To say that The Walking Dead has been wildly successful on AMC is something of an understatement. From the moment of its 2010 premiere, when it scared up 5.3 million viewers, the post-apocalyptic thriller has been a cable ratings champ. And each successive season has drawn more viewers—almost as if the show were a viral infection itself, turning faithful fans into zombified couch sitters. About 16.1 million of them tuned in for the Season Four premiere, crushing most competition on broadcast television and eating cable compatriots alive.
So why is a show that's been advertised with the slogan "Spread the dead" such a hit with the living? Because so many Americans love zombies—in all of their mindless, decaying "glory."
Maybe we can point a bony finger of accusation at film director George Romero. After 1968's Night of the Living Dead, zombies went mainstream, groaning and biting their way to our movie screens and comic book pages like never before. And The Walking Dead honors Romero's tradition, sending them shuffling onto our family room screens accompanied by levels of gore usually reserved for theaters with big black R ratings above the doors. Indeed, after visiting the show's set, horror film reviewer Jeff Otto of bloody-disgusting.com said, "This may well be the bloodiest show ever seen on television."
Based on the popular comic book series by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard, The Walking Dead focuses on deputy sheriff Rick Grimes as he tries to keep his son and a small band of survivors breathing in a zombie-strewn world. Humans are minorities in this new landscape, and the "walkers," as they're called, have but one purpose: Kill and eat as many of the human survivors as possible. The only way to avoid such a gruesome fate is to become real handy with a gun. Or a baseball bat. Or a screwdriver. Or whatever other makeshift weapon lands in your hand.
The Walking Dead isn't just about killing and re-killing, though: It's about rebooting a new civilization, even as the vestiges of the old one shamble outside the fences. As the fourth season begins, Rick and the rest of this ever-changing cast are holed up in a prison, and Rick has even tried to put down his weapons and make a go of farming. But the show's dystopian circumstances don't allow for principled pacifism: Here, you kill or you die. And if you're really unlucky, you die and you kill.
Zombies have always owed at least some of their popularity to the fact that through them society is able to contemplate and grapple with deeper issues. Romero used his zombies to satirize conformity and consumerism. The Walking Dead doesn't seem to have its mind on satire; instead, its dead become more of a backdrop so viewers can examine the living. Themes of family, friendship and even faith rise up almost as frequently as the dead do. And it makes sense: I think even the most secular among us would give an extra thought or two to life after death if they saw their dearly departed Aunt Betty shambling toward them.
In February 2013, relevantmagazine.com published an essay on the deeper meanings behind The Walking Dead—an examination of community and, by extent, the sort of community we should embrace. Writes Scott Elliott:
"It's a caricature of the dangers we face—underlining the reason we have to stick together. Because as in real life as much as The Walking Dead, there are two kinds of dangers: external forces and forces from within. We have to fight the pride, violence and injustice we see in the world as much as we have to fight internalizing these ugly powers ourselves."
But that depth can't dispel the blood and gore that so incessantly spatters across the screen. This is munching-on-entrails, stab-that-shambler-in-the-eye-socket, Zombieland-level violence. And it's turned into something of an illustration of just what you can and can't do on cable these days. The answer? While there are still some restrictions on sexualized content and language, there seem to be few fences when it comes to gore.
Show producer/writer/director Frank Darabont told bloody-disgusting.com, "We can't say f‑‑‑, but you can shoot a zombie in the head at point-blank range. I love this business." And when Slate columnist Tim Cavanaugh discussed The Walking Dead's envelope-incinerating approach, he wrote, "It would be ironic if basic cable TV, which remains so squeamish on sexual matters but so tolerant of violence, became the medium for the kind of cannibal holocausts that used to be found only in unrated grindhouse gut-munchers. But it would still be welcome."
Welcome? By whom? Us or the zombies?
With zombies lurking around the prison perimeter (attracted in part by live rats fed to them by an unseen traitor), Rick's colony faces another issue: A disease is racing through their ranks, killing survivors and turning them into, perhaps, a different kind of zombie. Several people die and others are infected. Meanwhile, the zombies outside press on the fence until it nearly topples: Rick sacrifices his fledgling pig herd to the horde, slicing the squealers open and leaving them almost like breadcrumbs to lead the walkers away.
A zombie bites into someone's neck, then eats parts of the man's organs and innards. The victim then turns zombie himself and gets off the bed as his intestines spill onto the floor. Dozens of zombies are shot or speared in the head; one presses so hard against the chain link fence that its skin is sliced into diamonds. A survivor smashes a zombie head like a melon. Two girls say goodbye to their "turning" father. One tries to take a knife and kill him while he's unconscious, but can't bring herself to do it. (The deed is done by Carol). We see two dead and burnt bodies.
