The Walking Extinct

The Walking Extinct

When is a zombie not a velociraptor?

Pocket Monsters

Certain kinds of monsters tend to be interchangeable. Wild animals, fantasy monsters, various beasts, creeps, robots — there are a lot of monsters that don’t impose a specific form on the stories in which they appear. Godzilla can fight a giant version of pretty much anything (and pretty much did). Ninjas can fight pirates and it doesn’t matter. You can collect more than 151 Pokemon and use any of them you want in most fights, whether they are ducks or dragons or boxing things or whatever.

But zombies generally don’t work this way. Zombies come with specific sorts of stories, because they relay a form that tends to influence the way stories function. The Walking Dead chooses to ignore this and frame a zombie fight as a monster fight, missing out on the chance to get more closely involved with the broader artistic project and tropes of zombie stories.

Take this scene from Episode 3 (by the way, it’s worth noting that, in rewatching episode 3 looking for examples, there are many surprisingly long stretches of The Walking Dead that are totally devoid of any relation to the zombie apocalypse, either directly or thematically. “Thank you for washing my clothes” was a big one.).

RICK: “I’ve been thinking about the man we left behind.”

LORI: “You’re not serious.”

SHANE: “Water’s here, y’all. Just a reminder to boil before use.”

LORI: “Are you asking me or telling me?”

RICK: “Asking”

LORI: “Well, I think it’s crazy. I think it’s just the stupidest way to break your son’s–”


CARL: Mom!

(Various yelling as people run into the woods.)

LORI: “Noting bit you? Nothing scratched you?”

(Gang of men with guns and cudgels come upon a zombie eating a deer. The zombie is slow and methodical, savoring the deer flesh. When it feels threatened, it gets up, yells at everybody, and rushes at Rick. Rick hits it in the face with a stick. The men beat the crap out of it until Dale chops its head off.)

DALE: “This is the first one we’ve had up here. They never come this far up the mountain.”

JIM: “Well, they’re running out of food in the city, that’s what.”

(Everybody hears noises. SHANE gets tense, raises his gun, looks out into the woods. DARYL appears.)

SHANE: “Eh, Jesus.”

DARYL: “Son of a bitch! That’s my deer! Look at it, all gnawed on by this filthy, disease-bearing, motherless, toxic bastard!”

There is then more talk of deer tracking, trying to save the deer and eat venison, and a reference to On Golden Pond. The decapitated zombie head lurches, and DARYL shoots it in the eye with an arrow.

DARYL: “C’mon people! It’s gotta be the brain. Don’t you know nothin’?”

The zombies act, and are treated, like animals. They have basic intelligence and awareness and clearly want things (mostly to eat). They are dangerous, but people can generally best them if they get the upper hand and have the right weapons. The really dangerous circumstance is to meet them alone. But the people have a settlement that is more or less free of them, except for occasional attacks, and in that space, as long as they take care of their basic needs, they’re pretty much okay.

Dead Man Walking

It’s worth noting for the sake of fandom that this isn’t how the subject is treated in the comic books. The full events of the show go by in just a few issues of the comic books. People die a lot more frequently. The despair of it all is a lot more crushing. People’s arrogance against the persistence of the zombies is a lot more apparent and fragile. All the characters much more quickly become unhinged by the insanity of their situation. The zombies have an effect on people characteristic of zombiesthe world has fallen apart, and the mockery the zombies make of humanity calls into question the humanity of the characters themselves.

Because zombies have the bodies of humans, in most zombie stories, they draw a comparison between themselves and the survivors. In every zombie story that embraces this tradition, from Dawn of the Dead with its shopping mall and anticonsumerist message to Shaun of the Dead and its thirtysomething electronics store clerk who shuffles every day through his commute dead to the world, such that he doesn’t recognize when the zombie apocalypse has happened, the surviving characters are compared to zombies, and the zombies are compared to human beings in some way.

In Dawn of the Dead, the zombies keep going to the mall as they did as people. Are we that different? Has our taste in shirts improved that much since 1978?

In most zombie movies, the “walking dead” are, in some way, us. The people of the earth, especially of its cities and privileged developed areas are the zombies – we are the mindless hordes who destroy the earth and feed on each other. We are the ones who shamble about blindly following our appetites, without the vibrancy and immediacy of meaningful life. We are the doomed ones. The zombie apocalypse has already happened.

This is what zombie stories are about and how zombies function uniquely as monsters.

Now of course, this isn’t exhaustive. We can get into an endless debate of semantics and exceptions. But the general form of it comes through. And there are certainly scenes in The Walking Dead that are zombie-specific (like the man holed up in the house who can’t shoot his zombie wife). But they are pretty few and far between, compared to the scenes about surviving without the comforts of modern civilization or fighting generic monsters.

