Unlike most of their monstrous counterparts that have graced screens across the world, zombies are a relatively visual creation. While creatures like Dracula cast their shadow over the people they terrorize without needing to be seen, zombies are frightening through their stunning visuality, their embodiment of Sigmund Freud’s concept of the uncanny, and their lack of need for backstory or even explanation. Zombies are frightening because they simply are – there is no motive, no convoluted plot, only the constant need for human flesh.
As Kyle Bishop puts it in his article “Raising the Dead”, “…a zombie’s essentially silent and shallow nature makes it a fundamentally visual creature instead. The primitive characteristics of these ghouls make them ideal cinematic monsters” (Bishop 201). Zombie cinema is popular for this reason, for the fear of something that cannot be stopped or slowed, only watched in horror. Zombies take over the human mind, causing them to wonder what they would do if the dead were to rise in their own world, and part of that is because zombies are the easiest monsters to imagine in realistic scenarios, like someone’s own life. One of the most recent examples of zombie cinema is the television show The Walking Dead, where a group of everyday people are thrust into the zombie apocalypse and must learn how to survive in a world where they are the prey. Some of the most critical aspects of zombie cinema are present in throughout the course of the show: an end of the world scenario to emphasize extraordinary events happening to ordinary people, the breakdown of society’s infrastructure, and hiding out and barricading within a “safe” space like a house. Now, almost halfway through its seventh season and with a spin-off show now making its own mark, it seems as though the story of The Walking Dead has made zombies a permanent fixture in today’s entertainment. But is television the best way to showcase the terror that is zombie cinema? Two years after The Walking Dead first premiered, the gaming company Telltale created a game for the show, beginning when the zombie apocalypse first erupted with entirely new characters (though ones from the show still made appearances) and put their players in the seat of someone faced with a new, zombified world where their own decisions influenced not only the outcomes of the game, but how other characters within the game saw the character they controlled. Now, in all fairness, The Walking Dead game is still incredibly cinematic, but there is more interaction from the viewer than there ever would be within the television show. Some other elements of zombie cinema are also a heavy influence in the gaming world. This is most prevalent through the elements of isolation in a home-like atmosphere and the emphasis on the helpless feeling one is meant to get from both playing a horror video game and from encounter ing the undead. So does all this mean that video games are actually a better medium for the zombie story than regular cinema is?
One of the biggest components of zombie cinema is the fact that the characters within either a zombie film or a zombie game will, at some point, seek refuge from the shambling flesh-eaters, and usually this takes place inside an environment that has home-like characteristics that pretend to offer a safe haven. One of the earliest zombie films, Night of the Living Dead, has its characters spend a great deal of time in a home environment that is actually unfamiliar to them, that is as strange and foreign as the zombies, but pretends to offer the same safety as the character’s own home would be. The concept of finding this safe place, this “home”, is a large part of what drives the characters in The Walking Dead show, but they hardly ever find themselves in such a place. Places they chose to dwell are usually industrial or unique, and would be even in the normal world, like the prison they choose to inhabit in season three or the Center for Disease Control they make their safe haven for only one episode in season one. As season two begins, Rick Grimes (played by Andrew Lincoln), who leads the group, speaks through a walkie-talkie to an old friend named Morgan, telling him that they are trying for Fort Benning as a safe place. “We’re facing a long, hard journey, maybe even harder than I can imagine. But it can’t be harder than how our journey’s been so far,” (The Walking Dead Season two, episode one). Even then, they are rushing to a place run by a military, one that is nothing like a home but they believe will offer them safety. It is a constant argument