Zombie Apocalypse

Earlier this week, Discovery canceled its American Guns reality series, which depicted the lives of Colorado gun-shop owner Rich Wyatt, his wife, and his two teenage stepchildren. The network denied being compelled by last Friday's tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Judging by the decision to go ahead and broadcast Zombie Apocalypse at its originally scheduled airtime, Discovery might just be telling the truth. 

More than Scandal, Family Guy, Homeland, or any other series preempted or introduced with cautionary disclaimers since the incident, Zombie Apocalypse looms as hugely inflammatory. One week ago, or maybe even a couple weeks hence, the docu-special could have been processed as likely intended: a harmless bit of exploitation TV capitalizing on The Walking Dead and its kin’s popularity. Instead, in the immediate shadow of what occurred at Sandy Hook and in light of subsequent second amendment debates, Apocalypse feels shallow and lurid, raising far more questions than it answers. Not about zombies, but the mental stability of individuals who stockpile arms and military-grade defense equipment, ready to aim and fire should what they deem an undead uprising threaten their family.

During one especially uncomfortable exchange, a group of Manhattan, Kansas-based men known as the Anti-Zombie Militia (think the rogue vampire assassins on True Blood) fiercely roundtable about whether they’d be able to kill their own and others’ children in the event that they “turn.” And that’s not the only hypothetical scenario laid out involving how to cope with putting kids down. At one point, while standing outside a new U.S. Agro-Defense facility virtually in his backyard, Militia founder Alfredo Carbajal frets over experimental animals getting loose with an elementary school nearby.

One of the four zombie-phobes profiled—oddly genteel Ted Nugent lookalike Shawn Beatty—is actually a high school language teacher. In Walking Dead terms, Shawn would ally with Daryl. He prefers crossbows to guns and stalks the aisles of pet stores for cat food he can thrive on should supplies diminish after the virus spreads. While Shawn’s a relative peacenik compared to the other three zombie preppers, it’s hard not to wonder how he feels today about what some would argue is a paranoid-delusional rationale to keep dangerous weapons throughout his property.

The other fearful Americans in question are mother of two Patti Heffernan, who’s already mapped out the best sniper spots from her balcony, and South Floridian firearms instructor Matt Oakey, who views the infamous Rudy Eugene aka “Miami Zombie” attack this past May as a harbinger of feedings to come. Oakey even travels to Kansas for a meeting of the minds with Carbajal, where the latter breaks down how the bio-lab is “bringing in some pretty bad viruses, diseases to study on,” while Oakey diligently scribbles notes and laments that the escaped contagions could infest Heartlands feedstock. Ever the diligent zombie-phobe, Oakey also visits a Santeria expert back in Miami to understand the possible connection between ancient voodoo and eminent viral outbreak.

He and the other preppers’ testimonials are corroborated by a borderline-reprehensible cast of doctors and professors who not only exacerbate mythic aspects of the subject matter by using the term “zombie” in earnest, but range from seemingly unqualified to lacking incisiveness. There’s most certainly a scientific conversation amid all these neuroses. It’s not out of line for “Apocalypse” to broach the subject of worst-case-scenario viral mutations and differentiate those highly unlikely conditions from common notions of rotted corpses emerging from cemeteries. It’s also within the bounds of reason to suggest conspiracy theories about hush-hush government trials that might go awry. But it’s deeply questionably why anyone should care what Ottawa University Mathematics professor Robert Smith has to say on the matter, or what useful arguments an International Politics lecturer from Tufts has to present. Only Harvard Medical School Psychiatric professor Steven C. Schlozman M.D. carries a title with pertinent heft, and his expertise amounts to captain-obvious summaries like, “They pursue in order to feed, and in order to feed, they attack.” He also splits a sheep’s brain to illustrate how a zombie's would be sorely impaired in the frontal lobe and cerebellum.

The entirety of Apocalypse, even under academic pretense, seems to operate from a baseline assumption that a rapidly spread zombie takeover is plausible. It doesn’t dare spend a moment probing the psyches and back-stories of Oakey and co., let alone suggest any concern over mass media perpetuating hypochondria with sensationalized coverage of violent crimes. A rash of acts similar to Rodney Eugene’s assault of Ronald Poppo are detailed as if to legitimize a pattern, before cutting back to Heffernan, Beatty or Carbajal’s collective warehouse of semi-automatics, grenades and even tanks. Without Newtown as a backdrop, those are lazy associations. Now, they teeter on yellow journalism.

Strip that context away, and you’re still left with an expectedly tacky production that relies on cheap, often tasteless dramatizations or re-creations of Eugene’s vicious assault and teens whacked out on bath salts. There’s pretty much zero intellectual credibility to Zombie Apocalypse and nominal entertainment value. Normally, failing to provide something watchable would be its biggest sin. But with the country still reeling from the loss of 27 innocent women and children and carefully approaching national dialogue on future prevention, it shines a harsh light on some very complicated questions about freedom, mental health and self-preservation that go completely unaddressed. Even with the supposedly impending Mayan doomsday hovering, Discovery should have cut its losses and aired “Apocalypse” long after the dust settled. Or at least once the parents, family and friends of those who died in Newtown have had time to grieve over their living nightmare.

Stray observations:

  • For whatever it’s worth, one of the four profiled individuals has a Facebook page that prohibits any dissemination or reproduction of its content. But it’s out there.
  • There really was some disturbing content in the show, so if you’ve been affected by the tragedy in Newtown directly or otherwise, I do recommend skipping past it on your cable guide.
  • My intention is not to politicize Zombie Apocalypse or further suffuse the existing politics surrounding what happened at Newtown with any more cause for consternation. But I am very interested in what everyone, particularly those who’ve seen the show, have to say. Let’s just please be respectful, and thank you for reading.