Before 2010, when you asked someone what they thought of when they heard the word “zombie,” chances are they’d throw out a handful of movie titles including Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead. If he or she was a film buff, they might even mention George Romero by name. The point remains: There was a time when The Walking Dead wasn’t the most famous zombie pop culture artifact. And for better or worse, those days are gone. Since AMC introduced the series — now in its seventh season — it’s become a one-of-a-kind juggernaut franchise, one that draws millions each week.
While fans of The Walking Dead are happy to sing its praises and celebrate its success, Robert Kirkman’s zombie hit does have its share of detractors; and Romero himself is among them. In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, he was candid about his prognosis for the zombie genre — and it wasn’t great. “The Dead are everywhere these days,” he said. “The Walking Dead and Brad Pitt just sort of killed it all.”
According to Romero, the new wave of zombie-themed films and TV shows favor gore over substance, while he always tried to fill his films with a deeper meaning. When asked about the prospect of picking up his own franchise, he was also firm. “I’m content to wait until sort of zombies die off.”
There’s no denying that the undead have played a prominent role in many facets of our entertainment as of late, but has The Walking Dead effectively killed its own genre? We’re not so sure.
We were zombie-aware long before The Walking Dead
Part of Romero’s problem with The Walking Dead, World War Z, and the recent outcropping of zombie-related stories seems to be that there’s a bit of over-exposure at play. And to that point, he’s not wrong — since the early 2000s, there have been dozens of films and shows, after all. But that didn’t start with the two pieces that Romero called out — in fact, in many ways, The Walking Dead and World War Z borrowed heavily from other works that helped redefine the genre.
Danny Boyle’s tremendous and terrifying 28 Days Later introduced the world to the concept of a high-speed zombie in 2003. Romero attributed that particular evolution to Pitt’s 2013 thriller, though. And The Walking Dead is also eerily similar to 28 Days Later — in fact, Rick’s awakening in a hospital bed and encountering a suddenly apocalyptic world almost feels lifted entirely from a sequence in Boyle’s film.
In that way, it’s hard to pin all the blame for any potential over zombification as of late on The Walking Dead. Yes, it’s taken the interest in the genre to another level — but it also relied heavily on previously established themes and an already built-in interest to get there. Besides, as fans of The Walking Dead know, the interest in the series isn’t just because of the zombies, anyway.
The Walking Dead has changed our expectations — but that’s not all bad
In his critique of The Walking Dead‘s role in ruining the zombie genre, Romero insinuated that the series relies on gore alone to draw in viewers. But to Romero’s point, The Walking Dead isn’t entirely devoid of a message. It may get lost within the series’ narrative, but it’s been there all along: The real danger to humanity isn’t some kind of unimaginable monster, it’s ourselves.
Is this message original to the genre? No — in fact, it borrows from the Night of the Living Dead series directly. Has The Walking Dead always managed to send that message home effectively? No — but that doesn’t mean it’s missing a message entirely.
Romero isn’t the only person to make this critique of the series. As of late, fans and critics alike have complained that the series has become too focused on blood and guts. However, that hasn’t always been the case. For the better part of six seasons, The Walking Dead walked a fine line between shock value violence and storytelling. And it’s introduced a new generation of fans to the genre by focusing on characters that they’re genuinely invested in. By investing so heavily in the show’s characters, Kirkman and company have perhaps shifted viewers’ expectations of what they’ll see in a zombie story — but in this respect, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The issue isn’t zombies — it’s overexposure
There’s one thing that Romero is definitely right about — zombies are everywhere these days. We can’t say definitively whether or not that’s due to The Walking Dead‘s popularity, but we can say that if there’s a bigger issue with the genre in general, it’s in the sheer amount of zombie-related content out there these days. As with anything that becomes a genre du jour, it has bordered on becoming a gimmick.
Part of what made Romero’s films work so well was that they were original and fresh. Films like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse have tried and failed to continue what Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead started — refreshing the genre by subverting it. We’ve become so used to seeing the undead that the concept in and of itself doesn’t scare us anymore; and that has nothing to do with one story or another, but with the entire genre reaching a zenith. Yes, The Walking Dead has played a part in that — but it’s not the only reason that we’ve reached peak zombie exposure.
Follow Katherine Webb on Twitter @prufrox.
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