Surviving The Walking Dead

Posted by Liam Dodds on January 22, 2011 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , ,

The Walking Dead. AMC Network, 2010

Reviewed by Liam Dodds, University of Stirling

You have woken from a coma in a deserted hospital. Alone, confused, and disorientated, you notice the clocks have stopped, the blood-stained wards are in a state of disarray unanticipated even for our National Health Service, and the corpse on the gurney next to you who was in for a routine surgery has, rather unexpectedly, sat up and is somehow missing a very sizeable portion of flesh from the lower part of his face. He looks hungry. Very hungry. Congratulations. You have survived the first wave of living dead apocalypse. But, what now? I hear you ask. Well, to paraphrase Brian Clough, as far as I am concerned, to survive The Walking Dead, you can take all your Zombie Survival Guides, your insider knowledge garnered from repeated readings of World War Z, the years spent degrading your thumbs playing the many iterations of Resident Evil, and your delusional belief that “everything will be alright if we stay in the pub”, and throw them in the bin, or, you know, forget them. The rather laboured Brian Clough comparison was supposed to illustrate that, in order to survive The Walking Dead, expect things to be rather different from anything you have previously encountered. Surviving the walking dead is going to take more than a few rounds at The Winchester. For the real threats to your continued survival are those fellow survivors, an unlikely band of brothers who, through chance or good fortune, whether fortunately or unfortunately, have also managed to survive the first wave of the invasion. Thus, to avoid becoming The Damned United, read on.

Max Brooks, in The Zombie Survival Guide, writes that “our greatest advantage over the undead is the ability to think”, for, on no occasion, have zombies “shown any ability to reason or employ logic”. Typically, the “walking” dead, Brooks writes, tend to move at a slouch or limp. Whether through injury, or decomposition, Brooks writes, a zombie’s lack of coordination makes for an unsteady stride where speed is determined by the length of the gait. Contrary to myth and speculation, Brooks states, zombies have never been observed using tools of any kind. Devoid of agility, dexterity, and demonstrating an instinct-driven unitask intelligence programmed to execute one function repeatedly, zombies are, therefore, disposable.

Police Officer, Rick Grimes, like you, awakens from a coma in a hospital on the outskirts of Atlanta sometime in an, although unspecified, implicitly very near future which, for the sake of argument, is sometime next Tuesday. Grimes (Andrew Lincoln, Teachers) awakens to discover that in his transitory absence his wife and child have abandoned their family home, hospital out-patient care has become rather haphazard, and, perhaps most importantly, an unspecified event has overthrown the civilisation he once knew whilst hordes of the undead are walking the earth. Grimes discovers the details of the last known refuge before communications were disbanded, a Centre for Disease Control in the city of Atlanta, where he believes his family may have travelled. Thus, in accordance with Brooks, Grimes conforms to the instructions for the survivor “On The Run”: maintain one goal, establish a destination, and finally, gather intelligence and plan your journey.

However, the living-dead inhabitants of The Walking Dead are distinctly different from Brooks’ shambling cannibals. The living-dead are never referred to as zombies, rather, throughout the series, the walking dead are referred to as “Walkers”, “Test Subjects” or, my personal favourite, “Geeks”. Nor is the source of the outbreak ever identified or disclosed. Geeks, therefore, are not your typical zombie-flick bullet-fodder. The walking dead demonstrate intelligence, logic, agility, and, seemingly, co-operation: using tools, scaling fences, climbing ladders, working in groups and, rather frighteningly, running, in pursuit of their prey. Furthermore, the walkers appear to recollect their former lives. Morgan Jones’ undead wife returns to her former place of residence, recognition glinting in her eyes as she approaches her former home, slowly, repeatedly and deliberately turning the handle of the door. Therefore, the distinctions between living and undead are persistently undermined, the living-dead are necessarily survivors, attempting to subsist in the state of nature. The nature of survival is illustrated as Daryl Dixon is hunting, pursuing a wounded deer through the forest. On reaching camp, Daryl, and the rest of the group discover a walker feasting on the deer. The group viciously attack the walker, using clubs, pitchforks, bats and crowbars, decapitating the Geek, then, finally, using a crossbow, shoot an arrow through the eye of the severed head, finally ending the walker’s life. One cannot help feel the distinction between monster and monstrosity undermined as the parallel between the helpless, hunted deer and the walker is emphasised. The death appears as an act of “animal” cruelty, as gross, insensitive, violence for violence sake: as distraught camp members view the outburst of male territorial aggression the viewer is aware that one of the members of the group possesses a shotgun, which may humanely end the life of the walker. Rather, the group choose ferocious brutality, the death of the walker is prolonged in an act of callous inhumanity.

