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October 10, 2015

The 'Dead' to Walk Among Us -- This Time in Our Living Rooms

by Stephanie Earp, posted Oct 26th 2010 6:00PM
Vampires and werewolves are old. Werewolves, as an idea, have been with us since medieval times, and may even go back as far as the Greeks. Vampires are even older, with some sources suggesting the idea is actually prehistoric -- though it's doubtful our caveman ancestors were debating the merits of Buffy vs. Bella. They were probably just scared out of their loincloths of bloated, red-faced monsters. The idea of good-looking vampires didn't come around until the 18th century. Sparkly ones, famously, were added to the canon very recently.

Zombies, on the other hand, are a new addition to the pantheon of horrible creatures we fear. Unlike the entirely mythical vampires and werewolves, zombies are based on what appears to be a genuine phenomenon, documented in Haiti by respected writers like Zora Neale Hurston and Wade Davis. But the "voodoo zombie" was more of a puppet -- a human in suspended animation who answers to a master. Until the 1930s, zombies were few in number and usually black.

It was, of course, George A. Romero who gave us the modern zombie. They appear in large numbers and they bring about the end of the world. And most importantly, they serve a metaphorical purpose. In the 'Night of the Living Dead' films, the zombie apocalypse stands in for whatever social ill is most pressing -- over the course of Romero's film series (and the other films and stories that have joined the chorus), racism, cannibalism, nuclear fallout, consumerism, electromagnetic pulses and biological warfare have been addressed in zombie stories. Zombies, it appears, are fear itself, and whatever our greatest fear is, zombie stories allow us to face up to it.

But zombie stories, for the most part, have not been TV stories. Though they originated on screen -- the ultimate medium for beings that don't think, talk or have any motivation besides eating brains -- they have thrived in literature and comics, but long-format television series have passed them over of the most part. It makes sense, actually. As Max Brooks, the author of the popular 'Zombie Survival Guide' says: "Other monsters may threaten individual humans, but the living dead threaten the entire human race ... Zombies are slate wipers." Especially the new fast zombies of the '28 Days Later' variety; it's hard to imagine a realistic scenario in which humans could survive an entire 13-episode season against such formidable foes.

But AMC, the lunatics who put 'Mad Men' and 'Breaking Bad' on the air, are ready to try it. 'The Walking Dead,' adapted from the highly-respected graphic novels of the same name, debuts on Halloween here in North America, and debuts all over the world on Fox affiliate stations in the following week. Like many zombie outbreaks, this show will hit simultaneously across the globe.

Some elements are eerily familiar. For example, the protagonist awakens from a coma to find a world gone mad, with corpses in the streets, broadcast silence and his family missing. These slower zombies mark a return to the Romero originals: They can be outrun and even outpaced at a brisk walk, and they aren't the brightest. It's their sheer numbers that represent a threat, creating barriers to travel, the search for food and other survivors. Some roam and some lurk, but they all want to bite you. A shot to the head ends their misery.

'The Walking Dead' is about long-term survival, and the title may well refer to the human survivors, not their brain-eating enemies. Once the 90-minute pilot gets the crisis out of the way, the rest of the series is about how bands of survivors cope in a world where, as lead actress Sarah Wayne Callies put it, there are no more Thai restaurants, no more manicures, and life is back to pre-industrial revolution standards.

The zombie apocalypse has shifted meanings again -- now it's about lack of resources, the dreaded post-peak oil apocalypse, and the return of life without comfort. A 2-hour film can address our horror of having to shoot our own zombified parents, or see humans eating each other, but only television, with its long format, can get at the sheer drudgery of life-after-computers, life-after-restaurants and life-after-appliances. I wonder whether 'The Walking Dead' will deal with the corollary emotion -- guilt. The green movement and its ancillaries hint that we don't deserve the comfort we have, that it comes at a price much too high, and we feel guilty for not willingly giving it up.

But that's another classic feature of the zombie story: That we brought it on ourselves.

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I can't wait. The pilot was very good.

October 26 2010 at 7:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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