By Mark Alpert


I know I’m coming late to this party, but I love The Walking Dead. A few weeks ago my teenage son and I started watching the show on Netflix as a sort of after-school treat. After a long hard day of Latin and algebra (for him) and manuscript revisions (for me) we sit down together on the couch to enjoy an hour of zombie mayhem. Of course, if you’re a fan of the program you know that the title characters are never called zombies; when the dead come on the scene, the living alert one another with the cry, “Walkers!” And that’s how I greet my son when he comes home from school and drops his incredibly heavy backpack on the floor. I yell, “Walkers! It’s time for Walkers!” and we race toward the living-room couch.

Why do we like it so much? Well, we’ve always had a thing for zombies. I still read to my son before he goes to bed (awww, isn’t that cute, I hear you say) but now I read World War Z instead of Doctor Seuss (yikes, what kind of father are you?) And we both loved 28 Days Later, the movie that originated the man-wakes-up-from-coma-to-find-world-overrun-by-zombies trope that was so shamelessly stolen by The Walking Dead. But there’s something special about the TV show. First, there’s the soap-opera appeal, the affection you develop for characters simply because you see them every day. Second, there’s the sheer bleakness of the characters’ situation, and the blind relentlessness of the enemy they face. It’s like watching a car crash in slow motion. You can’t turn away.

But the most interesting aspect of the show, at least from a novelist’s point of view, is its narrative format. A television series like The Walking Dead doesn’t have the conventional beginning-middle-end structure of most novels and movies. It’s episodic (naturally), and that makes the story feel more like early works of fiction such as Don Quixote, Gulliver’s Travelsand The Pilgrim’s Progress. The characters travel from one adventure to the next, and though the details are a little different each time — in one episode, Don Quixote tilts at windmills, in the next he mistakes a pair of monks for enchanters — the basic setup of each scene is the same. (Or, to use another example, Gulliver has unusual adventures in a kingdom of tiny people, then in a kingdom of giants, then in a kingdom that floats among the clouds, and so on.) The danger with this kind of format is that it can get repetitious. And in fact, that’s a problem some viewers have with The Walking Dead. Many of the episodes seem to follow a standard, timeworn formula: start with a flashback from the good ol’ pre-zombie days, followed by thirty minutes of dread and sniping among the characters, then someone does something phenomenally stupid or brave and the dead arrive en masse. And every episode ends with a cliffhanger, of course.

On the other hand, the strength of this format is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. As you watch episode after episode (my son and I have set a strict limit of no more than one per day) you get the feeling that you’re watching more than the struggles of a small band of survivors. You start to think, “If these people can’t make it, then no one can. If they die, the whole human race is doomed.” The perils and travails come so fast and furious that you can’t help but think of Job and how God killed his family and took away all his possessions just to make a point. The religious theme is made explicit in the first episode of Season 2 when Rick the sheriff’s deputy prays aloud in the country church (after killing the zombies who were sitting in the pews).

Although the show’s format may not resemble a novel’s, The Walking Dead offers lots of good lessons for thriller writers. In too many thrillers (including my own), the heroes are unrealistically resilient; in The Walking Dead, the constant fear and tension chew up the living characters almost as relentlessly as the zombies do. And nearly every character on the show has a mix of good and bad in his or her soul. Many of their actions are heroic and heinous at the same time. I don’t plan to write about zombies anytime soon (I’m too damn scientific — I just don’t understand how the dead can walk without a working circulatory system) but I’d like to write about the same kind of desperation, the furious battle between hope and despair. Something to think about for the next book!


13 thoughts on “Walkers!

  1. I found the 2004 Dawn of the Dead to be very disturbing, for just the reason you mention–the tension and strife between the human survivors. Another one was the remake of The Crazies. Zombies as a whole, though, I find a bit one-note as evil characters, lacking depth and sex appeal, but I guess that’s the whole point of zombies! If you see one, and you can’t shoot it in the head, you better run!

  2. Like you, we came late to the show but now we love it. Have you tried the Dead Yourself app where you can turn your photo into a walker? Lots of fun!

  3. Good thought provoking column. To make a pun here, if your characters can’t get up and walk on the page then maybe it’s time to shoot em in the head?

    (Got a “zombie” character in my WIP. He’s driving me crazy.)

  4. Just curious: Would “Walking Dead” be akin to the picaresque novel? The picaresque features a rogue hero type (usually lower class) living by his wits in a corrupt society. (Zombies are pretty “corrupt” I’d say). There’s no real plot just a series of loosely connected adventures or episodes.

  5. I came late to the Walking Dead party too but was immediately hooked…though I still have to fast forward through the goriest bits!

  6. I think I might have to watch this show, but since I’m totally addicted to HANNIBAL on NBC, I might be at my fill of gore.

  7. I am a big WD fan from day one and look forward to catching up on what I have missed.

    Another appeal of the zombie trope is the utter relentlessness of the situation. With a plague, eventually the last person dies. With a nuke, the hot zones sort themselves out, you get sick or you don’t. With zoms, you can’t relax for a minute. What’s not to love?


  8. I actually have issue #1 of the comic book of the same name, purchased back when I still bought and read comics (before I realized that I had an accumulation as opposed to a collection). I love the show, not only for its weekly “water cooler” moment (beginning with the first episode, when the horsie succumbed to the walker horde) but also for its occasional deviation from the comic storyline. Even better, however, is its underlying survivalist issues: the walkers may be a constant and deadly threat, but in a situation where resources are extremely limited, what do you do when you encounter an extra mouth that needs to be fed?

    Can’t wait to see what happens next. And Mark, you’re a good dad.

  9. I cannot understand how this high-minded discussion of all things zombie could have failed to mention the most important oeuvre in the entire zombie canon–Shaun of the Dead. Horrific, moving, a work of genius on so many levels, SOTD definitely deserves a viewing by every zombiephile.

  10. How ironic that I spent the first half of the day on Saturday as Herschel. I’m afraid to talk about how hard the costume was to pull off since it would require me to offer up some season 3 spoilers though….

    But I met up with some friends at Motor City Comic Con to cosplay. He was a good Rick and his son was a perfect Carl. 🙂

  11. Love The Walking Dead. Although it’s true that they never say the z-word, the title actually refers to the human/living characters according to creator Robert Kirkman.

  12. I too came late to TWD and once I started I couldn’t stop – I watched the first two seasons back to back. It such a great story, and as was mentioned, the characters are so flawed. Really good writing.

Comments are closed.