Zombie stories are about dehumanization, about what makes an entire population less than human and a threat to civilization itself, whether that’s racism (Night of the Living Dead) or consumerism (Dawn of the Dead), apathy (Shaun of the Dead) or rage (28 Days Later). The CW’s iZombie, on the other hand, is more interested in how zombies get their humanity back.
The show is very clear on the cause of zombification: trauma. Like her predecessor Veronica Mars—the titular protagonist of another mystery show by series creator Rob Thomas—Liv Moore (yes, that’s her name, the show loves puns) survives a violent assault and finds herself disconnected and numb afterwards, withdrawing from her family and friends and subject to mood swings and violent outbursts: all classic symptoms of trauma. She also turns chalk white and needs to eat a brain a week to stay sane, so the metaphor only extends so far. Still… like Veronica before her, Liv finds purpose by solving crimes, using her skills as a medical examiner and ability to experience the memories of the people she eats.
And while the show tracks Liv’s growth over four seasons so far (all available on Netflix), it also tracks the growth of the zombie community of Seattle. And most zombies want to live normal lives and pretend that they’re not zombies. They dye their hair and get fake tans, and they source their brains from (probably untrustworthy) brain suppliers so they don’t have to kill anyone.
But at the end of season three, there’s a zombie outbreak—the existence of zombies becomes public knowledge, and the zombie population jumps from a couple hundred to ten thousand. A wall goes up to keep the zombies in, the government provides the zombies with brains from around the country, and everyone has to adjust to the idea that zombies are real. Season four of iZombie then becomes an allegory for how minority groups create their own identity and develop their own subculture in response to trauma.
Like every culture, zombies have their own cuisine. Not just the brains, obviously, but also the use of peppers and intense hot sauce so that they can feel some sensation through their numbed senses. Zombies further develop new ways of preparing the brains they eat. Every episode features Liv cooking this week’s brain in some new (thematically appropriate) way: deep fried if it’s the brain of a football fanatic, in chocolate bon bons for the hopeless romantic. Other zombies chemically treat brains so that the experienced memories of the departed become even more intense. Still others create a multi-brain mush so that the psychic flashes and personality traits of individual brains don’t affect the consumer at all.
Having their own food quickly leads to zombie bars and restaurants. Having their own spaces leads to zombie organizations and social gatherings. Zombie organizations lead to zombie lobbying groups, zombie companies, zombie schools where zombie kids are segregated from the larger population. Because zombies are stronger and harder to kill than normal humans, there are zombie extreme sports where they’re run through with swords and other weapons (since only a headshot or other means of destroying a zombie’s brain are fatal). And, eventually, we see the rise and development of a zombie religion, full of references to resurrection and the end times.
In the world of iZombie, zombies existed in fiction long before they appeared in “real” life. So a lot of zombie culture is drawn from pre-existing depictions of zombies. Liv calls zombies who become mindless, shambling monsters “Full Romeros.” The zombie dance of choice is Thriller. Zombie fashion tends towards the goth. And a lot of the prejudices about zombies are created by television shows, from real shows like Game of Thrones and in-universe shows like “Zombie High”.
Just as Liv uses crime fighting to give her half-life purpose, the zombie population as a whole uses this newly created culture to make meaning out of their traumatic transformations. They find not just comfort and support in each other and their shared experience, but also joy, excitement, even pride in their new identities. Some zombies go from shame over their new status to feeling superior to the weaker and more delicate uninfected humans.
Of course, the creation of a zombie cultural identity inspires backlash. To say you are one thing often means you are not something else, and that creates violent tension. People don’t want to work with zombies, don’t want them in their schools or driving their buses, don’t want to live near them. Zombie children are thrown out of their homes. An anti-zombie vigilante group goes around beating and killing zombies. The program that provides brains is constantly threatened with cuts and shortages, because people don’t think it’s right to feed zombies anything. And there’s more interest in finding a zombie vaccine rather than a cure, because uninfected people don’t think zombies are worth saving—they only know they don’t want to be one themselves.
(One could argue that the anti-zombie sentiment is warranted to some degree, because some zombies do kill and eat people, but I’d point out that it’s a murder-of-the-week show, and almost all of the killers have had a pulse.)
Importantly, zombification on the show is an allegory for subcultures in general, not any one particular culture. The talk of cures, vaccines, infection, and quarantine is drawn from communities hit with AIDS (which the show itself makes a meta-joke when a director puts on an “updated” version of Rent where half the cast hungers for brains). The split between zombies that dye their hair to fit in and those that don’t specifically in order to stand out is a photo negative of passing and light skin privilege for African Americans. Zombies’ special diet, and the greater public’s disinterest in accommodating it, reflects the struggles of the disabled community.
One downside of iZombie is that it isn’t great at actually portraying or representing the subcultures from which it draws. There are no significant disabled or queer characters. Most of the cast is in their mid-thirties. And aside for two prominent men of color amongst the major characters, the rest of the main cast ranges from white to very white to literally named Lilywhite (the show loves puns). And when it does explore specific subcultures, whether it be LARPing or sex work or whatever, the culture is used as a source of humor as often as it is portrayed with empathy.
Still, iZombie is a great story for 2018. The apocalypse happens, thousands are forever changed, and… life goes on. People go back to work. They adjust. They grow. Some people try to pretend that nothing has changed, and are punished for it. Others can never go back to how they were, and learn a new way to live. Becoming a zombie, trauma, is horrible, nobody should have to go through it—but it’s not the end of the world.
It’s only the beginning.