Realism in AMC’s “The Walking Dead”

I admit being a (tepid) fan of post-apocalyptic stories, though less because I’m looking for tips on surviving an anticipated Reckoning, and more because it seems like one of the few avenues for heroism left in contemporary fiction (more on that last lament another time).  Part of the reason for not declaring myself a fully-fledged fan is my dismay at the implausible behaviour of characters in such stories.

I tread cautiously here, of course, because having characters that act prudently isn’t a necessary condition for successful fiction.  After all, where would serial killers and monsters find victims without groups of teenagers willing to split up and search for their lost companion who mysteriously disappeared in the middle of the night? But I digress…

That brings me around the AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” an attempt at producing a serious-minded character drama with zombies.  While I did enjoy the first season, it’s a case in point of the cause of my dismay.  Consider the following plot points and ask yourself if I am really reaching:

1. After one-week of a zombie apocalypse, firearms are scarce in Georgia, USA.

I kid you not. We’re expected to believe that in and around Atlanta, the survivors can’t find guns and ammo.  Not only are there supposed to be four firearms for every American citizen, but the plot of the story has the Army and Marines deployed and then overwhelmed by the undead within a week, leaving all their weapons laying around. Yet no one can find a gun…

For the life of me, I can’t fathom why the writers decided that an on-going source of tension for the survivors should be the short supply of guns. Food and medicine? Sure. Shelter from zombie hoards and evil survivors? Sure. But guns? It’s completely unnecessary to drive the plot with so many other variables available.

2. Survivors of a zombie apocalypse camp outside. 

I concede that a zombie apocalypse is not exactly an environment conducive to thoughtful reflection. Normally, however, life and death situations sharpen one’s mind about the most expedient way of avoiding the “death” side of the equation.  So it’s a wonder to me how anyone could have come to the conclusion that camping outside—no matter how far removed from the city’s zombie hoards—was a good idea.

Think about it. The threat you’re facing is slow-moving humanoids that can only kill by making physical contact with you—they can’t even open unlocked doors, let alone shoot guns, make bombs or throw rocks. So do you camp outside in tents where they can lumber up and bite you while you sleep (which actually happens in one episode)? Or do you find a sturdy, enclosed shelter from which you can secretly emerge to forage? Granted, I’ve never been to Atlanta. But is it really that hard to find a suitable structure in the surrounding countryside?

3. The preferred scavenging ground is a department store in the middle of the city, which also has the highest density of zombies.

About sixty years ago, developers started building what are called “suburbs,” which are linked to cities by large highways. Concomitant with the rise of the suburbs was the “strip mall,” and then came what were later called “big box” stores. Nowadays, these big box stores are often built just outside the suburbs where land is slightly cheaper and where the suburb could be expected to grow to surround them.

Now, two things are remarkable about these big box stores: they contain large quantities of food and other supplies, and the surrounding population density is a fraction of what it is in a comparable location downtown.

I offer this well-known historical sketch, because apparently the writers on “The Walking Dead” are unaware of the benefits of suburban sprawl for survivors of zombie apocalypses, who want to minimize their exposure to densely populated areas while foraging for food and supplies.

4. Merle Dixon cuts off his hand with a hacksaw after being handcuffed to a mechanical line.

I admit that I enjoyed seeing the old fashioned time-crunch scenario that forces a character to choose cutting off his hand over trying to cut through the hardened steel of police-issue handcuffs. It’s a delightful gambit.

There’s one problem. If you watch the scene you’ll notice that Merle is handcuffed to a rusty threaded rod that binds the boiler lines to the roof. Unlike police handcuffs, threaded rod is made from soft steel, which can be cut through with even a dull hacksaw in under a minute—faster than you’d cut through your own wrist.  Since Merle is a hick, a woodsman and a gear-head (he or his brother owns a chopper), he would know this.

Of course, most of the people who write and watch movie scripts don’t know this, so it’s hardly the end of the world. Still, it affects the suspension of disbelief.

At any rate, I did enjoy the series for its attempt at presenting heroic drama without the un-ironic postmodern irony. But it says something about the world of film and television when we’re reduced to watching zombie flicks for some glimmer of old fashion heroism.


2 thoughts on “Realism in AMC’s “The Walking Dead”

  1. One thing that bothers me about the show is that no one is even considering when the zombies would die naturally. They could die from dehydration, starvation, or this disease that shuts down their brains. Certainly the ones with no lips would dehydrate, unless they are spirit zombies. The show has not mentioned anything about a spiritual reason for the zombies. Another problem is that zombies do not attack each other, with the exception of the guy who hung himself in the tree. This is a problem in pretty much every zombie movie I have ever seen. If most of your brain was shut down, and for some reason you could only shuffle around as you would on Thorazine, you probably would not start biting other people.There must be more than just a cross bow in Georgia for killing zombies at a distance without making noise. You would think they could raid a bow hunting store for some bows and arrows.

    1. The “natural death” of the zombies bugs me too. If the cause of their state is a natural one, the laws of physics must apply. They can’t use more energy than they consume in calories, so a time must come when they die. Surely, millions of zombies can’t still be finding enough “live food” to keep them going indefinitely.

      Maybe the writers want to leave that open. I don’t know. But the time is coming when they’ll have to decide.

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