In Season 2 of the zombie apocalypse show Fear the Walking Dead, Nick, a gringo junkie from Los Angeles, survives separation from his family by slathering himself with zombie guts and walking amongst a zombie herd. Zombies can’t sense your tasty human vitality when you’re covered in their own slime. This slathering/wandering scene—which takes place in Baja California, Mexico, where Nick and his family entered illegally from the US by boat—shows that Nick has gone native. Like the Mexicans around him, he allows himself to be contaminated with putridity in order to survive, an act apparently too humiliating for the other gringos on Fear the Walking Dead and its companion show The Walking Dead.
This scene, like many other moments in the Walking Dead universe, turns on the futility of erecting borders, both national and bodily. Unlike the gringos in both shows, most Mexican characters in Fear the Walking Dead assume that borders between nations are always permeable, and walking among zombies covered in their guts might work better than killing them. This difference is all about boundaries: do you make them and defend them or do you live as if permeation is inevitable? This distinction provides us with a useful way to think about our current president and his fixation on border walls.
Fear the Walking Dead is a spinoff of its wildly popular companion show, The Walking Dead. The show premiered in 2010 on AMC and went to become first, the highest-rated cable show in United States history, and then, the highest-rated show among 18–49 year olds for either cable or broadcast TV. Over seven seasons and counting, The Walking Dead follows Rick Grimes, a white, small-town Georgia cop, and his band of biological and chosen family as they learn to survive—heroically, and then less so—in the same zombie apocalypse Nick faces in Fear the Walking Dead nearly a continent away. Originally, The Walking Dead was set in rural Georgia with occasional forays into a devastated Atlanta, while in the last few seasons the action has moved to rural and suburban enclaves near Washington, DC. The show returns for its eighth season in October 2017.
“We Mexicans know how to survive because the zombies have been here all along!”
The Walking Dead explores typical zombie apocalypse themes of contagion and disgust within a never-ending struggle for survival amid regular onslaughts of zombies and human marauders, both seeking food. The Southeast’s history of savage racial inequality goes mostly unacknowledged, despite black characters who die earlier and more often than white ones. The focus instead is on our heroes’ endless attempts to barricade themselves behind walls with weapons.
These two defenses fail every time. Rick and his group plant gardens and care for children behind whatever barricade they find or erect during that particular season. Then comes the inevitable failure. From the prison in Season 3 to Woodbury in Season 4 to the luxury eco-friendly suburb Alexandria turned fortress in Seasons 5, 6, and 7, the walls are always breached. Either the weight of the accumulated zombie horde piles up on the other side and knocks the wall down, or rival humans—like the Governor seeking domination, food, and weapons—topples the wall with tanks. Season 7 introduces new groups who have developed different barrier methods for keeping zombies and people out (hiding within massive garbage dumps, making deals with war lords to stay outside their walls, et cetera). As always, most fail. And as humans battle each other over the breached walls, they are often too distracted to notice the oncoming zombies.
This distraction is fatal. One infectious zombie bite makes you a zombie and there is no cure, except sometimes a speedy amputation of the bitten limb. Most characters prefer to kill zombies on sight.
Some, though, have a more ambivalent relationship. The bad guys keep zombies around for sport, for target practice, or for torturing other humans. Some good guys keep them around for protection, like Michonne, who, before she rejoins humanity, wanders with two zombies, her kin, chained at the neck with their jaws cut off. Some, like Hershel, a devout Christian, maintain the misguided idea that zombies might become human again. Strangest of all, early on Rick and his group discover that covering themselves in zombie guts offers protection, but they only deploy this trick on special occasions. Most often, they forget about this option and someone dies. Instead, the plot advances by means of their building walls and walking the outside world with weapons. Shoot zombies. Don’t blend in.
The companion series and quasi-prequel to The Walking Dead is Fear the Walking Dead, which debuted in 2015 and is now in its third season, with at least one more season to come. The show focuses on a “blended” family: a white high school guidance counselor, Madison, and her two kids, Nick (the junkie) and Alicia, and Madison’s second husband, Travis, and his son Chris. Travis is Māori and Chris is Latino/Māori. Madison’s family and other people they encounter, including a family from El Salvador, survive the beginning of the zombie apocalypse in Los Angeles. In Season 2 they head with a larger group by boat to Mexico’s Baja peninsula and then back to the border region, where the show seems to have landed for all of Season 3.
Unlike The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead dives head first into anxieties about contemporary Mexico/US relations and the violent history of land and resource grabs at the border. Fear the Walking Dead is the first US program to be regularly filmed in Mexico, which may have begun as a cost-cutting measure. But the producers milk all the ironies this change of nation allows, like when Madison’s group enters Mexico by boat and the remnants of the Mexican government attempts tao keep them out.
The Walking Dead is onto something about the difference between life in Mexico and the United States.
With its uneven writing that involves characters making nonsensical decisions in order to drive plot, Fear the Walking Dead can be a maddening viewing experience. But it’s also strangely satisfying, because of the show’s bald acknowledgement of the violence that made and continues to sustain the United States and its borderlands. No one is heroic, at least not for long. The show’s antiheroic stance makes many of the characters compelling, who, unlike characters in The Walking Dead, don’t spend much time struggling to remain pure and good in a vicious world.
