Not long ago, a TV network found out that there was a surprisingly large audience for a show about soulless, shambling, emaciated parodies of humanity who want to eat our brains. Congrats on that full-season order, Whitney! In unrelated news: People also like shows about zombies! The second season of AMC's gory graphic-novel adaptation Walking Dead premiered last night, with a new creative team at the helm (writers Glen Mazarra and Robert Kirkman, who created the comic) and about 75 percent more tension-ratcheting child endangerment. Walking Dead was obviously just supposed to pair nicely with Sunday-afternoon reruns of movies based on Stephen King books and keep AMC's Sunday-night quality-drama block warm until Matthew Weiner got around to making more Mad Men. Instead, it's become the network's biggest hit, and the most visible sign yet that zombies, once a niche phenomenon beloved by effects-makeup nerds and dudes in Cannibal Corpse T-shirts, are America's Next Top Abomination. (Watch your throne, vampires!)
Novelist Colson Whitehead is a 2002 MacArthur "genius" award winner and the author of six books. His most recent novel, Zone One, is a grimly hilarious and sneakily profound novel set in lower Manhattan a few years after the zombie apocalypse. We asked him to shoot the breeze (in the head! It's the only way to be sure!) with Alex Pappademas about the ongoing zombification of pop culture.
Good morning. Let's talk about the undead.
They're not going away. They just keep on coming. And because I'm the kind of person who thinks way too much and too deeply about how and why pop genres go in and out of style, I find this fascinating. If you start the clock with 28 Days Later — and I know there's a purist contingent within zombie scholarship that wants to bar that movie from the zombie canon, because its once-human biters run fast and aren't technically dead, but the people who think that way are zombie pedants, Colson, and we will not be held hostage by them — our current pop-cultural zombie infestation has lasted 10 years.
In that time, we've seen best-selling Studs Terkel-esque speculative oral histories of zombie warfare and zombie-themed parodies of Jane Austen novels and even a book about the zombie Beatles. Three Night of the Living Dead sequels and remakes of two of George Romero's originals and an apparently unkillable movie franchise based on the Resident Evil video games. Comic books about zombified versions of Marvel and DC heroes that sold by the mass-grave-load. And then there's Walking Dead. I have some serious zombie-pedant problems with it as a TV show, but it pulled down record-breaking ratings when it premiered. Oh, and I guess that much-viewed, morally troublesome YouTube clip of the inmates at a maximum-security prison in the Philippines doing the zombie shuffle from Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video is worth mentioning here as well.
The new season of Walking Dead started last weekend. In an only-symbolically-related story, October 8 has been designated "World Zombie Day." I know what you're thinking: Another greeting-card-company scam! But people are really into it. There was a zombie pub crawl in Minneapolis, a mass zombie commitment-and/or-vow-renewal ceremony in Flint, Mich. The Pittsburgh Zombie Fest, a three-day event in George Romero's hometown, featured a "Zombie Olympics" where you can shot-put a rubber brain. Here in New York, on October 22, there will be an organized "zombie walk" from Beauty Bar in the East Village to Arlene's Grocery, with music by somebody named "Dr. Madd Vibe." (You know it's a major event when Dr. Madd Vibe can be coaxed out of his lab.)
I will also mention — so that you don't have to, because that would be weird — that your new book, available for sale or looting on October 18, is a big, serious, already critically acclaimed novel called Zone One, and that it's about a post-zombie-infestation cleanup crew sweeping a quarantined lower Manhattan for leftover roamers. (I'm devouring it right now. I said "devouring." Because, zombies. I feel like we should get all the puns out of our systems right up front.)
So let's gnaw on this bone. What's up with our ongoing zombie preoccupation, as a society? Why has the dead-rising-from-the-grave-to-dine-on-the-living narrative become the anti-bedtime-story our culture keeps begging for?
In the words of the best Steely Dan song ever to mention zombies, sign in, stranger.
