[Edited to add: Spoiler alert towards the end of this post. No complaining.]
I want to state at the outset that I’m neither a lover nor an avid consumer of zombie media. What zombie films I’ve watched have been either to humor friends of mine or as part of a general fondness for the horror genre which can, on occasion, involve zombies. Feed was the first zombie novel I’ve tried reading.
With that disclaimer out of the way, I have to admit that I really rather enjoyed the Newsflesh trilogy. I know, I was surprised, too. Part of my indifference to the zombie subgenre arises from a plot standpoint – zombies just aren’t very compelling antagonists. They’re mindless. They’re homogeneous. They lack motivation, plans, goals, personalities – in short, zombies fail because they are, quite simply, too stupid to be interesting. In effect, zombies are essentially an ambulatory disease, a background condition to render the world more dangerous and tenuous as our protagonists stumble about trying not to die.
Attempts to move past this (the first of two major issues I have with the zombie genre) have cast zombies as the result of sinister governments or corporations, a form of biological warfare taken to the extreme. The Resident Evil franchise falls into this category – at this point, zombies are just window dressing for a plot about the evils of corporate greed, overzealous nationalism, or any of a number of other standard tropes. They represent either a deliberate weapon, or the result of human folly on a massive scale. Again, they are no more than props.
My second difficulty with the zombie genre is the presumed fragility of civilization. Zombie films are, for the most part, stories about the collapse of human order used to demonstrate a variety of morality tales, the details of which aren’t particularly necessary for this review. As such, they’re a form of apocalypse literature, and show us how our dependence on law and order, our belief in civilization, are always one step away from disintegration. Which can be interesting, if handled very carefully, but until recently rested on very tenuous logic – civilization is normal, zombies appear, civilization collapses, humans are reduced to hardscrabble existence.
Which is kind of an interesting morality tale if what you want is to show people either how necessary civilization is (or we devolve into cannibals and wanton destruction) or if you want to demonstrate how people are better off without the sort of modern civilization and governance that we’ve come to take for granted, but doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Modern resources and infrastructure are a lot more adaptable than these doomsday prophets seem to think. Widespread animation of the dead would certainly disrupt the way we live now. It would almost definitely require a restructuring of custom and paradigm to deal with a new problem. But civilization is unlikely to simply disappear entirely, so zombie films largely felt like parody to me.
Enter Newsflesh. Set about two and a half decades after the initial Rising, zombies are established to be neither the result of nefarious plotting nor the unfortunate side effect of nefarious experimentation. Instead, human efforts to improve medical technology by harnessing viruses that will defeat both cancer and the common cold interact in an unexpected way to produce a hybrid virus capable of seizing control of a mammalian nervous system and animating it for a period after death. At first, it seems like a tragic accident, one that has resulted in a restructuring of social norms – children raised after the Rising grew up in tightly secured and controlled environments. Leaving the home is always dangerous, and large gatherings of humans are rare, because if one individual suddenly dies (asthmatic attack, brain aneurysm, heart attack, &c.), everyone in the vicinity is at risk. Onset of full infection is extremely, almost cartoonishly, rapid; it happens within a matter of minutes or hours, depending on a variety of host conditions.
What makes this so pernicious, so ubiquitous, is that the hybrid virus causing zombiedom is pretty much all mammals carry. It renders humans largely immune to the common cold and to cancers of all kinds, crosses the placental barrier so that all infants are born with the virus, and resists all attempts to clean it out. So far, we have a tragic story of human ingenuity gone wrong in an unforeseeable way.
We also have the story from the perspective, initially, of Georgia Mason, an online journalist. A blogger. Her heroes include Edward R. Murrow and Hunter S. Thompson, and her obsession with “The Truth” reminds me of a much more straight-laced Spider Jerusalem, though that might just be because she’s flanked by a tech genius fiction writer and her brother, an adventurous news blogger in the tradition of Steve Irwin. Like Jerusalem, she and her compatriots follow along on the campaign trail of a Presidential hopeful; like Jerusalem, they begin to encounter a dangerous conspiracy that eventually infects Georgia with the amplified hybrid virus. We lose her train of narration near the end of the first book when her beloved brother, fellow blogger Shaun, shoots her before she loses her faculties entirely…though not before she writes a final, impassioned plea to the world to “Rise Up.”
The scenes where the bloggers encounter espionage, danger, and officious government assholes dovetail nicely with the inclusion of excerpts from their respective blogs and the description of their frantic efforts to “tell the truth” through quick-return journalism, all of which calls to mind the scene where Spider Jerusalem reports on the Angels 8 riots, perched on a rooftop with his laptop on his knees, surrounded by exotic dancers. The scene where Georgia interviews Republican competitor Tate and describes his cold, empty stare calls to mind Jerusalem’s opinion of the Smiler. All of which sets us up for a grand finale where the intrepid bloggers topple Tate and his conspiracy.
But we discover that the conspiracy goes much farther than Tate, and we begin to see a lot more possibilities for drawing parallels as the situation unfolds in Deadline.