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Supernatural beings are often a stand-in for the very real horrors experienced (and often inflicted) by humans. Fear manifests itself in numerous ways, including collective global anxiety over atomic war and contagion from a disease — which has spawned countless movies over the last 80-plus years. Zombie movies date back to the '30s, even receiving the Cold War treatment in the Creature With the Atomic Brain in 1955, but it is George A. Romero who had the biggest cultural impact on this subgenre.
Zombies might be mindless killing machines, but Romero turned the brain-chomping monsters into an allegory for the civil rights movement in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead. Consumer culture was the target of Romero's follow-up in 1978. By using a mall as its central location, Dawn of the Dead showed that when it comes to capitalism, we are all in danger of turning into mindless creatures. Considering how frenzied Black Friday sales can turn, Romero was prescient with this allegory.
Since Romero, there have been many different interpretations of zombies, including more serious fare like 28 Days Later, computer-inspired franchises such as Resident Evil, and the long-running comic and TV series The Walking Dead. Zombie love stories have even got in on the action, including Warm Bodies and the depiction of a suburban marriage in Santa Clarita Diet. Not to be left out, comedy is also lining up to showcase zombies; Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland have both proved laughs can be had with the undead. A sequel to the latter will hit theaters on October 18, but it's the original Zombieland that provokes a pivotal discussion in the new Netflix limited series Unbelievable.
Spoilers for Unbelievable ahead.
Based on a true story, the eight-part mini-series has been adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning article An Unbelievable Story of Rape by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong. After 18-year-old Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever) is raped in her own home by a masked assailant, detectives question the validity of her story and pressure her into rewriting her witness statement to say that she made it all up. They then charge her with making a false statement (which is unusual when someone hasn't identified an attacker), which she ends up taking a plea deal for. Part of this involves getting court-appointed counseling. Marie does need therapy, but because she was sexually assaulted, not because she lied about it.
When she arrives at the counselor's office in Episode 7, she is reluctant to talk. After all, she has been branded a liar in the press, further isolating her from those she thought she could trust. Marie grew up in the foster care system and has been let down by a grown-up at every stage in her life, why should she open up now? Dara (Brooke Smith) isn't going to make Marie say or do anything, telling her they can sit in silence. For most of the session, this is what they do, but toward the end Marie is open to a discussion about movies. Dara asks what she has recently seen, and Marie's answer is Zombieland.
At the start of the session, Dara explains that while she can't stop bad things happening, she can "try to help you frame those bad things a little differently. Maybe help you see them through a different lens." As an entry point, Dara is very good at her job, letting Marie do the talking (when she finally wants to). She notes that she doesn't know what a zombie is — she is probably purposefully minimizing her comprehension, but it is effective, thereby empowering Marie as the most knowledgable in the room. Dara asks why these characters have survived when others haven't, and Marie notes that they have to be smart, brave, and strong-willed before getting to the crux of the matter: "You have to be careful who you can trust."
In explaining the plot, Marie explains the zombies aren't at fault; they are just following their insatiable hunger. Humans who cause trauma don't have this excuse, as they should know better. Other people are the ones who are likely to harm, and the difficult part of surviving a zombie apocalypse is those who "take advantage of the chaos." Dara asks if humans are ultimately untrustworthy, and anyone who has watched a zombie movie will know the answer is yes.
Marie's response is affirmative before she changes it to a maybe, as you never hear about the decent people. Her experience has taught her that you are "on your own" because even when someone says they have your back, this is a lie. In this case, by just discussing the very nature of a zombie apocalypse, the monster metaphor is laid at the feet of the people who have repeatedly let her down: the cops who didn't believe her, her former foster mom who told the detectives there was something "off" about her account, and her parents, who abandoned her at a young age after mistreating her. The list goes on, and except for a few, Marie has reason to mistrust.
Dara uses this discussion to get to the heart of Marie's recent traumatic experience and as a way to understand how much she has endured in her relatively short life. She is one of the first people who lets Marie talk while actively listening. There is no agenda, other than to understand why she has been sent there by the court. A grave mistake has been made by the police. By asking Marie about movies, she finds a way to gain her trust, despite the walls she has erected to protect herself. In a zombie apocalypse scenario, typically the way to survive is to find a group who will be there for you. Being alone is not the answer.
In another recent true crime story, the Dirty John podcast has a different survival moment relating to zombies. When Terra Newell is attacked by John Meehan, her mind goes to her favorite show, The Walking Dead. Meehan, who was much bigger than Newell, attacked her with a knife, but she used the "kill or be killed" mantra of the show and it worked. She stabbed Meehan through the eye, and reflecting on the event later, she said, "I guess that was my zombie kill. You need to kill their brain." In the recent Bravo adaptation, while The Walking Dead isn't specifically mentioned, the survival lesson is. "I just thought if there were ever a zombie apocalypse, I'd know what to do," says Julia Garner as Terra. Zombies provide a crash course in how to fight back for Terra, whereas in Marie's case on Unbelievable, discussing this subgenre lets her verbalize her bad experience in a way that allows her to be heard and understood.
Horror doesn't always get treated with the same deference as other forms of storytelling, but the use of metaphor and allegory reveals that beneath the surface there is often much more going on than a hunger for flesh. Zombieland is a comedy with a heart that emphasizes the importance of family (both the one you have and the one you make) and the dangers of solitude, while Unbelievable is a hard but vital watch featuring some of the best performances of 2019. In this counseling session, Marie isn't overly emotional, but as a viewer it is hard not to find this scene both heartbreaking and heartwarming because she has finally found a way to communicate how she feels. To hear trauma contextualized in this manner is revelatory, not because zombies haven't been allegories for a laundry list of human fears but because it is so simple and effective.