Can 'The Walking Dead' Revive the Zombie Genre?

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.

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Jared Keller is a former associate editor for The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire and has also written for Lapham's Quarterly's Deja Vu blog, National Journal's The Hotline, Boston's Weekly Dig, and Preservation magazine. 

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