Age Old Questions #2: Why Does The Walking Dead Really Have a Problem Saying ‘Zombie’?

It’s strange to think that there was once a time when The Walking Dead’s aversion to the ‘z’ word was a Hot Topic. For people who don’t know what this means:

The Walking Dead was conceived as ‘apocalyptic zombie horror drama’. It was – and continues to be – marketed as such. For many people the programme’s initial and major – for some people its only – appeal was the promise of hordes of shuffling, iconic, undead monsters.

But even during The Walking Dead’s opening episodes it became clear that there was an incongruity between the programme’s marketing and the way in which that marketing translated to the screen. This was most obvious in the way that at any given moment Walking Dead characters seemed like they were trying really hard not to say ‘zombie’. Over time it started to feel like a cadre of Walking Dead scriptwriters had been solely employed to invent zombie synonyms. What emerged from it all was a sort of made-for-drinking-games litany of ‘z’ word euphemisms; the familiar shuffling monsters became – at best – ‘walkers’ or ‘lurkers’ and – at worst – became ‘geeks’ or ‘lame-brains’(1).

The litany of euphemisms was jarring because it drew attention to the thing it was designed to hide. In other words, it rendered painfully clear the fact that The Walking Dead characters were not saying ‘zombie’. And so a lot of people started to wonder why an apocalyptic zombie horror drama – one in which George Romero homage was an explicit part of the fun – gave its characters what’s probably best described as ‘zombie amnesia’. To my knowledge people are no longer asking the question. This suggests two immediate possibilities: either the question was answered or people no longer care. The existence of this quote – from comic book creator and executive producer Robert Kirkman – suggests the former

This isn’t a world the (George) Romero movies exist, for instance … because we don’t want to portray it that way, we felt like having them be saying ‘zombie’ all the time would harken back to all of the zombie films which we, in the real world, know about.
Full article available here
It seems like everybody took Kirkman at his word, because shortly after giving a series of interviews in which he said basically this very thing, people stopped asking why The Walking Dead has an aversion to the ‘z’ word. But Kirkman’s answer just raises more questions. Why, for example, did the Walking Dead’s producers not want to ‘harken back’ to zombie films? Why did they not want to ‘portray it that way’?
At this point it’s worth remembering that The Walking Dead is very much portrayed that way – as apocalyptic zombie horror drama. It’s worth remembering that in advertising, in magazines and newspapers and in interviews the programme’s shuffling undead monsters are called zombies. Remember also that Walking Dead fans recognise and think of the shuffling monsters as zombies even if those fans sometimes have fun calling the monsters ‘walkers’. Significantly – and not coincidentally – The Walking Dead’s special effects make-up artist is Greg Nicotero (who is famous in zombie horror enthusiast circles because of the special effects work he did for George Romero).
(On that note it’s worth pointing out that Kirkman & Co. have clearly given Nicotero license to Go To Town with the Romero homage.)

Greg Nicotero Walking Dead.jpeg

The bigger question is why, if Kirkman & Co. did not want to ‘harken back’ to Romero and to zombie films, is The Walking Dead full of Romero homage and nods to old zombie films? And why, if The Walking Dead’s zombies are so obviously zombies, is it so important that nobody in the programme says so? The reason is that Romero homage and zombie references appeal only to hardcore zombie horror enthusiasts, and it turns out that hardcore zombie enthusiasts are only a small fraction of The Walking Dead’s audience. This is made clear when you look at The Walking Dead’s viewing figures, which are more reminiscent of what’s become known as prestige TV than they are of niche hardcore zombie TV (they’re actually more reminiscent of prestige TV and niche hardcore zombie TV combined – but more on that later). Another way to put it is to say that only a fraction of Walking Dead viewers care that Greg Nicotero is doing the special effects, or that this guy is really just Bub from Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985):