I didn't know I was a zombie pedant until I started considering what from the zombie canon to keep in Zone One and what to ignore. I can't start the clock with 28 Days Later because my wretched fascination with the creatures goes back too far. For me, that's like trying to come up with a Unified Field Theory of Vampires that starts with "Buffy" and encompasses every manifestation since. I'm unqualified to comment on the Big Picture Why of the creatures, because I'm inside the phenomenon — I can't stand outside myself and observe it. I write this or that book because I have to, to obey some annoying inner necessity, to figure out something about the world. The larger cultural forces don't matter; I suppose they would if the larger cultural forces wrote my books for me, but they can't or won't, the lazy bitches. Monsters are a storytelling tool, like domestic realism and close third. We use these rusty hammers and socket wrenches to construct different machines, so that the Buffy vampire is not the vampire of Twilight (they "twinkle" or something?), and the Twilight vamp is not the True Blood vamp … and none of these are what Bram Stoker had in mind. The same goes for zombies. The times devise their own monsters…
Here's my idiosyncratic timeline: It starts with Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I Am Legend, which offered up an early viral apocalypse and removed vampirism from the realm of the supernatural to place it in the scientific. It's in the blood! It's in everybody — your neighbors, your boss, your spouse, and your kids. They are transformed overnight into the monsters you always kinda suspected they were, deep down, behind those smiles and the can-I-borrow-some-sugars. (Of the three movie adaptations, I favor Omega Man, if only for the Afros.) I'll corral Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) into my interpretation of what makes zombies scary to people (well, me — it's all about me, really). The true horror in this catastrophic overturning of the social order is that these things used to be people you loved. In fact, you still love them, and you gotta blow their heads off before they eat you, which is a whole lot worse than forgetting a birthday.
Then comes the George Romero "Living Dead" trilogy, with its template for the slow-moving zombie. The blaxploitation movies I saw as a kid provided one example for a black hero, and Night of the Living Dead gave me another one. Black guy on the run from hordes of insane white people who want to tear him limb from limb? What's more American than that? It's like T.G.I. Friday's, and Pez. The movies stuck with me.
Max Brooks' World War Z and the comic book version of The Walking Dead are both marvelous, but zombies will always be more of a movie thing for me, since that's how I first encountered them, so I'll round out my Zombie 101 with two more films. The finale of The Return of the Living Dead (1985) is equipped with a nice, bleak solution to a zombie outbreak, and was written by Dan O'Bannon of Alien fame, which earns it bonus points. (The film also marks the introduction of both fast zombies and the "braiiins" trope, so we salute you, Dan O'Bannon, you were taken from us too soon!) 28 Days Later is in, even if the monsters are not dead. To quote that Rakim cliché, used by white hip-hop fans to justify their outsized love for the rap culture: "It ain't where you're from, it's where you're at." Don't justify the crap you love, just enjoy it and let the assholes natter on about "authenticity," whether it's music or zombies. I'm more of a slow-zombie guy myself, but the expert, well-rendered apocalypse in 28 drags my childhood idea of what these creatures are into my present day. And yours.
I didn't know Steely Dan had a zombie song. Perhaps one coked-out night they caught a showing of Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things (1973), which used to be a broadcast TV staple, and was the first zombie flick I ever saw. It was directed by Bob Clark, who later went on to fame (A Christmas Story) and fortune (Porky's). The man knew his exploitation movies. A bunch of hippies play a prank in a cemetery with an ancient spell book and accidentally raise the dead.
Slaughtered hippies — surely this film, and not Altamont, marks the death of the '60s.
I don't know if "Sign In Stranger" is really a zombie song — not the way "Werewolves of London" is a werewolf song, for instance. And I think it takes place in outer space, maybe? It's a rich text. But I'm claiming it for zombie-rock, along with Alex Chilton's "The Walking Dead," in which Chilton sings "I love the walking dead/Yeah, I really do" like he's trying to fight off a zombie attack using only sarcasm, and "Night of the Living Baseheads," and the Misfits' "Astro Zombies." Disallowing the Cranberries here, and Rob Zombie, because when you're creating a canon, that's the art part: leaving things out.
That said, I like how big-tentish your zombie timeline is. And I think Return, despite being non-Romero, is crucial — for all the reasons you cited, and because it's a zom-com that prefigures Zombieland, and because the living protagonists include a bunch of Repo Man-ish punk rockers, including scream queen Linnea Quigley, whose nudity policy seems to have been something like, "As long as it's completely gratuitous and not essential to the story." (A thing that is wrong with this country today: We have not crowned a decent "scream queen" in decades.)
