On the afternoon of June 12, Cathy Wagner and I sat down together (remotely) to watch The Walking Dead: Season 1, Episode 1. I’m a fan of the show, but Cathy had never seen this rendition of the aftermath of zombie apocalypse. To prepare, we’d both watched Night of the Living Dead and read parts of Zora Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse (about Haitian zombies), as well as Matt Mogk’s Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Zombies. We g-chatted during and after the show, mulling over zombies and gender roles and the paleolithic diet and zombies and new motherhood and personal hygiene and race relations and the wars of the future and murderers and books and anarchist thinkers and zombies.*
Cathy Wagner: OK, ready. Do you have any Framing Questions? Car passing overturned car. Police officer-looking-guy at the wheel. Are you where I am?
Laura Sims: Yes! Normalcy of the moving automobile, so comforting. Until you reach the sea of broken cars. Discarded baby dolls. And now…a zombie child.
LS: He’s in for a nasty shock when she turns around.
CW: Down goes the first blonde.
LS: Probably a shout-out to Night of the Living Dead, right? First human-turns-zombie is a girl. Little Karen. All right, GUNFIGHT!!
CW: How do the cops know these people are zombies?
LS: Those are not zombies, dear. This is a flashback to pre-apocalypse times. The sheriff gets wounded and ends up in the hospital. It’s like 28 Days Later—Rick, the sheriff, misses the start of the apocalypse because he’s locked in a hospital room. And now he’s waking up to a whole new world…dead flowers + dead clock = oh shit!
CW: Ah. I am going to require your guidance throughout, OK? Zombie neophyte. Oh, gross—hello, Miss Havisham. Boobs!
LS: Were there boobs?
CW: Raw meat boobs. Nicely shaped as if bra on.
LS: Wow! “You can keep your shape even after death” would be a great advertising tagline. Is he at the barred door now? DON’T OPEN / DEAD INSIDE. It would be so fun to be one of the dead. Never thought I’d say that. Oh Jesus, Rick, don’t go into the dark stairwell for fuck’s sake. You’d think he would have watched some zombie movies…I love how lush and green everything is in contrast to the dead guts. Lovely home Rick has.
CW: Perfect suburban. Did you see the flag picture in the hall, sort of part Jasper Johns part Hobby Lobby? Do you think it’s another Night of the Living Dead nod?
CW: Remember the flag on the grave in the opening scene of Night of the Living Dead? A reminder of Vietnam soldiers’ deaths. Lots of burning imagery later, too, in Night of the Living Dead.
LS: Did you finish watching it today?
LS: Oh no, Rick, don’t talk to THAT guy…so what did you think of the ending? Rick, behind you!
CW: Goodbye family ties, goodbye social order, daughter kills mom, brother kills sister.
LS: RICK, BEHIND YOU! Yes, brother EATS sister.
CW: And when the social order is supposed to be reestablishing itself, they shoot the main guy (Duane Jones) without checking to see if he’s human or zombie. Brutal.
LS: Right! All those white guys…
LS: They assume he’s a zombie because he has to be, right? He’s black. Why bother to ask? Reminiscent of so much racist police action. I wonder if George Romero intended the racial implications of that scene…but intended or not, they’re there.
CW: Romero says he just hired the best actor among their friends. He’d written the role as white, but yeah, the casting makes it richer and politically scarier. Did you see Dawn of the Dead? In the mall?
LS: No. It takes place in a mall?
CW: Romero’s follow-up—it sounds amazing. In Dawn the zombies all come to the mall because that’s what they’re used to. The humans barricade themselves in there. Culture critique via the undead consumer, like in Night.
LS: So where/what was the consumer-culture critique in Night?
CW: Did you catch the thing at the beginning when Johnny speculates that the floral cross they buy every year to put on the grave is probably the same one, refitted and resold over and over again by the flower shop?
LS: Oh right, I remember now…and the sister kind of shushes him right? “Oh, Johnny.”
CW: Yes. The coming-back-to-life of zombies might be an ironic maxing-out of nonsensical buy-buy-buy. Zombies can’t stop consuming. I don’t think the metaphor’s worked out in Night—it’s a sort of kernel form of what happens in Dawn, where humans are consumed by their own consumption. Hey, another nice house they’re in now too…
LS: Or it could be an early hint of ecological ways to read the zombie apocalypse. Yes, another lovely Atlanta house. Where Rick is in how-to-kill-zombies training with his new friends, Morgan and son. Aim for the head. Always aim straight for the head, Cathy.
