The Dumb and the Dead: Watching The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead had its somewhat belated German TV premiere tonight. I’m not a zombie fan, so I wasn’t interested enough to seek the show out. But since I had to stay up fairly late anyway to pick up my Mom from a dinner party in the city centre, I thought I’d give the show a try.

The verdict: Derivative and grimdark at its worst.

This applies only to the TV show BTW and not necessarily to the comic book it is based on.

Spoilers behind the cut:

The show starts with our hero, a young police officer, shooting a little girl in the head. Okay, so the little girl was a zombie, but it’s still kind of hard to sympathize with a protagonist who shoots little girls in the face. Now the scene wouldn’t have bothered me so much, if it had been an organic part of the story. But it’s basically a random zombie encounter (that takes place before the zombie apocalypse begins, at that) placed at the beginning of the story for obvious shock value. Look how brave and daring our show is! We shoot little girls in the face on TV.

After that little flashforward to the zombie apocalypse (Is the attention span of American viewers so short that they can’t even wait ten minutes for the zombie apocalypse to begin?), we see our hero and his partner in their squad car, exchanging banter. However, the banter is so full of misogynism of the worst sort that I found myself hoping the zombies would show up already and eat both of them. Our hero is not so bad – it’s his partner who’s really insufferable. The guy not just looks like a Neaderthal, his views on women seem to come straight from the Stone Age as well. Whenever this guy was on screen – and wouldn’t you know it that he turns out a main character – I hoped that zombies would finally eat him or that one of the other characters would bash in his head with a hammer. Really, the guy is that obnoxious. And as if all that wasn’t enough, it also turns out that he is sleeping with the wife of his friend and partner. Not that the other male characters we see are better – most of them talk about women in disparaging generalities, control them “for their own good” and treat them like possessions.

In addition to the sexism, there are also problematic racial tropes. For starters, The Walking Dead is a big offender in the magical person of colour category. The first human survivors our hero (who is white) encounters after escaping from the hospital are a black man and his young son, who promptly save our hero from a random zombie and fill him in on the apocalypse. The father is played by British actor Lennie James, who also played the lone black person in Jericho, by the way. Apparently, Lennie James always gets to play the token black survivor of the apocalypse, which is a pity, because he is a fine actor who deserves better. At one point, he sits behind a first floor window picking off zombies with his rifle, when a zombie who used to be his wife shows up. You can tell at once that she used to be his wife, because she is the only black zombie we see.

We do see more characters of colour in episode two (the German broadcaster showed two episodes back to back), but again their main purpose seems to be to rescue our hero, who then goes on to come up with a brilliant escape plan. Magical person of colour and white saviour all in the same program – could this show be any more problematic? Oh yes, and our hero also makes it very clear to the crazy racist(TM) among the survivors that racism is bad and wrong.

But The Walking Dead is not just problematic due to inherent sexism and racism, it’s also derivative as hell. Our hero is wounded during a shoot-out and wakes up in a deserted hospital several weeks later – an idea, which was actually quite original in 28 Days Later. Mysterious message luring survivors to a supposed “safe zone” which turns out to be a trap – 28 Days Later again. Characters disguising themselves as zombies to go somewhere they need to go – seen it before in Shaun of the Dead. Racial tensions among the survivors – that’s straight from the original Night of the Living Dead and it was actually daring back then. Survivors holing themselves up in an abandoned department store – Dawn of the Dead, only that it was a shopping mall there. There’s probably dozens of other ideas borrowed from other zombie films, which I didn’t recognize, because I’ve only seen about four or five zombie flicks in my life. Really, it’s almost as if The Walking Dead was a collage of ideas borrowed from other zombie tales and usually done better there.

But the real kicker is that the survivors of the zombie apocalypse are all bleeding idiots. In fact, that’s probably the reason why the zombies haven’t eaten them – cause these people don’t have any brains to speak of. For starters, it is pointed out again and again that noise attracts the zombies, which is why one should only shoot at them as a last resort, since the shot tends to draw more zombies. So what does our hero do? He gets out of his squad car and strolls into a park – in the middle of the zombie apocalypse – to seek out a legless zombie woman whom he had seen earlier and put her out of her misery. Nor does he club her in the head or something, no, he shoots her and risks drawing hell knows how many zombies, while quite a bit away from his squad car. Now I can understand killing zombified friends and loved ones – and there are two instances of that in the first episode. But wasting ammo and risking discovery for a completely random zombie is just dumb.

Later on, our hero gallops through the deserted streets of Atlanta on a horse he found along the way and turns a corner to ride right into a zombie mob. I laughed out loud at that point and I don’t think that scene was supposed to be funny.

Not that anybody else is smarter. The misogynist partner and the wife of our hero sneak off alone into the woods for a bout of illicit sex – in the middle of the zombie apocalypse! After stressing again and again how important it is to keep quiet, Lenny James suddenly takes a rifle up to the first floor of the house he and his son have holed up in and begins picking off zombies on the street – while his son is downstairs and undefended. The survivors holed up in the Atlanta department store don’t even have the sense to block and barricade the double glass entrance doors of the store with something.

Towards the end of the second episode, there is also a complication/plot twist that is so bleeding obvious I saw it coming long before the characters did.

I am truly mystified why this show is considered a success, since it is hard to imagine how anybody, let alone zombie fans, could stomach more than two episodes.

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4 Responses to The Dumb and the Dead: Watching The Walking Dead

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  2. One tiny point in its defense — the lead character’s waking-up-from-a-coma thing was a coincidence, not a rip-off. According to the guy who wrote the original comics:

    “So we were working on our second issue by the time I saw [28 Days Later]. It was going to be a matter of somehow trying to restage the entire first issue, because it was a very similar coma opening. I made a decision—which I pretty much regret at this point—I said, ‘You know what? It’s so different [from that point on], I will probably never hear anything about this.’ And I was wrong.”

    That said, I haven’t watched the show, myself. I’ve read and enjoyed some of the comic. But judging by your comments here, I don’t think I’m going to make time for the TV version anytime soon.

    • Cora says:

      Thanks for the clarification.

      These coincidences happen – I’ve had this experience myself that I was working on a novel when a massively hyped book with a very similar setting and plot came out (which turned out to be not so similar after all, once I actually read it). And of course, somebody waking from a coma to find themselves in a deserted and vastly changed world is an ideal opening for a zombie story, since it plunges the protagonist right into the full blown apocalypse without having to set up how the apocalypse happened. In fact, it’s such an ideal opening that it’s a wonder no one used it before 2002.

      Like I said, I never read the comics, so I’m not sure whether the issues I had with The Walking Dead stem from the comics or from the TV adaption (though it’s likely the latter).

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