Zombies have swept across the planet. We see it in movies, of course—from one-third to one-half of all zombie apocalypse films have been released since 9/11, among them such works as 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, and Zombieland. We see it in literature, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road by Cormac McCarthy, the acclaimed literary novel The Making of Zombie Wars by Aleksandar Hemon, amazing short stories by Manuel Gonzales like “Escape from the Mall,” and in comics like Afterlife with Archie, Marvel Zombies, and DC’s Dark Night event. We see it in games and apps, in zombie runs and zombie pub crawls, in stick-figure zombie families on the back window of cars and SUVs.
But maybe the greatest horde of zombies these days is on television, from cult shows like iZombie and Santa Clarita Diet to two of the most popular shows on the planet, The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. The Walking Dead has recently wrapped its seventh season, but Game of Thrones is getting ready to ramp up for its final two seasons, with the world premiere of its Season Seven coming tonight.
Sometimes people forget that Game of Thrones is a Zombie Apocalypse narrative, because in the world of Westeros, although winter is coming, the dead have not yet swept completely over the living. Still, the threat of apocalypse looms large. While rulers and potential rulers jockey for position, execute rivals, and prosecute wars, their petty machinations all take place against the backdrop of the oncoming night that never ends. This is made obvious at the conclusion of the Game of Thrones Season Five episode “Hardhome.” After a hard-fought battle, the living dead not only reduced a Wildling village to ruin, but in front of a disbelieving Jon Snow (Kit Harington), The Night’s King raises his hands and all the fallen rise to new life in death. The pretensions of all the humans playing their Game of Thrones are suddenly, painfully, revealed. As the Atlantic’s Amy Sullivan writes, “Is it over yet? And by ‘it,’ I mean all of humanity? There’s nothing like a horrifying White Walker infestation and bloodbath to put things in perspective.”
What hope is there against an enemy such as this that grows more powerful with every human who falls?
As we say in my house, “I predict disaster.”
It is this backdrop of human beings in danger, both in The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones that makes them such powerful post-9/11 and post-7/7 narratives. As The Walking Dead writer/executive producer Angela Kang and I Am Legend writer Mark Protosevich told me in a public interview at the Austin Film Festival, these stories are not about zombies. They’re about survival in a world full of oncoming menace. In such a world—a world actually very much like our own, full of multiple threats—what will people do to survive? What choices will they make? And how will those choices save them—or destroy them?
In Game of Thrones, the character who has had the most contact with the walking dead is Jon Snow. He has been attacked by—and dispatched—wights, the Game of Thrones version of zombies. He has battled and beaten one of the White Walkers, the supernatural creatures who animate them. He has thrown his weight and influence behind the rescue of barbarians from north of the Wall where he and the Night’s Watch guard the Realms of Men—and ended up getting killed for doing the right thing! Finally, in Season Six, he is restored to life, not reanimated like a zombie, but resurrected to rejoin the battle against the oncoming dead. Clearly someone or something approves of his actions, and has decided that Jon Snow is not done yet.
Jon Snow’s decisions highlight the ethical challenges that characters in the Zombie Apocalypse and we in the post-9/11 West face in the face of our fear: will we contract, react with fear and suspicion, and throw up walls? Or will we act with kindness and compassion, build communities, and band together against common threats to our species? In this brave new world that has such people (and monsters) in it, how much is too much? How far too far? Early in The Walking Dead, Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) tries to hold onto the values of the old world, but he soon discovers that it can be hard even to know—let alone do—what is right. In the Second Season episode “Bloodletting,” Rick reenters a church they have cleared of walkers. He approaches an image of the crucified Jesus hanging over the altar and, although he says he is not a religious man, he prays for guidance, for “some indication that I’m doing the right thing. You don’t know how hard that is to know. Well…maybe you do.”
What makes these shows about the Zombie Apocalypse so powerful is that while our own monsters don’t look like walking corpses, we too have them by the horde, and we too wrestle day by day with the question of how to know the right thing to do in response to all the threats we face, let alone to do it.
Featured image credit: Zombie Walk 2012, São Paulo, Brazil by Gianluca Ramalho Misiti. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.