Another One for the Fire

Now, take this scene, from the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead (special bonus for Babylon 5 fans!). How much of this scene would work if you replaced the zombies with giant snakes?

The answer? Pretty much none of it. The human form of the zombies is essential for the comparisons here, which say a lot about savage human nature, about race and racial violence in America, and about the primitive roots of contemporary execution of physical violence. This is classic Romero style – these kinds of comparisons are not the only way to make a zombie movie, but they’re one of the best and most influential.

How about this scene, from 2007’s 28 Weeks Later (I’m picking somewhat lesser-known properties because the clips are slower to get taken down from YouTube, even though we are using them for educational purposes, after a fashion). What parts of this scene work if the monsters are bears, or giant snakes, or mutant bats?

None of them. This scene is about family and trust. The girl sees the boyfriend as part of the family, but her family sees him as an outsider. The boyfriend’s leaving constitutes an act of betrayal they won’t forgive. You get the sense that, even if he weren’t a zombie, he’d be treated much the same by all parties.

Then, the young boy comes in as a counterpoint. His family is trying to kill him. He’s searching for outsiders to help him. But the family’s fear of trusting outsiders turns out to be justified when the kid brings zombies in tow toward the house.

None of this works if the monsters are bears, because it’s not about the survivors living through the movie. It’s about their relationships to each other and the world they live in.

That’s another unique point about zombie stories – more than any other kind of monster story except for very similar alien body snatcher stories, zombie stories are totally fine ending with a TPK – a Total Party Kill, or Wipe, where the good guys lose and everybody dies.

This is not the case with, say, movies about genetically engineered dinosaurs. In those movies, we usually need to see somebody survive and the dinosaurs, because the point is the threat to our own lives. In zombie movies, survival isn’t the goal. The goal is remaining an individual, finding oneself or preserving the relationships that matter in an alienating world, and the fact that this is hard and sometimes doesn’t work is part of the point.

That’s a big part of what makes zombie stories so scary. Zombie stories are heavy with futility. As one of my dearest friends always says, “Think about it. You can’t kill them; they’re already dead.” The individual zombies usually aren’t hard to kill, but in a large group, they are unstoppable. You think there is going to be help, and there probably isn’t. You think the government can do something, but it probably can’t. You think your own group of survivors will hold together, but it probably won’t. The worst acts in zombie stories are usually committed by surviving human beings against each other.

That’s why The Walking Dead the comic book is so bleak. It follows these characters over the long haul, keeping up a tone of futility for much of the journey. And it’s why the marketing material for the show is so bleak – because this is the gray, dusty world, fallen and given over to the zombies.

But the show isn’t like this at all. Even with the various attempted rapes and acts of intrahuman violence, there is still plenty of hope for the protagonists to end up okay, and that idea is woven into the very fabric of the show, from its acting to production design to dialogue. And this is kind of disappointing, because it makes the show so much more common and less interesting than it could have been. But it leaves open the possibility that things may change quite a bit in the future…

Or maybe, as William H. Macy and Tea Leone found out in Jurassic Park 3, they'll make more of the same, only worse.

21 Comments on “The Walking Extinct”

  1. inmate #

    WELL ACTUALLY, the Anaconda clip isn’t subtitled in German. It looks like Dutch or something.

    Just thought you should know.


    • fenzel #


      A solid well-actually! Well done!


    • Hemjon #

      Damn, you beat me to it.

      Well actually, the clip is subtitled in Swedish.


      • Hemjon #

        … and the Swedes love the Hoff as well. They have a sincere appreciation for all things kitch.

        Great analysis by the way. I’d like to point out one further miss the TV show made – the structure.

        The comic book had a pretty clear structure in every number. It’s the same structure as soap operas have:
        you start in media res of a big, scary dramatic situation, which is quickly resolved.
        You then stumble upon some other, smaller problems, resolve them and everything is great. A love-scene on a bear rug in front of a fire would fit here.
        Just before the end a big problem appears, e.g. flesh-eating zombies or mustache-sporting evil twin with a pistol (depending on the show), and the episode ends on a cliff-hanger.
        Repeat until cancelled

        Twin Peaks pulled it of.
        Is Frank Darabont above using the soap opera structure? Shame on him.

        Also, the show has flashbacks.
        And the “abandon all hope” -thingy came to soon.
        Oh, and the “motivation” of the zombies was explained.

        Anyways, I’m not looking forward to the next season.


