The Walking Dead

October 18, 2015


Survival horror as a film genre is redundant. For all horror films manifest themselves by pressing a bloody weapon or fang onto the pressure point of the anxiety of surviving life. It is humorous in a way to step back and think that man, as a beast of prey, has no higher animal to stalk and hunt it, and so he has to make up such scenarios in his imagination in order feel alive. Yet such efforts at imagination and the participation in that imagination are acts of human life that encompass the vitality of human culture. Film has simply brought out the possibility of ravaging the human sensualities of sight and sought, i.e. experience, even higher than what was put down into literary text a bygone ago.


Yes, just like all commercial art, horror can be lazy in its efforts at triggering the pressure point. And that is in fact the challenge of this form of art: how does the artist create novel ways to scare people into leaving the work with a smile on their face knowing that they escaped in one piece? Even more of a challenge which is implausible to discuss until The Walking Dead appeared on television, is the meditation on the humanity of surviving as prey, and it is perhaps only possible with a long-run form of film we know as the television series to capture the devil in the details.


Ignore for now the quota for one or two typical horror scenes per episode for The Walking Dead which can appear campy and thrown in by the writers of the show in frustration, as if they were distractions to something they are excavating about the nature of mankind. Because ironically, it is the perpetual horror of escaping the horror zeitgeist of zombie apocalypse that has made it the highest rated cable series in history. Also ignore the historical audacity for the writers’ to kill characters off that give the impression to the audience that they are significant. And because the audience has been so trained by horror to believe that screen time is the equivalent of character survivability, there is another layer of anxiety triggered when in any episode an emotional bond can be severed. What must be celebrated with this work however is not in such technical feats, but in the philosophical exposition: that in a world where there is nothing, does that include meaninglessness?


And ingeniously the script does not arrive at the philosophical until the characters themselves reach a point in the security of comfort away from the cruel environment, identical to the course human history has taken to develop the spiritual. For philosophy is a spiritual exercise. It is a spiritual practice. Undoubtedly it seems far removed from incantations and incense, and the emotional reverb of transcending the self, but it nevertheless acts as a method of calibrating one’s soul, and therefore, perfecting an inner possession of man that is intangible. It is that thing which cannot be measured by a microscope or taken by an imaging machine. But it is there, controlling the body and moving the world.


The first such stop on the philosophy train taken by the show is in the meditation on what morality is, which is arrived at to answer what justice is. How, in other words, ought a band of people to act if they need each other to survive? What morals must they apply to survive the best? Are there any morals left now that the whole world has turned into a living hell? And as an aside, The Walking Dead is a superior representation of the world turning to rubble compared to The Road, because it more realistically portrays the necessity for cooperation that is required with a social species. Albeit, in Cormac McCarthy’s story, no life is possible to regenerate, so it may lead to the cannibalism and all-out war that became pervasive.


Returning to the examination of morality, the show uses the main character, Rick, to show how the morals he inherited quickly become useless when he is trying to survive. This is not exactly a critique of Christian morality and its egalitarianism per se, but it does reveal the inherit weakness when the strong and the weak each have equal power in directing the shape of society. And this lets us focus on the naturalism the show exhibits with the organization of man as a form of biological organism.


For what let’s Rick succeed as a leader that he chooses to be for the security of his son because he distrusts anyone else leading him, is his adaptation. He quickly learned that nice guys finish last in this world. Indeed throughout the series he chooses the higher road, which here means not an appeal to altruism, but an appeal to repudiating the simian instinct in man that has him lust for violent power over others versus submitting to obeying to natural rights and assembling according to that doctrine.


The struggle for power is what is seen constantly throughout the film. And assuredly by divine providence, Rick and his gang have overcome the worst instinct in mankind, by having the power to defend them against viciousness. The morality they choose, which is the same as saying the morality they have created, is to be civil. That just because the civilized no longer exists does not mean that the regression toward the Stone Age allows for a similar regression in morals. Their morality enables them to grow in population size, but also become weaker as they absorb weaker humans who inevitably fall prey to the zombie.


Thus the show repeatedly answers in the affirmative what is the genealogy of morals. And it is not the violent psychopathic that reign supreme here, even though they persistently aggregate pockets of power. Their reign is short-term and ultimately self-defeating. Cooperation as indeed evolution has demonstrated, wins as an adaptation strategy for a social species.


Lastly, to further fulfill the examination of the genealogy of morals in the human condition, optimism is pervasive. Blind faith may be an even more appropriate term because of the sheer irrationality some of the characters have that things are supposed to work out how they are supposed to. But optimism is the appropriate framework for which to face the uncertainties of reality, whether one has the luxury of being alienated from survival and needs zombie apocalyptic imagery to stir his soul, or whether one has lost their closest loved ones and children and has not eaten a proper meal in weeks. Life is a test, with an open-ended question. How one answers the question makes what one is and what one will become. How ought I to be as a response comes with a self-evident reply: how I would want myself to be. The practice of philosophy moves desires away from wishing for the best possible world to be a zombie apocalypse because that is where one ideally thrives, to a world where one is perennially above it, however that world looks like. We call this the transcendent self that logically necessarily exists in each of us.


Grade: A


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