The Deeper Message of 'The Walking Dead'
By Scott Elliott
February 15, 2013
In 1968, an unknown director made a low-budget black-and-white film that completely changed the American horror genre forever. The director was George A. Romero, and the film was Night of the Living Dead. At first, critics and audiences were put off by the graphic nature of the film, but eventually it gained popularity, and it is now considered a classic. As more people began to pay attention to the film, they also noticed that Romero was not just going after cheap thrills. His film offered a social commentary on the times. Romero used this film and later zombie films, such as Dawn of the Dead and Land of the Dead, to critique racism, consumerism and materialism within American society.
We've come a long way since 1968—and the modern zombie craze has established its niche in American culture. Zombie films were made about us, and we have now fallen in love with all things zombie. Our latest love affair, of course, is with The Walking Dead TV show—which gathered over 12 million viewers for last Sunday's season three premiere, the highest rating in the show's history. Today's zombies have gotten faster and smarter. The plots have evolved. The Walking Dead is more than an addicting drama—it has multiple storylines and layers, testing the characters with walkers (zombies), rival opponents and even conflict from within.
The Walking Dead is doing what most TV shows aim to do: entertain millions of people. But does it accomplish more than that?
With its rising viewership, The Walking Dead is doing what most TV shows aim to do: entertain millions of people. But does it accomplish more than that? The Walking Dead is the next generation of a genre that has a legacy of using fear and death to speak out on social issues. And whether you are caught up in the zombie craze or not, the show has something to say to you.
A critique of individualism
The first and most primal lesson in zombie attack survival is that it's never a good idea to face them alone. There's safety in numbers. You're better off traveling in a pack, which is exactly what we see in the main characters of The Walking Dead. And this first rule of survival challenges something we hold dear. The primary social critique offered by The Walking Dead is directed at the individualism our American culture so celebrates. Our heroes have often been rugged men, and sometimes women, who have pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. They have faced tremendous obstacles, and they have overcome. They have built companies from the ground up. They have accomplished great achievements with little or no help from others. This is admirable, but it is also something that can be taken too far.
For some, individualism has become the one great virtue. In extreme instances, the zombie-prepared characters who take pride in individualism have built bunkers, amassed small arsenals and stockpiled canned goods. When the zombies first attack, these individuals do well. They often survive the initial wave of violence because they are more prepared for a catastrophic event than anyone else. But what they choose to do next often determines their ultimate fate. Will they join a group of other survivors, or will they dig in their heels and trust in their individualism? Here's where the viewer would do well to take note: Those who go it on their own do not survive, but those who join a group have a good chance of making it.
A herald of community—and the right kind of it
The Walking Dead not only critiques individualism, but it also explores community. As the show has progressed, the community has gotten more complex, and the original survivor group has encountered other communities. Within every community, there is strife, and how the community handles strife and internal conflicts is important. It is especially important when the world, or in this case the walkers, are pressing in. A healthy community will choose strong leaders, adopt a moral code and plan for the future. The group led by sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) has done these things. They've had their ups and downs, but they realized the importance of community early on and they have not abandoned this principle.
The first and most primal lesson in zombie attack survival is that it's never a good idea to face them alone.
In season three, the audience was introduced to a new community—the town of Woodbury. This community, led by the governor (David Morrissey), is quite different from that of Rick Grimes and his followers. At first, they seemed more stable. Walls and armed guards are able to keep the walkers at bay. Yet as the story continues, it is obvious this is not a healthy community. They have chosen a strong leader but not a good leader. The people of Woodbury are motivated by fear and their own happiness. They care very little about the outside world. They simply want to keep the world out so they can maintain Woodbury. Instead of thinking ethically about the walkers, as Rick and his group have done, they use the walkers for entertainment.
When The Walking Dead began, it seemed to offer a simple critique of individualism, as many other zombie movies had done in the past, but now in its third season, it seems to be asking us, “What kind of community will you be?” Are we more like Rick Grimes and his group, who wrestle with deep ethical questions and choose to fight for a better future in this world, or are we more like Woodbury, the members of which live in fear but are happy with something to eat and a little crude entertainment?
I do not know where The Walking Dead is heading or where it will end up, but I feel challenged as I tune in every week. Some watch The Walking Dead because it's highly entertaining. Others avoid it because they cannot stand zombies and the violence and gore that go along with them. Yet whether you like zombies or not, the bottom line remains: This is a genre with a rich history that seeks to do more than just scare the living daylights out of you.
The Walking Dead is fun and exciting, but it also reminds us of the importance of the communities we live within and create. It’s a caricature of the dangers we face—underlining the reason we have to stick together.
Because as in real life as much as The Walking Dead, there are two kinds of dangers: external forces and forces from within. We have to fight the pride, violence and injustice we see in the world as much as we have to fight internalizing these ugly powers ourselves.
As the heroes in the best stories know, the best safeguard is compassion, through community, for one another. This is not only what keeps us safe, but it also keeps us from bending to the same depths of depravity we see in our enemies.