Volume 51, Issue 2: Spring 2017

Walking Dead abandons progressive potential of horror

Image by AMC Networks Inc.

The Walking Dead, the surprise hit for AMC when it premiered, has just concluded its seventh season. As a long-time horror fan, I was excited at the initial promise of TWD. A weekly national stage for a genre that has a tradition of progressive politics was an exciting prospect. Unfortunately TWD does little with the promise it starts with. It is a satisfactory zombie story but with the progressive politics removed. Without a grounding in progressive politics, The Walking Dead ends up being apolitical at best and a poster child of conservative individualism and might=right at worst.

Horror has always been a perfect genre for using myth and metaphor to convey meaning. Horror films play on our fears and anxieties and are key cultural sites for the definition of the monstrous. In the 1950s, the typical B-horror film was ideologically loaded against any form of socialist thought, real or imagined. In the late 1960s, filmmakers like George A. Romero redefined the politics with films like Night of the Living Dead (1968) that made a statement against racism. He went on to make Dawn of the Dead (1978) a critique of consumerism set in a mall. Day of the Dead (1985), was a critique of the military-industrial complex. The crowning glory, Land of the Dead (2005), critiqued capitalism head on (there was also the weaker Diary of the Dead (2007), which critiqued our obsession with social media). However, Romero doesn’t exist in the TWD universe.

Everything else indicates that TWD takes place in the present — except the absence of the whole genre of zombie films. Robert Kirkman, the comic book creator which is the source material for the show, has stated that he didn’t want the characters to know how to kill zombies and thus had to figure it out on their own. Removing the term zombie from TWD characters lexicon is not a fatal flaw, it is the removal of the progressive political tradition of Romero that hobbles TWD.

Not surprisingly, Romero himself has noted the lack of progressive politics in the show, stating in The Big Issue that, “Basically it’s just a soap opera with a zombie occasionally. I always used the zombie as a character for satire or a political criticism and I find that missing in what’s happening now.” The tragedy is The Walking Dead squanders the ideal venue for progressive politics. TWD could create any type of politics it wants in the post-apocalyptic world it inhabits, however it has failed at every turn. The problem is that by not grounding TWD in any politics it becomes defacto conservative. It has no moral centre. Sean T. Collins doesn’t mince words in his article for The Vulture, arguing that a problem has been festering on TWD and it isn’t the undead, “The show is The Walking Dead. The flaw is fascism.” He argues that violence is the only answer given to every problem on The Walking Dead.

The only reason we root for “our” group is that they are not as bad as the other human survivors. In The Walking Dead, every human group they encounter eventually becomes the other. Any character that starts to question this and seems to become the moral centre of the show is killed off. Whether it is Dale, Tyresse, and even eventually Glenn, TWD cannot abide a conscientious objector. The result is that TWD has become a seven-season-long misanthropic nightmare. While I think fascist may be too strong, it does come close to identifying the politics of the show. The failure of TWD to build on the promise of the progressive zombie tradition has resulted in a negative portrayal of human potential that negates mutual aid and cooperation in favour of violence. The Walking Dead has destroyed the progressive cultural tradition of the modern zombie. I would argue that any worthwhile progressive politics has to have hope as a fundamental building block; sadly TWD is where hope goes to die. Or is it just undead?

John-Henry Harter lectures in history and labour studies at Simon Fraser University. He has published in the journals Labour/Le Travail, The Otter, and Active History. He writes on class, the environment and popular culture when not consuming too much coffee and TV. Twitter: @JohnHenryHarter.