The Walking Dead Analysis

After the incredibly long radio silence on this blog I’m finally ready to reveal what I’ve been up to the last month… I’ve been busy marathoning AMC’s The Walking Dead. And omg… I think I’m obsessed. So I’m just going to use this post to plonk down a few observations that have been percolating in my brain for a while now.

A few months ago I wrote an entry on Train to Busan (2016) and talked about how all the different zombies represent different things about us, like where they congregate, what caused the outbreak, specific zombie behaviours, and how humans react to them. At the point in time when I wrote that particular entry I’d only watched TWD up to the first half of the second season. The big reveal at the end of the second season about what Dr. Jenner whispered in Rick’s ear at the end of season one allows me to say now that TWD is of the camp that sees these zombies as mirrors that reflect back the deepest, darkest parts of human nature. This is achieved from the way they’ve shrunk the gap between zombie and human by making all humans dormant carriers of the zombie virus. It is no longer a matter of us becoming them but that we inherently ARE them.

I don’t know why I got excited but I thought that was a pretty cool development because in other zombie films/franchises, it’s always been spread by the bite. By saying that we’re all already carriers implies that the violence and the decay is a part of us. It’s no longer about a spread or an infection, or any kind of contamination or intrusive/invasive element being introduced into a safe/pure/whole/intact body. By saying that we are already infected, it is damning the way we’ve lived our lives suggesting that we are already dead or that we carry death in us. I think that’s a pretty strong statement and a pretty sobering one as well.

I kinda get the impression that that may be the reason why the series has been pretty kind to minority characters like Glenn, T-dog, and disenfranchised groups represented by the Dixons. In Fear The Walking Dead, Nick Clark is a drug addict, and Travis Manawa is Maori-American, his ex-wife, Liza Ortiz is Latino. It’s as if only after the end of civilisation that these marginalised groups have an opportunity to move to the fore.

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This idea of wiping the slate clean and reimagining society and social norms is also reflected in the alternate family dynamics in both TWD and FTWD. In TWD there is the Rick-Shane-Lori dynamic that dominated much of season 1 & 2 and how the characters had to deal with that odd post-marital set up. In FTWD you have Travis Manawa living with his current family and his ex-wife and son under the same roof in the safe zone. The comic books I know have also been pretty adventurous with Dale Horvath and Andrea. In the comic books, they aren’t locked into the more comfortable and conventional surrogate parent-child relationship, they’re lovers.

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Since I unwittingly led with the comparison between TWD and FTWD, I’m going to just finish this up before discussing specific episodes in TWD. I sampled a couple of episodes from FTWD the other day and noticed a few differences. I immediately got the impression that while TWD is highly stylised and seems to focus on the broad sweep of things in the wake of the apocalypse, FTWD tends to be or tries to be more realist with a tighter focus on the individual experience of the apocalypse in a more contained setting and narrative.

Perhaps this impression is prematurely based on too small a sampling of FTWD but it feels far more claustrophobic than TWD which in the first season already shows Rick traversing a vast amount of space – from the hospital to the suburbs, to the city of Atlanta to the quarry and then the CDC. While FTWD seems trapped in the militarised safe zone.

Furthermore, the sprawling geography in TWD is hardly random, with season one being set in the city and season two the country. Season three clearly utilises juxtaposition again by setting up Woodbury as a facsimile of civilisation used in counterpoint to the prison as the site for elements that can’t be civilised. But of course, season 3 complicates this by flipping the dynamic and having Rick and Co., which the audience have come to know as decent folk, live in the prison. In so doing, the series throws a spotlight on the accrued meaning behind different spaces in society when they are seen in relation to others such as a prison, the suburbs, the countryside, the city, etc.

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This binary set up between a civil society and prison is further complicated in Season 5  when they enter the Alexandria Safe Zone. I really enjoyed how for a period of time the main characters become the aggressors and a danger to those around them and even to their own prospects of a safe/secure future in a walled off community.

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Within the Alexandria Safe Zone there were a bunch of things that happened that I thought layered up in a very satisfying manner. One episode that really stood out to me, and I still remember with surprising clarity even though I must have watched this almost a month ago, is season 5’s episode 13, “Forget”.

