The casual viewer’s guide to zombies on TV
Written by Sarah
Sunday night was the premiere of AMC’s The Walking Dead, a television-adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s comic book series of the same name. The comics are a very popular monthly serial so an adaptation of some sort seemed inevitable, especially as zombies have become more mainstream in the last few years. Among zombie literature, The Walking Dead is uniquely suited to television in that it’s an ongoing series—there is plenty of material to sustain a multi-season story.
AMC’s undertaking is unprecedented. Launching zombies into mainstream television isn’t like airing a new vampire show. Vampires have been on TV since at least Dark Shadows back in the 1960’s—vampires are thoroughly entrenched in our cultural zeitgeist. I can only think of one other zombie TV show: the British-made Dead Set, and while Dead Set is a solid show, it isn’t half what The Walking Dead is.
However, The Walking Dead faces one huge hurdle—zombies are not relatable. There is no Team Zombie. A zombie will never fall in love and fight its own monstrous nature to be with its beloved. There’s nothing sexy about a rotting, desiccated corpse that is trying to devour you. Zombie stories are by their very nature apocalyptic and often depressing. People will die. Survivors suffer relentlessly and the zombies keep coming. It can get intense.
Reviews for the pilot episode of The Walking Dead are overwhelmingly positive (check out mine here), and the next couple of years will (probably) bring us a movie adaptation of zombie-survival-bible World War Z. Zombies are slowly but surely—like they do—moving into mainstream, traditional forms of entertainment and as Lainey pointed out to me last night as I waxed rhapsodic about The Walking Dead’s first episode, a lot of people don’t really know their zombies from victims of a voodoo curse. So here is a brief rundown of everything you need to know to survive the zombie apocalypse enjoy zombie television.
1) What is a zombie?
The idea of the walking dead is very ancient—it’s referenced in the Assyrian culture first, I think. More recently, voodoo practitioners, especially in colonial Haiti, created “zombies” by controlling people through magic. The 1943 classic horror film “I Walked with a Zombie” is based on that idea. But that’s just a cursed person, not a “real” zombie. A real zombie is specifically a revenant—a reanimated corpse (assumed soulless).
2) How does one become a zombie?
You have to be bitten, though The Walking Dead makes a reference to “scratching” as well, but traditionally a zombie’s bite transfers the infection. Where that infection comes from varies. Sometimes outer space (Shaun of the Dead), but more and more zombie stories use viruses (Zombieland, The Walking Dead, World War Z). For practical purposes, I like the idea of a virus best. After all, no one had heard of AIDS forty years ago. It’s conceivable there is another terrible disease out there we don’t know about yet. Once bitten, infection can be slow or fast, depending on the location and severity of the bite. A large bite close to your heart and you’re finished. A small bite on an extremity and you get to experience the “slow burn”.
3) How do you kill a zombie?
A common misconception is that beheading a zombie kills a zombie. It doesn’t. It just renders the body useless. The decapitated head will continue trying to consume. This is known as an “ankle biter” and poses a real threat in tall grasses or thick underbrush. You have to destroy the brain to eliminate a zombie. Bullets are very popular—especially those explosive rounds—but for my money it’s a bow and arrow every time. Arrows are reusable—assuming you have time to go back and retrieve them after an attack—and they’re quieter than a gun.
4) How do I avoid zombies?
Be quiet, get used to the dark, and stick to high ground. Noise and light attract zombies—World War Z posits that they can smell blood, too—so travel during the day and make sure you’re light-tight at night. High ground is important—you want a view of what may lay ahead. If you can learn to sleep in a tree, do. It’s commonly accepted now that zombies can’t jump or climb (although many zombie movies allow their zombies to do both to make them more threatening).
5) What do I do if my friend/loved one/myself gets bitten?
Kill it. Immediately. Don’t waste time. Your buddy Doug isn’t there anymore, just a ravening monster that needs killing. And if you get bit, do the rest of us a favor and blow your own brains out. Save us the bullets and the hassle of disposing of you.
6) Why are you so unsympathetic to the infected?
Because they aren’t people anymore. They’re Death.
And this is The Walking Dead’s burden: to make us care about people who are going to be seen killing—violently—women, children, the elderly, the infirm. There is no room for sympathy in this world. I hope there is room for The Walking Dead, though. It’s an extraordinary achievement for television.
Photo from AMC