The zombie is dead. Long live the zombie.
The niche genre of the zombie apocalypse will soon make its major television debut with AMC's new series The Walking Dead, whose trailer was released last week. Based on the black-and-white comic series by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore, and adapted for television by Frank Darabont, Walking Dead centers on Rick Grimes, a former police officer. Grimes awakens from a shooting-induced coma to find his wife and son missing and his hometown run amok with lumbering zombies. As Rick frantically searches for his family, his desperation to survive—and that of his companions—pushes him to do almost anything to stay alive.
While The Walking Dead seems like yet another provocative addition to AMC's already popular lineup (which includes Mad Men and Breaking Bad), the series is much more than a ratings grab. Darabont's take on the renowned comic may succeed in reintroducing the zombie genre to mainstream America, presenting the post-apocalyptic zombie narrative as it was originally intended.
You see, the zombie genre was never meant to be just about gore—the very best films also contain social commentary, a theme established by the work of George A. Romero, "Grandfather of the Zombie" and pioneer of the genre. Night Of The Living Dead, Romero's 1968 cinematic opus, was renowned upon its release not only for gruesome depiction of zombie cannibalism but also for the way it handled social issues. "This was Middle America at war, and the zombie carnage seemed a grotesque echo of the conflict then raging in Vietnam," wrote Elliot Stein in a 2003 retrospective in the Village Voice. "In this first-ever subversive horror movie, the resourceful black hero survives the zombies only to be killed by a redneck posse, and a young girl nibbles ravenously on her father's severed arm—disillusionment with government and patriarchal nuclear family is total."
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Romero's Dead sequels continued the trend. Dawn of the Dead (1978), which focused on a group of survivors holed up in a shopping mall, carried a scathing critique of American consumer culture and the perceived materialism and narcissism of the Baby Boomer generation. The same followed for Day of the Dead (1985), set in a giant bunker where military scientists attempted to domesticate and control the roving gaggles of zombies. While campier than the original, Day of the Dead touched on widespread anxieties about the military-industrial complex and human experimentation in a decade still reeling from Vietnam. Land of the Dead, Romero's 2005 installment to the series, retained the same sharp social commentary, this time with a focus on class warfare in the post-zombie world where the rich and aristocratic continued to exploit the less-fortunate, despite the ever-present danger of human extinction.
Mainstream zombie movies, while inspired by Romero, lack his brand of
social commentary. The modern zombie epoch, brought about by the dual
release in 2004 of Zac Snyder's remake of Dawn of the Dead and Simon
Pegg's self-described "rom-zom-com" Shaun of the Dead were more geared
towards commercial success. Either these films sought to replicate (or
outdo) the sheer gore of the original Night of the Living Dead (See 28
Days Later, Dawn of the Dead) or capitalize on the sheer camp
(Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland). While these films were all commercial
successes, they lacked the emphasis on the human condition that made
Romero's films so subversive, choosing instead to emphasize extreme
gore and leisurely onscreen hijinks:
There are a two main reasons why Darabont's adaptation has the potential to revive the zombie genre that Romero envisioned. First, the medium: while The Walking Dead may fizzle after its pilot season, the six episodes ordered by AMC leave more room for character and plot development than a two-hour bloodbath. This is primarily because the main characters have to persevere through the seasons rather than become some dead pedestrian's dinner to pick up the action. No wise-cracking shenanigans here, no miscellaneous deaths for the sheer horror of it; Rick Grimes and his fellow survivors are condemned by television to a long, uphill struggle to stay alive. And one can only stay sane in a world of death for so long.
Second, Darabont and co. aren't creating a zombie narrative from scratch. Kirkman and Moore's original comic ran for 76 issues, providing plenty of source material for AMC. Having read the vast majority of The Walking Dead during my tech-less stints as a camp counselor, I can honestly say that the comic represents a much darker iteration than other zombie narratives. Throughout the series, the personalities of the survivors gradually shifty to adjust to a constant cycle of fear, death and dread. The main characters stop sleeping; children are forced to grow up fast. Rape, dismemberment, arson, and other horrific acts outline the gradual descent into insanity by surviving humans, even with the undead kept at bay.
Sure, The Walking Dead as written by Kirkland isn't a frame-for-frame testament to Romero's zombie vision; critiques of race, religion, consumerism, and politics are absent as Rick Grimes' world descends into anarchy. But that's exactly the point: The Walking Dead examines the social and psychological transformation of average humans as they are plunged into a world where life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. The Walking Dead explores the limits of humanity and the boundaries of insanity. While we'll have to wait until Halloween to get a glimpse at AMC's zombie apocalypse, chances are it will make Romero proud.