Posted on October 9, 2015

The Walking Dead and the Return to the Forest

Dawn

With the upcoming release, in early 2016, of Jason Zada’s The Forest, with its retelling of Japanese myths of people going to the Aokigahara Forest to die, I’ve been thinking about the return, as it were, of plants, trees, forests in recent horror film and TV. Not least in AMC’s The Walking Dead.

The Walking Dead is, of course, shot (and mostly set) in the beautiful lush landscapes of Georgia—and I definitely felt the absence of the richly enveloping, even devouring, vegetation as I was watching Fear the Walking Dead’s LA landscapes.

The vegetation of The Walking Dead is much more than background, though. There is a resonant connection between the vegetation and the walkers. Not least walkers often lurk in and stagger through fields and forests, blending in more and more as they decay.

Zombies in/as the forest: “No Sanctuary” (s. 5)

Zombies in/as the forest: “No Sanctuary” (s. 5)

The walkers even start to become literally interwoven with the vegetative, as we see a walker merging with a tree (“Isolation”) and with vines (“Indifference”) in season four.

“Isolation” (s. 4)

“Isolation” (s. 4)

“Indifference” (s. 4)

“Indifference” (s. 4)

What both of these moments do is to animate rather violently a usually benign vegetation: trees and vines now seem desperate to eat the survivors, invoking the carnivorous beings of plant horror. (The Day of the Triffids comes to mind, John Wyndham’s wonderful 1951 novel, as well as its several film and TV incarnations.)

But while plants and trees seem to be vivified by the zombies, becoming more violent than is their usual state, humans are rendered quiescent—literally vegetative—as they too (like the zombies) blend with the overwhelming natural landscape of the post-apocalyptic world. This merging is a step toward a loss of humanity and part of the heavy cost of survival: characters start to feel the allure of the zombie-vegetative state as an alternative to constant threat, death, loss, and violence.

The first instance of this merging of the human with the vegetative—the becoming vegetative of the human—involves Jim in season one. He doesn’t want to make the stark decision to get the bullet in the head—he wants to slip into the zombie state, a merging (and a loss of self, of struggle) that becomes manifest in his leaning against a tree (anticipating the zombie-tree of season four).

“Wildfire” (s. 1)

“Wildfire” (s. 1)

Indeed, the series is punctuated with shots of bodies hanging in trees—people who couldn’t struggle anymore and desired the peace of the not-quite death of the zombie-vegetative state. In the shot below, Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Andrea (Laurie Holden) come across a suicide-turned-zombie, hanging in the tree on which is posted a note “might as well quit.”

“Save the Last One” (s. 2)

“Save the Last One” (s. 2)

In one crucial moment in season four, Michonne (Danai Gurira) briefly succumbs to the allure of quiescence, to the pull of the vegetative. After the devastating confrontation with the Governor at the prison, separated from all her friends, she briefly stops fighting, stops trying to find the other survivors and just walks blindly through the landscape, a world of vegetation that briefly mirrors her interior, her surrender, her lost desire for life. That this is a step toward being “zombie” is highlighted by the fact that Michonne is drifting along next to a walker that just looks uncannily like her. (In fact, it’s when Michonne becomes aware of this threatening resemblance that she snaps out of it, kills her zombie-double and tracks down her friends.)

“After” (s. 4)

“After” (s. 4)

Neither Michonne nor any of the other survivors, though, can fight off the proximity of the zombie-vegetative forever. The survivors (like all of us) are all part of one ecology—humans, rotting corpses, trees, plants. Some survivors become food for walkers; all survivors and walkers eventually merge with the earth, becoming food for vegetal life. (Elizabeth’s post on “Why Zombies are Scary” makes exactly this point: we all decay!)

I wonder if we won’t learn, in the end, that the virus is a “natural” occurrence. After all, we already know that “we’re all infected.” Hershel (Scott Wilson) recognized the interdependence of human life and plant life, as he went searching for medicines among the plants of the woods around the prison in season four (and found the zombie tree). But while remedies emerge from the forests, so too do diseases, often bred at the confluence of animal and vegetable.

The ending of Steven Soderburgh’s 2011 Contagion is brilliant in this regard, as it traces the global pandemic that seemingly began in a Hong Kong casino back to an encounter between a bat emerging from a banana tree in a forest and a pig. (And I’ve always thought Contagion was the perfect zombie narrative, lacking only the zombies!)

7. Contagion, ending

In season five, The Walking Dead focused much more overtly on predation than the zombie-vegetative—a survival-of-the-fittest theme made explicit in the refrain “Either you’re the butcher or you’re the cattle” and echoed in the “claimers” plot-line and in the shot of Rick reading Darwinian-par-excellence Jack London. But we were left at the end of season 5 with the impending threat of the “wolves”—iconic animals of the forest. The threat of the wolf is often bound up with the threat of the wilderness, the threat of the forest.

I discuss the zombie-vegetative in more depth in “The ‘Vegetative Part’: Organic and Plant Life in The Walking Dead,” Journal of Popular Television 3.1 (2015): 37-55).

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