In modern-day vampire movies, the first victims of a bloodsucker attack rarely wonder, What the hell is that thing with the fangs that’s trying to bite me? They may not be able to believe that vampires actually exist, but they’ve definitely heard of them before. It’s the same thing when alien spaceships arrive: There’s disbelief, sure, but there’s also a familiarity with the concept of killer beings from outer space. So why is it, nearly without fail, that when a zombie attack starts — like in The Walking Dead, which premieres on Sunday — none of the people who encounter zombies have ever heard of one before?
Granted, vampires are an older pop-culture phenomenon than zombies. The modern conception of the vampire — cunning, aristocratic, seductive — dates back to John William Polidori’s 1819 short story “The Vampyre,” whereas the zombie as we know it was introduced in 1968 with Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. But still, it’s been 42 years: Clearly, by now, all movie characters have, in their fictional lifetimes, seen a Romero movie or one of its countless knockoffs. In The Walking Dead, small-town cop Rick (Andrew Lincoln) awakens in a hospital to find the world overrun by mindless flesh-eaters, and he is totally incredulous when someone eventually informs him the dead have begun to walk and eat human flesh: Are we to believe he’s never been to a Halloween party, at which there are usually at least two people in zombie costumes?
The British horror mini-series Dead Set (airing on IFC all this week) has an incredibly rare acknowledgment that it exists in a post-Romero world. When the contestants of a Big Brother house in the U.K. are informed there is a zombie apocalypse raging outside the confines of their reality-TV world, one of the characters mocks the messenger with a quote from Night of the Living Dead: “They’re coming to get you, Barbara.” And yet, the Romero nod passes nearly unnoticed, and is drowned out by other characters voicing their requisite disbelief.
Ultimately, this refusal to acknowledge zombie lore may just come down to logistics. If the harangued cast of a zombie film had seen ____ of the Dead before, they would be forced to realize the hopelessness of their situation almost immediately. After all, unlike most vampire and alien attack movies — where the mortals usually emerge triumphant — most zombie flicks end badly, with the heroes, and most of humanity, killed; how else could a battle with an ever-replenishing army of the undead end? Therefore, a character who had seen a zombie film would know just how futile it is to put up a fight: History has shown that barricading yourself and waiting for help to arrive rarely works. At the first sign of the shuffling undead, a character well-versed in Romero’s canon would likely just shrug and wait to be relieved of his or her brains.