You know what I hate about zombies?
I know, it’s almost heresy to say that nowadays, what with them being the drooling, groaning patron saints of pop culture, but it’s true. The trouble with zombies is that they’re a villain that has no relatable motive, when’s the last time you were craving brains? If your answer was anything other than “never” then stay the hell away from me you freak. Most of my favorite villains are all relatable, they have motives that I can understand and empathize with. Whether it’s Darth Vader’s secret desire to redeem himself and connect with his son, or Cersei Lannister’s desire to defend her children, I can understand their motives. I still loathe them of course, but at least I can relate to them as human beings. So why do I bring this up? After all, zombies aren’t so much villains as they are a force of nature that threatens the characters, like an earthquake or plague. It’s watching the characters struggle against the threat of zombie-induced death that is supposed to be the main thrust of a zombie movie. Yet in so many movies, the characters are often just as one dimensional as the zombies chasing them. If it weren’t for the makeup I wouldn’t even be able to tell who was a zombie and who was a real character.
“But wait,” I hear you asking, “zombies are supposed to be a villain. They’re more like a force of nature, like an earthquake or tsunami.” And you’re absolutely right, they are more of a force of nature, they’re not meant to have relatable motives. That’s part of the appeal, that unknown quantity, and we always fear the unknown. Unfortunately the makers of Zombie movies never seem to understand this very basic concept.
So many zombie movies and shows make the mistake of focusing way too much on the zombies and not enough on the characters. Either they spend the entire movie questioning the moral implications of shooting a bunch of walking corpses or they present it as some kind of gory mystery, trying to unravel the cause of the zombie apocalypse. The trouble is that no one is ever going to care about the plight of the poor zombie. They’re a walking monstrosity of dead meat, who the hell cares if we string them up and shoot them, or light them on fire, or use their heads as bowling balls and their legs as pins? Trying to conjure up sympathy for zombies is like trying conjure up sympathy for the stupid Battle Droids in Star Wars. And just like with the prequel trilogy, your characters are just as stupid as the zombies usually, with the protagonists either ridiculously selfless or playing the dour, no nonsense badass that is never afraid of anything. One dimensional characters like that are just boring. There’s no better example of this at work than The Walking Dead, which almost seems to take perverse pleasure in making all the worst mistakes made by all zombie movies.
The Walking Dead started out promising enough, with that horrifying opening scene of Rick shooting a little girl turned zombie and some great characterization for Morgan (played by resident badass Lennie James. Then it turns out the best characterization in the show is wasted because we never see Morgan or his son again. Instead we focus on a cast of some of the most uninteresting, unlikable and unrelatable characters ever assembled before a television audience, it’s one of the few shows I’ve seen where I’ve actually wanted to follow the random assortment of extras more than I do the actual cast. I would have watched a show about those Hispanic hospital workers taking care of their elderly family members. Instead I got to watch Carl act like a total moron for two seasons, Lori prattle on about her affair like we’re in a goddamn soap opera, and Rick acting like Dudley Do-Right on a bad day. The only remotely interesting character is Shane, and then they decided to turn him into a full on psychopath halfway through Season 2.
The trouble is that all the characters are static, despite being in a life-changing situation. No one, besides Shane, evolves in any meaningful way throughout the show. I’m not asking for life changing revelations from the characters or anything, but a little growth might be nice. Andrea goes from a shrieking harpy when we first meet her to a somehow more annoying shrieking harpy who now knows how to handle a gun (great idea teaching her how to shoot, Shane. Thanks for that.) Daryl is a pretty interesting character, but unfortunately it seems the writers can’t decide where they want to go with his character. Season 1 saw him as a vengeful brother desperate to find his one-handed brother, and then…just kind of drops the whole thing and turns into an aloof badass that doesn’t get many lines. Season 2 saw some growth as he tries to find a missing girl, but that’s completely undercut by the fact that no one gives a damn about the little girl or about Carl for that matter.
