It must have been a strange atmosphere at George A. Romero’s funeral in July. On the one hand, attendees had gathered to pay their last respects to the visionary who invented the modern zombie movie. But on the other, was anyone there not secretly hoping Romero would suddenly rise from the dead and start staggering toward the local shopping mall, ready to deliver one last commentary on consumerism before getting a bullet to the head?
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Even with the death of Romero, zombies have never been more alive in popular culture. “Zombie voters” were one of the stranger subplots of the 2016 U.S. presidential election; Starbucks just gave us the brain-freezing “Zombie Frappuccino” for Halloween; David Fincher is working on a mega-budget sequel to “World War Z” with Brad Pitt; and, of course, AMC’s “The Walking Dead” continues to be one of the most-watched shows on television – and, no less important, one of the most discussed on social media.
I have been a huge fan of the show since it debuted in 2010. But I can also pinpoint the precise moment when I started falling out of love with it: March 6, 2016 – the episode in which Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and his gang of zombie apocalypse survivors led an assault on an outpost controlled by a vicious rival group, the Saviors, slaughtering everyone there in the coldest of blood.
It was when the show went from being inspired by Romero to being inspired by Rambo. Zombies officially stopped being the main danger and the show devolved into a shoot-‘em-up with more weaponry than an NRA rally.
The show just returned for its eighth season with its landmark 100th episode, and the creatives are already talking about another 100. And I’ll still be watching, even though the law of diminishing returns has well and truly set in. Now, though, I find it best to watch the show as a metaphor for Trump’s America – no end in sight, tribalism at its very worst and everyone scrawling “JSS” into all the rocks and trees: Just Survive Somehow.
The Robert Kirkman comic book upon which the show is based is still way ahead of the TV series (for example, the current “All Out War” storyline was published in 2014). I always steered clear of the source material while the show was in its prime for fear of spoilers, but since the decline started in the back-end of season six, I’ve been reading it, hoping for signs of improvement. I am yet to be convinced.
Kirkman, of course, has other things on his plate besides zombies these days. In addition to the “Fear the Walking Dead” spinoff, he’s been working on the so-so horror series “Outcast” and recently signed a lucrative deal to create shows for Amazon Studios.
And even though “The Walking Dead” has been hemorrhaging viewers in recent times, it still has some of the most devoted fans on television. That may be one of the reasons I currently prefer “Talking Dead” to the show it honors every week with its reverential post-show discussions – and also why I’m currently pitching a show about the most obsessive fans (“The Stalking Dead”).
Indeed, the “Talking Dead” that aired immediately after the first episode of season eight – a live spectacular, filmed at LA’s Greek Theater in front of 6,000 demented fans – was far more enjoyable than the preceding season premiere. It also served as a reminder of some of the great characters we have lost over the years (Sasha, Merle, Lori, Glenn, Abraham, Hershel Beth not so much).
Host Chris Hardwick is the ultimate fanboy, and while “Talking Dead” lacks any kind of criticism of the mother show, he’s smart enough and affable enough to help you overlook that.
As well as the move away from zombies as the main threat, the show’s other big problem is that most of the characters became far less interesting as the show progressed – with the exceptions of Morgan (Lennie James) and Carol (Melissa McBride).
Rick Grimes has become this Moses-type figure, leading his people through the wilderness in search of the Promised Land (and don’t be surprised if the show runs for 40 years). Unfortunately, none of the other long-term characters have much to do now other than gaze devotedly at Rick and follow him into battle – from Michonne (Danai Gurira) and Maggie (Lauren Cohan) to Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus) and Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam).
Father Gabriel is a classic example of why the show is less involving nowadays. For a long time he was an infuriating character – much like Andrea, Lori and Shane before him. But the thing was, at least they all made you feel something, even if it was just annoyance at their selfish choices.
Now, the characters are becoming as brain-dead as the zombies around them – although another exception is Eugene (Josh McDermitt), who has seemingly switched camps and joined Negan’s Saviors. Maybe it’s all meant to serve as a commentary on our own modern times, when so many blindly follow, but it doesn’t make for great drama.
The arrival of Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) has also contributed to the show’s decline. One of the series’ joys used to be its ability to transcend its comic book source material, even if at times it played like a zombie soap (cough, “Who is Judith’s father?”). Alas, Negan, with his limited kill set, has dragged the show back to its roots. And despite having such a charismatic actor as Morgan in the role, it’s impossible to see beyond a cartoonish figure who indulges in the basest of locker-room talk and likes to wield a big stick (perhaps the only difference between him and Trump is that Negan likes people who take a knee before him).
Can the show ever recapture the drama of earlier seasons at Hershel’s farm, Woodbury and the prison? Will we ever see nuanced characters like Deanna and Dale again? Or even weasels like Nicholas and Merle? Or are we stuck with CG-tigers and faux Shakespearean kings?
While we’re asking so many questions of the show, here are a few more I’d like it to answer:
1. Do zombies need to go to the toilet after they’ve eaten? Like, what happens after a binge-eating session?
2. If zombies eat human flesh, why do we see lots of dead bodies but never any skeletons? Is this a metaphor for Western food wastage?
3. Why do nearly all of the zombies look like they’re in the same 18-30 demographic as the bulk of the show’s viewers? And thin – isn’t this America? I mean, don’t these guys know how many calories are in a Zombie Frappuccino?