Rick's son, Carl, makes crosses for the dead. When he asks whether a victim/walker was Catholic, he learns that the man was a "practicing atheist." Characters say the s-word twice, "h‑‑‑" once and "a‑‑" once; they misuse God's name once or twice. A couple contemplates sleeping together.
Rick searches for meaning in seeing an apparition of his dead wife. The Governor (leader of a rival band of survivors) attacks the prison Rick and his mates are holed up in, dropping off dozens of zombies in the heart of the place. Axel's brought down by a bullet to the head and is used as a human shield, bullets popping into his lifeless body.
Zombies are shot, stabbed, crushed, beheaded with a sword and/or run over, with each scene seeming to compete with the others for the prize of being the most gruesome. Daryl and his older brother Merle rescue a family from a horde of walkers—shooting zombies with bullets and crossbows, and smashing one's skull in the hatchback of a car. Merle rummages through the family's car for a "token of gratitude" until Daryl points a crossbow at him, forcing him to withdraw.
We hear that a sexual assault against Maggie is accomplished by the Governor having her lover, Glenn, tortured. We hear references to panties and randy raccoons. Characters say the s-word three or four times, "d‑‑n" five or six, "p‑‑‑" twice and "b‑‑ch" once. We also hear a few outbursts of "h‑‑‑" and "bejeezus." Someone hurls crude racial epithets.
Rick and his motley band of survivors find a prison filled, naturally, with walkers. But the prison's system of fences and walls allow the humans to pick them off systematically. Thus, scores of zombies are shot, skewered with arrows, or bludgeoned with machetes or axes or poles—and always, always in the head. The majority of these killings are unflinchingly graphic and full of blood spray. One masked walker, who became a zombie while wearing a riot suit, has his masked ripped away, and most of the skin from his face comes with it. That reveals a mass of still ravenous bone and muscle chittering and growling before he's finally dispatched.
But all the survivors' care doesn't prevent Hershel from getting bitten. A walker pulls muscle and sinew off his leg as Hershel screams in pain. The walker is quickly killed. Then, without pausing, Rick creates a makeshift tourniquet and hacks Hershel's lower leg off. The camera watches nearly every blow from the hatchet, which eventually leaves an oozing, bloody stump.
One character keeps a pair of armless, jawless zombies as "pets." Carol and Daryl make sexual jokes. Lori worries that her unborn baby may be dead—that it could be a walker inside her, ready to claw its way out. Carl, who looks all of 11, is smitten with 16-year-old Beth, and he seems to want to sleep in the same cell with her. Characters say the s-word three times and "a‑‑" twice.
Rick rushes his son, Carl, to a doctor after the boy's shot. The doctor determines that the pieces of the bullet have to be removed and an organ stitched up. But to do that, they'll need to put Carl under—and the nearest medical equipment is located in a zombie-infested school.
"Is that why I got out of that hospital?" Rick asks. "Found my family to have it end here like this? Is this some kind of sick joke?" He struggles with his need to do something—run and tell his wife, run and get the equipment—and his duty to stay by his son's side, both as a blood donor and as Carl's pop.
Carl's wound looks bad, for the record: The doctor fishes around in the bloody gash searching for bullet pieces as the boy screams in pain. A survivor recoils from the sight of a car seat plastered with gore. A zombie is smacked in the head with a bat and dispatched with a crossbow bolt to the temple.
Meanwhile, folks offer thanks to God for their safety and pray for the well-being of others (though one character says prayer is a waste of time). Somebody carries a stash of drugs, including crystal meth and Ecstasy. We hear the s-word once, along with "a‑‑," "p‑‑‑," "b‑‑ch," "d‑‑n" and "h‑‑‑." God's name is abused several times.
"Days Gone Bye"
Fleeing the gutted hospital, Rick stumbles upon survivors Morgan Jones and his young son Duane (a shout-out to the real-life Duane Jones who had a role in Romero's iconic flick). Then he heads to Atlanta to find his wife and son whom he believes are still alive. When his police car and a "stolen" truck (though who's alive to own it?) fail him, he takes to horseback. Of course the horse is graphically eviscerated by zombies.
One of the survivors prays over a meal, asking God to watch over them "in these crazy days." But mostly we just see multiple zombies getting shot through the skull. Rick even shoots an undead little girl for little more than shock value. He tenderly tells a suffering zombie that he's sorry she's now undead—then shoots her in the head. A suicide victim's skull is shown blown in half. Entrails, bones, flesh and brains are shown rotted or half-eaten by birds or zombies. Several people—living and undead—are beaten with baseball bats. Language includes multiple uses of the s-word, "b‑‑ch," "h‑‑‑," "d‑‑n," "a‑‑" and misuses of God's name.