Nothing can stop the walking dead. Not a band of hardened survivalists, not total market saturation, and certainly not the repetitive quality of every zombie plot line in nearly every film, TV episode, and comic book that, at this point, makes any contact with the phenomenon feel a bit like undead deja vu.
Zombies rise, lurch, bite, and proliferate. The savvy adapt to the new reality, kill or be killed. The strong survive, trust no one. The weak fall in line, or get eaten. Rinse, in blood, repeat.
This incredibly simple—and simplistic—premise is motivating what's easily the biggest supernatural trend of the century, and pop culture's most-watched depiction of the future. And even after years of the stuff, the zombie phenomenon shows no signs of slowing its bloodthirsty stagger. The Walking Dead finale just capped off another mega-ratings season (it now regularly fells NBC's Sunday Night Football), a spin-off series is in the works, the SyFy network has its own successful variant, Arnold Schwarzenegger is starring in a new zombie flick, and 2013's World War Z, which raked in half a billion dollars, is getting a sequel next year. Zombies are more popular than ever.
That's disconcerting to a number of critics, who argue that the worldview promoted by the zombie apocalypse is hopeless and nihilistic, and that its sweeping popularity may actually erode trust in our institutions and fellow humans. This end times ethos might ultimately prove counterproductive to any community aiming to address its real, non-apocalyptic problems—oh, and it's seriously unsupported by the actual social science that examines how people behave in the midst of disaster.
"The zombie genre is unique in terms of its misanthropy," Daniel W. Drezner told me. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University, and author of a number of books and academic articles about how zombie culture impacts political discourse.
"If you go full prepper, you'll exacerbate the situation. It's far more likely that things will fall apart."
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. And zombie fiction isn't really about zombies, obviously. "It's about how humans react to extreme circumstances, and they don't react well," Drezner said.
For a global community now facing more and more of those extreme circumstances—climate change, epidemics, war—that's a problem. The media critic Douglas Rushkoff worries that zombie logic restricts our solutions-oriented thinking. "It seems as if people would rather imagine the zombie apocalypse" than their future, he told Yahoo News. It is a product of what he calls "present shock," and he fears it makes us more likely to embrace the precept that collapse is inevitable, and less likely to participate in civic engagement or projects that might improve our communities in the long term.
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 (a solution insinuated, in fact, by the apocalyptic advertisements for "survival foods" on conservative talk shows like Glenn Beck's). "If you go full prepper, you'll exacerbate the situation," Drezner said. "It's far more likely that things will fall apart."
And now, zombie logic is inserting itself into the mainstream discourse, beyond the audiences of tens of millions of people who are watching weekly zombie shows and films, beyond the folks organizing zombie walks and theme events—even public institutions, NGOs, and politicians are echoing zombie logic in their outreach efforts.
For instance, the CDC ran a zombie-themed PSA online to highlight disease prevention techniques, and it proved so popular that it crashed the agency's servers. Which, as Drezner sees it, is both a blessing and a curse—a lot of people saw that PSA, but in the context that everything is bound to go to grisly hell. The zombie apocalypse "greatly exaggerates the fragility of society. By using that metaphor, you aid and abet the thing you're trying to avoid," Drezner said.
So how did we fall under the zombies' fatalistic doomspell? In a 2014 paper published in the Journal of Social Research, Drezner charts the explosion of zombie culture, and how it's impacting public discourse.
"The genre becomes more popular during times of uncertainty, war or recession," he told me. "In terms of movies, it really took off after 9/11." He cites 2008 research that found that, as of then, a third of all zombie films ever made had been churned out after 2001. Now, there are a lot more. "The financial crisis of 2009 triggered another spike."
Globalization and technology—and our perceived reliance on both, and the new vulnerabilities hence opened up—have made zombiedom a popular channel to funnel our anxieties through. "It's a very plastic concept," Drezner said. "Back when Romero made Night of the Living Dead, it was radiation. Now it's epidemiological. It's nature coming back and biting us—yeah we've done something wrong. This is what society deserves."
The basic tenets of zombie logic also track with hardline conservative principles (self-sufficiency, individualism, isolationism), which have been increasingly forcefully articulated over the last fifteen years. In his 2012 book, Thomas Edsall examines the work of Wharton professor Philip Tetlock, which found that conservatives "are less tolerant of compromise; see the world in 'us' versus 'them' terms; are more willing to use force to gain an advantage; are 'more prone to rely on simple (good vs. bad) evaluative rules in interpreting policy issues' are "motivated to punish violators of social norms (e.g., deviations from traditional norms of sexuality or responsible behavior) and to deter free riders." Sound familiar? Pretty much describes the moral compass of successful zombie survivors. Funny, then, that Republicans actually tend to hate the Walking Dead.