Take Celia, one of Fear the Walking Dead’s most beguiling antiheroes. Madison’s family, including Nick, was transported to Mexico by Victor Strand, a gay black con artist who wants to return to his love, Thomas, a wealthy Baja landholder. When they arrive at Thomas’s hacienda, Madison’s group meets Celia, Thomas’s estate manager, who mothered Thomas his whole life. Victor is distraught to discover that Thomas is near death from a zombie bite; while Victor spends Tomas’ final sentient hours with him, Celia takes command. Celia is an astoundingly stereotypical—and astoundingly well-played—ferocious bruja (a witch connected to the spirit world). Like Hershel, Celia keeps and protects her zombified loved ones in the hacienda’s wine cellar. She tells us the dead have always walked among us. They are us. She intends to put Thomas there when he “turns,” and turns her fury on Victor when he reneges on a promise to kill himself and join his beloved Thomas in zombiedom. The midseason finale of Season 2 finds Madison and Celia in a pitched mama battle over Nick’s soul. Ultimately Madison kills Celia, but it is at this point that Nick leaves to walk among the zombie herd, covered in slime. So perhaps, for a while at least, Celia was the winner after all.
Season 3 of Fear the Walking Dead revisits the history of how the West was won through bloody and unequal battles for land and resources along the contested border. On the Mexican side, the battle rages over water, which crime lords now control, as regular people die of thirst. On the US side, Native Americans fight for the land stolen from them by survivalist white-supremacist ranchers decades earlier. Unlike in The Walking Dead, where good guys build walls, in Fear the Walking Dead it’s the bad guys who most often erect boundaries—and do so in order to protect their access to stolen water and land. Beforehand though, we are shown an alternate, less aggressive mode of survival through zombie guts.
The way zombie guts are put to use in Season 2 of Fear the Walking Dead goes a long way to help us understand why the gringos in The Walking Dead up North don’t use this survival tactic. It’s not for rugged individuals with weapons. It’s for the powerless. As both shows make clear, zombie offal is repulsive. Zombie guts ruin your clothes and stink like holy hell. And yet, once the main characters in Fear the Walking Dead enter Baja, we witness how locals, “The Mexicans,” cover themselves in guts with barely a shrug. They do it everyday, which allows them freedom to wander in their new world, most often without weapons. The humble, especially women and children, walk among the zombies unbitten.
The Walking Dead is onto something about the difference between life in Mexico and the United States. As a gringa anthropologist who works in Mexico City, I study how scientists and regular people, both in Mexico and the US, experience and understand “bodily boundaries,” especially with regards to chemical exposure. In the US, scientists and middle-class people live as if their bodies are fortresses that they can defend, preventing the entrance of unwanted matter from the outside, especially toxins and pathogens. In Mexico, most working-class people I know assume that the world constantly permeates their bodies; there is no keeping impurities out.
The residents of the working-class neighborhoods in Mexico City where I spend time live amid putrid sewage-filled dams, toxic recycling zones, and cement dust–spewing factories. These toxins might make people sick in the long term, but they also provide protection in the now. The danger the residents most fear comes from another threat: the police. Militarized since declaration of the War on Drugs in 2006, the police are known criminals. They threaten neighborhoods, shake down small business owners, and disappear and kill people. The police don’t like to enter the neighborhoods buffered by putrid zones. The toxins work to keep them out (most of the time).
In this precarious landscape, everyone wants to talk with me about The Walking Dead. I’ve spent many an afternoon with friends and neighbors dissecting zombie slaying skills and admiring my friends’ costumes for zombie meet-ups in Mexico City’s historic center. Now with Fear the Walking Dead set in Mexico they laugh: “We Mexicans know how to survive because the zombies have been here all along!”
So we know then that gringo Nick has “gone native” when he wanders with zombie herds, all painted in gut slime, as Celia’s people taught him to do. We might notice though, how Nick’s blood-painted visage bears a striking resemblance to Captain Willard on his final mission to kill Captain Kurtz, as he arises from the river, face masked in mud. That killing occurred in Apocalypse Now, of course, another imperialist and apocalyptic fantasy about how the colonial heart of darkness turns white men native.
After wandering among the zombies in Season 2, Nick eventually finds refuge in a Mexican community, La Colonia, that feels achingly familiar to me from living in Mexico City. The people of La Colonia survive thanks to protection from a zombie herd of their own family members. Coming and going through the zombie buffer zone means covering yourself in the guts of your loved ones. Better to smell like zombie guts than die at the hands of armed men roaming post-apocalyptic Mexico, who are not all that different from the armed men currently roaming pre-apocalyptic Mexico.
Up north, the gang from The Walking Dead continues to forget the zombie-gut survival tool. As gringos they just can’t get that entangled with the zombies. It’s too humiliatingly invasive. Instead, they act as if their guns and crossbows and boundary walls offer full protection. They come from the same nation that produced our current mind-bending reality, where our deeply paranoid, famously germaphobic president conjures visions of a wall that will keep the supposedly criminal hordes out.
The thing is, as any historian or biologist will tell you, firm boundaries have never been able to keep out people or pathogens. Think of China’s Great Wall, or antibiotic resistance. Scientists are now learning what Celia and my Mexican neighbors already know: We are not fortresses. And we need to figure out how to live, permeated by what’s been here all along.