The Zombie Evolution: How Zombies have evolved on screen into the AMC TV series "The Walking Dead"

It's hard to believe that AMC's The Walking Dead began with a modest six-episode season and nowhere near the amount of anticipation that bubbles beneath it today. The survival-horror series has become one of the biggest and fastest success stories in recent television memory, benefiting from the perfect blend of mindless entertainment and rich, deep storytelling which the showrunners have consistently maintained - and built upon - from that incredible pilot episode. One of the driving forces behind much of the excitement - and head-spinning tension - of the show is, and will always be, the zombies.

For some time, the portrayal of zombies in popular culture was leaning towards the trend of fast and unstoppable, but The Walking Dead has managed to strike a balance between the modern and the classic; giving us a terrifying new take on the everyday walker that's as sympathetic as it is terrifying. While the various methods our rag-tag group of survivors employ to dispose of the walkers is a constant talking point for the show, it's the portrayal of the undead that is the most interesting aspect of the show's atmosphere. Ahead of the fast approaching Season 5 premiere of The Walking Dead, we look back at the many treatments zombies have gone through in popular culture, comparing and contrasting to show that this comic-based series has perfected the formula for true fear.

The Voodoo Zombie

Films like Victor Halperin's 1932 classic White Zombie stood as the first time the concept of a walking corpse was introduced to mainstream American culture, but the archetype was shaped much differently back then. Zombies were tied to Haitian voodoo culture and they were usually reanimated by a slave master who used the corpses for his own gain. There was no trace of cannibalism in the early days of living corpses, some movies even refused to portray them as corpses, rather implying that they were victims of some malevolent hynposis.

Compare it to now and the walkers from The Walking Dead are obviously far disconnected from the 1930s, they still have what seems like a completely loss of control - almost like a severe addiction - but they are violently indiscriminate and have an insatiable taste for human flesh.

The Cannibalistic Zombie

It wasn't until the 1960's, with films like I Eat Your Skin, where zombies began to take a more familiar turn. The undead were portrayed in a much more violent way, almost as if they were forced to munch of human flesh to "survive".

Although, zombies from this era were still controlled by another person or entity. In The Walking Dead it's not obvious exactly what is causing this universal takeover of walkers, and even though a plague is the main suspect, there is no trace of any reveal where it would be a central body that is driving these walkers to stalk whoever remains in the incredibly bleak atmosphere that has been created for this show.

The Horde Zombie

Zombie's now propagated through biting their victims, translating their disease rapidly and exponentially. This added a huge sense of urgency to the threat zombies posed in films such as the timeless Night of the Living Dead by George Romero. Zombies from this period were also frail, lifeless and incapable unless they were in immense hordes. The whole concept of zombies driving the end of the world was now in effect, and it has remained this way ever since.

Putting them into the position to inflict massive, rapid damage revolutionised how we saw the undead and added something to them that was infinitely more terrifying than any other supernatural or monstrous creature - a tendency to group together. It's here that the army of walkers which characterise the most terrifying (and exciting) scenes in The Walking Dead began to take shape.

The Modern Zombie

After Romero shaped people's understanding of what a zombie can be, many sides of popular culture sought to add their own take; from video games to cartoons and films. Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later probably marks one of the more radical shifts of what a zombie is. His conception of fast-paced, unstoppable, and instantly damning monsters with a super violent temperament was often heralded as the next step in the conception of zombies.

Video games like the universally acclaimed Last of Us took a more disgusting approach to the modern zombie, by having fungus and weird mushrooms often grown out their heads; movies like World War Z and Dawn of the Dead chose to stick with the trend of faster, more aggressive zombies; and satirical comedies like Dead Snow opted for hybrid Nazi zombies. But the most well-balanced has still come from The Walking Dead.

The Walkers

Rapidly moving zombies would have ruined the slow-burning and bleak atmosphere of The Walking Dead; the constant urgency wouldn't have allowed for the human element that drives the incredibly well executed drama of the show. Instead there was a callback to the classic zombie, adapted from Robert Kirkman's graphic novels. The term 'zombie' was dropped completely, replaced with the more delicate name of 'walkers', made even more realistic given that each group that the survivors come across have a different name for the undead.

Walkers are slow moving, they have no clear intention or purpose - which makes them even more gruesome - and they plague this blunt reality which has been created for the show, for no discerning reason. They present certain moral quandaries by completely changing the dynamic of human nature; by simple way of existing, they have given room for some of the most complex character development on television today. Over the past four seasons of The Walking Dead, the ever-present threat of walkers has destroyed the unwritten rules of compassion, generosity, respect, and equality that existed before society was swept by this plague. This has given the writers an incredible range to work into the adaptation of Kirkman's comics, and if ratings and critical acclaim are anything to go by, everyone has been doing a superb job.

Not only have these aggressive, slow-moving and - in some cases - absurdly strong walkers flipped the world created for The Walking Dead, they have seemingly led an atmosphere so high pressure that the performances these actors give are consistently inspired and perfectly in sync with the tension of the show. In particular, Andrew Lincoln as de-facto leader Rick has given a strong performance which has grown in intensity since the first season, along with stand-out - and frequent show-stealer - Melissa McBride (Carol) who has benefited from the biggest leaps in character on the show. Carol began as merely an afterthought where the group was concerned, and now she is one of the show's most interesting wild cards, McBride giving a nuanced performance as her character slowly adapts to the world that has ultimately been shaped by the walkers.

Having a latent virus lay dormant inside everyone adds a unique twist to zombie lore, adding another layer to the artful approach to terror this show takes. With the threat of the walkers now balanced with the very real - and equally frightful - threat of a warped human nature, The Walking Dead Season 5 is looking like it will be the most exciting yet, capitalising on all that slow-burning character development on Season 4 by creating a landscape in which we are emotionally invested in each and every one of our main group of survivors.

Not only is the human element strong in our survivors, the show has also had moments where sympathy is driven toward the walkers. Whether it's heartfelt pity towards a helpless walker crawling on the ground, or close ups of walkers combined with an emotive soundtrack, we are reminded - many times - that these were once humans that had something terrible happen to them. All this really hits hard when you inevitably transpose yourself into a fictional zombie survival scenario - could you actually bring yourself to kill one of these things? The Walking Dead reminds us just how hard it can get.

There's so much for the writers to play around with now since they had the very clever idea of splitting the group up to focus on the nuances of each character, and then bringing them back together under the common threat of terminus. With the show's penchant for genuinely tense, involving drama it's not hard to see why the whole world is aching for the fast approaching Season 5 premiere.


The Season Pass for The Walking Dead Season 5 is available to preorder on iTunes now, with episode 1 being fast-tracked from the US, premiering from 14th October. All previous seasons are also currently being discounted at the iTunes store, and all Season 5 purchased have bonus content free for Australian customers, so there's plenty of reason to catch up with the show ahead of the premiere. The season pass for Season 5 can be found on the iTunes store.

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