of the show – the characters wish to find a place of safety to rebuild their lives and hopefully recreate their version of normal, but they must also remember that the world is dangerous and that no place, no matter how familiar, will ever be as safe as the home they wish to create. Despite all their hopes and travels, the group is unable to find a place that is homelike; everything is an unfamiliar setting to them. Zombie horror, however, thrives on not only on the apparent security of a home but on the unfamiliar nature of a home that is not your own. Many of the encounters of the dangers of the zombie apocalypse faced by the game’s main character Lee Everett take place in the “safety” of a home, most notably the home of the little girl he rescues. Because of his background as a criminal, Lee enters the house cautiously, aware that he is not only facing the danger of the zombies he has already fled from, but accusations of crime from those who know what he has been accused of. At first when Lee (and thus the player) enters the home, everything looks relatively normal. The player can click on a bowl of fake fruit on the table, a child’s open sketchbook with a picture of a unicorn, and play the phone messages waiting on an answering machine. This is an ordinary home, one that the player might even identify with as memories from their own childhood. It may be unusual because they are aware they are entering someone else’s home without their permission, but it is safer than the woods they just fled. That is not unlike Bishop’s interpretation of the entrance into the farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead, the encounter of the familiarity of home but the unfamiliarity of a home that is not their own. “The farmhouse symbolizes the comforting idea that one’s home is palace of security, but this place does not belong to Barbara or Ben – it is a foreign, unfamiliar environment, and they are indeed strangers in a strange land,” (Bishop 203). And while in the show viewers can connect with the characters they watch, only in a game do they actively project themselves into the narrative. Richard Rouse points out in his paper on the success of horror video games that emotional response, which is delivered in both film and games, is essential to horror, but that games provide their viewer with a stake in the outcome that is far more important than what television provides. “In any non-interactive media, the audience is seeing the unfortunate events or life-threatening occurrences happen for another person, and the audience’s own tension is only possible through empathy with that character’s plight. In an immersive game, the player actually projects himself into the experience,” (Rouse 20). As they walk further into the home, the uncanny fear begins to set in as they slip in a pool of blood in the kitchen, see bookshelves knocked to the ground, and hear the messages on the answering machine hinting of pain and fear and death. Then it is not just Lee Everett walking through a potentially dangerous home, but the player is also walking in these dark rooms where they cannot always see what is ahead or even recognize where the dangerous areas might be, and they are reminded that “…the seemingly harmless and ordinary would prove to be so life-threatening is one of the fundamental precepts of the zombie formula” (Bishop 203). And, because the game tends to cut to scenes where the player has no control when zombies may be anywhere, the tension continues to build, while in the televised world of The Walking Dead, not only is there no personal stake involved for the viewer, but they know from the start that they cannot control the outcome that unfolds. “The anxiety of searching through the dark hallway where something bad might happen gives way to the panic of knowing that something bad already has happened that may lead to an even worse thing happening,” (Verhaagen 64); Cutscenes, which can be used creatively in film, are used in games to further connect the player and character, as well as the player and circumstance. Ewan Kirkland points out, “cut scenes serve to strengthen the analogy between the player and the avatar body in fictional video game space, and the process by which ludic actions assume a symbolic, metaphorical or representational resonance,” (Kirkland 66). Starting with the power to look around, then having that power taken from you, that is where the true fear lies. And when already in a home that is not familiar, but still feels like a home, there is no end to the uncomfortable feeling thrust upon the player.
