Paul Cantor makes a persuasive argument in the Hedgehog Review, pointing to the failure of civic institutions and need for armed self-reliance as hallmarks of both the traditional Western and post-apocalyptic television programs like “The Walking Dead.” In Gilligan Unbound, Cantor had an interesting take on “The X-Files” as a barometer of ’90s anxieties about globalization and immigration, and he applied that analysis to the zombie genre as well. (“National borders cannot stop the zombie plague from spreading, and it evidently dissolves all cultural distinctions.”) But the zombies also stand for a much older fear, and the dramas that feature them hearken back to a founding myth:
The zombies play the role traditionally assigned to Indians in Westerns—the barbarian hordes lurking on the borders of the civilized community and threatening to annihilate it. Just like the Indians in many Westerns, the zombies are nameless and virtually faceless, they never speak, and they may be killed off indiscriminately, with their genocide being the apparent goal. The odyssey of the characters in The Walking Dead through the shattered landscape of Georgia resembles the wagon trains of Westerns, navigating through one danger after another, fighting or negotiating with rival groups, troubled by dwindling supplies, searching in vain for refuge in military outposts that turn out to have been overrun and abandoned, slowed down by stragglers and delayed by searches for lost comrades, torn by disputes over their destination and other challenges to their leaders, dealing with childbirth or other medical emergencies on the fly—the list of parallels goes on and on. People have been lamenting the closing of the frontier throughout American history. Zombie tales and other apocalyptic scenarios turn out to be a way of imaginatively reopening the frontier in twenty-first century popular culture.
Is the substitution of a fictional, unliving enemy for the historical victims of America’s first wave of nation-building a sign of progress, or just a way to keep American exceptionalism shambling on with a semblance of life, conveniently absolved of conscience? Cantor doesn’t delve into that question, but his whole essay is a good, provocative read.
TAC‘s own Marian Kester Coombs has also exhumed the cultural significance of zombies. And for a further introduction to Cantor’s analysis of popular culture, see Jordan Bloom’s review of his latest book, The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture: Liberty vs. Authority in American Film and TV.