What is a world without walkers?
It would be remiss for me to spend a year discussing zombies without at least mentioning The Walking Dead given its impact on the subgenre. It would be even more remiss for me to neglect to do so considering that The Walking Dead is responsible for my academic origin story.
In 2003, Robert Kirkman gave us what would become one of the most popular franchises in the history of the zombie. It is also one of the longest running zombie franchises—second only to George A. Romero’s Living Dead series (1968-2009).
The Walking Dead (at least the comics and most of the television adaptation) follows a group of survivors led by Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), a former sheriff’s deputy. In the opening story, Grimes is shot in the line of duty. He wakes up from a coma to find himself caught in the middle of a “zombie apocalypse.” The comics and television show chronicle several years of Grimes’ adventures.
The many, many adaptations and spinoffs—The Walking Dead novels (2011-19), Fear the Walking Dead (2015-), World Beyond (2020-21), Tales of the Walking Dead (2022-), and so on—take place in the same universe but follow other survivors, and on occasion, cross over with the primary storyline. But why do we keep coming back to Kirkman’s world?
The Frontier zombie
Many Southern American zombie narratives like The Walking Dead inevitably become stories of resettling the West in what we might call a “post-Western” or the zombie frontier narrative.
For example, Kirkman finally ended his supposed “zombie film that never ends” (Days Gone Bye) in July 2019 with the final issue of the comic book, which takes place an undisclosed number of years after the initial outbreak when the presence of zombies has become scarce. It opens with a two-page spread that reveals a new railroad under construction heading off into the horizon, a corral of horses, a stagecoach, and a woman riding horseback with a rifle slung across her back and a cowboy hat firmly placed upon her head like something straight out of a Western. On the following page, Eugene—the survivor responsible for the new railroad—greets a few newcomers: “welcome to the western front!” (Rest in Peace).
The events of this graphic novel take place somewhere around the mid-twenty-first century; more than 150-200 years after the initial settling of the American West. It is as if the characters have forgotten that America was already settled prior to the zombie apocalypse; it is as if they have overlooked the fact that railroads already extend and connect all points of the country; it is as if the frontier is being resettled. This panel, for example, is devoid of any post-settlement/pre-zombie technology, suggesting that America is a tabula rasa of post-zombie possibilities and that everything between the initial settlement of the West and the rise of the zombie has been erased.
The Walking Dead draws upon the Western’s “nostalgia for an idyllic past” when things appeared to be simple and binary—good/bad, settler/Native American, etc.… If we already know that the “American hero” successfully conquers the frontier and settles the West, then drawing on the tropes of the Western during times of cultural upheaval may function as a way of playing out our contemporary fears in terms of contagion and climate change. It may settle us.
Is that a good thing?
I’m firmly of the opinion that being unsettled is not such a terrible thing. After all, the first step to decolonisation is feeling unsettled.
Like all narratives, The Walking Dead is not without its problematics and the Western tropes contribute to them. The zombie frontier narrative often forgets about Indigenous peoples, rendering them absent or monstrous and sometimes invoking a cowboy versus “Indian” ideology. Unfortunately, these narratives establish, or seek to re-establish rather, the status quo. They take us back to a supposedly idyllic past, but they stop firmly at the settling of the West, which also erases the history of the land prior to settlement.
However, while zombie frontier narratives draw on and reinforce many problematic elements of the Western, they are also saturated with all the potential of the zombie narrative itself, which, we have established this past year, are many. By combining Western tropes with the post-apocalyptic world of zombies, The Walking Dead inverts the frontier myth as much as it re-establishes it, so in many ways, Kirkman’s world is also rejecting the ideology associated with Western settlement.
So yes, The Walking Dead is not without its problematics, but I am still going to tune into the new spinoffs. How else can I simultaneously enjoy Kirkman’s world and critically address it.