RE: Uncle George's original unholy trilogy: I'm a big fan of the second installment, Dawn of the Dead, the one that's set in a zombie-besieged shopping center. When there's no more room in hell, the dead will show up at the mall and shuffle around the Orange Julius and Filene's Basement! Written by Romero with a script assist by Italian horror maestro Dario Argento, a wocka-wocka prog-death-funk score by frequent Argento collaborators Goblin (which hipster bands are still ripping off today), and lots of shots of zombies staggering around a retail environment in some lizard-brained parody of Black Friday, it's a mordant critique of how consumer culture eats all of our brains.
(Part of the problem the zombies in Zone One present is that they're still going through the motions of consumption, trying to take money out of ATMs and stuff like that; is that, at least in part, a Dawn nod?)
Dawn might be the best zombie movie; the original Night of the Living Dead is maybe the best movie that happens to have zombies in it. A perfectly built machine and a testament to what you can accomplish with nothing but harsh cheap light and a claustrophobic setting. John Cassavetes couldn't have done more with less. And I love the story behind it — about how Romero & Co. cast Duane Jones to play the lead simply because he was the best actor they could find, and how it wasn't until they heard about Martin Luther King's assassination while driving back from the shoot with the film literally in the trunk of their cars that they realized they'd committed an act of allegory by having the redneck sheriff's posse shoot the black guy at the end. And at that point the virus mutates and from then on social commentary is part of the DNA of the genre.
I will also go to the wall for Lucio Fulci's Zombi 2, because in that one a zombie fights a fucking shark.
So, OK, questions:
1. I remember you saying somewhere, maybe in the book itself, that part of the writing process for The Colossus of New York involved walking around the city with an iPod and a notebook; for Zone One, did you stalk the canyons of lower Manhattan, imagining them as ruins?
1-a. And this is a Big Picture Why question, so forgive me, but I have to wonder if there's something other than pure geography/logistics behind your decision to set your zombie-apocalypse book in and around New York's financial district, the site of our ongoing real-life bankpocalypse. Was there a reason that part of town screamed "total institutional breakdown" to you at the moment you were writing the book?
2. I think you've correctly identified the thing that's scariest about all these stories — the idea that we might have to put our friends and loved ones down, execution-style, in order to survive. But do you feel like there's also an element of fantasy to these stories? Isn't part of their appeal that we like to imagine what it would be like to have the mall, or the world, to ourselves? A world where — as you put it in Zone One — "a rusty machete and a bag of almonds [makes] you a person of substance?" And that we want to believe that, somehow, the zompocalypse would be the crucible that brings out the best in us, and we'd all be reborn as shotgun-toting ghoul-fighting badasses, tooling around in hotwired '70s muscle cars like Heston in The Omega Man?
(The best scene in Zombieland, to me, is the part when all the main characters just stop along their road to nowhere and lay waste to a cheeseball Indian-trading-post-style gift shop, as if part of the silver lining on the whole downfall-of-society thing is the chance to take revenge on the stupidness of American consumer culture with a baseball bat.)
That is probably more than enough for now. Feel free to disregard all these queries and just write about Linnea Quigley. Or sharks.
Yes, the punks strolling through the cemetery with their boom box the test of a true exploitation movie is how much the filmmakers feel compelled to pander to the youth market. Or their square idea of the youth market. Give me some 30ish actors playing surfers (The Horror of Party Beach) or hippies (Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things) or "punk rockers" (see above) and I'm in. In fact, I feel compelled myself to link to the trailer for Party Beach because I see it includes the line, "They are the living dead — they're zombies!"
Way before I knew I was going to write a book with zombies in it, I put a Dawn reference into Sag Harbor, about the scene when the refugees are wondering why all the oozing masses are congregating around the mall. "What are they doing? Why do they come here?" "Some sort of instinct. Memory, of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives." Hello, critique of consumer society! And there is some of that in Zone One, but I'm more intrigued by the neurotic fixation with the past. The survivors in the book are as cathected to the dead world, their dead selves, as much as the "stragglers" they hunt down, or the mall aficionados of Dawn. The world is over, and despite their traumas, everybody's still kinda the same person. They miss Netflix, sure, but they also miss correcting people's grammar and complaining about long lines at the post office.
