Night of the Living Dead was pro-black, pro-woman, and absolutely counterculture; Fear the Walking Dead says social protest is the end of the world. What the hell happened?
If you’ve never delved into the lore behind Night of the Living Dead, the indie horror flick that launched a thousand corpses, now would be an interesting time to do so, as Fear the Walking Dead represents both a natural progression and an unlikely thematic turn for the genre.
Through a series of circumstantial constraints, Night of the Living Dead accidentally came to stand for the 60s counterculture in a staggering number of ways, simply by taking a black man, a white woman, and a small white family, and putting them in a farmhouse together. Probably unbeknownst to the filmmakers, they were encoding into the film themes of black empowerment, feminism, gun culture, youthful rebellion, nuclear hysteria, the list goes on and on.
Fear the Walking Dead follows divorced father Travis as he attempts a fresh start with a new love interest and her own family, on the eve of societal meltdown. On the surface, the series is a by-the-numbers rehash of that established zombie formula, a reiteration of why zombies are the prevalent metaphor for contemporary isolation and fear culture. But with last night’s second episode, it looks as though the series is beginning to cross the line, going from a portrayal of fear culture, to a direct participant in its propagation. Far from giving voice to suppressed groups and social injustices as its predecessor does, Fear the Walking Dead is turning into an unlikely antithesis, a morality tale reiterating the idea that authority knows best, and if civilization were to fall to pieces, it would be the fault of a wrongfully disobedient populace.
Episode two is where the series begins to fulfill its premise of being our porthole to the exact moment in which the decayed zombie flesh hits the fan. This is where the paranoid few begin to flee, where the complacent are left behind to be consumed, where the ruined storefronts and broken cities that we see in Walking Dead are created, by a society in freefall. This is where the rioting and pillaging starts in full, and what is the inciting event of chaos? Two policemen gun down a homeless man, and the nearby citizens voice their concern.
It’s a scene that absolutely cannot be extricated from current events because of how embarrassingly caricatured the dialogue seems, hitting all the familiar catchphrases: “That man never hurt a fly, that man was unarmed. LAPD is out of control!” “You want to go to jail, son?” “For what, freedom of speech? Right to lawful assembly?”
In Fear the Walking Dead, the gimmick (at least in these early episodes) is that we know the zombies are coming, while the characters are struggling to put the pieces together, and this has been cause for both fascination and frustration. But in light of the protest scene, this knowledge also puts us in the perspective of an establishment that knows a certain dire truth that can’t be told to the general public. As an omniscient audience, we know that the homeless man was probably a zombie, and we know that the police was right in gunning it down, an idea borne out in a subsequent scene where a girl with dyed hair shuffles towards a frantic policeman, who’s left with no choice but to shoot her, to the horror of the bystanders.
The audience knows that if the cop had waited until he was sure that this was a zombie and not some dazed citizen, that cop would probably end up as zombie feed. We know because we’ve been educated by an endless parade of sensational zombie franchises, we’ve been trained to accept that hard-nosed, cynical, survivalist mentality that gives us license to commit inhumanity. Consequently, the zombie apocalypse scenario becomes a field day for supporters of ‘shoot first, questions later,’ whether it pertains to the police or to open-carry enthusiasts.
Ultimately, these scenes communicate the idea that the authorities know more than we do, and so they are authorized to make decisions beyond the public’s comprehension for the sake of public safety, though these decisions might look unjust to us. The message is that intransparency is sometimes the price of security.
Now that’s a helluva thing to say to America, at this particular political juncture.
The writers have constructed a situation where we’re silently begging for the mob to allow the cops to headshot this problem while it’s still in the bud. The people are bleating about civil liberties and unnecessary force, when the viewers know that these concepts are laughably naive in the face of the zombie apocalypse to come. What makes the situation worse for the part of the protesters is the inclusion of Chris, Travis’ biological son, and typical disgruntled teen. When Travis desperately tries to locate his son before apocalypse starts in full, Chris (in the midst of the protest) brushes him off on the phone, with the ‘you don’t understand, this is important! I’m a part of something!’ speech, normally reserved for when you want to get a piercing or go to a concert, but parents just don’t understand.
The protest is completely trivialized, reduced to something that disillusioned teens turn to for a sense of meaning and purpose. Actually, the episode appears to take the issue further, and depicts protest as the breakdown of all society. Implicit in the episode (well, not so implicit, since paranoid student Tobias spells this out for us at some point) is the idea that the presence of zombies only tipped us in the direction of doom—after that push, human nature took us the rest of the way, the type of destructive human nature that inspires protest, the episode seems to say.
And sure enough, the protest scene is where the hysteria begins, the rioting and looting that occupied media attention in the real world, while protests were taking place. The exchange between Travis and Chris summarize the ‘order and survival first’ mantra being beaten out here: “I’m doing what you taught me, I’m standing up for people!” “No, there’s a time and a place, Chris.”
In light of the haphazard but powerful anti-establishment message of Night of the Living Dead, Fear the Walking Dead has taken an unexpected 180 degree turn away from those themes of social justice, to become a great big bogeyman tale of ‘listen to your local policeman, or the zombies’ll getcha.’ There was plenty of space for this to be a neutral commentary about a general breakdown of society because of some overarching social malaise, but here, the plot draws a pretty bold arrow towards civil disobedience as the root of societal decay.