Warning: This post contains mild spoilers about modern zombie movies and TV.
For a show often criticized for its excruciatingly slow pace, there was no shortage of action in the Walking Deads recent season 4 finale. Our heroes arrived at a survivor camp called Terminus, a rumored safe haven that has been plagued throughout the season. But unlike the show’s previous settings — Hershel’s farm, jail, or Woodbury, for example — no time was wasted. Seated introductions gave way to gunfire within a single episode.
It is the first time The living Dead went beyond walking speed through a location since Season 1, when the survivors stumbled into the CDC in the Atlanta area within an hour and exploded. But there’s a key difference between the show on these two plot points that makes following the series in the future feel like a chore.
Nobody on The living Dead care for concept what the hell is going on.
Dead people walking + strangers = zombie fiction
Unlike the Haitian voodoo variety, pop culture zombies began as cultural commentary, an analogy for whatever mindless, fast-spreading thing took over the populace. That purpose is rooted in understanding –trend X is sweeping the nation, let’s depict the struggle to sort it out in the face of the potential danger. The very best zombie movies of the last 15 years get this, with each uniting the pursuit of understanding in a unique way.
To take 28 days later, where the basic plot is driven by curiosity. The zombie virus (called rage in the film) jumps at people in a lab where scientists study chimpanzees suffering from its bloodlusted characteristics. And after the apocalypse begins, the four survivors the film follows persevere, hoping to find a military base that broadcasts messages of safety and healing. You can probably guess how that plays out (the military’s grip on the virus is limited at best, and the zombie they’re “studying” ultimately doesn’t help), but the plot is no doubt propelled by the survivors’ desire to understand what is happening around them. (The film’s radical alternate ending only furthers the need for understanding – as the four survivors shun the military and find a scientist who offers them a real, if seemingly fatal, solution.)
You can almost copy and paste the above paragraph for World War Z, the highest-grossing zombie film in the US during this modern zombie renaissance. The role of understanding is even deeper here, however, as Brad Pitt’s character jumps from global organization to organization, searching for pieces of a healing puzzle that he doesn’t put together until the very end. And unlike 28 days later, World War Z takes the idea of pursuing knowledge into real solutions – even if they involve concerns and a daunting timeframe.
This crucial piece of zombie fiction DNA isn’t even limited to the genre’s traditional movies. In Shaun of the dead, Shaun and Ed discover the means of fending off the undead through TV news reports (theoretically seekers of knowledge), and the movie’s ending is based entirely on the premise that understanding a zombie apocalypse is achievable. Like it World War Z, the revelation allows life to actually move forward in the end. Zombieland is less scientific and more practical in analyzing the apocalypse – Tallahassee and Columbus survive primarily because they develop an ongoing list of experience-based rules of survival to restore some order to the chaos around them.
Brains are eaten, not really used
All this brings us back to The living Dead, arguably the most important (arguably the biggest) zombie franchise today. At one point, this show also knew how to handle his understanding.
Aside from the fast-paced rendezvous at the CDC (where the shacked-up scientist continued to study but failed to find zombie solutions), the show’s most memorable moments are all wrapped up in evolving lore. The huge reveal in season 2, for example, came after Rick sent Shane… to discover that if you die, bitten or not, you turn into a zombie. And over time, the survivors have found some great zombie hacks: Glen and Rick cover themselves in zombie guts in Season 1 to escape a horde; Michonne walks slowly with two walkers on a leash to camouflage herself while traveling. Say what you will about the Governor’s overall effectiveness as a big bad guy, but even he strove to solve this zombie problem. His lair was filled with aquariums with zombie heads and he had a brainteaser named Milton to conduct experiments about whether zombies could retain human features.
“Once you’re in environments like the CDC — kind of a no-brainer — or Woodbury, which is safe and quiet to some degree, you could have a lab and start exploring things,” the series creator told me. Robert Kirkman to Ars at the time. “It’s human nature to want to find answers, and that’s something people would definitely focus on. We try to portray it as realistically as possible through Milton.”
A season later and the show no longer values understanding. The lone manifestation of science right now is an obvious red herring named Eugene. The fact that the skilled soldier (another new character this season, Abraham) is convinced that Eugene has zombie answers for Washington immediately destroys his credibility as well. One would imagine that as our survivors became more adept at navigating everyday life over time (which they did to the show’s credit), some of them would turn their attention to a few big ideas. Instead, it’s constantly up to new faces to take on this role (the governor, Milton, now Eugene) in a series of rapidly diminishing returns. And to make matters worse, our survivors have reached a level of zombie efficiency where even those former microbits of learning have disappeared.
“Safe and quiet to a point,” Terminus fits perfectly into Kirkman’s definition of when understanding should re-enter a zombie world. It’s advertised to both characters and audiences as a safe haven of sorts, but not an inch of it indicates that the residents are doing everything they can to sort this apocalypse thing out. In that sense, it’s not worth using as a giant piece of plot. Tidy is tidy. The show may have rushed in and out of the CDC for non-narrative reasons (a first-season show without a guaranteed second will often rush the plot and can’t spend much on expensive sets), but the speed of escalation at Terminus highlights The living Dead‘s new priorities – action, and not much substance beyond that.
The French have a smarter solution for the undead:The Returned
When zombie stories are no longer about understanding the zombies and the new zombie world, it’s time to move on. The living Dead seems to care more about gore, the possibly evil nature of human beings, and ruin porn-ish themes that can be found everywhere from military stories to Law and order. What sets the zombie genre apart and ultimately characterizes it (beyond that superficial detail of dead people walking) is trying to understand a mass cultural movement and the altered society it creates.
So let the big network (ABC’s Resurrection) drive you away, Sundance’s The Returned is the real thing. Even though the French sci-fi series isn’t traditional zombie fare – there are no green brain eaters – this is the academic’s best bet for finding the current contentment of the undead.
The show’s premise is a clever alteration of the dead rising: individuals who were thought to be dead (many horribly) begin to return to their small mountain town without having aged. The returnees do not immediately show alarming characteristics: they are hungry, but eat what is in the fridge; they don’t stand out in a crowd because of their looks; they talk like others talk and can remember most of their past lives (except, of course, what happens after each accident).
Beyond the expectation of discovering what these “people” are and what they might be capable of, watching everyone else reacts is gripping. Since the returned can be just about anyone (we see kids, single twins, grooms who never made it to the altar, doctors, and more), the show can explore how just about any kind of basic relationship handles zombification. And beyond interpersonal navigation, the city (sometimes collectively, often as individuals) wants to get to the bottom of this phenomenon. Reactions to the return range from complete acceptance to fear, search for solutions through religion to covert observation. Honestly, it’s the exact opposite of The living Dead-emptiness of instant gratification kills and instead focused on learning the “how”, “why” and “next what” of living with the undead. It is by far the most vivid story in the dead landscape of today.
The living Dead begins to fail his fans by neglecting an essential part of the zombie world. It’s not an instant death sentence for the show – it’s so popular that a spin-off is on the way – but there’s diminishing marginal utility for cheap thrills and murders. If you are interested in the genre is the brain and not the process of eating it, then it’s time to think about it. Season 1 of The Returned now streaming on Netflix. And instead of more Rick and company this fall, season 2 of The Returned should come to Sundance about that time.