Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.
- Rosa Luxemburg, "Junius Pamphlet" 1916

Friday, November 5, 2010

The awful grace of undead God: AMC's "The Walking Dead"

I've never been a fan of zombie apocalypse cinema. Ever since George Romero's Night of the Living Dead in 1968, Hollywood has manufactured a coffin-load of films in which zombies take over the world and a few desperate humans have to hold the undead hordes away. Most often by blowing their heads to pulp. That's the kryptonite of zombies. It always seemed to me that there's not a lot of room in such motifs for interesting end of the world storytelling.

Turns out, as so often happens, I was wrong. Last week marked the premiere of the limited run television series The Walking Dead, on AMC. It tells the story of a sheriff's deputy in central Georgia, shot in the line of duty. He wakes up from his coma in an empty hospital, trashed by some unknown catastrophe. In one hallway he finds an eviscerated corpse. After that, things do not go well.

I never liked zombie cinema and now The Walking Dead won't go away from my head. One friend of mine who is, in fact, a devotee of le filme de unmorte didn't like this new zombie epic. Too many "last man on Earth" cliches, he said. Maybe. I guess I've let my critical faculties succumb to rigor mortis. I thought the story and the images were haunting -- in the sense that they evoked fear, and also beauty. It's a rare mix for any story to pull off.

An example, to illustrate. My expectation, based on admittedly limited experience, is for a zombie film to take place in the fearful blackness of night. Almost all of The Walking Dead unfolds in the light of day. And yet it still manages to terrify. Not just from grisly scenes of mutilation and death, which it has in abundance. The terror comes no less from the spectral imagery of our familiar world now empty of life, filled with the palpable menace of unseen, unholy atrocities lurking in the silent houses, the abandoned tanks and helicopters of an annihilated army, the dead skyscrapers. Sometimes the scenery of the aftermath is idyllic. Trees swaying to the wind on a summer day, farmhouses watching over the fields. But you know something terrible has happened, and the worst is coming. Haunting. Yes, any end-of-the-world movie will have such imagery. I didn't care.

To me, horror is a sub-genre of science fiction and fantasy. The best of those tales give us a sense of the transcendent. Of connection to the larger forces, unknowable, that breathe animating fire into the heart of creation, into the souls of beings who walk within it. I found this link to the ineffable in a strange little story of a sheriff's deputy in the deep, dead South.

One scene, perhaps, can illustrate why. A survivor of the plague that turned dead human beings into devouring predators mourns the loss of his wife, who fell to the plague. The body that used to be her comes walking, sometimes, past the house where he hides with his son. He knows that "the walkers," as they are called, can only be put down by a sufficiently violent trauma to the head. So the mourning father decides, once more, to try to put down the walking parody of his wife.

Meanwhile, in an empty city park at that same moment, the sheriff's deputy goes in search of a walker he encountered earlier but left alone. This walker had been chopped in half. When last he saw it, the disembodied torso was crawling slowly across the ground, gurgling and moaning, looking for its food. Living flesh. The deputy follows the thing's trail of muck across the green grass. In the light of the sun.

This is the scene that results. It isn't for the squeamish. While not as grotesque as some scenes in the show, it contains grisly images and moments of brutally intense violence. It's also beautiful. Life is like that. 

As a friend put it today: even at the fall of a civilization, there will be stories. And moments of beauty, hints of something more, passing in tears and sunlight and blood.

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