Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Why The Walking Dead Matters

A few years ago, zombies were the hottest trend in media. You couldn't go into a store without finding zombie t-shirts, books, and movies. The Walking Dead hit at the height of this trend, but it has remained popular as trend-lovers have moved on to vampires and werewolves. Clearly, there has been no shortage of zombie films, but The Walking Dead* pushes all zombie movies and television to be stronger. Here are the unique points of difference that elevate the show from zombie horror to well-done drama.
The Walking Dead
1. Sex without sexualization. Practically every zombie movie or video game features hypersexualized female characters. For some reason, I have a hard time believing that women would fight for their lives in leather booty shorts and see-through t-shirts. The women in The Walking Dead wear realistic clothing and contribute equally to the group's survival. While multiple character engage in their fair share of sexual relationships, they are presented within the context of daily living. Obviously, the televisual medium does limit the overt nudity that occurs during the sex scenes, but the show could very easily focus on the women's bodies. Instead, they are sexual without being exploited.

2. Accessibility. The Walking Dead isn't just for horror fans. The show highlights the tension between humans when confronted with survival in a hostile environment. These characters are facing the reality of death every single day, so viewers are presented with multiple (often conflicting) opinions on how to react in life-or-death situations. This focus on humanity instead of death broadens its appeal to a wider, less horror-centric audience.

3. Balance. It's lots of fun to see creepy, scary, gory zombies attack people. However, it takes contrast to create tension; otherwise, we'd just be stuck with inevitable death. It's a lot more terrifying to see the characters create camps outside of Atlanta or at the farmhouse, be lulled into a false sense of comfort, then get attacked than it would be to just have the character be constantly bombarded by zombies. Rationing the zombie moments also makes them far more effective. For example, the bicycle girl of season 1 was so compelling because she was a small, legless zombie in a quiet, empty field. She would not have been so haunting if she had been, say, crawling across a parking lot filled with zombies in an episode with 20 different zombie attacks.
This is not to say that The Walking Dead has been perfect in its balance. The first half of season 2 suffered from a shocking lack of zombies. Instead, the show focused on the personal struggle between group leader Rick and bad boy Shane trying to win the alpha male position in the group. After more than 10 episodes of this, I came seriously close to quitting the show forever, but the second half of the season completely redeemed the show. This section restored movement, tension, and dynamic interactions into what was becoming a stagnant, lifeless season.

4. Different strokes for different folks. The limitation of a zombie movie is that there is a very small amount of time to squeeze in character development. Obviously, it's so much easier to develop 3-4 main characters in 2 hours than it is to include 10+ main characters. Television allows The Walking Dead the luxuries of developing personalities over time and introducing new characters to keep things fresh. This allows for a much broader representation of gender and race without feeling forced.

5. Zombie evolution. (CAUTION: POTENTIAL SPOILER!) What could be more terrifying than not knowing how to fight a plague? At first, people are only zombified via flesh wound, but the disease evolves to turn every dead person into a walker. This implies that the virus could further mutate and cause living people to become zombies without any injury. Such developments spark more questions, which makes the show even more compelling.

So what's your take on The Walking Dead? Is it a fresh take on horror, or is it just the same content in a different medium?

* I'm aware the show is based on the comic series. For this discussion, I'll be discussing why these particular elements are important for television/film.

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