In my personal attitude toward the inhabitants of Zone One — living and dead alike — I'm probably doing a mash-up of Dawn's tagline ("When There's No More Room in Hell, the Dead Will Walk the Earth") and Sartre's famous quip ("Hell is other people"). People — there are too many of them, and they're stealing my air.
Why'd I pick downtown Manhattan? Partially because if you get caught down there after 9 p.m., you're in a desolate, depopulated landscape. The streets are still, the buildings lifeless. The apocalypse is here, unfurling its darkness every day in different corners of the city. It's just you and whatever destination you've kidded yourself is worth heading to. I like the city at times like that, when you fall into an eddy of emptiness, and the streets are yours and yours alone for a few moments. Then the dream ends — a cab comes around the corner, or a yahoo stumbles out of a saloon. But for a brief time you can enjoy the illusion that everyone is gone … and you're Chuck Heston cruising the streets and watching movies in empty multiplexes. That's the wish-fulfillment part of the apocalypse for me, perhaps — that maybe I'd get a little more "me time." ("Time Enough At Last.") I don't know how transformed I'd be in the end-times. Certainly I wouldn't make much of a hero. I can't outrun a fireball. Farts, though…
I wasn't trying to capture any particular aspect of our current economic disaster. I'd like the book to continue to be read five years, 10 years from now, and wouldn't want it tied to the national mood circa 2010. Better to hit that eternal catastrophe of loneliness, of the attempt to bounce back from disaster, than to chase a headline. Besides taking a few snaps of buildings I liked, some location scouting, I didn't need a lot of city reconnaissance. My idea of the ruined city is sturdy and long-standing. It is nourished by my memories of broken-down '70s New York; childhood exposure to movies like The Warriors and Escape From New York, which I took as documentaries; and the way the refurbished, cleaned-up metropolis totters on the landfill of the bygone city. I don't need to leave the house to know what it looks like out there: the ghost of what it once was.
If you want to blame someone for Linnea Quigley's um, affection, for disrobing, there's Jamie Lee Curtis, the previous Scream Queen titleholder. After playing the virginal Final Girl for so many years, she had to take her top off in Trading Places to break out of her typecast fate. I suspect Linnea didn't want to fall into that trap. I find her showbiz savvy quite commendable, and I'd love to see her try yogurt commercials.
New York as a perpetual ghost-city, one where it doesn't take much set-dressing to imagine a cannibalistic present eating the past: I can dig it. I didn't live here when the Baseball Furies still had Riverside Park on lock, but I've lived here long enough to know that if you live here long enough, you'll see everything that made your New York yours destroyed, or remodeled into a TD Bank.
In the three years we've been married, my wife and I have watched this weird Eternal Sunshine space-time-ripple effect happen where almost every location that figures in the story of our New York wedding has disappeared. The Mexican restaurant where I was suddenly seized by the courage to propose (over fajitas — yeah, I know, call me Senor Romance) closed this summer. The City Hall wedding chapel where we made it official has moved across the street. The Rainbow Room, where we had our reception, got booted from 30 Rock by Tishman-Speyer in 2009. I understand, a little bit, how Spider-Man felt when Marvel wrote his marriage to Mary Jane out of the continuity. And whenever the wife and I joke about how strange and existentially disconcerting this is, I always end up quoting that line from Colossus of New York about how you're a true New Yorker when you can remember what everything used to be, an idea that never fails to make me feel better every time some formerly life-anchoring business loses its lease.
I know what you're saying about not wanting the book to feel too nailed to any particular moment. I held out on the rebooted Battlestar Galactica until well after the last new episode aired, and then inhaled the whole thing on DVD in the course of a few months. I loved a lot of things about it, I got caught up in the story and the characters and their frakked-up lives, but the "topical," ripped-from-the-headlines episodes — the ones that had convinced so many people outside normal sci-fi-TV fan circles that this was a show worth paying attention to — already seemed unbelievably dated despite being only two or three years old. I had to keep reminding myself that, at the time, it took pretty humongous balls to set up certain characters as people we're supposed to root for and then have them become Abu Ghraib-style torturers or use terrorist tactics against the bad guys, that these were big, thorny issues for a TV show in a supposedly escapist genre to ask us to think about in 2005. It didn't seem facile or wrong, it just seemed obvious — like this kind of stuff ceased to be live ammo, from a cultural perspective, the minute George W. Bush and Dick Cheney left "public service."