CW: I will!
LS: And here’s an insightful “men and women are different” conversation! In a zombie apocalypse, men pack survival gear; women pack photo albums. The show tends to reinforce gender stereotypes, annoyingly.
CW: Oh lord, women are so dumb with their photo albums. Why did Rick put on his deputy uniform?! What was he thinking?
LS: I know; I love it—he clings to civilization. He still doesn’t totally get that the zombies have destroyed all of it. Rick, let it go! But a part of me is really comforted by that uniform, I must admit.
CW: But what if the zombies are right? What if, when we root for the humans (not to mention the ones in uniform), we’re on the wrong side? The zombies are telling us: stop using all these fossil fuels. Live on what’s available raw. Destroy your consumerist kin. Zombies gone paleo—Jeffrey Jerome Cohen has a witty article in Prismatic Ecology, the eco-criticism book he edited, that talks about zombies on the paleo diet.
LS: Yea, I mean, I think that’s implicit in the zombie narrative. Here they come like a walking plague to clean things out. Our species deserves it. Look at this world! It’s so alive and lush! It doesn’t matter that we’re getting eaten—it goes on without us. I’m remembering that disturbing but very good book by Alan Weisman, The World Without Us, did you read it?
CW: No, what’s he say? Hey, why is Morgan making noise? Aren’t they supposed to stay quiet to be safe?
LS: He’s trying to draw the zombies to the house so he can finally shoot his (dead) wife. He needs to put her out of her zombie misery but…he can’t. Weisman says that only the rats and cockroaches would miss us if humans were suddenly to disappear. The rest of the earth would flourish and quickly break down all evidence that we were ever here.
CW: The earth does seem to thrive without people around—those fecund wild spaces around Chernobyl and in the demilitarized zone between the Koreas. I feel warm thinking at least we’ll be missed by rats and roaches, sweet. Why did Rick waste a bullet on the legless one? Sentimental.
LS: You’ve nailed his tragic flaw in the first twenty minutes!
CW: It’s everyone’s fatal flaw in this show apparently (photos, attachment).
LS: Well, some of the characters do turn themselves into cold zombie-killing machines, but Rick can’t.
CW: What is that mouth-opening thing the zombies do? They look like fish.
LS: Chew chew chew must chew…
CW: Re: chewing, I’ve been thinking about how the “paleolithic diet” aligns with libertarianism. It’s anti-grain, and cereal agriculture is the reason why people got together and built infrastructure, got “civilized.” Without grain, you don’t need other people as much. Or at least you don’t need to organize them hierarchically to harvest, build silos, etc. Hey, is that Rick’s partner, from the flashbacks? Shane?
LS: Yep, that’s Officer Shane. He’s alive. He survived the apocalypse. So far. So potentially people could live alone, but…not if there are zombies.
CW: Yeah, even paleo dieters will have to band together if there’s a zombie apocalypse. Or join the zombies, who are already paleo. I am SO bad with faces…was that Rick’s wife with Shane??
CW: How long has it been since the apocalypse?
LS: It’s hard to figure that out. Maybe six months? Long enough for Rick’s wife to get with Shane. But to give her credit, she does think he’s dead…Rick, I mean.
CW: Oh, no, what is Rick thinking? He’s going to ride a horse into zombie-filled Atlanta??
LS: Rick thinks he’s in a Western. He’s the sheriff, of course.
CW: Is he THE sheriff?
LS: He’s The Law.
CW: Right, the kind arm of the law.
LS: This is awesome, this shot of Rick riding into the city. Anti-iconic. I mean it looks iconic: man on a horse riding into a deserted town, could be a modern-day ghost town…but it’s about to be anti-iconic. The iconic is about to be devoured. Not to ruin it for you, but.
CW: Why is paper drifting around everywhere instead of cell phones? Where did everybody drop their phones?
LS: Paper looks better. Drifting around, all poetic and shit. A symbol of a bygone civilization. UH. OH. ZOMBIES.
