One of the more interesting parts about The Walking Dead is that we never get to see the world fall apart, only what happens after it does.
The Walking Dead’s main character spending the dawn of the dead in a coma is a smart move from the comic that the show borrowed and, in one of those weird collective unconscious Hollywood* moments, was used almost in the exact same way for the film 28 Days Later.
*It’s a well-known phenomenon in Hollywood where two films or projects will develop and be released right around the same time and be disturbingly similar despite both parties swearing no plagiarism or beforehand knowledge was involved. Just call it the Deep Impact/Armageddon Law.
It’s such a novel narrative feature and speaks so much to the importance of the outcome rather than the cause that many people were worried when AMC announced there would be a Walking Dead spinoff that would cover that missing time, albeit on the other side of the U.S., and would show how all this zombie business really went down. Wouldn’t that just negate the dramatic concept of “it’s not the cause but the outcome?”
Well…sort of. But also…sort of not really. Fear the Walking Dead was smart in its first season to never actually reveal the underlying cause of the zombie outbreak. Nudging the audience’s timeline of seeing the effects of a burgeoning zombie apocalypse from a month-ish later to the very day of does impact the shock level a little bit. Fear the Walking Dead doesn’t hit the ground running like The Walking Dead or 28 Days Later and does indeed suffer slightly from the more drawn out zombie apocalypse.
What it loses in dramatic relevance, however, it gains in socio-political intrigue. Showing the zombie outbreak from moment one proves not to be as strong a narrative move, but if you view the show’s meticulousness in documenting the fall of society as an amateur cultural anthropologist and not a TV-viewer, it’s all worthwhile. Fear the Walking Dead reveals that one of the absolute best metrics for measuring how advanced human society has become is by how quickly mankind realizes it has a zombie apocalypse on its hands.
There was a time recently in our pop culture history where people (re: nerds) constantly liked to share their plans for when the zombie apocalypse inevitably hit. You likely remember the conversations. “I would raid the local gun shop and then barricade myself at the library.” “I would steal a tank and travel from town to town, trying to avoid the oncoming march of the dead.” “I would die of fright immediately at the sight of reanimated corpses, please stop asking me this stupid question.”*
*The only correct answer.
These takes are interesting enough in their own way. But they only reveal the personality of the person answering the question. And the personal myths individuals have about themselves can be boring. Just look at how boring it is to hear about other people’s dreams or March Madness brackets. These fantasies don’t say anything deeper about society or a global sociological human response to a possible extinction-level threat.
That’s where season one of Fear the Walking Dead comes in. “What would you do during a zombie apocalypse?” has been answered to death. “When would we all realize a zombie apocalypse is even happening?” is much less explored territory. Season one of Fear the Walking Dead seeks to answer it and in the process reveals just where we stand technologically as a society.
The answer Fear the Walking Dead comes to is surprisingly optimistic. First, let’s place Fear the Walking Dead in a time and place. The place we know is Los Angeles but the time can be trickier. Fear the Walking Dead debuted on August 23, 2015. That isn’t when the story is chronologically, however, as Fear the Walking Dead is a spin-off of The Walking Dead. While The Walking Dead comic was released in 2003, the TV version premiered on Halloween 2010. It’s then safe to assume that the narrative begins sometime in the fall of 2010.
Here is where human society stood technologically in the not-too-distant past of 2010: Twitter existed and was firmly in the culture lexicon. Users sent around 65 million tweets a day. Facebook was also very much a thing. It had at least 500 million users and was valued at around $40 billion before its IPO. YouTube, smartphones, bluetooth, reliable public WiFi – all around. The iPhone 4 was the most recent iPhone and was perfectly capable of taking high-quality video of zombies eating people and then posting it to social media.
In short, when it comes to global communication, humanity is in really good shape by the time the Fear the Walking Dead apocalypse goes down. And the show dutifully reflects this in how quickly its world realizes it is threatened. Here is a brief timeline of how quickly humanity comes to terms with the dead rising.
Day One – One of our main characters, Nick, encounters his first zombie. Then later on in the day he, his mother, Madison, and his mother’s boyfriend, Travis, all encounter their second.
Day Two – Nick, Travis, and Madison are already ready to leave town. Nick’s sister’s boyfriend, Matt, is sick from a zombie bite. There are reports of police brutality involving officers unloading into a seemingly sick person.
Night Two – There is widespread rioting in Los Angeles. In passing, we hear terms such as “state of emergency” and “flights being grounded” on the radio. The power-grid starts to fail. Nearly every character has encountered a zombie thus far.