Between the uncomfortable nature of the unfamiliar home, the personal stakes involved in the storyline when played, and the loss of control in the face of danger, it seems as though Telltale’s Walking Dead may just be the greatest medium for the zombie cinema. It uses many of the elements seamlessly and with ease to promote the fear that zombies are meant to bring. But does that mean that the television show has no merit in the world of zombies? Of course not – if anything, one of their main elements is the one that the video game, almost any zombie video game, is going to lack. James Ursini wrote that “horror is based on recognizing in the unfamiliar something familiar, something attractive even as it is repulsive…the best horror films are those that evoke that feeling of the uncanny in us most strongly,” (Ursini 5), and while a video game may try to be as realistic as it can, it is always going to be pixels and animated figures, and no matter how fearful they may render players, the players recognize them as animated beings. Watching the show, on the other hand, means watching real people and real people disguised as the zombies. Therefore, not only are the characters themselves easier to identify with as fellow people, their storylines and characters are then also easier to connect to because we can see ourselves in these other people. Not only have the zombies themselves become more uncanny in their appearance, but the characters making decisions – decisions that viewers may or may not have to make themselves if the zombie apocalypse were to occur – suddenly force them to confront what they would do in the case of the same circumstances. As “the one-time protagonists of the movie become its eventual antagonists; thus, the characters cannot fully trust each other…the living people are dangerous to each other…because they are potentially living dead should they die,” (Bishop 203). And that is where the show truly makes its stake in the zombie genre known – it forces its viewers to confront the ultimate fear of death that lies in every human. The zombie itself “embodies a number of our greatest fears. Most obviously, it is our own death, personified…more subtly, the zombie represents a number of our deeper insecurities. The fear that, deep down, we may be little more than animals, concerned only with appetite” (Bishop 204). This is something that not even a game can connect to us – sure, Lily in the drugstore may force a player to wonder if they would throw children back onto the street if one of them may have been bitten, but they are fictional children and it is easy to say that they wouldn’t, or maybe that they would, because whatever choice is made in the world of the game will have no lasting consequences when the player turns off their phone. But when faced with Sophia, a real little girl lost in the woods, and with Rick, who has been identified as a good man, a sheriff who wants to lead his group to safety, the viewer is forced to wonder not only if Rick’s actions are the right ones but if they would make the same decisions, leave Sophia alone to chase off the zombies following closely behind. The viewer of the game does not have to wonder these things because they cannot as easily connect with pixels formed in the shape of a human. But when faced with real humans, even if they are acting out a script, one must wonder “Would I do that?” The zombies themselves are also easier to recognize on your television screen than in the world of the game, if only because makeup is slightly more convincing than animation. They walk like the zombies viewers expect to see, they look as rotted and horrifying as viewers expect them to be, and because they truly look like dead bodies come back to life, viewers are not only picturing what they might look like as survivors in a zombie apocalypse, but they must also think of what they would become if they were to succumb to death in the same circumstances. They would look rotted, like these creatures, and the viewers have a better sense of hopeless despair when they realize that they all end up this way. “The horror of the zombie movie comes from recognizing the human in the monster; the terror of the zombie movie comes from knowing there is nothing to do about it but destroy what is left; the fun comes from watching the genre to continue to develop” (Bishop 204). It is almost the same feeling you can imagine Rick and his gang felt in episode one of season two when they saw the horde of zombies barreling down upon them. The fear, the hopelessness, and the knowledge that there is no fighting, only hiding and waiting for it all to end, that is the connection that film can create in its viewers that games cannot evoke with just simply animated creatures that vaguely resemble dead bodies come back to feast on the flesh of the living.
It goes without saying that the Telltale Walking Dead is a very cinematic game – many
zombie games rely on the killing of zombies, but in both film and game The Walking Dead has been more about the choices that people make and that turns them into the walking dead themselves. Because of this, the uncanny nature of zombie cinema is what both mediums seek to evoke most strongly. Through the unfamiliar houses of others, the broken chain of cut scenes that take power from the players, and the immersion into the world of the game through personal stakes is what makes Telltale’s Walking Dead able to walk with the best zombie movies and shows in terms of zombie cinema. As the cinematic nature of games becomes more and more realistic, a video game’s greatest weakness in the zombie genre – its inability to relate the player to the characters that are obviously animated – becomes less and less of an issue, due to heightened technology and even placing players in the games with a first-person perspective. It takes some of the greatest qualities of the genre and continues to grow them in an interactive state. Someday, the zombie games may overtake the zombie films, if only to show its players how truly powerless they are in face of the dead.
Bishop, Kyle. “Raising the Dead.” Journal of Popular Film and Television. Heldref Publications, 2006. Journal. October 2016.
Kirkland, Ewan. “Storytelling in Survival Horror Videogames.” Horror Video Games. Journal. October 2016.
Rouse III, Richard. “Match Made in Hell: The Inevitable Success of the Horror Genre in Video Games.” Horror Video Games. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2009. Journal. October 2016.
Verhaagen, Dave. “Shock and Dread: What Fear Does to Humans.” Psych of the Living Dead: The Walking Dead Psychology. Sterling Publishing, 2015. Book. November 2016.