  2. dewfish #

    I think the Walking Dead will definitely get more futile as it goes forward. The last episode was important because CDC was supposed to be last chance for humanity to return to normal. Now that they know for a fact that the CDC will not save humanity, nor will any of its counterparts in any other countries, I think you will see a darker tone going forward. i think a major part of the discussion that is missing is the fact that this is a television show, and you were comparing it to movies. Even though movies are more geared towards sequels now than they were in the past, for the most part, movies still have to be self-contained entities. Everything happens in that hour and a half and that’s it. I say give Walking Dead more time. It would be like complaining that Dexter is not as dark or serious as American Psycho. The TV format allows for longer stretching of the storyline, so you see a lot more minutiae and detail than you would in movie, a lot of which seems formulaic and unimportant. Then again, this is TV were talking about. As long as the show gets good ratings, they will drag the storyline out forever.


    • fenzel #

      Yeah, the show could go forward any number of ways. For good or for ill, they’ve abandoned the plot of the source material and ended the season with none of the characters who are still alive committed to doing anything in particular. So they could go anywhere and do anything. It’s one of those endings where you could start the next season with 70% new actors in a totally different situation and it wouldn’t be that much of a surprise.


      • John Perich OTI Staff #

        I hope next season has more people approaching, then fleeing from, cities. Didn’t get enough of that this time.


  3. Yenzo #

    Thank you for this great analysis, although I have to concur with dewfish: I also have continuing high hopes for this show. I would love to point out the parts of the comics that IMO are perfectly suited for a TV show, but I don’t want to get too spoilerific for those people who only know the show and might be picking up on the comics just now.

    Anyway, I see your point about the missing bleakness on the show, but it didn’t really bother me that much. For one, I’m not sure if I had had as much fun watching the show together with my wife if it had been as depressing as the source material, and I guess that might be true for a large part of the TV audience (I’m sure you’ll agree that the comic audience is ready to accept a *lot* more violence, bleakness and overall insanity than the general TV audience). Also, we have only seen six episodes yet and the more open and hopeful the atmosphere is right now, the more shattering it will be if or when the writers decide to pull the rug from under the audience’s feet. The source material certainly offers a lot of opportunity to do just that.

    No matter what the show will bring, I for one applaud the producers for including the creator of the comic in the production process, for creating many recognizable characters and moments from the comic and for not holding back when it comes to the necessary gore and violence. There might be some parts that I didn’t like as a fan of the WD comics, but a comic is a comic and a TV show is a TV show and so they should be judged on their own home soil, so to speak.

    Finally, as a German, I have to use this forum to confess my love for David Hasselhoff and all things Hoff-related.


    • fenzel #

      “Finally, as a German, I have to use this forum to confess my love for David Hasselhoff and all things Hoff-related.”

      Could you explain this? This sounds like it would be really interesting.


      • Yenzo #

        Um, to be honest, that was just a joke playing on this whole Hasselhoff-is-oh-so-famous-in-Germany thing. Or do you want me to explain where the Teutonic Hoff-love originates?


        • fenzel #

          If it’s real, sure. I’ve never really heard it explained.


          • Yenzo #

            Alright, I’ll do my best: Actually, it took me a long time to realize that there’s something fishy about the relation between D.H. and Germany. At some point, I heard that British people think D.H. is the biggest rock star in Germany. That kind of surprised me. But it is true that he enjoyed a musical career in Germany that apparently the rest of the world didn’t know about.

            It began when he released a single called “I’ve been looking for freedom” in (I think) 1988 and gave a performance at the Berlin Wall. The sentiment of the song was welcomed by the German populace of the time and if my memory serves, the song did quite well in the charts (there is also a running gag about D.H. being convinced that he alone brought about the reunification of Germany, but I don’t know his own thoughts of the subject). This was taken as justification for the release of several other singles in Germany. I recall at least two of them, one of which had German lyrics. I guess for foreigners this must have seemed like a strange case of pandering to a weirdly specific demographic and might have been the origin of the rumor that Germans love him so much.

            Also, it reflects a thing that I have noticed before (in the case of Dennis Hopper, who, interestingly, has the same initials): The divide between a specific profession like actor, singer or director and the more general (and revering) terms like “artist” or “entertainer”. It seems to me that in some cases, the fact that a celebrity does not follow one specific career path is taken (or at least sold) as a sign of extreme versatility and the general reputation of this person is changed completely. This might be a contributing factor to the phenomenon: An actor is an actor, but an actor/singer can be a whole other affair.

