Zombie Miscellany: Music and Post-Apocalyptic Racism

A few last points to wrap up our week-long consideration of The Walking Dead.

I wanted to corral a bunch of shorter, miscellaneous thoughts I’ve had about The Walking Dead to end our week-long discussion of it.

The first has to do with podcast guest and friend of OTI Bear McCreary, the composer on the show. As the series was airing (Cabling? Who gets TV through the air anymore?), he posted on his blog interesting behind-the-scenes videos and cue-by-cue breakdowns for each episode. It’s a fantastic window into the creative and production process on a major TV-show, and Bear gives a lucid account of his aims with respect to mythos and ethos—as well emotion, theme, and character arcs.

On Overthinking It, we tend to treat entertainment products with an auteur sensibility, as if they sprung like Athena fully formed from the head of their creators, and were a perfect reflection of their intent and only of their intent. It’s true that strong works of art often have a highly integrated and consistent point of view or texture. But watching the legion of professionals involved in just the music (not even speaking of the rest of the sounds, which are quite gruesome and exciting) of The Walking Dead, all doing their best to kick ass and serve the material, reminded me that it takes a village to make a TV show. (Or a small army. Look in the archives for video of the Human Target soundtrack recording sessions, which involved an orchestra so big they couldn’t fit it in the studio all at once.) It’s interesting to think that one of the skills an artist needs to have to function in the art business is, um, bureaucratic administration.

It takes a zombie village.

Anyway, here are the links.

On the level of overthinking, it’s a chance to consider the particular ways in which music relates to image in narrative film—the score can emphasize or ironize aspects of the plot and characters; it can create suspense; it can try to tell you what to feel (to be fair, Bear’s music is never cheap like that, but not all scores can say the same); it can establish a mood and tone, or a sense of time and place—as with the bluegrass stuff on The Walking Dead.

Fun fact from reading the entries: The main guitarist (and 12-string electric banjo player) responsible for a lot of the bluegrass sounds that give the score its texture is Oingo Boingo lead guitarist Steve Bartek.

The score seems to speak two langues. The first is the chamber ensemble (a 6-piece string group, the occasional horn or clarinet solo); the other is the rustic bluegrass ensemble. Generally, each of these have two main modes. The strings provide ethereal or suspenseful ambient soundscapes, or else they saw away in a molto agitato frenzy as they do under the main titles. The bluegrass feel can either be earthy or kind of strange—what Bear calls Zombie Banjo. (It can also go freaking nuts, as with the zombie massacre at the campsite, which is just one heck of a good time in a sound cue.) Two languages, two characters; I think it something about the duality of man, sir.

* * *

The other thing I’d like to bring up are the racial politics of the show. (I haven’t read the books, but would be interested to hear whether they play out differently.) The gender politics are retrograde, and not worth discussion—viz. women can’t turn off the lights—but I think talking about race and The Walking Dead is interesting, because Zombies are that genre of horror that draws a bright-line distinction between classes of humans—the living and the living dead—so that the latter can set in relief the inhumanity of the former. Ethnic identity—conceived of as the most primitive sort of us vs. them group membership—is at the heart of the concept. And yet it seems irrelevant, since the precondition of the zombie genre is the breakdown of institutions. You’d think that ethnic difference, which is largely socially constructed, would go too.

Also, it’s worth noting, that explicit overtones of racial politics are present in the genre since at least the original Night of the Living Dead. There are uncomfortable, undeniable echoes of lynching when Ben is shot at the end. (The accents don’t help.)

From our point of view, here in what I think I’ll begin calling the pre-Zombie-Apocalypse Era, The Walking Dead has some good moments—the vatos who run the nursing home fly in the face of our assumptions about young Latinos and what they can do in TV show plots—and some bad moments—random black woman without any qualities other than being black who dies in the explosion at the end, maybe because she’s realized that she does not have any qualities and the realization saps her will to live in a way the zombie apocalypse could not.

