While the first ever zombie film was made way back in 1932 (Victor Halperin’s White Zombie, starring Bela Lugosi) and wasn’t popularized as a genre until George A. Romero’s The Night of the Living Dead in 1968, it was only in the 21st century that the undead became a genuine phenomenon in pop culture.
Over the last 16 years, we have seen an epidemic in all forms of culture featuring some form of a zombie plague to the point where is has become an embarrassment to even use the word “zombie”. Just as a zombie’s nature is to be inconsistent (thanks to Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge for that observation), the quality of the genre has been likewise in this period but there can be little doubt that the most popular proponent of it has been AMC’s The Walking Dead.
As it stands, The Walking Dead is the second most Liked TV drama on Facebook and it’s been so successful that its season’s premieres and finales have attracted even more viewers than Sunday night football games. It’s a trend that’s set to continue this evening with the debut of the show’s highly anticipated seventh season but during its time, The Walking Dead has proved to be a problematic series and has received heavy criticism and backlashes at times.
And yet, The Walking Dead endures as ably as its eponymous monsters and to understand why this is, we need to go back to a certain deserted capital city in 2002.
As director Danny Boyle was filming Cillian Murphy stumble around quietened streets at 4am in London, England he could have had little idea of the seismic change these now iconic shots would have on the world. His then little-known movie 28 Days Later would be released in late 2002 to near universal acclaim and considerable box office success.
28 Days Later completely revitalized the zombie genre not only thanks to its creepy and stirring opening half hour but also by modernizing the creatures themselves. Rather than corpses rising from graves and shuffling towards the living, these 21st century zombies were lightning fast and known as the “infected” as they were consumed by the RAGE virus inadvertently released at the start of the film in an animal testing lab. And much like 28 Days Later‘s fictional disease, the film would prove to be highly contagious itself.
It would take only two years for the pandemic to become clear to audiences as Zack Snyder’s blockbuster remake of Romero’s The Dawn of the Dead opened within mere months of Edgar Wright’s classic zombie comedy, Shaun of the Dead, in 2004. The die was cast from here on in as a slew of zombie films, books, and video games began to advance on pop culture. So infectious was the introduction of 28 Days Later that there have been some 300 films released this century alone based on the concept of a zombie threat but it was actually only a year after the debut of Danny Boyle’s influential hit that its most potent strain was starting to evolve.
WHEN THERE’S NO MORE ROOM IN THEATERS, THE DEAD WILL WALK THE AIRWAVES
In 2003, a certain Robert Kirkman had his comic book based on a zombie apocalypse published. It opened in nearly identical fashion to the previous year’s 28 Days Later as our protagonist, Rick Grimes, awoke alone in a hospital and into a very different world before his accident. Entitled The Walking Dead, the monthly comic steadily gained popularity and acclaim until it eventually drew the attention of screen adaptation extraordinaire. Frank Darabont. and the AMC Network. By the time the first episode of The Walking Dead premiered in 2010 it’s fair to say that audiences had already reached “Peak Zombie” and there were some fears the show would struggle due to the over-saturation of its concept.
This was not the case, however, as AMC’s The Walking Dead proved to be a huge success right from the start and it had an emotional resonance and well-rounded characters that felt fresh in the stale genre at the time. So happy were AMC with the show’s reception and ratings, they hastily commissioned an expanded second series before the brief first season -a mere six episodes- had finished its run. While the already considerable army of fans welcomed the news, the second season was not so warmly received.
Firstly, Frank Darabont, who had been the show’s lead writer, quit over AMC’s decision to cut the budget of each show by 11% to make the extended length of the season more affordable. Then it became clear why Darabont had reached his decision when the second season was transmitted in the Fall of 2011 with the first few episodes almost devoid of the action and set pieces that had made the preceding season so compelling and rewarding.
The second season earned the nickname of “The Talking Dead” and while it was by no means a total borefest or totally devoid of drama, it did signify a change in tone that still lingers in the show to this day. The Walking Dead transitioned from being a taught thriller to a kind of post-apocalyptic soap opera where the zombie threat became part of the wallpaper rather than the focal point of the early episodes.