In the last part of “Forget”, Alexandria’s stateswoman, Deanna insists on throwing a party at her house to welcome the new members of the community to their little slice of civilisation. At this party Jessie’s son, Sam, is running around stamping a big, red letter “A” on people’s hands, ostensibly to indicate that they’re members of Alexandria. But this large red letter “A” stamped on Rick’s hand comes to mean something more – it is the scarlet letter Hester Prynne from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter, was made to wear because she was accused of adultery.

In the last scene of the episode that takes place the next day, Rick sees Jessie and her husband walking along the street and can’t resist touching the same hand to his revolver. And when he hears a noise coming from the opposite side of a nearby wall, he walks over and in a poignant shot from above, we see Rick mirroring the position of the zombie on the other side, clearly displaying the red letter “A”. As the zombie tries to get in, Rick tries to break out of the confines of society, once again represented by more than just the walls but by marital norms.

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As I write this entry I’m surprising myself at how some of these points naturally line up and group themselves into coherent arguments. If you weren’t aware before now, I’m making this up as I go along because it’s past 2am right now… Anyway, with regards to marriage and alternative lifestyles, there’s also season 6/7’s Negan to add into the mix because of his harem. Thus, again and again we see the series using the institute of marriage as an interrogative device by which the erosion of social norms and the sanity of individual characters can be measured.

Interestingly enough, the homosexual relationship between Aaron and Eric is used in a very life-affirming manner and NOT to indicate that something is broken in society. In season 5 episode 11, “The Distance”, when Aaron first introduces himself to Rick’s group, which had grown increasingly feral by this point due to the scarcity of food and water, both audience and the characters are left with a seemingly insurmountable conundrum of how to ascertain the authenticity of Aaron’s intentions. Does he really mean to bring them back to a safe community or is he laying some elaborate trap for them? The tension from this quandary is wound tighter and tighter throughout the episode but dissipates all at once when Aaron is reunited with Eric and he pulls him into a kiss. The display of genuine human emotion becomes concrete proof that Aaron is not a psychopath.

I guess this comes as no surprise because another marginalised group that the series favours is the LGBTQ community. Tara, Denise, Aaron, Eric are homosexual characters. From the comics, Paul Monroe (Paul Rovia in the TV series) is gay as well. There was even talk of making Daryl Dixon a gay character but that idea was scrapped after fan protests.

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I think one last thing I want to talk about before I tie off this entry is another episode that’s really stayed with me. In season 2, episode 11, “Judge, Jury, Executioner”, I thought Dale’s death was particularly well done, in part because it brought together three different lines of narrative tension and flipped them for ironic value.

Dale has always been the fount of good will to all mankind and decent human behaviour. In that episode, the main narrative was about what to do with Randall who was an intruder from another community that, based on his responses when Daryl interrogated him, enjoyed murdering and raping. The group had to decide whether or not to execute him or release him blindfolded far away enough from the farm that he wouldn’t be able to find his way back to them or bring them harm. Dale insisted that the decent thing to do would be to release him. And his argument was that they needed to set the right example for Carl, Rick’s son, who was growing up in a world that had gone to shit.

Ironically, instead of Randall being executed, Dale is the one who had to be put down after a zombie rips open his abdominal cavity. The doubly ironic thing about this is that the walker that killed Dale is the same one that Carl spent the earlier part of the episode taunting relentlessly by using it for target practice. The perverse joy that comes from hurting something else is itself a kind of indication that whatever goodness in Carl Dale was trying to protect has already been tainted. Stylistically, by allowing the same zombie to find its way back to the farm to attack Dale makes it a compelling visual metaphor for Carl’s budding monstrous nature. The third form of irony that is layered over Dale’s death is that Dale who has very clearly stated his objection to suicide in previous episodes, in his final moments seems to be the one who needs an assisted suicide so he doesn’t turn into a zombie.