Walking Dead Bub Cameo.png

Prestige TV finds its genesis in TV like The Sopranos (1999) and The Wire (2002), programmes which pioneered the idea that mainstream, primetime US TV should have Hollywood production values and should be violent and sexy and dark and grown-up and challenging. In other words, mainstream audiences now expect their prestige TV to be capital-S serious(2). And so Romero homage and zombie in-jokes are fine if they’re confined to the background where hardcore zombie enthusiasts can find and enjoy them without distracting the rest of the audience from the serious grown-up drama, or if The Walking Dead’s audience was composed entirely of hardcore zombie horror enthusiasts; but all evidence suggests that The Walking Dead’s TV company – AMC – cares very little for niche zombie horror. Record-breaking viewing figures and Walking Dead predecessors like Breaking Bad and Mad Men suggest that AMC is interested only in eating at US TV’s top table. US TV’s top table is of course the table at which major networks like HBO eat, and it’s a far cry from the lowly tables AMC was eating at until Breaking Bad exploded sometime round 2008 (AMC literally stands for American Movie Classics – which is as good a description as any of what AMC’s raison d’etre used to be). But while The Walking Dead’s predecessors have propelled AMC to the top table of US TV, the network doesn’t have the financial resources to sit there comfortably. In other words, AMC can’t afford its flagship programmes to be anything other than huge financial successes.

All of which means that The Walking Dead needs record-breaking viewing figures just to keep AMC within reach of the major US networks. This makes the zombie (perversely) something of a problem for AMC’s top table designs because the modern zombie is not serious the way that top level US TV drama needs it to be. Essentially, top level US TV needs the modern zombie to be grounded (like the modern vampire is figuratively grounded) in the real world; and for it to be grounded in the real world the modern zombie would need a history and mythology it doesn’t have(3). The modern zombie is not, for example, grounded in reality by its antecedent, the zombie of Haitian mythology

Zombi are people whose decease has been duly recorded, and whose burial has been witnessed, but who are found a few years later living with a boko in a state verging on idiocy.
Taken from Alfred Métraux’s Voodoo in Haiti (1972 [1959]), p. 281
Rather, the Walking Dead zombie is explicitly and entirely the by-product of 20th Centurycinema. The modern zombie is undeniably a George Romero creation. It shares nothing with the Haitian zombie beyond a name. This means that the modern zombie did not exist before it shuffled onto screens in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead; and Romero didn’t even appropriate the word ‘zombie’ until NotLD’s satirical follow-up Dawn of the Dead in 1978. In real terms the modern zombie as we understand it has only existed for 47 years.
Haitian Zombie Sugarcane
Really, the modern zombie is nothing more than a vehicle for satire (which explains why George Romero gets a little defensive and overly precious when he feels his creations are being used otherwise), one with a history too short to be rooted in anything other than 20th Century cinema. This means that its history is too short for audiences and TV/film producers to pretend otherwise. And so most modern zombie cinema is self-referential and ironic by nature because most modern zombie cinema rarely tries to pretend that the zombie is anything other than what it is(4):

The clip (from Shaun of the Dead [2004]) perhaps highlights best why The Walking Dead has a problem with the ‘z’ word: Walking Dead characters who say the ‘z’ word are characters who explicitly recognise the Walking Dead zombie for what it is. They are characters who have seen this zombie before; and the only place they could have seen a modern zombie before is in 20th Century cinema. At this point, a Walking Dead in which characters say “zombie” would necessarily be one in which Romero’s influence was openly and explicitly acknowledged. The Walking Dead would logically become ironic and self-referential the way that Shaun of the Dead and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are ironic and self-referential.

A Walking Dead in which the modern zombie has been both recognised and explicitly acknowledged would be one in which characters do things like walk into shopping malls and say “Oh my God, we just walked into Dawn of the Dead”. Suffice to say that this sort of humorous self-reference would appeal greatly to The Walking Dead’s hardcore zombie horror enthusiasts (who were likely brought up on the irony and self-reference of TV programmes like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and who would understand why characters in an apocalyptic zombie horror drama would talk about Dawn of the Dead); but the ironic self-reference would likely alienate The Walking Dead’s much larger prestige TV audience – that prestige TV audience which wants capital-S serious drama and cares very little about George Romero or Dawn of the Dead if it even knows what those two things are. Which means that The Walking Dead would be in danger of losing its biggest fanbase.

