Feb 12 2012
I was excited about the continuation of The Walking Dead television series this evening and I’m happy to say that it lived up to expectations. Why are zombie stories – and in particular, The Walking Dead – so cool?
First, I should probably point out that not all stories of the undead are, in fact, cool. Some stories work. Some don’t.
Even though zombies have become almost as popular as vampires in today’s diverse menu of show-biz offerings, relatively few stories have lived up to the legacy of Night of the Living Dead. 28 Days Later and its sequel, 28 Weeks later, were both incredible films. The Dawn of the Dead remake was almost as entertaining as the original.
Unfortunately, most zombie flicks, including most of the Romero pictures, have been dumb gore-fests that revel in their depictions of entrails, without really delivering the guts of a good story. Increasing blood spatter and body counts stand in for plot and character development.
What does a good zombie story have going for it?
- Interesting characters. These stories feature white-knuckled heroes shepherding the survivors and badass villains who want to make the most of a very bad situation. Then you’ve got supporting characters who evolve in interesting ways: pizza delivery guys become expert scavengers. Veterinarians turn into zombie combat medics. An old mechanic becomes an essential maintainer of the last few working vehicles on the planet.
- Lots of action. The heroes typically have to bludgeon, shoot and blow up any undead they come across. Sure, you can go around them — but since zombies never get tired and they’ll track you down eventually, it’s better to fight ’em while you can than wait until you’re sleeping in a tent with a thin veneer of canvas between you and the undead. Also, you’re able to get away with a lot more violence in zombie movies because, well, they’re zombies; wipe out a village of human beings and your heroes are now bloodthirsty genocidal villains — but if these same heroes wipe out a city of zombies, they’re still heroes, even if they may feel conflicted about shooting their former roommate in the head.
- Constant Conflict. There is about as much dramatic conflict between humans and zombies as there is between humans and tornadoes. You can’t reason with the problem. You can only do things to work around them. Within the confines of a zombie-plagued city, the real dramatic conflict ensues between the survivors. Some want to save everyone. Some want to dominate. And when the rules of civilization are thrown out the window, sometimes the hero has to tread a very fine line between delivering justice and becoming a monster himself.
There are things about The Walking Dead that make it a top TV show that go beyond the awesomeness of the genre. You’ve got great actors, good story pacing, interesting character arcs and enough genuinely surprising developments to keep the story from becoming a boring tale of characters kill zombies in Atlanta, characters kill zombies in New York, characters kill zombies in Winnipeg, ad infinitum.
SPOILER ALERT. My favorite moment in tonight’s episode is when Rick Grimes singlehandedly guns down two dudes who in all probability were very, very bad men. He had already partly redeemed his badass-ness by shooting the undead Sophia, who even Shane wouldn’t touch. Now he’s definitely reminded us how he’s an action hero who can rival Shane’s “Conan the barbarian” aggressiveness — and he’s still got the best leadership skills in the group.