            The in-joke about D.H. and Germany has since produced its own children, e.g. the scene in Dodgeball where he is revealed as the trainer for the German Dodgeball team. However, if you ask a German person about him, I doubt that the reaction would too much from that of an American: One acknowledges him as a celebrity (after all, he was the main actor in what used to be the most popular TV show in the world), but nowadays he is probably mostly remembered for trying to eat a burger in the most sh*t-faced way possible.

            I hope this helped to clear things up. I must admit I am more at home talking about zombies than about David Hasselhoff.

  4. Sam Fryer #

    Interesting analysis, but it seems to me that your primary complaint here is that a TV show is too much like a TV show and not enough like a movie. Ignoring the delivery method of the story, you also seem to complain that the show is not enough like previous entries in the same genre, and then you say it’s “common”?

    To me, the futility in the comic comes from a slow build of events forcing these characters to deal with the reality of their situation, and throughout, Rick has (up until recently) been the most hopeful of anyone. That tone seems to carry through in the show as well, and unfortunately, a black and white TV show is gonna last about thirty seconds before cancellation.


    • fenzel #

      Eh, not really on the first point. Obviously, it’s hard to do a TV show about the end of the world. It’s an ending, after all, and the story has to keep going. But it’s not impossible.

      And yeah, adventure stories involving all sorts of monsters are a broader, more generic kind of entertainment than zombie stories specifically. As common as zombie stories are, people-in-the-woods-with-monsters stories are many many times more common.

      By the way, I started reading the comic before I wrote this article, and since I wrote the article, I’ve gotten pretty deep into it.

      The comic is a lot more how I describe a zombie genre piece to be than the TV show, and it’s heavily serialized like a TV show rather than a movie.

      If they take the TV show where the comic goes, though, I’d be really surprised. And I probably wouldn’t want to watch it. Man, this stuff is dark.


  5. Bob in San Diego #

    I normally start all my posts on here in a way “Hey Great article” or the like but this is the first time that I’m posting on here while disagreeing with much of the premise of an article. Full disclosure – this is a show I absolutely adore and that may be the reason I think you are completely off base with your analysis but Fenzel, to your credit, you write this in such a way that it is hard to argue contrary to your opinions – similar to trying to argue abstract art.

    Few points of contention I have with specific points:
    The first and easiest to argue is that you mention that the survivors go through a lot more in the books then they do in the TV show, “People die a lot more frequently (In the book)”. The show is so far based off the first 6 individual comics and while several things are the same (Amy Dying, Jim getting bit) there is only one of the survivor group who dies in the book (tip toeing around spoilers, he is the one character not killed by walkers) while everyone else survives. If I were to read that paragraph and not have read the books, I would infer that the comic is the beginning of Saving Private Ryan whereas in reality the show is fairly similar to the books. Plus the groundwork for that particular death has already been laid for future seasons. (Again – just contention at you talking about the deaths and not other variations like the many trips to Atlanta, the CDC, Daryl, etc)

    Next, you mention this show functions the same way as any monster movie. That is like saying the ‘Godfather’ functions the same way as ‘Be Cool’ because they both deal with the mob. I love ‘Jurassic Park’ and I think Sam Neill deserved an Oscar for ‘Dead Calm’ (just looking – 1989 was a stacked year for best actors though), but I realize his acting in that movie was closer to ‘Memoirs of an Invisible Man’ than ‘The Piano’. I can write a one page synopsis of ‘Willow’ and someone off the street could read it and think I’m talking about the ‘Lord of the Rings’ but the difference between my favorite Ron Howard movie and an Oscar winner is admittedly wide. To me, its laughable that you would compare ‘The Walking Dead’ and ‘Anaconda 3’, but going back to my initial paragraph, quality is in the eye of the viewer and its hard to argue if you don’t think there is a difference.

    Finally, you talk about how the show is too positive, that the book is bleak and that didn’t carry over to the show. I’ve watched the heck out of this show – I would watch it every premiere Sunday, every Tuesday my friends come over to my apartment to watch the new release DVD’s and we watched the show (actually twice because someone would always miss and everyone would watch the previous weeks again), on Thursday I would watch it with a few friends who don’t have cable but work Tuesday nights and on Friday I would watch it yet again with the gf – so I’ve seen every episode at least 5 times. With all the viewings, I’ve grown to appreciate the nuances of the acting in it. A lesser show would have everyone constantly moping around the entire time – but that is not how the real world works, everyone puts on a fake bravado in a group and shows real emotion alone or one on one. Example – the company I work for is going under, but if you walk around here you would never know this, even though every person here is working on there resume and hopes they can find something before they have to file for unemployment. The only time you know people are worried is in a closed office when people are talking one on one or when my secretary says she was up all night crying. I can think of numerous examples in my life where people in a group don’t wear their feelings on their sleeves but do in private, it is just the human condition. That is why I love this show – it shows real reactions by showing people hiding human emotion (Favorite quote of Robert DeNiro “It’s important not to indicate. People don’t try to show their feelings, they try to hide them.”)