I guess what I'm saying is that a lot of genre fiction that allegorically engages the issues of its moment tends to hold up not because of the fact that it does that but in spite of the fact that it does that. (You mentioned "Time Enough at Last," every bookworm's favorite Twilight Zone episode, and supposedly Serling's. "You, Mr. Bemis, are a reader!" A lot of the really topical Twilight Zones seem whack-you-over-the-head elementary now — in fact, it is us who are the monsters here on Maple Street! — and you have to kind of get past that as a viewer to appreciate everything else that's great about that show. If you're me.)
(I don't know, I go back and forth on this — on the one hand, one of the things I love about genre fiction, superhero comics, sci-fi, whatever, is the way it always seems to be ahead of "serious" movies and TV and literature in terms of addressing and processing the specificities of its moment, that a show like Battlestar Galactica is doing the kind of heavy social-novel lifting Zombie Tom Wolfe once complained that American fiction was slacking on before he went off and wrote that college book with all the really shitty rap lyrics in it. And on the other hand, I feel like that's a reductive and apologetic way to argue for the worthwhileness of genre stories, born of geekdom's internalized inferiority complex, the voice of the embarrassed fanboy trying to insist that he's really into Heinlein or Chris Claremont or Avatar because, sing it with me now, It Really Works on Other Levels, Too.)
For what it's worth — and I'm sure you'll be relieved to hear this — I don't think Zone One has that Cylons-at-Abu-Ghraib problem. I think it's a book about Right Now in the sense that for these characters, our Right Now is their fallen world, their past, so you're writing about the present in the past tense, and social satire kind of flowers out of that. It's about how everything we've convinced ourselves is important is really just a metaphorical stack of furniture piled up in front of the metaphorical door to keep the metaphorical zombies out. How fragile these things are as anti-zombie mechanisms. I never felt like you were popping up "on-screen," Serling-like, to make this point — you actually make it clear somewhere early on that in this world, you, Colson Whitehead, would almost certainly be dead — but it comes through, in the stray observations about gone-world culture that aren't really stray at all. The way Mark Spitz imagines Kaitlyn's parents planning each of her perfect childhood birthday parties ("They strove, they plotted, they got the e-mail of that new magician in town, with his nouveau prestidigitations"). The head-shop guy with his inventory of fancy bongs designed "according to the latest notions about air circulation, intake, draw." Zombie-besieged couples trying to wait out the plague in apartments lit by "the candles they'd used for dinner parties and romantic evenings at home." And the actual nonmetaphorical barricades Mark Spitz encounters in dead people's apartments, which I picture being made of flat-screen TVs and Ikea wall units and knockoff Danish modern sofas and all the other stuff we buy in order to feel like adults who've furnished a life.
And I never get the sense that you're mocking any of this or dismissing it as trivial. (I should mention here that this book is really fucking funny, even in its grimmest moments. Especially in its grimmest moments.) And you dispense with the notion that the plague is God's revenge on our acquisitive consumer culture pretty quickly, by putting that idea in the mouth of Abel, in the Willoughby Manor flashback, who turns out to have some pretty shortsighted ideas about how the world should be. By making these seemingly trivial things — "doilies, helicopter parenting, and streaming video" are Abel's examples — into the artifacts of a lost world that the characters wish they could have back, you get at the yearning for comfort that we're constantly and clumsily trying to soothe by buying and/or buying into all this shit, and at the loneliness that's behind all that. "There were hours," you write, "when every last person on Earth thought they were the last person on Earth, and it was precisely this thought of final, irrevocable isolation that united them all. Even if they didn't know it." That's ostensibly about what it was like for people the night the plague broke out, but it could just as easily describe every night, y'know? (Obviously you do, this being a book that you wrote.)
In a way, you've kind of flipped it on Romero/Dawn of the Dead with the idea of the straggler zombies. In this book, the fact that all these walking corpses keep literally going through the motions of their former lives isn't held up as proof that we're all zombies already, but that those motions, and the need for order and routine that they represent, are actually a deep part of what makes us human. An expression of what makes us human as opposed to something that gets in the way of our humanness. Going to the dumb job. Working the copy machine. Keeping the shelves stocked.
