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A scene from “The Walking Dead,” a postapocalyptic horror series that runs on AMC.

Gene Page, AMC

This, dear reader, looks a bit like you

  • Article by: HAL GREY
  • February 1, 2012 - 6:16 PM

A plague has killed nearly everyone in the country, but that's not the worst part. The dead are still on their feet -- staggering, soulless beings with one remaining human drive: appetite.

This is the back story for the hottest cable television series in America, "The Walking Dead." It's also an amusing, because increasingly apt, metaphor for American life. The show channels a darkening national mood.

Zombies have been part of teenage trash culture for generations, but always as bit players. They were in the gruesome comics you passed around at camp, the third movie at the drive-in. Today they're topping the charts.

In dozens of video games -- Dead Rising, Isle of the Dead, Land of the Dead, there's a new one every week -- zombies are overrunning the world and must be slaughtered en masse. Big-budget zombie movies such as "I Am Legend" and "28 Days Later" have struck gold with the same formula. Soon Brad Pitt will crown the fad in "World War Z."

Zombies have gone mainstream.

It's easy to see the allure of a zombie apocalypse to adolescent males. Zombies are Freudian stand-ins for adults. Their uprising is the adult world itself, that dreary confederation of worry and responsibility, deterioration and death that waits outside the playroom door. But with a Zombie game, for a few cathartic hours the catastrophe of growing up can be driven back with showers of bullets. The gamer can even blast away without parental moralizing, since zombies aren't technically human.

When every zombie has been destroyed, the warrior finds himself in a world empty of grown-ups but filled with big-breasted and now available girls. And the Porsches are free. It makes you want to be 15 again just thinking about it.

But why has "The Walking Dead" and its kin clicked with grown-ups (myself included)? It could be just a thirst for sensation among a visually glutted viewership. But the series is economical with its freak-show thrills and violence. It devotes much more time to weaving an old-fashioned story of love and loyalties affirmed and betrayed among the human survivors.

In fact, take away the zombies, and it's quite traditional: A handful of people face peril in a new frontier. In place of a wagon train crossing the prairie under the glare of Comanches, you have SUVs navigating a postapocalyptic landscape patrolled by the undead. Its true ancestor is the Western.

But this isn't the dawn of a nation, it's Doomsday. Popular entertainment reflects zeitgeist. McCarthy-era anxiety about communist infiltration created a national appetite for alien invasion pictures. (There's no better portrait of 1950s paranoia than "Invasion of the Body Snatchers.") What does the popularity of entertainment like "The Walking Dead" say about us now?

The name itself perfectly expresses the way a lot of Americans feel: dead on their feet. The Center for Economic and Policy Research summed it up in the 2007 report, No-Vacation Nation. We work longer hours than any other industrialized country, with less time off. One in four Americans has no paid holidays at all. This would be a cause for outrage in other countries. Here we blandly accept it.

What's different now is a growing sense that the American dream is slipping away despite all this toil. The protesters in their tents mock us with the statistics: American work hours and productivity have risen, and CEO salaries have skyrocketed, even as wages have flattened and as our investments have evaporated. There's less upward mobility in the United States than in "socialist" Europe.

The joke's on us. We're a nation of working stiffs, and the entertainment industry has caught the vibe.

Through the living characters in "The Walking Dead," we can imagine leading whole, fully human lives in a postindustrial world. Lives defined by flight. But from what?

From zombies, those mindless consumers -- the term applies quite well -- shuffling through a grotesque parody of life. In other words, from the not-quite-living things we fear we've become.

Hal Grey, of Minnetonka, is a marketing manager.

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