CW: Don’t get scratched, Rick!
LS: See, wouldn’t it be fun to be one of the walkers? Close call, genius. Get back in the tank! And now…saved by the bell. “Hey you, dumbass!” Someone is out there.
CW: Chopper overhead. And the radio works!
LS: And now the zombies converge on the poor horse. See? The iconic is devoured. There is always at least one serious gross-out moment in each episode—like this, with the entrails, etc. But it’s such a beautiful shot, and the music is perfect, too. By the end of this scene, I was hooked. I knew I’d keep watching the show.
CW: Wait, that’s it? You’re right, the walkers do get to do some fun entrail smearage.
LS: That’s it! Are you hooked?
CW: Oh, really lovely downward panorama shot. Hmm. How many have you watched?
LS: I’ve watched through the end of Season 3. You’ve got a lot of catching up to do.
CW: So why, Laura Sims, are you attracted to this kind of thing?
LS: Well, I love survival stories—doesn’t everyone? I love the idea of being in that situation, where everything but getting by day-to-day is stripped away. We’re so far from that now, we’ve complicated everything—the zombies could give us a “clean slate.” It doesn’t have to be zombies, though, of course. I also just like being scared, fictionally scared. It’s comforting.
CW: I suppose you know what your job is even if there are doubts about how to do it. You stay alive, you try to keep others alive: simple. Like being a new parent, except way less boring.
LS: Yes! I have to go catch fish. I have to shoot this zombie through the head. Or alternately: I have to nurse this baby to make him grow. I have to change his diaper. Wait—boring? You’re one of those people who didn’t like the newborn phase, I guess.
CW: Haha, I did NOT enjoy those days much, despite many pleasures. No sleep! Colic! Hard work! I love the 5+ years, the verbal years.
LS: I just remember feeling alive. And filled with purpose. In ways we so rarely do in everyday life. Extreme living! The zombies provide that, too.
CW: Right, we are zombies (protecting ourselves from really feeling and attending) until the zombie apocalypse, and then we feel our aliveness.
LS: Yes! ! ! Though the problem with the extreme living of a post-apocalyptic nature is that there would be no hot showers or delicious food.
CW: You know I guess I would miss them but I think I am already stripped down, in a way. Showers bore me so I only take them a couple times a week. And my son and I eat like cavepeople who shop at Kroger, despite my suspicions about paleo. I do very little cooking.
LS: Oh, I wouldn’t miss cooking…though I guess I’d do a hell of a lot more of it, and over a campfire. Ugh. I would miss restaurants. Takeout. Cathy, you should really shower more.
CW: I really should. But it dries out my hair. I do have a washcloth. By the way, campfire food is way better than Oxford, Ohio takeout. Except for Skyline Chili. So is there a relationship between serial killers, etc., and zombies for you?
LS: Well first of all it’s not just serial killers! There are other kinds of murderers in My god is this a man, too.
CW: Is it to do with the joy of feeling scared in a predictable context? Seeking control, fort-da style? I mean your mom—I don’t know—if you would want to talk about that—and OK if not—
LS: Yea, I think it’s definitely related to losing my mom to cancer when I was 19. Zombies and murderers are both death-bringers in human form, which is potentially comforting—only from a reader’s or viewer’s standpoint, of course. Since they’re physical beings, you can imagine responding to them—or even defeating them—in physical ways. My mom’s death was amorphous and beyond our control—an invisible disease attacking and destroying her body. If I could have, I would have liked to pick up a gun and shoot cancer in the head, but…
LS: Yes. And just to be clear: that was not meant to be a metaphorical endorsement of the death penalty.
LS: But I’m also interested in the psychological and sociological dimensions of murder—what makes someone capable of stepping over the line that separates socially acceptable behavior from the most anti-social behavior imaginable?
CW: It’s anti-social, yes, but killers have social reasons for killing people. Elliot Rodgers had complexly social, socially supported reasons for killing people…women, ethnic others…
LS: Yes, and the less dramatic “everyday murders” (which are the majority) are inseparable from their social contexts, too. My response, like everyone’s, I imagine, is complicated. I feel fear, disgust and outrage, but sympathy, too. Sympathy for the victims, of course, but…sympathy for “the devil,” too. Sympathy for that fucked-up kid and his parents. He was clearly troubled, from early childhood.