Regardless, the proliferation of zombie culture, at this point, is mind-boggling. How are we, as an audience, still enthralled by the same scenario, the same brain-dead villains, the same emptied wastelands? "It's feeding back on itself," Drezner said. "Every time someone says we've hit peak zombie, something else comes along."
A fear here is that tucked into the saturation of zombie culture is an implicit acceptance: well, this is how things are going to be. How will this cast of survivors respond to it? Oh, with frenzied violence, both against man and undead. Again.
"The problem with the zombie genre is the thing it fundamentally gets wrong: it underestimates how human beings would be resourceful," Drezner said. Look no further than this season of the Walking Dead, which offers a rather explicit endorsement of cynical, fascistic authoritarianism in the face of calamity.
Rick Grimes and his band of apocalypse-hardened road warriors are efficient, brutal killers. They have to be, we are told, to survive. All defer to police officer Rick, still the beacon of authority, warped as his mind may have become. They are recruited into Alexandria, a walled-off community that, somehow, still functions like a community amidst the end times. Every time we meet a community in the Walking Dead we know it must soon be torn down. Zombies, which can now be dispatched with routine ease by Rick and company, have long since ceased posing the real threat; other people do.
Take the stewards of Terminus, who were originally welcoming folk until marauding rapists taught them they had no choice but to become murderous cannibals to survive. The members of Alexandria, meanwhile, may have organized a peaceful-looking society, where everyone happily chips in to keep the place running, but they are in fact hopeless naifs, barely capable of doing anything in the real world without getting killed.
Deanna, Alexandria's leader, jokes that "the communists won after all." That, more than anything, articulated why, according to zombie logic, the place was doomed. The Walking Dead is driven by conservative, Hobbesian values—individual strength is paramount, subservience to authority is a social necessity, and out-groups are inherently dangerous, to be treated with suspicion. Big government is DOA.
In the world of Walking Dead, the idea that people might cooperate to rebuild society after the apocalypse is nothing but a failure-bound utopian dream. (It's also probably why the government is seen as useless, even malevolent; the CDC is at first useless, then actively life-threatening.)
That's too bad—mostly because it's not true at all. (At least for now, until we all succumb to zombie logic.) Rebecca Solnit's 2009 book A Paradise Built in Hell examines how communities actually tend to respond to disasters in real life, and works as a corrective to the pervading myth, presented both in our fictions and our media, that people become abominations when catastrophe hits. 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.
"The basic notion is of people so overwhelmed by fear and selfish desire to survive that their judgment, their social bonds, even their humanity are overwhelmed, and this can happen almost instantly when things go wrong—the old notion of reversion to brute nature, though out of fear rather than inherent malice," she writes. "It presumes that we are all antisocial bombs waiting to go off… Hollywood eagerly feeds those beliefs. Sociologists, however, do not."
Solnit cites the work of researchers, especially that of pioneering disaster studies professor Enrico Quarantelli, who have shown that cooperative behavior is actually much more common than selfishness in times of calamity. His decades of research shows that, typically, "instead of ruthless competition, the social order did not break down" when disaster struck.
Since about the second season of The Walking Dead, after the dozenth or so plot line about battles with hordes of drooling ex-human zombies and drooling human scum, I've thought the most interesting thing the show could do would be to have the characters secure a perimeter, regroup, and examine what rebuilding a civilization might actually look like. But every time they try something like that, a maniac with a tank shows up. Or apocalyptic sexual predators. Or middle class cannibals.
Which is why I was excited, at first, about the prospect of Alexandria. It held the promise of forcing the show to consider some questions about social philosophy. Instead, Rick's martial law ideology is quickly and thoughtlessly vindicated. The wimpy, collectivist Alexandrians can't get their house in order, they let zombies through the gates, and even get a Grimesian killed with their cowardice. As Zack Handlen writes at the AV Club, "Instead of giving us an ambiguous situation in which Rick's time outside made it hard for him to adjust to 'normal' life again, we get a bunch of soft idiots who need to be taught a lesson in how to stay alive."
Stay alive, of course, 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.
Thankfully, there are signs that zombie logic may be evolving. A host of new apocalypse products are venturing further than the survivalist feedback loop we're stuck in now. Maggie, the Schwarzenegger vehicle, sees the father stay by his daughter's side, searching for a cure as she slowly transitions into zombiehood, and 2013's Warm Bodies also humanizes the zombie "other," but with romantic comedy. Last Man on Earth may not be a zombie show, but it's apocalyptic, and its satire offers a much more optimistic take on the foibles of re-civilizing a dead world.
Still, 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.
"Brutal, Hobbesian, war against all," Drezner said. "Absolutely, that's one possibility." But it's a grim one, and shouldn't we be aiming to thwart that outcome, not celebrating it? "Another is the benefits of cooperation among humans becomes apparent," Drezner said. There's an idea. "Find new territory, and manage to install a zone of peace in a zone of anarchy."