Sometimes Undead Is Better: The Walking Dead

Published on January 30th, 2011 in: All You Need Is Now, Current Faves, Horror, Issues, TV |

By Less Lee Moore

Although I’ve never read The Walking Dead comic series, I have been intrigued ever since Popshifter covered it in a past Halloween issue. When news of the AMC series popped up, I was relieved that it was receiving the episodic TV treatment; it seemed far too complex for a 90-minute movie. Interesting then, that the premiere episode was about that long, and far more engaging than much of the new breed of undead that has infected pop culture.

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Rick, Lori, and Carl

As a diehard horror fan, my affections are frequently misunderstood or misinterpreted as some kind of prurient interest in the sick and depraved. Like all good additions to the horror canon, however, The Walking Dead isn’t just about zombies, the undead, or as the show itself refers to them, “Walkers.” Its social commentary is less heavy-handed than the recent spate of Romero zombie creations, but far more relevant. In fact, The Walking Dead has succeeded where four (or five) seasons of LOST failed: deftly mixing interpersonal drama with a touch of the supernatural, to raise provocative questions about our society.

Although The Walking Dead isn’t just about zombies, it establishes them as a scary force to be reckoned with right away. They are vile and disgusting creatures, both thoroughly dehumanized and obviously threatening to the continued existence of humanity. In the very first episode, we see the effects of this new plague of undead: piles and piles of corpses all covered in a haze of flies. I have not seen every zombie film that exists, but even in the well-known chapters of the genre, I cannot recall the appearance of flies.

In the second episode, “Guts,” two of the surviving humans (Sheriff Rick Grimes and former pizza delivery guy Glenn), cover themselves in entrails and blood to avoid detection by the Walkers, after someone mentions that the living don’t have that “fresh from the grave” smell. The prior scene, where they graphically disembowel a recently killed Walker (after first checking his wallet and learning his name in an attempt to remember his former humanity), should satisfy even the most rapacious gorehound.

Its viscera quotient met, The Walking Dead has now been freed to get to the meat of the matter: the human factor. Information about the characters is slowly revealed, giving viewers a chance to get to know them gradually; there is little of the ham-fisted, clunky exposition that tends to ruin ensemble casts.

In one scene, Rick’s fellow cop and best friend Shane Walsh has a terse conversation with another survivor named Ed about keeping their campfires low to avoid detection by Walkers. It’s rife with tension, but it’s not so much what is said, as what is unsaid; viewers see the uncomfortable glances Ed’s wife Carol and daughter Sophia give Shane and we know that it’s not only that fire to which Shane does not wish to add more fuel.

This “rule” about campfires brings up what is one of the most significant questions asked by The Walking Dead: What are the rules when there are no longer any rules?

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Although we know that Rick and his wife Lori had some marital discord prior to the outbreak, we don’t know the full extent of it. We do know that Rick is desperate to be reunited with them. The first people he meets after waking up are a father (Morgan) and son (Duane) who do not trust Rick right away, still traumatized because the mom of their family unit was transformed into a Walker. Eventually they form a bond, but separate when Rick goes to search for his own family. On the other hand, there’s Lori, who has put all of her trust in Shane, shacking up with him after he assures her Rick is dead. Her sense of family seems to mean finding a new father figure for her son Carl.

Although Rick doesn’t know about Shane and Lori’s affair, he does know what must be done so that everyone can survive. In fact, he figures out the new “rules” of the world with a quickness, one that is perhaps puzzling since he spent several months in a coma while the rest of the world was dealing with this new plague. Is this because Rick is a genuine hero and a good guy or is it merely his police background that enables him to assess situations calmly and rationally?

Contrast Rick’s quasi-saintliness with the most wretched of the survivors, Merle Dixon, an unapologetic sexist, racist pig of a redneck who insults everyone and anyone within spitting distance. Rick insists to Merle that racial conflicts no longer exist; it’s just humans vs. walkers. Merle doesn’t seem to get it, and although one assumes that he was just as big of an asshole before the Walker outbreak, perhaps now that he feels he has nothing left to lose, he thinks it’s easier to just let his bigot flag fly.

Because of his intolerable behavior, Rick had handcuffed Merle to the plumbing system on the roof of a building where some of the survivors were hiding out. And T-Dog, the African-American object of most of Merle’s foul rants, dropped the key when he was trying to free him. When that group escaped from the city to be reunited with the other group of survivors in the woods, Merle got left behind. Not long after being reunited with his Lori and Carl (part of the survivor group in the woods), Rick proposes to go back for Merle because he knows that it’s wrong to let him die that way. Lori is upset at Rick’s rescue plans, saying it will break Carl’s heart. So does Rick stay with the family he’s tried so hard to find or risk his life to save a jerk who is practically a stranger to him?

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Rick goes on the rescue mission because he sees the bigger picture: these survivors may not be his family, but they are part of a larger human family. This community is all they have left in the world and in the absence of government authorities any other rule makers, they have to be responsible to and for one another.

Even the gang members the survivors encounter understand their responsibilities. At first they seem like loathsome, uncompromising killers. When it is revealed that they are only protecting the elderly survivors of an abandoned nursing home, we realize that their bravado is not just self-preservation.

The women of the survivor groups also seem to grasp the importance of this sense of community. Jacqui, Andrea, and Carol do the laundry while Ed watches them joke about “division of labor.” He gets pissy and starts a fight with Andrea, who fights back. After ordering Carol to leave the group and come with him, Andrea interjects and Jacqui makes a snide comment about “fresh bruises” showing up on Carol. Things escalate, Ed slaps Carol, and Shane arrives to beat the pulp out of Ed.

Although it looks like Shane is trying to protect Carol and the other women, Lori has also just chewed him out for lying to him about Rick’s death and ordered him to stay away from Carl, so he’s likely just venting his rage onto Ed’s (still deserving) face. Again, Shane doesn’t seem to understand that community is the most important ingredient to survival. We’ve seen him joking around with Carl, all to eager to become his new dad, implying that not only did he want Rick’s wife, he also wanted Rick’s life. It seems like Shane is just as violent and jealous as Ed.

This raises another question: If any of these survivors had been Carol and Ed’s neighbors before, would they have been so quick to intervene on her behalf? Even if there were no Walkers to threaten them, the community of survivors should still feel a kinship with each other, looking out for their neighbors, especially those being victimized or abused.

There seems to be a worrisome trend in modern North America: when the small family unit is safe and self-sustaining, then to hell with everyone else. Only when society’s norms start to disintegrate, do people seem to notice that others exist and that they do have real problems. The Walking Dead successfully and disturbingly illuminates this, but it should not take a plague of undead flesh-eaters to make us care about our fellow humans.

2 Responses to “Sometimes Undead Is Better: The Walking Dead

  1. jemiah:
    February 1st, 2011 at 12:53 pm

    Great writeup of an intriguing (but very flawed) show. I eagerly await its return, but I still miss Rubicon. 🙂

  2. Popshifter:
    February 1st, 2011 at 7:25 pm

    Thank you!


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