Early on in the Danish post-apocalyptic science-fiction series The Rain, the protagonists are set upon by hordes of ravenous, feral marauders. It's a trope familiar from innumerable zombie narratives—but this time, there's a twist. The attacking monsters aren't hungry for flesh. They're hungry for food. The undead, in this instance, aren't undead. They're just people.
The series, now streaming on Netflix, is set in Denmark, six years in the future. A deadly virus spread by rain has killed the bulk of the populace. Simone (Alba August) and her young brother, Rasmus (Lucas Lynggaard Tønnesen), emerge from their weather-proof bunker to find a world in shambles. Any contact with undistilled water, or with people already infected by the virus, results in vomiting and bleeding as a prelude to a swift and messy death.
In these conditions, government and society have mostly disintegrated—which means, inevitably, that the real danger Simone and Rasmus face is not from the rain, but from other people. A gang breaks into the bunker and almost kills them. When they make their way up to the surface, they're in constant danger from starving marauders. The virus doesn't turn people into zombies; it just kills them. But the fear of being killed makes everyone act like zombies anyway.
The Rain raises uncomfortable questions about environmental apocalypse. Are we really concerned about the planet when we warn that life on Earth will cease?
On The Rain, that monster of ecological disaster is terrible. The series is somber, and in the early episodes, soaked with grief. In the first episode, Simone and Rasmus squat in their bunker, buried alive, as they mourn their parents. The claustrophobic camera angles reinforce the stifling sense of depression and helplessness. Things hardly get better when the two finally emerge into the world above. They are soft, kind and ill-equipped to deal with the eat-or-be-eaten world they find themselves in. Simone, for example, shares some food with a desperate man trying to protect his child. The good deed is swiftly punished; when others discover the man has food, they tear him to pieces.
The future isn't nightmarish in every respect, though. Or, rather, the nightmare itself has some surreptitiously appealing qualities. When Simone first emerges from the bunker for a nighttime reconnaissance, she encounters animals who are completely unafraid of humans. Flora and fauna stretch and luxuriate and fill the spaces left by homo sapiens' self-immolation. When humans die, everything else thrives; to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, a hell for us is a heaven for them. The poisoning of the world looks, from the perspective of a deer or a wolf, more like healing. The future dystopia is a kind of nostalgic Eden.
That Eden isn't just quiet contemplation. It's also the pleasure of violence and struggle. A world rid of human civilization is a world with more space for adventure, excitement and struggle. It's a world, in short, that makes for good television. The leader of the band whom Simone and Rasmus fall in with, Martin (Mikkel Følsgaard), has adapted to the kill-or-be-killed future, and that makes him admirable, exciting, interesting. He has been initiated into a truth that Simone has not yet grappled with.
This dynamic is, again, familiar from any number of zombie narratives. The characters in The Walking Dead have to learn to be hard and ruthless to survive a life reduced to its cruel essence. Romero's original Dawn of the Dead (1978) makes the contrast between civilization and the grotesque id even more explicit by setting most of the narrative in a shopping mall. The heroes barricade themselves in a fortress of decadent luxury, which is inevitably besieged and destroyed, to the delight of the film's not-very-buried. Humans and their stuff are a blight on the earth. Let's wash them away—with rain or zombies, it doesn't much matter which.
Romeros' original Night of the Living Dead (1968) vaguely attributed the zombie plague to radiation, linking it to an earlier era's environmental fears. The Rain makes the connection more pointed. In doing so, it raises uncomfortable questions about the rhetoric of environmental apocalypse. Are we really concerned about the planet when we warn that life on Earth will cease? Or are we excited at the pulp narrative of a toothy revenge upon the weak and effete?
In his book Against the Fascist Creep, Alexander Reid Ross notes that fascist groups have long tried to infiltrate radical environmental movements. A politics which finds spirituality and strength in nature, and sees modernity as a disgusting infestation, can lead, potentially, to some ugly places. Imagining the potential benefits of a world without us can be twisted by the unscrupulous into a plea for genocide.
The Rain certainly recognizes the danger. Like many a zombie narrative, it is both horrified by and attracted to its lurching antagonists. Maybe it would be better if nature washed us all away; maybe we shouldn't care what happens to people. But, as The Rain is aware, it's because humans didn't care enough about other people that the planet today is among the walking dead.