Day Three – The military arrives to declare martial law and establish a safe zone around the main characters’ neighborhood.
For all intents and purposes by the time martial law is declared and the military personnel confirms that they are shooting at the “sick” people roaming the streets, American culture has recognized the reality of a zombie apocalypse. Of course, in the world of Fear the Walking Dead, there is no such thing culturally as a “zombie.” They have no Romero movies, but they are aware that something is seriously amiss. If this were the “real world,” we would at this point call a spade a spade and say we have a zombie apocalypse afoot. Still, three days is all it takes – a truly impressive response time.
How does that compare to zombie uprisings in other classic zombie works? It’s hard to gauge from the classic Romero films since they are focused on the personal rather than the geo-political, but there is another work of zombie fiction from around the same time as The Walking Dead comic book that offers its own answer to humanity’s zombie response time.
Max Brooks’ book World War Z was released in 2006, three years after both its spiritual predecessor, The Zombie Survival Guide (also written by Brooks), and The Walking Dead comics. World War Z is particularly concerned with the geopolitical ramifications of a zombie apocalypse. The book is presented as a series of interviews conducted by the narrator, an agent of the United Nations Postwar Commission, to tell the story of “The Zombie War.”
The book is global in almost every sense of the word. It follows the genesis of the zombie plague from a small village in China to its expansion across the world and how every government on Earth attempts to deal with it. Since World War Z was released in 2006, it’s safe to say the the time period its covering is from around when it was written – either sometime in 2005 or early 2006. Let’s say it’s from 2005 for the sake of argument. That is only five years earlier from the zombie apocalypse presented in Fear the Walking Dead and the difference in response time is staggering.
The book never offers concrete days in which events take place, but it’s clear that the beginning of the zombie threat is a very long, drawn-out one, surrounded by rumors. From the moment the threat is identified in China, the Chinese government begins to try to cover up the disease, creating a crisis in Taiwan to distract from it. The plague still manages to gradually spread across the globe due to human trafficking and refugees.
Israel is the first nation to recognize the legitimacy of the threat and institutes a nation-wide quarantine. Even then, there is not global awareness of the zombie plague. It’s not until several more countries around the globe become infected that the “Great Panic” begins and there is worldwide recognition that the dead walk the Earth.
Again, there are no concrete timetables offered by World War Z, though we can infer that it takes much longer than three days for a response to begin. It’s at least around a month – maybe longer. Why does it take so long exactly? For one, maybe Max Brooks has a dimmer view of human comprehension of the impossible than Fear the Walking Dead does. It’s more likely, however, that the world of World War Z at just five years earlier than Fear the Walking Dead is dealing with a society much less technologically capable of responding to and communicating its way through such a threat.
In 2005, YouTube was in its infancy and may not have even exist depending on the date. Twitter didn’t exist and Facebook wasn’t even open to anyone without a college email address. Our cell phones could take videos and photos, but weren’t the multimedia production and distribution studios they are today. 2005, despite only being just over a decade ago, may as well be another world when it comes to communication.
It begs the question of just how long it would take for even older societies to realize there is a zombie apocalypse. I don’t think it’s absurd to imagine a time long enough ago where humanity never even realizes zombies exist until everyone is eaten.
In a strange, roundabout way, Fear the Walking Dead presents us with an interesting observation about communication technology. We as a species have been on a fast track for several years now, building faster, better, more efficient ways of communicating with one another. There are many reasons for this, chief among them is that we’re just a chatty group of creatures. But it’s not absurd to suggest that the rapid development of communication technologies is somehow tied into our deep-seated fear of an extinction-level event.
The quicker we can tell each other about the zombies walking the Earth or the asteroid plummeting to the ground, the better chance humanity has of surviving. Wasn’t that language and communication’s original purpose? Sure, we found out that we could make pretty poems and fart jokes eventually, but before all that the original languages probably sounded a lot like “RUN! MONSTERS CHASING! RUN! HIDE!”
Pop culture has always used boogeymen to make a point, and zombies have been in the cultural boogeyman driver’s seat for a while now now. The Center for Disease Control actually has a page on its website devoted to surviving a zombie apocalypse. No one at the CDC actually thinks a zombie apocalypse is on the way or even remotely likely, but the skills needed to survive a zombie apocalypse are likely useful for any kind of global calamity.
Now, it’s time for some telecommunications provider to introduce the concept of “Global Zombie Apocalypse Awareness (GZAA!!!)” every time it shows off a new product. What I’d give for a world in which Tim Cook begins an Apple keynote with “The iPhone 7’s superior Wi-Fi capabilities will decrease GZAA by a solid three minutes.”