It’s been 10 years since The Walking Dead lurched onto AMC on Halloween 2010 and started an ever-spreading zombie franchise that’s been invading pop culture ever since. With Fear the Walking Dead and The Walking Dead: World Beyond running alongside the main show, an anthology series and a Daryl/Carol spin-off on the way, and a whole film series yet to debut, TWD is still going strong as its flagship eyes its end. But has this longevity and ubiquity actually had a meaningful impact on the zombie subgenre over the last decade? To find out, SYFY WIRE talked to tons of zombie experts about the good, the bad, and the undead spawned by the hit TV show.
From books to movies to TV to comics, the world of the living dead has come a long way since George A. Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead. Some parts remained untouched by Robert Kirkman’s comic-turned-show The Walking Dead even during its peak. The Girl with All the Gifts author/screenwriter M.R. Carey explains that “Walking Dead wasn't really an influence on [The Girl with all the Gifts] — it was more out of The Day of the Triffids by way of 28 Days Later.”
In 2002, 28 Days Later helped establish a quick, angry zombie, which partially “was an attempt to distance them from traditional ‘undead’ zombies, as was the determination not to go for the ‘zombie brow’ look of the Romero films,” Cliff Wallace, a special effects makeup designer who worked on 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later, and World War Z tells SYFY WIRE.
Wallace adds that he personally hadn’t felt the influence of TWD in the last decade: “Well, this is a trifle embarrassing, as I have to admit that I have never seen an episode of The Walking Dead. I keep an eye on the design of the zombies but I’m afraid that’s about all.” But that design is something Wallace has seen expand from TWD (and the influence of director/makeup honcho Greg Nicotero) out into the greater genre world.
Wallace notes that “like Buffy the Vampire Slayer before it, which established a look for vampires" involving "the vampire brow (that was probably influenced by The Lost Boys),” there was something about TWD’s undead aesthetic that grew greater than the show itself. He tells SYFY WIRE that “the overriding design ‘look’ of The Walking Dead is the exposed teeth, out of the mouth denture, which has become a staple of zombie design in virtually everything from [the Resident Evil franchise] to the Wights in Game of Thrones.”
That entry into the pop culture visual vocabulary is just one aspect of TWD’s spread, according to some experts. University of Kansas professor Paul Scott (who’s writing a 2022 book on the proliferation of zombie TV shows), says that the show helped give the cult movie monster “mainstream status.”
“Thanks to TWD, everyone knows what a zombie is and is quite familiar with the conventions associated with it,” Scott tells SYFY WIRE. “I liken this to Starbucks: The chain has its critics but there is no denying that everyone across the globe is now familiar with coffee and knows what a frappe, latte, and cappuccino is. This simply wasn’t the case pre-Starbucks.”
“Once the zombie had become mainstream thanks to TWD, then other shows were created that took the figure of the zombie and did different things with it,” Scott explains. "This would not have been possible without TWD and these shows came as a result of the show familiarizing mass audiences with what a zombie is and what it does.”
Scott cites shows that took the zombie conventions established by TWD and used them to position the zombie as one of the leads — something only possible because a general audience now had a grasp on zombie mechanics. “TWD has been enormously influential in not only spawning a host of shows influenced by it but also in sensitizing an entire generation around the globe to zombies. It is entirely because of the show that we have parodies such as walking meds, smombies, and so on.” One of these shows he mentions, and focuses on in his upcoming book, is Netflix’s Santa Clarita Diet.
“I was a huge fan of The Walking Dead when it came on. Watched it religiously the first couple of years,” Santa Clarita Diet creator Victor Fresco tells SYFY WIRE. “I liked the genre predating that — I grew up watching Night of the Living Dead — so I was always interested in that culture. It was just really well-done storytelling and great characters and everything you want in a show.”
But was TWD a direct influence on Santa Clarita Diet, outside of the general popularization of zombie media? “The way I pitched it, and we never used the word ‘zombie,’ but [Drew Barrymore’s Sheila] being undead was a metaphor for entitlement culture.”
Still, understanding how pop culture typically depicts zombies was key to making Santa Clarita Diet's lead one an undead cannibal, Fresco says.
“I think our shows were so different — obviously it was a drama and as a comedy writer, I was interested in looking at it from the zombie’s perspective,” Fresco says. “You don’t do that in drama because there is no zombie perspective. They don’t really have minds. I felt, unlike vampire lore which was never really clear to me, I really understood zombie lore. There must be something that speaks very deeply to our psyche about that.”
In fact, it’s something that speaks so widely to audiences that this kind of mainstream zombie narrative can be seen as derivative or symptomatic of a subgenre that’s simply run out of creativity. Isaac Marion, author of Warm Bodies, falls in this camp. “General consensus seems to be that it runs out of ideas early on, then keeps repeating itself year after year,” Marion says, “which would make it a pretty good representative for the zombie genre as a whole.”
Marion observes that “the traditional zombie scenario had one compelling question: How do individuals react to the collapse of collective humanity?” While some movies tackled this “in interesting ways — early Romero, 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead,” it’s still a question of the subgenre's ability to maintain originality and effectiveness.
“Whenever a new zombie thing comes along I just want to know, what’s the twist? Have you found someplace new to go with this vehicle?” asks the author. “What’s the subversion that gives it a reason to exist? Oh, there isn’t one? Or there is but it’s superficial? The zombies are Nazis, or the zombies are strippers, or the zombies are a vague background threat to provide a renewable source of drama for a rotating cast of weepy-shouty humans? I’m just... so bored.”
To take it back to Professor Scott's analogy, as prevalent as Starbucks may be, it’s hardly exciting. Mainstream success can come with creative sacrifices to make it more palatable to a larger audience. Compromise can hollow out a project, making it a walking shell of its former self. Few series remain fresh after 10 years, though even Walking Dead's detractors find interesting aspects to its longevity.
“I do have to appreciate the meta layer,” Marion says. “A show about a horde of indistinguishable ghouls who exist only to devour and multiply... and now it’s spread into 10 seasons and several indistinguishable spinoffs? I see what you did there!”
In 10 more years, after at least a few films and spin-offs have premiered and the dust has settled from the franchise’s continued expansion, how much more trenchant will that comparison feel?