And that’s not a bad thing.
The Walking Dead comic and television series represents all the tropes of a western tale. Sure, it is also a post-apocalyptic saga, but what is a post-apocalypse tale except a story about people trying to survive and bring order to a hostile land?
This article and it’s additional parts will focus on the AMC series, though the comic series is just as much a western in its iconography and style. It is a response to the Season 7 opener where fans have been crying “Where are the zombies? This was a show about zombies!” and readers of my own work who, upon learning my latest project is a western, wondered how I made the leap from a zombie survival series like HG WORLD to something so different. The truth is that shows like The Walking Dead, Z Nation, We’re Alive, and HG World are not much different from western films. All the tropes are there if you just look for them. The longer a zombie story progresses and the more the survivors learn about the monsters out there, the less it becomes about survival horror and more about building coalitions and rebuilding the world.
Zombies used to be limited to book-end media like film. These films focused on zombies as the immediate and imminent threat. The human drama resulting from such a story profiled human behavior under siege conditions. The original Romero trilogy and, in fact, most of the Living Dead hexalogy is about people dealing with immediate threats: in a farmhouse…a mall…a military bunker. The latter half is about long-term survival: …in a walled city…a camper…on an island. The first half of the series is siege-driven horror about staying alive in the short-term. Within each film, however, it is the inevitable outbreak or breakout of the zombies that propels the plot and forces characters to make moral and ethical choices about one another and the resources they share.
The first part of traditional zombie stories is survival horror. Zombies are the cause of flight or siege. The goal is to either establish or defend some safe place, either temporary or permanent, where people can begin climbing back up the slope of Maslow’s pyramid, find regular food and water, security, and a place to resume a kind of normal life. One of two options will emerge at this point. Either civilization still exists and the zombie threat can be overcome (28 Days Later, Undead) or the world as we knew it is dead and a new order must rise from it (most other zombie films, books, and comics). At that point, the survival horror gives way to western horror and adventure.
Once survivors get a handle on what zombies are, learn the “rules” for dispatching them, and get over the initial trauma of living through the madness of it all, they become just another threat and, in most cases, the least dangerous threat for “first world” refugees. There are hostiles everywhere among humans and monsters and animals, all of which are fighting to manage their hunger.
The western genre is about survival in a hostile environment and the movement of civilization into untamed, lawless lands. Its stories involve people with personal motives to settle or seek their fortune…or just escape.
TWD begins as an exodus into the wilderness. We realize quickly that not everyone is equipped to survive in this environment and even those who are have no advantage when the world turns hostile. People die, not just from the walkers but from breaking bones, lack of medication, unsanitary conditions, making stupid choices…etc. A journey of a few dozen miles becomes a major ordeal.
It is mankind’s Manifest Destiny to reconquer the wilderness for civilization. And only a strong, intrepid few will survive the struggle.
In the beginning there are survivalists and trained professionals who have an edge because they know how to handle a variety of threats. They become the pioneers of the new world, training the able bodied and learning to cope with the worst of what nature throws at them.
In a way, the American western is a discourse on how America was built beyond the Mississippi. From the earliest beginnings of Lewis and Clark to the uniting of railroads and telegraph lines, the west represent civilization climbing Maslow’s needs pyramid. The Walking Dead follows that same pattern.