What separates zombies from vampires? This is the question facing The Walking Dead, a zombie TV show entering a pop culture landscape overflowing with vampire stories. Fortunately, The Walking Dead's premiere "Days Gone Bye" subverts a couple of the tropes associated with zombie fiction, allowing a new kind of story to flourish in AMC's little corner of cable television.
The first comparative trope: vampire fiction is psychological -- for instance, linking the vampiric bite to the act of sex (a mainstay in Kubrick films) -- while zombie fiction focuses on social commentary -- the cannibalism of humanity, the usual apocalyptic ideals of "what do we do now that society is completely destroyed", and so on. While The Walking Dead will surely offer some excellent social commentary of its own, as it does already in the monthly comic book, "Days Gone Bye" is mostly about the effect these Walkers have had on the primary characters of the episode. Rick Grimes, our hero, wakes up with no idea of what's happened -- but he knows he must find his wife and son. Similarly, Morgan Jones must face his undead wife every night as she prowls around his house, a sad and zombified look on her face. The episode links the two characters together even after Rick has gone his own way -- Morgan cannot bring himself to end his wife, while Rick goes back to a park, bends down next to a zombie, says "I'm sorry this happened to you"... and then pulls the trigger on her. The two characters share empathy for the undead, though perhaps for different reasons. But this empathy is wildly different from, say, a George Romero film, where zombies are the end of all humanity -- depravity, lack of morality, unbridled Freudian id, and so on.
Views of death are another aspect of the zombie/vampire fiction contrast. In vampire fiction, the undead creature (the vampire) is not usually seen as something to be feared -- rather, vampire fiction is characterized by the thrill of being in the presence of something which cannot be killed, which can live forever and provide endless possibilities. In other words, eternal life, though sometimes at the heart of vampire characters' angst (see: Angel), is rarely a bad thing -- indeed, vampires can often be seen as close to human, if not exactly human. Zombies, however, cannot be human. Their eternal life, driven by a barely-functioning brain, is a sickness which must be put down. This was the driving motivation behind Morgan's attempt to shoot his own wife; similar motivations allow Rick to put a gun to one of his former police officer's heads and pull the trigger. It isn't necessarily heartless -- think of the moment in Serenity (the film, not the Firefly pilot episode) when Mal shoots a civilian about to be torn apart by the Reavers. Given the options that civilian had left, Mal chose to end him with mercy, as opposed to being raped, skinned, and worn like a trophy. Rick puts down three particular zombies in tense scenes during "Days Gone Bye" -- the little girl in the teaser, as he's looking for gas; the girl in the park whose bike he was about to steal; and his former colleague at the police station. Again, to the girl in the park, he says, "I'm sorry this happened to you." He's not being facetious, or snarky, or sarcastic -- he is genuinely sorry to this person for what has happened to her, and what he is about to do to her in order to help her. And to not forget that piece of advice Rick offers Duane at the police station: "If you pull the trigger, you gotta mean it. Every time."
So where does this leave Rick? In the teaser from Comic-Con, there's a clip of him saying, "All that's left is a man looking for his wife and son." He is certainly that; he is also the man who will shape the audience's opinions of events as the series progresses. After all, it's not just zombies he'll have to face -- soon he'll be found by the survivor camp, and have to deal with Shane moving in on his wife.
For all its subversiveness, there is one element of classic zombie fiction in the title of the episode. "Days Gone Bye" (also the title of the first trade paperback of the comic book series, by the way) not only references memories of simpler times, but also the notion of days literally being gone -- that time no longer matters in this world. With only five episodes remaining for the first season, I hope that time is used wisely. For now, I'll take this excellent premiere to Atlanta and watch it while hiding in a tank. "Cozy in there?"