With all the zombies marching and gnawing their way across the pop culture landscape these days you’d think they’ve been around forever.
They haven’t. At least not with their current high profiles. And those profiles seem to be staggering a bit right now. So the question: Are the undead television’s new doctors and lawyers – constant players in the medium – or are they just passing through on their way to oblivion, this decade’s brain-eating fad?
Understand, the popularity of zombies is very much a “this decade” thing. Prior to the debut of AMC’s The Walking Dead in 2010 there really hadn’t been a high profile zombie show on television. Zombies may have staggered through the occasional Buffy or Supernatural, but they were never a central concern.
Since 2010, though, and the success of The Walking Dead, zombie shows have been proliferating like, well, zombies. Some have, appropriately, died along the way: Think Syfy’s Helix or MTV’s Death Valley. Others – such as the superb French series The Returned, which was remade into a now-canceled American series – seem to have merely vanished.
But there are certainly plenty of dead still kicking around on the small screen. The Walking Dead just finished its seventh season (the eighth comes right back in October) while its spinoff Fear the Walking Dead is about to kick off its third. Over at the CW there’s iZombie, Starz has Ash vs Evil Dead, while Syfy has Z Nation.
But wait, what about zombies at the movies? Well, what about them? Tellingly, only one zombie film – World War Z, which not-so-coincidentally starred Brad Pitt – has ever made more than $100 million at the domestic box office.Yes, relatively recent efforts like Zombieland and Warm Bodies show the genre still has a pulse, while the many Resident Evil movies actually seem to embody the zombie imperative: They just keep coming. And there’s no denying both the artistic importance and enduring cultural impact of George Romero’s Living Dead films, and many critics (including Decider) raved about 2016’s Korean zombiefest Train To Busan.
But there’s also no denying that impact landed most impressively on television. The Walking Dead has been one of the most popular shows on TV, and via streaming, since its second season. Its fifth season finale – on a cable network no less – drew 15.78 million viewers. Those are numbers that any modern network, broadcast or cable, would kill for.
Why did zombies break so big on TV? Much of it is in the timing. And not a little of it is in the gore.
Quite simply, The Walking Dead was the most consistently violent show ever to hit mainstream television. Not only did zombies happily bite into living humans on a regular basis, those humans drove hammers, swords, knives, you name it, into zombie skulls time after time after time after time. Killing zombies became the equivalent of batting practice on the show.
All this violence was supposedly tempered by the fact that most of those being bashed were decrepit-looking dead people. It’s not like they were killing bunnies or schoolchildren. These were monsters.
Still, there was blood and carnage at a level no one had seen before. No doubt our tense modern world also made a license for endless violence seem appealing on a gut level.
At the same time the series has always had effective human dramas going on; in some sense The Walking Dead has been a traveling soap opera inside a horror show. And the series also realized early on the shock value in killing off favorite characters. Having a contract on The Walking Dead is hardly job security.
But The Walking Dead also benefited from peak TV technology. Over its run we’ve seen the rise of DVRs, On Demand and streaming. It’s been easy to get zombified, to go back and watch early seasons, to binge a season in two days, to cross check different zombie series. These past seven years have been a fertile time for pop culture fevers to break out.
But then most fevers pass. The seventh season finale of The Walking Dead drew a mere 11.31 million viewers, prompting predictions of the death of the undead. And certainly that number is down more than four million people from the finale just two seasons earlier.
Still, let’s try a little context before shoving the zombie movement into a mass grave. Eleven million viewers is more than double the ratings for AMC’s Breaking Bad series finale; it’s about five times as big as the network’s Mad Men series finale. In other words, it’s still huge. The dead aren’t going anywhere fast.
But life moves in cycles and its likely the proliferation of brain-eaters will slow down. The ratings for iZombie have been shaky of late, an indication of over-saturation. Television, as is its wont, recognized a good thing and probably went overboard, copycatting and spinning the heck out of the success of The Walking Dead. Such is the way of Hollywood.
Hey, it happened with vampires, it will happen with zombies. No, the undead aren’t meant to be dramatic staples like doctors and lawyers. They’re part of the fantasy parade of monstrosities that let us live vicariously in an unreal world that offers escape from, and sometimes even insight into, this one.
But don’t ever write zombies off completely. There’s one thing about such monsters – just when you think they’re dead, they have a tendency to rise again.
Tom Long is a longtime culture critic who writes regularly for The Detroit News. He’s also an absolutely terrible guitarist.