Capitalism. Or more precisely, scathing criticism of capitalism.
“The Walking Dead returns this Sunday [11 October 2015],” writes Erik Kain in Forbes, “and it pulls no punches.”
While Kain’s tease about the return of the AMC series for season 6 focuses on character conflict and plot, the broader punches of zombie narratives—and possibly an explanation for their appeal—are the metaphorical commentaries on human nature as shaped by a consumer capitalism culture.
Zombies are reanimated humans, reduced entirely to being consumers. Consuming is the only act of the zombie, driven to consume for the sake of consuming.
In most zombie narratives, including The Walking Dead, zombies are very frail and disturbingly slow—but their power lies in their relentlessness and usually either the sheer number of zombies or the coincidence of facing them in restricted spaces (claustrophobia is a regular feature of horror).
Once the zombie apocalypse happens, that reality becomes every-present. No one can take a vacation from the fact of zombies.
And there we have the ultimate power and aesthetic beauty of genre, zombie narratives as a hybrid of science fiction and horror. Zombie stories are not mere escapist fiction, but harsh and even distilled mirrors of what we have become in a world that is—like the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse—defined by consumer capitalism. No one can take a vacation from the fact of consumer capitalism.
Just as the zombie virus reanimates humans and thus erases that humanity, replacing it with sheer unbridled consumption, consumer capitalism animates us and erases our humanity, replacing it with the incessant need to work, to make money, to spend money, and to consume for the sake of consuming.
In both AMC’s prequel spin-off, Fear the Walking Dead, and the original comic-book adaptation, The Walking Dead, viewers are confronted repeatedly with a motif that shows characters facing the reality of who they must become to survive. The living, in fact, are far more terrifying in these stories that the simplistic and every darkly silly zombies themselves.
As millions will gather to watch the season opener of The Walking Dead, prompted to discuss and debate the characters and their actions (AMC offers as well Talking Dead, of course), we will likely fail to examine the great irony of this series and its place in the consumer culture (generating viewers, generating revenue); we will likely fail to walk ourselves to the mirror and look closely to see that we are the walking dead.