    Fenzel – I don’t mind that you don’t like the show, that is completely understandable and I hope you don’t take this as an attack on you. But what I take umbrage with is that it seems you are stating your opinions as facts. I really hate writing this – I’ve been working on this since before you replied to inmate’s first post (My hope is that I don’t come off as a defiant fanboy or too insulting to you), but I trust you as a rational person and await a well thought out response.


    • fenzel #

      Hi Bob,

      Thanks for your reply. Don’t worry, I have no problem with disagreement :-)

      It is assumed in writing like this that people are stating opinions. Couching your writing in a lot of “I think” and “It is my opinion that” doesn’t change anything – it’s just bad writing. Of course it’s my opinion; it’s written by me, and it’s a bunch of value judgements. What else would it be? Analysis can never be factual.

      I tend to think that when people get upset that somebody is “stating their opinions as facts” it’s less about phrasing and more about wishing somebody would agree with you when they don’t. It’s healthier just to make your case and disagree. Nothing wrong with that.

      I don’t feel strongly that the show is “bad.” I think that came across a lot more in my article than I intended it to, because it is fun and easy to write from a place of criticism.

      What I do think is that zombies as monsters give a writer a lot of opportunities to make certain kinds of points about humanity and social structure, that most zombie stuff does this, and that this show mostly declines to do this and makes its points about humanity and social structure by other means – mostly by showing everyday scenes and how they are affected by extreme changes in circumstances that aren’t that specifically associated with zombies.

      I use the tone and color of the show as an example of how it departs, but the interesting, salient point here is that the zombies function “differently,” not that the show is “worse.”

      I mean, I think this makes it worse than it would have been otherwise, but people ought to be less interested in whether I think this is good or bad and more interested in the “why.” I have weird tastes. I don’t expect everybody to like what I like. But I like to think when I talk about why I may like or not like something there’s a kernel in there that might be interesting and might be useful or interesting for other people interacting with the art.

      This is, by the way, why on the OTI podcast I tend to speak out against dwelling too long on movie review language – yeah, get it out there, sure – but in the end, whether you think something is good or bad is a lot less useful and interesting than the other sorts of insights you can pull from it.

      I mean, I guess I act like I don’t like Jurassic Park and I talk smack about it, but I _love_ Jurassic Park. I love survival adventure shows. They’re just different from zombie shows.

      And, by the way, you should never hate or feel bad about writing that you disagree with me. I’m not correct nearly often enough for that to be an appropriate emotional response ;-)


      • fenzel #

        To add, when I say that “Avatar Sucks” – oh, I have a lot of fun writing abot how much I hate Avatar. It’s not that I don’t intend to write about hating Avatar. I’m all about writing about hating Avatar.

        But I try to write it in such a way that, even if you like Avatar a lot, you get something out of my writing, either from an entertainment standpoint or an art appreciation standpoint. I don’t just level invective and hateful accusations. I go into detail about stuff. I try to point out offbeat or quirky things, and make additional analysis of broader trends in the culture.

        Even if you happen to like the most popular movie ever (The horror! How dare you!) I hope that being part of the “Avatar Sucks” conversation is fun and interesting. That’s my goal, and the goal of this site. Being right about it or justified, on the rare occasion that happens, is just gravy.


        • dewfish #

          I agree with Fenzel. Avatar sucks.


          • Yenzo #

            Would have been better with zombies, wouldn’t it?

  6. Gab #

    Full Disclosure: I haven’t watched this show yet. I really, really should. Sigh.

    Anyhoo, what if this change in format, i.e. putting zombies in a monster story, is the writers’ attempt at making the show more accessible to non-zombie fans? You hear all the time about other genre movies being made more generic so as to appeal to a wider audience. In order for a TV series to survive, it needs to maintain a certain amount of viewers (usually…), so maybe it was at least pitched as more of a monster series than a particularly zombie one.

    Also, and I’m making totally uninformed assumptions, here, could the monsterification of the zombies come from how the TV show is not as dark as the source material?


  7. Nateiums #

    Since you’re getting a lot more jeers for this article than is usual, just wanted to chime in that I think you make some solid points. The zombie threat so far does feel interchangable with other monsters. And the first six episodes haven’t felt as heavy as it should have. Agreed.

    I still didn’t hate the show and I have faith that at least the latter issue will be better handled going forward.


Add a Comment