The Walking Dead is a great piece of pop entertainment. I should clarify, though, that I'm referring to the graphic novel which just passed 100 issues a short while ago. In a series chock full of grim and horrifying developments, issue 100 was one of most brutal, ending with another in a series of emotional punches to the gut.
Zombie apocalypse stories interest me not for the literal mechanics of surviving against flesh-eating zombies but for their exploration of social institutions. They're a magnitude of order more intellectually fascinating to me than modern vampire stories, the other horror movie archetype that just won't die (pun intended).
[Note I said "modern vampire stories" as older vampire and monster stories are of immense fascination for me. They were, prior to Westerns, one of the earlier genres exploring the tension between individual freedom and social norms. It's just the modern incarnation of vampire stories, co-opted as skeletons for tales of racism or teen romance, that seem intellectually lacking.]
Like stories such as The Lord of the Flies, zombie stories begin with a scenario that explodes human constructs like society, law, civilization, and return us to a more primal, transactional world. The zombies are literal embodiments of humans in their most primal state, lower even than animals, as each zombie is concerned only with eating the flesh of other living creatures, human or otherwise. Unlike viruses that can mutate and kill themselves off, though, zombies don't eat one other.
In a clever bit of irony, the only way to kill a zombie is to permanently damage its brain, traditionally the locus of human thought, either by beheading the zombie or severely damaging its skull. This despite the fact that zombies are already brainless. Vampires, on the other hand, must be staked through the heart. This disparity in the location of their vulnerability is not coincidence. Vampires tend to be explorations of human desire, sexuality, and emotion, and the heart has always been the poetic locus of those feelings.
Where The Walking Dead and other zombie stories are most compelling is in those high pressure moments when an encounter with a zombie forces snap decisions on how to treat other humans in the vicinity. My feelings about the AMC TV show ebb and flow, but I'm most interested in the show when it adheres most closely to the graphic novel's relentless pace of these types of do-or-die encounters rather than conjuring absurd soap opera side plots that surpass the acting abilities of the cast.
[Many people have written that all they want to see on the TV show The Walking Dead are more zombies being killed, but what I suspect will set the show apart is not the volume of those encounters, most of which are depicted with subpar computer graphics, but the volume of such encounters that force humans to make snap moral judgements.]
Encountering a zombie typically ends with one of four results: death at the hand of the zombie, successful violence against the zombie, violence among the humans trying to escape the zombie, or some form of cooperation among the humans. The drama lies in whether humans retain the compassion that we expect of civilized humans or resort to primordial violence against each other, Lord of the Flies style. The horror at the heart of zombie stories is less the literal terror of being chased by flesh-eating humans (the ones in The Walking Dead are typical of the majority of movie zombies in that they stumble around slowly like drunks) but the idea that with a gentle nudge, the social conventions humanity has built over so many centuries will come toppling down.
What's unique about The Walking Dead (the graphic novel) among zombie stories is its length. Already over 100 issues, The Walking Dead is likely the longest zombie story ever told, and that opens the possibility for it to tell an even more epic story, that of the the rise of society and government. In such a ruthless world, how do humans group together, and what arrangements do they come up with to provide food and security, and then beyond that, perhaps even higher order human needs like love and sex. In this way, The Walking Dead might break down society and government only to retrace the rise of those institutions. By dint of its sheer duration, The Walking Dead has an opportunity to show the rise of human society.
Or perhaps its ultimate demise? Perhaps The Walking Dead is an epic depiction of mankind's long journey into extinction, with the zombie disease as a stand-in for any number of apocalyptic scenarios. I can't imagine either the graphic novel or the TV show embracing such a bleak conclusion, but it would be daring, wouldn't it?
The end of Season 2 was one example, when Rick gives a speech establishing himself as the dictator of the group, and anyone who isn't comfortable with that can go off on their own. That's a blueprint for any number of stories in human history, including the rise of fascism. The various other bands of people Rick and his crew encounter in Season 3, and presumably beyond, if they follow the graphic novel even roughly, will show us a variety of models for constructing society.
I Am Legend (the book, not the movie) took a similarly interesting arc over a shorter duration. It is about vampires, not zombies as many who watched the movie believe, but it has had an inordinate influence on the zombie genre. I don't want to spoil the novel with a plot summary (it has a killer of a twist ending), but it is a fascinating social fable, much more so than the movie, to no one's surprise.
Genre stories can be both mass entertainment and intellectually satisfying. My fingers are crossed that the TV show can live up to the thematic ambition of the graphic novel, even as it moves on to its third showrunner.