In principal, this was a perfectly justified in terms of maintaining the verisimilitude of the survivor’s situation: the longer a threat lingers and more one adapts to it, the less of a menace it becomes and instead the real enemies become rival survivors competing for ever dwindling resources. Combine this with a colorful cast of characters and a powerful antagonist in the shape of David Morrisey’s The Governor, The Walking Dead managed to resurrect itself via this new direction in the 3rd season. However, it’s a path the show has struggled to deviate from since…
REPETITIVE STRAIN INJURY
For all its quality dialogue and memorable climaxes, The Walking Dead has flirted with tedium an awful lot in its later seasons. It can be a struggle at times to differentiate one episode from next with an inordinate amount of scenes depicting the survivors moping around in indistinguishable woodland as they head to whichever new safehold they’ve set their sights on.
This template was firmly set in place during season 4 as the group fled from the besieged prison and spent the majority of the episodes heading towards the now infamous Terminus. And while the climactic firefight at Terminus is still a highlight of the entire series, the one and a bit episodes they spent there felt disproportionate to the arduous journey there.
Since then, the show seems to be set on rinse & repeat as the survivors seek to find a new safe haven, find a new safe haven, defend/attack said safe haven, then abandon the safe haven. The second half of season 5 did attempt to shift focus somewhat with their arrival at Alexandria where briefly the protagonists became the antagonists as Rick & Co struggled to integrate into a more civilized group. But, by the start of season 6, the show reverted to type and crawled back into its comfort zone as Rick took charge once more.
Then there’s the characters who, despite being reasonably well developed, can sometimes be offed midway through their arcs, whereas others simply seem to seek peril to make themselves a MacGuffin for a few episodes. Of course, this certainly isn’t a complaint that can be leveled at Andrew Lincoln’s Rick Grimes who now has had more arcs to his character than a rainbow and is made slightly less compelling and believable with each season as a result. Indeed, it’s ironic that TellTale Games’ video game of the same name (a format famed for repetition and inadequate storytelling) works from the same source material and has proved to be far more purposeful and less repetitive with its narrative compared to the TV show.
That said, AMC’s The Walking Dead has an innate, almost subliminal appeal thanks to the Walkers themselves that overcomes its obvious issues and allows it to maintain an ever growing audience.
US & THEM
Zombies/The Infected/Walkers are effective and appealing as a threat via two main means: sheer numbers and conversion. The overwhelming numbers play into our primal fears of being overcome and overrun by a foreign threat who are a danger to our means of production and our safety, and, even worse, they will transform us into one of them in the process.
In this day and age, it’s easy to see them as a metaphor for our concerns regarding over-population or immigration (whether that is a legitimate fear or not, it still very much exists in large portions of western populations). A zombie invasion usually plays out as not only a desperate struggle to survive but also a loss of the luxuries and conveniences we’ve become so accustomed to, with the latter arguably being a lot more terrifying to modern audiences.
Interestingly, though, when George A. Romero really hit his stride with the genre in 1978’s The Dawn of the Dead, he intended the zombie hordes to be a reflection of ourselves, mooching around in a shopping mall, unaware of why we’re there for no other reason than that we feel we should be. In the 21st century, however, the mirror Romero held up to us has been turned into a blank canvas for us to paint our worries onto.
With the rise of individualism and political polarization over the last 40 years, many of us have come to believe that others with inherently different beliefs and views on the world have become increasingly alien and threatening. This has only been exacerbated by the near universal adoption of social media where algorithms work tirelessly to show us content that appeals primarily to the user and filters out many things that would conflict their worldview.
Chances are, the Walkers in The Walking Dead is how many see those with opposing views to themselves: a giant mass of unthinking, unfeeling subhumans who could convert you into one of them if you let your guard down. Likewise, with the rival groups of survivors in the show translating into the extremist forces present in our world today and you can see how loudly The Walking Dead speaks to our contemporary paranoias and terrors.
And it is perhaps these subtextual allegories contained within The Walking Dead that enables audiences to look beyond its flaws to watch a parable of 21st-century anxieties play out on their screens.