Posited by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan, the concept of the state of nature describes the state wherein men live “without a common power to keep them all in awe, in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man”. In this state, Hobbes writes, any person has a natural right to the liberty to preserve his own life. Therefore, Hobbes describes the life of man in the state of nature as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. Within the state of nature, Hobbes states, there is no injustice, since there is no law, excepting the natural precept “that every man ought to endeavour peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it”. Therefore, in the state of nature, man should be willing, when others are so too, “to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men as he would allow other men against himself”. Hobbes, therefore, determines society’s progression from the state of nature into civil government through mutual social contracts.

The ever-uniformed Grimes, a symbol of the former civilisation, enforces command among the group of survivors, attempting to maintain order in an undead state of nature. As Meryl brutally assaults another member of the group in a racially motivated attack, attempting to take command of the leaderless subgroup who are foraging for food in the city, Grimes over-powers Meryl, hand-cuffing Meryl to the ventilation structure on the roof of the skyscraper. “There is us and the dead”, Grimes states, arguing that, in this new world, racial distinctions are no longer valid, the old prejudices are rendered void, “[w]e survive this by pulling together, not apart”. However, as hordes of walkers attack, Meryl is abandoned as the group retreat hastily towards their camp on the outskirts of the city. Unwilling to let Meryl die of thirst and exposure, Grimes forms a team attempting to rescue Meryl, stating “[w]e left him like an animal caught in a trap. That is no way for anything to die, let alone a human being”. Meryl, however, faces the stark reality of dehydration, exhaustion, exposure and an ever-encroaching undead horde. A rusty hacksaw is Meryl’s only remaining option. The closing image of the saw-blade, the discarded hand severed at the wrist and the stained cuffs swaying softly a symbol of the morally bankrupt state of nature.

Although, The Walking Dead stutters towards the conclusion, with the walkers notable by their absence (albeit, despite a gore-ious return to form with an act of violence which decimates the group), the series remains an immensely moving and intense adaptation of the graphic novels of Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore. As the series progresses, as the strained social structures of the surviving group are sorely tested, the realisation that the survivors are damned builds towards the bleak choice in the concluding episode between embracing a painless death and the seemingly hopeless alternative as a member of the walking dead. A choice which, if we are to believe the study “When Zombies Attack!: Mathematical Modelling of an Outbreak of Zombie Infection”, will be coming to us all:

An outbreak of zombies infecting humans is likely to be disastrous, unless extremely aggressive tactics are employed against the undead. While aggressive quarantine may eradicate the infection, this is unlikely to happen in practice. A cure would only result in some humans surviving the outbreak, although they will still coexist with zombies. Only sufficiently frequent attacks, with increasing force, will result in eradication, assuming the available resources can be mustered in time. Furthermore, these results assumed that the timescale of the outbreak was short, so that the natural birth and death rates could be ignored. If the timescale of the outbreak increases, then the result is the doomsday scenario: an outbreak of zombies will result in the collapse of civilisation, with every human infected, or dead.

The question is, therefore, as you stare into the milky dead eyes of a rather ravenous Geek, do you really want to survive The Walking Dead?

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