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In memory of Dale Horvath, let us ponder the quotation about time from William Faulkner that Dale offers to the group in explanation for his morning ritual of winding his watch:

 “I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire, which will fit your individual needs no better than it did mine or my father’s before me; I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you may forget it for a moment now and then and not spend all of your breath trying to conquer it.”

Time in TWD is a symbol of order and civilisation and if you look out for it, every season will say something about time. In Season 1, it was Dale’s quotation about his watch. In Season 4, Rick offers his watch to two stray survivors he had hoped to bring back to the prison. When Rick and Carol part ways after he exiles her from their community, she gives him her watch, ridding herself of time and memory in more ways than one because it was an anniversary gift to her from her abusive husband. Rick then gets his watch back from Carol who retrieves it from the stores at Terminus in Season 5 when she rejoins them. When they finally reach the Alexandria Safe Zone, during Deanna’s interview with Rick, one of the last things she says to him is the time, “It’s 3.37pm.” And his decision to stay and rejoin civilisation is signified by him adjusting his watch.

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Ok. That’s it from me. If you liked this entry or found it informative, click the like button below, follow the blog and share it on Facebook and other social media sites. Thank you for helping me grow my readership!

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Train to Busan (2016)

So, when I first heard that this film was coming out, I desperately wanted it to provide a different cultural take on the zombie figure that has been an American horror film staple since George A. Romero’s small-budget, B-movie zombie flick, Night of the Living Dead came out in 1968.

When Night came out, it made waves for various reasons. Most significant of which was its progressive choice of protagonist and bleak ending. Duane Jones who plays Ben, the film’s black protagonist, survives the horror of the zombie outbreak only to be casually picked off  the next day by a band of White men with guns who mistake him for a zombie.

When Romero made the sequel Dawn of the Dead (1978), all anyone could talk about was how the insatiable appetite of the zombie is a reflection of our own consumerist culture, a point that is clearly made by setting the bulk of the action inside a mall. For more on zombies and consumerism check out S. Harper’s essay, “Zombies, Malls, and the Consumerism Debate.”

Other notable zombie films include Danny Boyle’s 2002 zombie classic, 28 Days Later which gave us the original running zombies that made us shit our pants. But also symbolised, speed, rapid development and how we’re just moving too fast for our own good.

To this famous array of zombie films I also want to add Warm Bodies (2013), not the best zombie film by anyone’s standards, but a significant one because of its strange mix of genres. As an action-horror-Romance film, it is as if the film was made in response to how over the years the gap between the human and the zombie had gotten so small we now have to find a way to redeem the zombie figure so we can go on living with ourselves. The TV series iZombie (2015- ) does pretty much the same thing too with its zombie protagonist, Olivia Moore (Rose McIver).

So I guess the point I’m trying to set up with this spiel is that the zombie figure is an incredibly versatile figure and I was really looking forward to a different cultural take on the zombie with Sang-ho Yeon’s Train to Busan (2016).

And I’m so pleased and so happy to say that it delivers (probably more than I’m able to encapsulate here because my expectations were so high and the film met most of them too).

So here are some of the things I really enjoyed about the film (Warning: SPOILERS!!!):

  1. It’s not about consumerism anymore but it’s about conformity: As a S. Korean film (set in S. Korea, produced in S. Korea, directed by a S. Korean), the context just adds to the film’s message in a way that even if the exact same film was made and produced elsewhere, it wouldn’t be the same film. Anyway, where did I get this idea of the film being about conformity from? The first wave of zombies you get up close and personal with are all wearing uniforms. Train conductor uniforms, High School Student uniforms, military uniforms. At the end of the day, it all comes down to how uniforms and uniformity erase individuality and threaten to turn people into an unthinking zombie mob.
  2. Contemporary update to the zombie mythos: Part of zombie films is the changing point of origin of the spread. Is it voodoo, like in the pre-Night zombie films? Is it something introduced into the water like in The Crazies (2010) from a government experiment gone wrong? Is it the Umbrella Corporation-funded virus research that gets out like in the Resident Evil franchise (2002 -2016)? Where the zombie comes from reflects what society fears the most at that moment. And in Train there’s a phone call that implicates the protagonist, Seok Woo’s (Yoo Gong), who is a fund manager and his company. Ah… we’ve finally reached the point where the economic machinery, Wall Street and all the recent problems with the financial systems of the world are now (in)directly responsible for the zombie outbreak. Nice. Frankly, it’s been a long time coming.
  3. The play on Sight and Vision in the zombies from Train: Every zombie franchise will try and characterize their zombies differently. I’ve already mentioned running zombies in 28 Days Later, and the thinking, compassionate zombies that can become human again in Warm BodiesThe Walking Dead (2010- ), I believe has zombies with an acute sense of hearing and smell. Train establishes the zombies’ poor sense of sight and creates a number of high-tension set pieces around this plot point. But what is truly wonderful is how it is used near the end of the film in contemplation of what one might see in their final moments before turning into a zombie. Very melodramatic, but a good melodramatic. Very different from the kind of melodrama that comes with the excessive use of slow motion that silent screaming because of the cutting out of diegetic sound, which this film comes dangerously close to overusing.

