Zombie stories usually start in the middle of things. The Walking Dead began with the zombie apocalypse already in full effect, with society in ruins and the scarred survivors focused on nothing but survival. It’s a zombie tradition, from 28 Days Later to George Romero’s Dawn and Day of the Dead. Even with the recent Dawn of the Dead remake and comedy take Shaun of the Dead, the whole point is that the zombification has already occurred. The focus is on how to deal with the rampaging hordes, not on their existential origins.
Fear the Walking Dead is a rare example that takes the time to reflect, and consider the consequences of an ever-increasing number of infections coming from a new disease that doctors don’t know how to treat. And, not to put too fine (or insensitive) a point on it; it makes for interesting viewing in 2020. Fear the Walking Dead’s take on things – rumours, gossip, government inaction while things get worse, even a subplot involving growing public protests against police shootings – seems a whole lot more realistic. And more terrifying.
For Nick Clark (Frank Dillane), waking up in a drug den isn’t so unusual – after all, he is a junkie. But waking up and seeing his girlfriend Gloria eating someone definitely makes this day a little extraordinary; no wonder he flees directly into the path of a passing car. His family turns up at his hospital bedside, though it’s really two families. There’s his mother Madison (Kim Dickens) and her fiancé Travis (Cliff Curtis), Nick’s sister Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) and Travis’s son Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie). Throw in Travis’s ex-wife Liza (Elizabeth Rodriguez) and that’s a fairly complicated extended family to navigate, especially as at this early stage, not everybody is getting along.
And then there are the zombies. This series plays by the rules first set up by George Romero with Night of the Living Dead in 1968: being bitten by a zombie is inevitably fatal, and if you die by any means at all you come back as a zombie. So it doesn’t take long for this extended family to be facing the dearly not-so-departed, whether they be former friends, former neighbours or former drug dealers. Throw in riots, looters and the National Guard, and things aren’t returning to normal any time soon, even when their neighbourhood is turned into a quarantine zone.
Throughout the mounting carnage, this remains a character-based take on a slow-motion catastrophe. As viewers we’re like people banging on a window, trying to warn those inside of an intruder they can’t see as they go about their daily lives. It’s a tricky balance to get right; play up the zombies too much and it’s reasonable to wonder why the whole show isn’t about them, but they can’t simmer in the background for too long either – the show has Walking Dead in the title after all.
Fear the Walking Dead solves that problem by being about the difficulty of working together. Usually when zombies are around, everyone works together whether they like each other or not to stay alive. But we’re seeing people who don’t know that their old lives are already over. For them, the usual quarrels and conflicts and jealousies are still relevant (and that’s not even counting Nick’s drug addiction). The bigger problem all around them may not seem big enough to worry about until it’s too late.
There’s plenty of gore here; it’s a zombie series after all. And the living aren’t much safer to be around, with the police and National Guard rapidly established as almost as much of a threat as the zombies themselves. But what makes Fear the Walking Dead so chilling to watch in 2020 is the way that complacency is clearly the biggest threat of all. The world has changed around them and the temptation is to pretend it didn’t happen. If they don’t get past the past and learn to work together, they’ll be (living) dead meat.
Seasons 1–3 of Fear The Walking Dead are now streaming at SBS On Demand (You can also see Season 3 Fridays 10.25pm on SBS VICELAND). Start from the beginning:
Or skip straight to season 3:
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In a very musical episode, Lin-Manuel Miranda breaks with history in the Disney Plus release of his broadway hit 'Hamilton', and Fiona pays tribute to the extraordinary scores of Ennio Morricone (and the flicks you can hear them on SBS On Demand). Fiona and Ben also review brand new sci fi drama series 'War of the Worlds' and give their take on streaming titles 'Disclosure' and 'America to Me'.