Noah Millman, who considers the “viral zombie” of The Walking Dead comix and TV series an “abomination,” embraces a traditional understanding of the genre and why it continues to appeal to us:
The group doesn’t inevitably and hopelessly succumb; instead, there’s the excitement of watching them (some of them) defeat and escape from the plague. Modern zombie movies are fantasies of election – we identify with the survivors, and so become convinced that we would be like them. And these survivors seem so much more alive than we do – partly because they’ve escaped the constraints of civilization, but not only because of that. Since zombies are death, that fantasy of election is a fantasy of escaping death entirely – precisely the opposite of what a zombie is supposed to make us feel.
This conventional view provides an opportunity to consider the alternative proposed by Evan Calder Williams in his book Combined and Uneven Apocalypse. Williams suggests that the zombies are the true protagonists of the genre:
[T]he on-the-surface social critique is the least interesting part of the films, particularly from a political perspective. If there is a sharper turn of critique and thought, one not caught in the abortive passage bound to the personal trauma, it can only lie in the zombies themselves, the real protagonists of the films. For not since Eisenstein’s films have we witnessed such a startling construction of the mass subject: the slow pained birth of the new group from the wreckage of the everyday.
Calder’s far left-inflected perspective evokes the ghost or dream image of revolution harkening all the way back to Jesus Christ, history’s greatest zombie-revolutionary, or perhaps to Spartacus: The zombie is an only slightly exaggerated version of the slave, “untouchable,” or other member of the lower orders from the perspective of the upper class. Like the hungry poor, the zombies confront the citizen as insatiably ravenous mouths to feed, the “unreasoning mob” itself, human as less than human, pure destructive appetite. At the same time, the terrifying joy of the zombie movie, like the terrifying joy both of other apocalyptic genres and of the slave revolt, lies in the destruction of one form of inhumanity by the other that it has produced, or that in the zombie scenario is produced from it directly. We witness or continually re-experience the liberating annihilation of the whole constricted, compromised, and evil world, all of its inequities, and all of its false values.
Millman’s point of departure was a friend’s question regarding some peculiar non-character characters of The Walking Dead‘s new season, two zombies with jaws and arms hacked off that the new character “Michonne” leads around by chains, possibly because they work as camouflage. We can first note their status as grotesquely perfect images of the speechless, powerless slaves, before turning to the question: How, wonders Millman’s friend, do they survive without lower jaws, since they cannot feed? The question presumes that zombies feed for the same reason that normal animals do, when we have strong reason to believe that they bite and chew and claw reflexively, not to feed their stomachs. As Williams points out, the zombie is infinitely hungry, but does not really need to eat. In that sense, zombies are parodies equally of capitalist consumers compulsively pursuing absurd desires, as of the wretched of the Earth, whose feeding has no meaning because the lives that it preserves also seem to have no meaning.
We do not know how long the jaw-less zombies would last, just as there is much else about the zombie “life-cycle” (actually the life-cycle of the zombie virus) that is not explained, though under the Walking Dead scenario as under other typical zombie movie scenarios we are given to understand that there is or would be some scientific explanation for the goings-on. Such questions are pushed to the periphery of the zombie narrative, studiously unasked by the oddly incurious protagonists. Somewhat in the manner of traditional alien invasion or older vampire and werewolf movies, whose protagonists have somehow lived to adulthood or at least young adulthood without ever having seen an alien invasion, vampire, or werewolf movie, it is part of the zombie syndrome that the survivors rarely think very systematically and broadly about their situations. That sort of thing is left to zombie genre fans.
It might make The Walking Dead feel a lot less bleak if we had someone around to insist that the vast zombie population would run out of energy within a few months or years, leaving the survivors to inherit a cleansed and bounteous Earth and a merely manageable zombie difficulty. Yet if the scenario were less bleak, it would in a certain different sense also be less real and also less fantastically rewarding. It would be less true to the world as it really is, if not less true to the day to day experience of it for a citizen of a wealthy, advanced capitalist country, and it would be less true to the fantasy of that world’s overthrow. As Williams puts it, the real horror both for the zombie film and for the reality it inversively describes is “[n]ot the possibility of it ending this way, in plague and rot and terror, but instead, in the drawn out sigh of the thought, My god, what if it never ends…”
Since the viral zombie scenario also means that all of the living are really pre-zombies, whose waking and walking lives are likewise reduced to endless killing of the already dead and similar pointless motions, we can invert all of Millman’s premises, not to refute, but to complete them. No one gets out alive, no one escapes, just as in the world before the zombies. The excitement is not or certainly not merely in seeing who is going to make it, but in guessing who’s next to pass over and thus mark and however minimally validate the blurring border between different deaths-in-life… always looking forward to the total zombie victory.