At this point I want to say that I have yet to give away any real spoilers to the film, I think? But if you read on there’ll definitely be spoilers because I’m going to get into character/ characterisation and the ending.

  1. Of Character Growth and Fine Acting: Yoo Gong’s fund manager Seok Woo experiences a tremendous amount of character growth that is extremely pleasurable and fulfilling to watch, especially when he’s played off the more likable Sang Hwa played by Ma Dong-Seok. Fund manager has to learn how to be less self-serving in order to survive this zombie apocalypse and in a poignant moment in the second half of the  film he does. In this scene, Seok Woo grabs Yong Suk (Kim Ui-Seong), an elderly gentleman and another suit wearing corporate type, punches him out, and accuses him of being an asshole for not opening the door earlier. The close-up shot in this scene shows some very fine acting on the part of Yoo Gong because we get multiple layers of horror. Horror over how quickly, easily and uselessly the life of a key character has been snuffed out; and the horrific realization that if he didn’t change his ways, Seok Woo might as well be looking in the mirror.
  2. Gender and violence and the new world order: The film also does something very interesting with gender. The excitement from the action sequences that characterize the bulk of the film are male-dominated and driven by three fairly likable male protagonists. There’s even a bromantic tete-a-tete that takes place inside one of the washrooms onboard the train as they hide out from the zombies outside. Yet, all three male protagonists, tainted by the extreme violence that is required of them to survive the zombie apocalypse, must die together with the previous world order in order for the new world, symbolized by the child and pregnant mother who survive to the end, to be born. The split between male and female protagonists is unmistakably clear but as to what to make of it I suppose more research is needed. But if I had to hazard a guess, the old world order is a violent, class-oriented, patriarchal system based on exploitation, unthinking conformity and untrustworthy figures of authority (all foregrounded in various scenes throughout the film). And the new world order, represented by the thinking military man who chooses NOT to shoot at the approaching survivors despite orders from HQ to go ahead, is a representation of a more interconnected and compassionate humanist society where individuals make clear-minded decisions, act responsibly and don’t just follow orders.
  3. Ending and Homage to Romero: I love how the ending flirts with recreating the bleak ending from Romero’s Night of the Living Dead but then decides to forego this. It’s also a very dense and layered ending because the return to the motif of sight and vision. The military snipers guarding the tunnel entrance almost shoot the pregnant mother and child because of the difficulty of getting visual confirmation over whether the approaching figures are zombies or survivors. The fact that confirmation comes in the form of the child singing the song from her recital (a plot point established earlier in the film that lends the film a lovely framing narrative) creates a thematic coherence in the film about family and human connection.

So to tie everything together with what I mean when I say I feel Train has delivered in terms of a different cultural zombie is this:

It has the zombie hoard stand in for the problems with conformity instead of consumerism which is a distinct quality of Asian societies. It gives the film a distinctly melodramatic treatment that I’ve always associated with Kdramas & Jdramas. And it’s turned the fight against the zombie into a class-related struggle where the zombie is born out of the excesses of the rich, instead of a race-related one as seen in Night.

So yeah, that’s my two cents about zombies and Train to Busan, all 1500 words of it.