It all started with Richard Matheson.
In 1954, the famed science-fiction, fantasy, and horror author wrote the novel I Am Legend, about a world overrun with vampires, the result of a global plague. Ten years later, the novel was adapted as the film The Last Man on Earth, which featured Vincent Price as the sole human survivor trapped in the vampire-ridden world. That film in turn profoundly influenced filmmaker George Romero, whose low-budget 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead – at the time, the ultimate in horror and graphic gore – reimagined the vampires as zombies (though with their cannibalistic tendencies, these “zombies” in fact bore little resemblance to the zombies of genuine Haitian folklore).
With the success of Night, the zombie genre took off, with Romero himself contributing and/or influencing such films as Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Return of the Living Dead, and dozens of others…until today, when the “zombie apocalypse” series The Walking Dead is one of the highest-rated programs on cable TV. As the genre became more popular, the gore was increasingly emphasized, with the result that the original Night of the Living Dead looks downright tame today, with its few scenes of zombies nibbling at an arm almost demure by comparison to The Walking Dead’s flood of blood, brains, entrails, and viscera spraying everywhere, with humans shown shooting, stabbing, dismembering, and otherwise destroying literally hundreds of walking human cadavers every episode. And today, The Walking Dead is no longer even confined to cable TV with a TV-MA rating; it’s shown in reruns nationwide as early as 8 p.m., and rated appropriate for 14-year-old-children — on the public airwaves, where children much younger can see it with ease.
Indeed, thanks to decades of zombie “entertainment,” so familiar – so NORMALIZED — has the concept of a character eating human flesh and brains become (and so desensitized to the horror of such ideas is today’s jaded audience), that the genre is now used as the basis for a light-hearted romantic mystery-comedy on the teen-targeted CW network, at 9:00 p.m. every Tuesday night.
iZombie’s animated opening shows the program’s protagonist, med student Liv Moore, being transformed into a zombie and (understandably) abandoned by her fiancé…then eagerly scooping a spoonful of brains out of a cadaver’s head and chomping it down. With that queasy introduction and image firmly in the viewer’s mind, the program premise is established.
The April 28th episode then proceeded to show a pregnant young woman named Emily collapsing near a campfire. Though she dies her baby is saved, and her boyfriend Dylan is suspected of killing her. Later, coroner Ravi Chakrabarti allows Emily’s parents to view her battered corpse. “I assure you, the remains will be treated with the utmost respect,” Ravi tells the distraught parents.
Immediately thereafter, Liv is shown eating Emily’s brain, tastefully mixed with spaghetti and a light marinara sauce. (What, no Chianti?) Then follows a “humorous” scene in which the pregnant Emily’s hormones kick in and cause Liv to act maternal toward Ravi. See, by eating cadavers’ brains, Liv can assume some of the deceased’s knowledge and aspects of their identity.
iZombie Lesson for Kids #1: cannibalism gives you superpowers!
After a tense encounter with her mother, a pediatrician who questions Liv’s career choices, and Ravi confessing that he told Liv’s human ex about her current zombie boyfriend (because even walking, flesh-eating corpses have issues with their parents and romantic problems…wait, what?), the duo is paid a visit by that same zombie boyfriend, Lowell. Supposedly a musician, to his own surprise Lowell begins rambling on about neurotropic viruses and arterial pathogens, resulting in the following allegedly “humorous” dialogue:
Ravi: “I thought you were a musician.”
Liv: “Apparently, one with quite the keen scientific mind…in his stomach!” (ba-dum-bump!)
iZombie Lessons for Kids #2: eating human flesh is empowering AND funny!
Lowell departs, after shrugging off a kiss from Liv, leading to a rambling discourse from the latter:
Liv: “ ‘Awesome sauce’ and a buddy punch? Is it my imagination, or did I just get friend-zoned? Last time we kissed there were sparks. Like, I thought I’d need a welder’s helmet sparks. Did that seem sparky to you? Things were so great with us last week. Buy new underwear great. And now, I just feel like a crazy person, because what if that’s not where we’re at, right? That was mixed signals.”
Ravi: “Can we just talk about you being a zombie? Brain eating. Being undead. These are things you can discuss at length with me. But I can’t give you the girlfriend experience.”
Liv: “I don’t think that means what you think it means.”
Fortunately, Lowell later explains his desire to avoid Liv:
Lowell: “I’m gay. But only until I eat my next brain…My plan is to score some ludicrously straight brain ASAP. I may dig up Wilt Chamberlain.”
Annnd…cue the meet-cute romantic song video montage!
iZombie Lesson for Kids TV Writers #3: Fill your program with faux-Veronica Mars/Buffy the Vampire Slayer-style dialogue (tossing in the occasional reference to The Princess Bride), along with some teen romance clichés, and genre fans will – pardon the expression – eat it up, no matter how seamy the actual content behind the cutesy banter is. Y’know, content like eating human brains.
Genre fans claim to watch programs like The Walking Dead and iZombie for the dramatic plots, the quality of the characterization and dialogue, even the humor. Assuming they’re telling the truth and aren’t just turned on by gore, one has to wonder whether an emphasis on cannibalism, necrophilia, and death is necessary. Seriously, the only way to tell an entertaining story is to talk endlessly about how they EAT SOMEONE ELSE’S BRAIN? REALLY?
It is possible to tell meaningful and entertaining stories without promoting or normalizing cannibalism and torture. Millions of authors have done so for thousands of years. If eating another human being’s brain is the only way an author can think of to advance his or her plot, they are a bad author — sadly lacking in creativity, and utterly, arrogantly unconcerned with the negative impact their work is having on their readers, and on the wider culture.
Genre fans will protest, “Lighten up! It’s just a TV show! It’s not real! They’re just zombies!” But let’s be honest: a society that is entertained by seeing other human beings dismembered (even if they’re “just zombies”) and human body parts eaten by other humans, is a sick society – one that barely deserves the title “civilized.” Such societies are not long for the world, as they are ripe for conquest by others willing to actually do in earnest what the sick society only does for “entertainment”…as the inhabitants of ancient Rome learned to their regret.
An old expression says, “familiarity breeds contempt.” But this is untrue. In fact, familiarity breeds acceptance. The more programs like iZombie are shown, programs that portray practices like cannibalism as normal and even exciting, the more desensitized to the idea viewers become. And from desensitization follows normalization, and from that follows practice. Because of the popularity and cultural cachet of programs and concepts like that of iZombie, our culture is now at the point where even the sleaziest, most sickening concepts and graphic gore are considered acceptable, everywhere and any time…even in front of children.
Perhaps what is needed is a story in which a salt of the earth hero, wielding a glorious sword, comes in and slays the zombie characters and those who make them, and who restores some semblance of order and sanity to the fantasy genre. Otherwise, the millions of fans who consume “entertainment” like iZombie and The Walking Dead will come to mentally resemble the zombies they so lovingly follow. That is, more than they already do.
For relentlessly sleazy concepts, CW’s iZombie is the Worst TV Show of the Week.
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