CW: Yes, I feel sorry for him, too…
LS: And then there’s empathy. I can empathize with someone who wants to hurt or kill someone else—it’s a deeply human urge. But we often call murderers “monsters.”
CW: Unless those murderers have been sanctioned by the government to kill—in which case violent acts and their perpetrators are celebrated.
LS: Right, exactly. They become heroes, which is equally problematic.
CW: The “monster” label’s easy—it psychologizes and individualizes the killer and leads us away from looking for structural solutions.
LS: Yes! Even calling zombies “monsters” oversimplifies things. Whether they’re “our” zombies or Haitian ones…
CW: Haitian zombies are slaves, right, and endlessly productive, while our undead are violent. Why would that be?
LS: Well, if you think about how they’re made…
CW: In Tell My Horse, Zora Neale Hurston explains that you make a zombie by stealing its soul and then as soon as it’s buried, you take the soul into the tomb in a bag and let the corpse smell the soul and then quickly close up the bag, keep the soul, and the zombie is yours and will work for you forever.
LS: Very poetic. From what I remember in Serpent and the Rainbow, he learns that zombies are made by blowing poison into a person’s face, and then regularly dosing them with another poison to keep them docile. So they stay mentally paralyzed…but their bodies work. But our zombies, raised from the dead by a virus (or radiation, as in Romero) that attacks the brain…the brain is controlling them. But only the animal part of the brain. And it’s angry, hungry, etc. Wade Davis poses that the Haitian zombies act like a kind of societal check—that people who step out of line are punished in that way.
CW: If you don’t do what you’re supposed to do, we’ll take your soul and make you a slave. Get your soul in line or else.
LS: And “our” zombies also act as a societal check…but on a species-wide scale. The virus runs its course, cleans things out and then we start with a blank slate! Very tidy.
CW: So our zombies are part of the way people fetishize and adore climate change as the Big Correction (I confess I do that myself).
LS: Yea, totally, me too. And we can DO something about zombies. I mean, at least we can shoot zombies in the head! And have some sense of control that way…
CW: They’re more personal, and it’s “us” against “them”—we know what to do in a good-us/bad-them situation, we can just start shooting. It’s comforting.
LS: Yes! We’ve been doing that forever!
CW: But if “they” scratch or bite you, you become bad, too. What are the implications about purity there?
LS: Yes! It gets complicated in Season 3, when the hero and his group hole up in a prison. It enacts a tidy little reversal, or seems to, though the “bad guys,” the zombies, are outside and inside. And there are prisoners who’ve survived the apocalypse as well—the group has a really hard time figuring out what to do with them. Where do prisoners fit in this new societal order? They’re human, so they’re “good,” but they were in prison in the old world, so…it throws some kinks into the new social order. Also: there are no showers in this prison.
CW: Hahaha. I would be all set. But is there food?
LS: Yes! There’s a seemingly endless supply, and it’s interesting to me that water is never a serious worry, which is not the way it really would be. And the way it WILL be, in our world, very shortly, for more and more humans. Already is, some places. That’s the real apocalypse…wars over water (and food).
CW: Did you ever read Marc Reisner’s book Cadillac Desert? A lot of that seems to be coming to pass!
LS: No…must look it up. Tropic of Chaos, by Christian Parenti, recently scared the crap out of me.
CW: Cadillac Desert is about water wars and the future of “civilization” in the Western US—very bleak, but exciting. I’m thinking the Midwest is the place to be. What was Tropic of Chaos about?
LS: About the wars of the future—over food and water. And about the Western response, which could be productive and pre-emptive at this point, but is ultimately going to be (and already is) the “armed lifeboat” response…we’re in the lifeboat, and you ain’t! More security, more gated communities, more division between rich and poor—countries and people.
CW: The Snowpiercer story. But I wonder how long that kind of system can last. I’ve been reading this anarchist named Raul Zibechi who is excitingly idealistic about the social movements happening, especially in Latin America.
LS: I don’t read enough excitingly idealistic thinkers…tell me more.