So really, for AMC to cement its status as a producer of top-table US TV drama, the ‘z’ word has no place in The Walking Dead. Kirkman & Co’s answer to the problem – to censor the ‘z’ word and pretend that the modern zombie somehow both exists and does not exist – allows The Walking Dead to perform a strange and sort-of brilliant balancing act, one which keeps hardcore zombie enthusiasts and prestige TV audiences happy at the same time (discounting large swathes of the programme’s second season, of course).

To put it another way, by censoring the ‘z’ word The Walking Dead gets to have its brains and eat them.


Notes

  1. This last euphemism, coined on-screen by resident redneck Daryl, is impossible to say in anything other than a Southern accent.
  2. There’s a separate debate to be had about whether contemporary TV really is darker and more challenging than it’s ever been, or whether the only thing that’s really changed is the mainstream US TV audience’s tolerance for violence and sex; meaning that violence and sex have become proxies for serious and grown-up debate, and that contemporary US TV is still founded on traditional US soap opera values and traditional US morality in which good guys are good and bad guys are bad. There’s a reason, for example, why hardcore zombie enthusiasts regularly cite season two as The Walking Dead’s weakest season. This is the season in which AMC ramped up the number of episodes but froze the programme’s budget, meaning first that Frank Darabont walked out in protest, and second that there were noticeably fewer zombies from episode to episode. The result was that The Walking Dead became reliant on its characters, at which point it became explicit just how archetypical those characters were (and continue to be). The hardcore zombie enthusiast complaint then appears to be less about season two’s lack of zombies, but rather how the lack of zombies revealed the soap opera politics at the heart of the programme. Take the Rick/Lori/Shane love triangle, for example, in which Rick agonises over whether he can love and raise another man’s baby if it turns out that the baby is Shane’s, in which Rick and Lori have endless tortured discussions about the possibility of abortion (never seriously entertained – this is mainstream, primetime US TV), and in which Shane goes off the rails so that he can be the bad guy of the triangle and can be harmlessly killed at the end of the season without anybody being too badly traumatised. Take also Andrea and Dale’s surrogate father/daughter relationship, in which Dale struggles to be a father figure to Andrea and Andrea acts like a teenager – this even though the actress is clearly in her 30s – accusing a clearly bemused Dale of not respecting her independence.
  3. You can of course argue that the Twilight vampire is not really a vampire at all, but this would be missing the point. The wider point is that the Twilight vampire has a long history on which to draw – from the romantic vampires of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (in the form of Angel, the vampire with a  soul) and Lestat in Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, back to Bram Stoker’s Dracula in the 19th Century. And Dracula of course takes its cues from various legends – those of Vlad the Impaler and Countess Elizabeth Báthory, for example – and the Slavic vampire myths of Eastern Europe. The bigger point being here that the mythology and history of the vampire grounds it in the real world.
  4. Which is why, in recent years, zombie films have tended towards the extreme silliness of zombie Sheep (Black Sheep [2006]), zombie Nazis (Dead Snow [2008]) and zombie beavers (Zombeavers [2014], unsurprisingly). It’s also why serious zombie horror like Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later succeeded – it re-configured the zombie as something that wasn’t really a zombie (and in the process it pioneered the contentious ‘fast’ zombie which helped Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead (2004) remake completely miss the original film’s point).

Further reading/viewing.

  • For more about the origins of the Haitian zombie, try Alred Métraux’s Voodoo in Haiti. The copy I’ve used is a 1972 translation, but an updated 1993 translation is available here.
  • White Zombie (1932), starring Bela Lugosi, is considered to be the first feature length zombie film. It’s perhaps most notable for the fact that Lugosi’s witch doctor is unsubtly called Murder Legendre.
  • The Hammer Horror film Plague of the Zombies (1966) heavily influenced the aesthetic look of Romero’s zombies.
  • H.P. Lovecraft’s Herbert Read – Reanimator (serialised in six parts from 1921-1922) is notable for being one of the first stories to depict zombies as scientifically reanimated corpses and not as the product of Haitian witchcraft, although Lovecraft’s story should be more aptly thought of as a parody of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (it’s also the basis for the 1985 film Re-Animator).
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