The real problem with the Walking Dead is that the zombies are often seen but not felt. If that makes sense. Yeah they show up, sometimes they wreck some stuff and bite some people, maybe kill a dude, but as soon as they’re gone the whole show goes back to focusing on interpersonal conflicts no one cares about because no one cares about the characters in those conflicts. It’s the same complaint I had about Star Trek Voyager, you never really get to feel the desperation, hopelessness or despair that a zombie uprising would create. Sure Andrea says she wants to commit suicide for the first couple episodes of Season 1, but that’s just telling, not showing. They tell us she wants to commit suicide by her coming out and saying “I want to commit suicide”, but we never see her struggling with her emotions in anyway. All they do is show us some really awkward conversations between her and Dale about the moral and ethical implications of suicide. Carl on the other hand remains a teeth-grittingly, punch-you-in-the-face annoying brat of a twelve year old despite the world turning to utter chaos around him. I know he’s a kid, but goddamn, he doesn’t have any survival instincts. Darwin demands this kid die, and yet the show’s producers keep saving him from the jaws of death instead of pushing him in.
There are two critical mistakes that have crippled The Walking Dead. First was making Shane and Rick two separate characters, whereas they should be two sides of the same coin. You see Shane has actually had a character arc; he’s gone from being a protective and sensible leader to a begrudging follower of Rick’s constant idiocy, which ends with Shane dying and turning into a zombie. Shane has learned to survive in a world where one mistake can mean instant death, he’s methodical and calculating, listening to his common sense whereas Rick is constantly making emotional decisions that always end up with someone dead at the end of the day. They should be the same character, it should be Rick going from his calm, sensitive demeanor into a stone-hearted leader making the tough decisions no one else wants to. Unfortunately this is a case of the writers not trusting their audience. They’re clearly afraid that if they make Rick anything less than an utter paragon of virtue, we won’t sympathize with him, when in fact the opposite is true. He’s been so nice and cuddly for two seasons of slaughter that he’s no longer believable. Now I have hope that the death of Shane and Rick’s apparent dictatorial attitude in the conclusion of Season 2 means that he’ll finally start undergoing some changes to his character.
The second critical problem is that the makers of The Walking Dead are under the mistaken impression anyone gives a damn about the plight of the undead in a world of the living. The stupidity began at the end of Season 1 where we were treated to an especially insipid lecture at the CDC about how this “zombie-virus” works. The problem is that suddenly shoving science, and I use the term loosely, into what is essentially a fantasy story only succeeds in taking us out of the narrative. It’s a sudden, unwanted element that only raises more questions than it answers. As Cracked made abundantly clear, a real zombie uprising would end so fast no one would even realize it had started, so trying to make the zombies sound like a realistic, sciencey phenomenon does nothing but poke holes in their own story. And don’t get me started on the whole “The CDC building is designed to explode in the event of a power failure” thing.
But okay, that’s one bad episode, every show has at least one. Then we come to Season 2 and the walkers found in the barn, who are the former family members and neighbors of the people on this wretched farm. The show then brings up the moral implications of shooting a walking corpse. Well allow me to give you the definitive answer to this little conundrum: no one cares. Their zombies in a zombie movie, they’re there for only one reason and that’s to get shot in the head. End of story. I forget how long they stretched out this little moral dilemma, but holy crap I was so relieved when Shane finally did what I had been wanting to do; shoot the bastards and be done with it. I don’t know what emotion they were shooting for in that scene, but everything slows down and the music turns somber like this the wholesale slaughter of a family by some kind of Nazi firing squad, rather than desperate humans killing a bunch of cannibalistic monsters. Really? I find it hard to feel sorry for a dead-eyed shambling grotesquerie missing half a jaw. Maybe that makes me a monster, I don’t know.
And you know the worst part of all of this? I still watch The Walking Dead, and I even enjoy it sometimes. I keep watching because there is a great story to be told by this series, a story about survival and camaraderie, despair and hope. Unfortunately what we’ve gotten for the past two seasons is Days of our Lives: Zombie Edition. Maybe Season 3 will turn things around. Maybe they’ll make a show as good as a movie I recently saw. A movie that did zombies right, that made me care and even cry.
A hidden jewel of a movie on Netflix. I’ll tell you all about it this Friday.