But what I’m most concerned with is the persistance of racism in the face of the Zombies.


Zombie stories seem to fly in the face of what we’d expect (hope?) would happen when a large group faces off against a common enemy. Faced with an existential threat, a group can choose to pull together to defeat their common enemy or to…well…not. If not, intra-group business continues as usual, with the added stressor that everyone is going to die, until everyone is dead. But if the group decides to brush aside differences and grievances in the name of fighting the aliens or Nazis or Communists or whatever, there are speeches and fireworks and we learn that it isn’t pretty, but it works.

It’s more comforting to think that when everything falls apart, rather than reverting to a Hobbesian state of nature (though it’s probably a mistake to say “revert”, since a common element among all Enlightenment theories of “states of nature” is that they never actually existed as such; they’re an account of the theorist’s view of what people are like, not an account of an historical period), that Mankind Pulls Together Despite Our Differences And Troubled History To Triumph In The Face Of Adversity.

Hold on. That’s just so noble. I have to wipe away a tear and google Bill Pullman’s speech from Independence Day. Here you go. OK. Carrying on.

But, to borrow Fenzel’s typology, that’s monster movie thinking, not zombie movie thinking. The point of the genre is that they’re us, and we’re just as inhumane as they are. We commit horrible atrocities against one another almost as a matter of course.

Still, we do these things as individuals. In the Hobbesian state of nature, it’s every man for himself. I hate you because we’re in competition for food and shelter, not because you’re a [insert ethnic slur here]. So I’m surprised—wrong word; I’m ingrigued—to see Merle mouthing off, calling names, and making decisions which seem to be clearly against his own interest on the basis of racism.

And then, when the group breaks camp, the Hispanic family makes the surely suicidal decision to split from the main group in order to “be with our people.” They probably mean “family,” but the ethnic difference can’t be ignored.

In a genre of horror the precondition of which is breakdown of institutions, certain institutions persist. Peculiar ones.

* * *

Finally, if you’ve been keeping up with the comments this week, there have been some real gems. I’d like to highlight this explanation of Germany’s love for David Hasselhoff and this mathematical model of the epidemiology of the zombie pandemic. In my role as Fearless Leader of OTI—a role in which I do as little as I can get away with, and let others do the heavy lifting—I never cease to be astonished at the strength, intelligence, good humor, civility, and sheer attractiveness of our community. It’s a great realization to take into our holiday break and the New Year.

Any last thoughts about The Walking Dead before we hit Christmas and go all clip-show? Sound off in the comments!

6 Comments on “Zombie Miscellany: Music and Post-Apocalyptic Racism”

  1. Kyu #

    re: Walking Dead’s gender politics…

    The series proper has almost nothing interesting to say about men and women in the zombie apocalypse, with the possible exception of a reminder that gender equality does not arise in and of itself from civilized people, but requires institutions (ultimately backed with the threat of violence) in order to maintain itself…

    But the pilot, I felt, had a unique and empathetic take on men and women. You quoted the set-up–the intentionally ridiculous “the difference between men and women is that women won’t turn off the light”–but it’s the payoff that really hit me. Morgan, in his grief and love, first marvels that, unlike him, his wife thought of the emotional and symbolic (saving the family photo albums) before the literal needs of survival, and then, confronted with the task of ending her zombie non-life, realizes that those photo albums do fulfill a need for him as deep as the need to go on living. It felt like the gap between men and women wasn’t something to laugh at, but a sorrowful gulf that human beings yearn to reach across.


    • Rainicorn #

      The gender politics of this show are disgusting. I think it’s in the third episode that the women are washing the men’s clothes for them, and one of them asks why they’re doing this, to which another replies “because the world’s ended.” What’s that smell? It’s evopsych BS! You see, the whole concept of women being active agents, or doing anything aside from washing men’s clothes for them, is an artificial construct of society, and the minute society collapses we will revert to our biologically preordained role as childcarers and washerwomen. Yuck.

