For a brief period, the living dead served as a handy Rorschach test for America’s social ills. At various times, they represented capitalism, the Vietnam War, nuclear fear, even the tension surrounding the civil-rights movement. Today zombies are almost always linked with the end of the world via the “zombie apocalypse,” a global pandemic that turns most of the human population into beasts ravenous for the flesh of their own kind. But there’s no longer any clear metaphor. While America may still suffer major social ills—economic inequality, policy brutality, systemic racism, mass murder—zombies have been absorbed as entertainment that’s completely independent from these dilemmas.
Which is a shame, because the zombie is such a potent symbol. For example, there’s a clear connection between the zombie of slave-driven Saint-Domingue and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent exploration of black disembodiment—the body under constant threat of capture, imprisonment, and murder. For Haitian slaves, the invention of the zombie was proof that the abuse they suffered was in a way more powerful than life itself—they had imagined a scenario in which they continued to be slaves even after death. In Between the World and Me, observing a young boy in front of a 7-Eleven, Coates writes, “This was a war for the possession of his body and that would be the war of his whole life.” The same declaration could be transported 1400 miles and 300 years and still hold true.
Instead American pop culture has used the zombie, fraught as it is with history, as a form of escapism, rather than a vehicle to explore its own past or current fears. Writing for GreenCine, Liz Cole is onto something when she says that, whatever their allegorical shadow, zombies are perhaps “indulging our post-apocalyptic fantasies” above all. Elmo Keep notes in The Awl how pop culture tends to romanticize depictions of the end of the world: In these situations, “Petty frustrations and mundane realities of real life all disappear, as do the complexities.” And so the zombie apocalypse isn’t an outlet for fears but for fantasies, functioning as an escape hatch into a world with higher dramatic stakes, fewer people, and the chance to reinvent oneself, for better or worse.
Zombies, in their American incarnation, strip earth back down to its essential parts: mankind, nature, survival. Think of The Walking Dead’s Georgia, a desolate but oddly idyllic expanse of camps, fields, abandoned motels, and forest clearings. In this way, post-apocalyptic zombie scenarios are as much utopian as they are dystopian. The landscape is cleared of industrial plants, oil derricks, real estate developments, traffic jams, construction sites, and urban blight.
With just a handful of survivors set against a stark landscape of browns and greens, every person’s decisions take on an outsize importance, often a life-or-death meaning. As the former Stanford doctoral student Angela Vidergar told Live Science in 2013, “The ethical decisions that the survivors have to make under duress and the actions that follow those choices are very unlike anything they would have done in their normal life.” The importance of the lives of characters on The Walking Dead is implicit, because theirs is the only story left to tell. And that, of course, is the key to their fantasist power: Who wouldn’t want to escape into characters leading lives of infallible significance, with their survival and the endurance of the human race perpetually at stake?