the simplest terms, and draw from it some clear moral lessons. However, the show is not just about that. It attempts to show us how we can get to crazy places. Sometimes we may not get out alive. It’s also about zombies.
Near the end of the article, he tellingly says, “There’s a concern that zombie logic will keep its dominant perch, and this brain-dead social philosophy will lurch onwards indefinitely, lowering our guards and stifling our ability to imagine the future.”
So where does this leave us? As often happens, I have seen a review wherein things are too clearly defined. In reality, things are much more open to interpretation. When we forget that, our opinions more easily come back to bite us — and eventually change us into something rotten, which in turn tries to transform everyone else into what we’ve become. In this case, I think the rotten thing is a narrow interpretation of what’s on the screen. But there is no single way to interpret these stories. So there.