      Of course, the racial politics are even worse. In episode 2, when we first meet Merle, he’s terrorizing a group of women and POC, who all have to wait for the main character to come and rescue them. Only the white men are allowed to be active agents here, for good or evil; women and POC are like children who need the white men to save them.

      I hate this show.


  2. L33tminion #

    So I’m surprised—wrong word; I’m ingrigued—to see Merle mouthing off, calling names, and making decisions which seem to be clearly against his own interest on the basis of racism.

    My impression of that scene was that Merle had been doing the “put aside differences and fight the common enemy” thing for some time, but that (in the absence of an immediate threat to life and limb) it was starting to grate on him. After all, The Walking Dead is about the long grind of the post-apocalypse.


    • dewfish #

      I agree with L33tminion. Merle was obviously a bigot his whole life, so even a zombie apocalypse isn’t going to change his view of the world. If anything, racists get more extreme in times like that, because they see it as an opportunity to finally rid the earth of “those people”. Ignorance doesn’t go away because people get in a bad situation.


  3. fenzel #

    Hey wrather-

    To answer your question about racial politics in the comic books, it’s definitely present, but it’s totally different.

    Merle and Daryl aren’t in the comic books. Neither are the Vatos (although I believe that episode was written by the guy who wrote the comic).

    Instead, you have two very major Black characters who just might show up next season – Rick’s right-hand man Tyrese (shane is killed really early – in like issue 4 of the comic, maybe 5, so there’s a vacancy), who is a former NFL player, and a Black woman named Maichone (sp?) who is a supreme sword-wielding badass.

    There’s a fair amount of typing going on – the black characters are very physically strong and brutish, they aren’t good at planning or logistics, and they survive effectively in the wilderness. The Black woman is very domineering and mannish, lifts weights, etc. There’s a sense that, as they see society breaking down, they revert to what they think they ought to be.

    A lot of the comic is dedicated to different attempts by survivors to rebuild society in one image or another, and while the comic never addresses racism head-on the way the show does, a lot of the models have racial subtext – can the black people date white people? Can they fit in in a small town? Do they integrate or keep to themselves?

    Generally in the comic, people try to revert to their base nature – it’s what happens in zombie stories – circumstances bring out the flaws and problems people don’t like to talk about. But it isn’t a huge issue – it’s mostly demonstrated through example.

    Oh, and this being the awful side of humanity, there are some racially charged rape scenes that involve characters I haven’t mentioned who are not in the show.

    The character of Andrea (lady from the Shield on the show) is a much more interesting identity political character – because she’s a woman who, after losing her sister, becomes an expert sharpshooter. Her character goes to some very interesting places.

    But yeah, the comic book has more stereotypes, and the racial discourse is handled a little more subtly as a subset of things people revert to doing when they look for familiar stuff to fall back on.


  4. Jesse M #

    I’m still giving Walking Dead my provisional good will, although in these first six episodes it’s been deeply hit-and-miss. I see the racial and the gender politics as interrelated, and I see both as possible clues to one of the show’s major themes, and one of its possible departure points in the future.

    It seems to me that the show, up to this point, is about the characters becoming adrift, and clinging futilely to some deeply ingrained social constructs. In the face of total annihilation, Merle’s racism flares up. Shane becomes a possessive misogynist. The whole group falls back on feminized roles, like the women washing the clothes (which, by the way, almost immediately becomes a point of contention, thank you Rainicorn).

    The urban enclaves become superficially tribalist — the latino youth becomes territorial and militarized. However, if the rest of the show follows their example, we will eventually find even these primitive social models breaking down, and we’ll be left with individuals, either finding their human solidarity, or totally destroying themselves and one another.

    Hopefully, this ugly segregating and master-slave behavior vanishes as the characters get into the really brutal, bloody necessities of survival.


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