THE WALKING DEAD (TV) and my zombie problem

The other night A went off the see TDKR with a friend and his dad. Anne-Marie went off to bed early, but I wasn’t feeling particularly sleepy. So, I decided to stay up and wait for the kid to get back (responsible thing to do in any event, no?). To pass the time, I decided to try a couple of shows that we had been putting off or avoiding, or, really, that Anne-Marie and I could not agree to watch together. One of the episodes I watched was the opener for The Walking Dead, “Days Gone Bye”.

On one level this is a show I should already be watching, or would be mainlining right now instead of writing this blog post. I have a long history of attraction to stories about the apocalypse/post-apocalypse, and “Days Gone Bye” is a well-crafted introduction to a world in collapse. Writer-director Frank Darabont and Andrew Lincoln effectively show Rick as disoriented, but still capable of recognizing, and accepting, that the world is no longer the place he knows. The episode also uses the characters of Morgan and Duane to show the emotional toll of what’s happening – the scene that cuts between Rick and the bicycle girl and Morgan trying to shoot his wife is authentically affecting. The image of Rick riding into Atlanta on the horse is a great visual, the kind that you would love to see on the big screen.

That I am not already watching this series and anticipating the coming season is down to one reason: zombies.

When I was six, and my sister four, our dad took us to a double feature of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (1956) and Night of the Living Dead (1968) at The Guild Theater in Portland, which, at the time, was a revival house. His defense, now and then, was that he thought Living Dead was a different movie, Invaders from Mars (1953), or something like it.

I have no reason to doubt his explanation, which accounts for why we went to the theater in the first place, but not so much why we stayed. As I recall, Bodysnatchers was second on the bill, but that’s pretty weak reasoning in this case.

The trauma mostly worked itself out that night, and has now become a good family story, the subject of jokes and sardonic wit. I have no memory of ever having zombies invade my dreams. When I get startled and anxious about weird noises in the middle of the night or walking alone in strange places, zombies don’t even register in my fears. Nor am I an especially fearful person, and I have a high degree of tolerance for other kinds of monsters, demons, devils, and aliens. As a kid I watched plenty of classic horror and monster movies (c. 1950s-1960s) even after the Living Dead mistake. Later I began watching TV like The X-Files, Buffy and Angel, all of which feature episodes with zombies or zombie-like creatures (“Habeas Corpses” is one of my favorite Angel episodes). Similarly, Hellboy and B.P.R.D. are among my favorite comics. These experiences led me to opportunistically sample zombie films like 28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead, even a scene or two of Night of the Living Dead on one occasion.

What I’ve learned as an adult is that zombies are fine when they are part of a larger storyworld, and are not the only monsters or antagonists. As a genre, though, I am mostly bored and grossed out by zombies. So, one episode of Buffy fine, one aspect of the narrative to Game of Thrones, also fine, but episode after episode, or hour after hour, of nothing but zombies is a line I am not convinced I can cross or stomach.

Some of this feeling no doubt relates to my childhood experience at The Guild and years of avoiding zombies, but there is also the fact that zombies are kind of intrinsically lacking in intelligence and that makes them boring to me. To the extent that they are embodiments of fears about loss of one’s humanity or will, they do not particularly work for me (the Reavers from Firefly and the victims of Rossum’s mind-wiping in Dollhouse have come the closest to zombie-ish ideas that are intellectually engaging in some way). The worst parts of “Days Gone Bye” for me were easily the ones directly involving walkers, particularly the repeated shots of bullets to brains, which left me numb and queasy.

One indication of how little I am engaged by the genre is the horse. I knew that the horse was going to get eaten the second that Rick decided to ride her or him to Atlanta. I imagine that most people who have watched the premiere also knew that. I also imagine that, for zombie fans, the moment when the horse gets consumed by a pack of walkers is satisfying in terms of the narrative. Not so much for me; just more grossness and, in this case, cruelty.

What I’m wondering is what, if anything, am I missing about zombies in general and The Walking Dead in particular. For reasons that should be clear, I have not been reading The Walking Dead, although I did download the first issue while watching “Days Gone Bye”. So, I don’t have much of an idea of what the trajectory of the series looks like (or if it is being mirrored in the television show).

One reason why I like Falling Skies is the way that series is focused on the human characters and on exploring different responses to the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it. Even in the second season, where the aliens are becoming more prominent, the key questions still revolve around what’s left of humanity, what it means to be human, what the “right” choices are in trying to survive. If the zombies recede into the background on The Walking Dead, and the series focuses more on the remaining human survivors, that might change my disposition about continuing to watch, or how many episodes I think are worth watching before deciding what to do about continuing.

I want to like this show, but I’m not sure I want to like so much that I can overlook hordes of zombies, at least that is my impression after streaming the premiere on Netflix.