Think about zombie movies. Specifically, think about the first time you were exposed to Night of the Living Dead. There had been movies about the walking dead before, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Bela Lugosi’s Voodoo Man, but there was something special about George A. Romero’s low-budget black-and-white 1968 horror film. Night of the Living Dead took hold in the brain in a way Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space never did. When you think zombies, you think Romero, or one of the many, many films that came out in the wake of Night of the Living Dead‘s runaway success.
As such, there are a pretty set-in-stone list of rules of dealing with the type of zombies seen on The Walking Dead. The number one thing on that list is how to stop them. A blow to the head sharp enough to disable the brain, wrecking the brain stem, or a bullet through the head is enough to take down, and keep down, a Romero-style zombie. The world is full of zombie media, all based around this classic premise. Even if horror movies aren’t your thing, there are video games, books, podcasts, television shows, role playing games, and any number of media that allow interested, zombie-hungry consumers to indulge that itch to fight off hordes of the undead.
No matter the person’s level of familiarity with them, everyone knows how to stop zombies. One of the first, and best, jokes in Return of the Living Dead is Frank and Freddie’s mystified response that the movie lied and disabling the brain doesn’t kill a reanimated medical supply cadaver. People in our world have zombie apocalypse plans. Even in the event of a zombie catastrophe, there are enough people that there wouldn’t be much of a need to struggle for survival; people might not be able to do the things they need to do, but everyone knows what to do thanks to over 50 years of zombie media exposure.
That’s media exposure the survivors in The Walking Dead don’t have, according to creator Robert Kirkman. In a 2016 interview with Conan O’Brien, Kirkman said: “Zombie lore is very popular and we wanted to avoid the notion of, ‘hey, why isn’t that character just shooting that zombie in the head because of all those movies I saw?’ We wanted to give you a sense that The Walking Dead takes place in a universe where zombie fiction doesn’t exist.”
The Walking Dead takes place in a world in which George Romero’s classic film never happened, or at least never spawned an entire horror sub-genre. Hence, the survivors are by and large unfamiliar with zombies, and the rules of zombie movies. All they’ve learned about killing the undead comes through experimentation and practice, rather than pop culture osmosis. Someone in the TWD world is assuredly familiar with the concept of Haitian-style voodoo zombies, but that isn’t as much help as a knowledge of Romero. Voodoo zombies are merely people kept under control by usage of drugs and/or magic ritual, and as such, can be killed by conventional means. Walkers shrug off a shotgun blast to the chest or a machete through the limbs.
Given the lack of mass exposure to zombie films, the first time someone shrugs off three bullets to the torso and takes a chunk out of a cop’s neck must be terrifying. The fact that the enemy never stops to rest, pauses only to consume the living, and continues on, driven by a restless hunger even as their body falls apart… these creatures are horrifying and dangerous, and there must be some way to differentiate them from us. Words have power, and to name a thing is to control a thing in some small way.
So, the walkers shamble ever closer, relentless. The roamers roam endlessly, always hungry. The rotters rot on the hoof, not bothered by the decay of their flesh. The stenches are smelled before they’re seen, the stink of the grave. The geeks consume living flesh like something out of a twisted sideshow, gobbling sentience in raw and twitching chunks. The lurkers wait in the shadows, still and silent, traps baited for the unwitting, unwary survivor. Every survivor community has a different name for the things that never stop trying to kill them, but none of those communities use “the zed word.”