CW: There are various areas in Latin America—on the outskirts of large cities like La Paz, or the Zapatista-controlled regions of Mexico—that are really not under the control of local governments or the state, and are building ways of being that derive from indigenous social traditions—also from anarchist and Marxist movements and from radical Latin American Catholic traditions. His big thing is that these people move between roles, they’re not specialized, everyone does the labor necessary. For him that’s key to a revolution that’s already underway and expanding—ways of being social, of taking care of ourselves, that are not market-driven. I love this. And then again, I want to sit and read and work all day and not make porridge for the others; I crave my specialization.
LS: I hear you…and don’t we all? Or don’t many of us, anyway? I wonder if that’s as un-promising, ultimately, as the armed lifeboat. Sigh. Though the importance of doing one’s specialization would fall by the wayside if you didn’t have anything to EAT or DRINK.
CW: Well, come the revolution, everyone is a poet no one is a poet, right? Post-apocalypse too, no doubt.
LS: Cathy, you said you weren’t into watching scary stuff—you had some reluctance about watching this kind of show. Why are you afraid of scary viewing like this? Can you imagine yourself becoming a fan now?
CW: Oh Laura, you did your best, but no!
LS: Damn it! I feel like a failure.
CW: One big reason—I guess you don’t know this—I don’t watch TV at all, not since high school. No cable or a converter box or a Roku or anything. TV’s narrative temporality makes me feel tied to a chair and not in a fun way—I can’t speed up, stretch, pause the way I can reading. When I’m at my dad’s house and the TV is on and everyone’s watching and talking, apparently not feeling as if they are in a torture chamber—how do they do that? I do love enslaving myself to some alien narrative temporality when I’m sensorily overwhelmed, like at the movie theater. But TV, no.
LS: But but but…that all sounds fascinating—your crazy brain, I mean—but: no Wire? No Breaking Bad? No Mad Men no Sopranos no How I Met Your Mother??? In your TV-lessness you may not recognize TV-related humor, so: that last one was a joke.
CW: No, I’m totally idiotically missing out on the current golden era of TV.
LS: But how do you relax? I mean besides reading. How do you turn off your brain for a while and just coast?
CW: I like to read creepy messageboards on Reddit or amateur freerotica. Scarier than the undead! Plus the images don’t snag on my brainscreen and I can still sleep (that’s the second reason I won’t be converted). I am going to be imagining gray-pancake-makeupped shamblers whenever I hit the pillow for about a week. It’s not violence or gore that bothers me—I love extreme balletic movie violence, martial arts movies. Most recently the ax scene in Snowpiercer.
LS: So then, what is it?
CW: Well, I have a pretty strong experience of the world as stretchy and porous already—time-blips, optical and sonic morphings, faces in trees, etc.—I love that porosity and have a narcissistic affection for my version of it, and it’s irritating to have it colonized by somebody else’s nightmare even if the nightmare is a genius allegory. So I’d rather talk about the allegories of genre horror than watch them. Watching with you was great, though. Thank you for holding my hand and warning me about the nasty bits! Could you just always do that, in my life?
LS: I’d be happy to!
CW: Laura’s voice comes in on voiceover… “Here it comes!” But then what would I do Maybe I should just stay blindfolded.
LS: Yeah, sometimes it’s better not to know. But if I were to say BEHIND YOU, for instance…that could be helpful, right?
CW: Please don’t, I am already scared to look behind me.
Laura Sims is the author of three books of poetry: My god is this a man, Stranger, and Practice, Restraint (Fence Books); her fourth collection, Staying Alive, is forthcoming from Ugly Duckling Presse in 2016. She edited Fare Forward: Letters from David Markson, a book of her correspondence with the celebrated experimental novelist (powerHouse Books), and has also published five chapbooks of poetry. Sims has been a featured writer for the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog, and has been a co-editor of Instance Press since 2009. She teaches literature and creative writing at NYU-SCPS.
Catherine Wagner’s collections of poetry include Nervous Device (City Lights, 2012), My New Job (Fence, 2009), Macular Hole (Fence, 2004), and Miss America (Fence, 2001). Her work has appeared in the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry, Gurlesque, Poets on Teaching, The Volta Book of Poets, Best American Erotic Poems and other anthologies and her performances and songs are archived on PennSound. She is professor in the creative writing program at Miami University in Oxford, OH, where she lives with her son.