To tie this back to present-day zombie culture, and to segue out of the part of this correspondence in which I tell you what your book is about and generally wax your car for having pulled it off so well: It's the absence of these details that undoes Walking Dead for me. The comic book is an excellently bleak human-animal story about how, if you'll do anything to survive, you're ultimately no better than a flesh-eater; the show, so far, has been about noncharacters' bickering and going on endless, doomed supply runs. But neither one has details in it like Kaitlyn reading celebrity biographies on her downtime because after a long day of body-bagging zombies she's somehow soothed by remembering what it was like when we all had the luxury of thinking Ashton and Demi's marital problems were a big deal, or conspiracy-theorizing about Beyonce's baby bump. When the Walking Dead TV show premiered, somebody — I'd link to it, but I forget where it ran — wrote a smart blog post asking why people in zombie movies, Shaun of the Dead aside, never contextualize their experience by noting that it's like a zombie movie. I'd take that argument one step further: I find it cognitively dissonant that people in zombie movies (and TV shows, books, etc.) aren't constantly talking about all the things that preoccupied them in the Old World. Just once, on Walking Dead, I'd like to see somebody pause in the middle of chopping wood or piling head-shot roamers on an open-air bonfire and say, "Y'know, the really shitty thing about this is that we never got to find out what happened to Walter White on Breaking Bad. Do you think he really poisoned that kid?" Or stockpiling DVD box sets in anticipation of the day they come upon one of those fun-for-the-whole-family SUVs with a TV screen in every seat back and a few hours of juice left in the battery. That stuff would become more important to us, not less. We probably couldn't talk about the people we'd lost; we'd talk around it, by talking about how we miss cilantro.
So, OK: You, Colson Whitehead, are dead, and you are a Straggler. When the sweeper crew comes upon you, what are you most likely to be doing?
Congrats on your anniversary. You guys are still around — that's something, right? Per Colossus, as long as you're here, those places are still here, too.
On the "topical tip," I've been getting questions about Abu Ghraib and 9/11 references in the book. It seems to me that soldiers have been abusing prisoners in plenty of conflicts prior to our latest desert excursion, and that the world is so chock-full of life-altering disasters that to merely associate that Post-Calamity Feeling with the destruction of the Twin Towers seems … exclusionary. I hereby affirm that plenty of atrocities and calamities went into this production, and they extend back further than the past 10 years. I haven't had the heart to go back and revisit Battlestar, but I can completely dig your assessment. You mean some of those "off" episodes haven't aged well? I had such high hopes that we'd look back on Apollo's fat makeup and say, "They really made Dick Smith proud."
(I have gone back to the final minutes of the Breaking Bad finale a few times this week, as I'm straggler-stuck on Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi's "Black," which seems to me Zone One-ish in addition to complementing the visuals of Walt's grisly triumph. Put it on when you get to the last three pages of the book, people. "Until you travel to that / place you can't come back / When the last pain is gone / and all that's left is black," sure, but I keep thinking these lines are rather Mark Spitz-y: "So be honest with me / We can't afford to ignore / That I'm the disease.")
Thanks for the deep read of Zone One, and the very generous comments. I'm still getting accustomed to talking about the book — I was in such a bunker when writing it. For the first time, I didn't show a word of what I was working on to anybody until I was done, and while this Method-y way of writing about isolation probably helped the book, it meant that I was flying blind. Now that it's done and out and making its way into the world, I'm both shocked and delighted that what I was trying to put in there actually made it onto the page. Somehow. And folks like you can see it. And as with the wasteland survivors of Zone One, if there's one person, there might be more
But as for your question, when the sweepers come, I'll be on the couch in my living room. I didn't get into the specifics of the homing mechanism of stragglers, what directs them to their emotionally charged places, but my butt knows how to find my favorite TV-watching/brooding spot, and there's no mystery why …
May your bunker never be overrun!
Colson Whitehead's new novel Zone One will be published October 18 by Doubleday. Follow him on Twitter here: @colsonwhitehead.
Alex Pappademas (@pappademas) is a writer for the New York Times Magazine. He passed away in 2006.