There’s an old bit of conventional wisdom about there being only seven stories in the world that we tell over and over and over again. Each generation seems to remix, re-engineer and retell the same plots, whether they feature Batman, Frankenstein, or Eliza Doolittle. It’s the nature of art. Artists take the ideas of others, build upon them, mix and remix them and make them their own. There’s no Tarantino without Sergio Leone. There’s no Breaking Bad without Scarface and Cool Hand Luke. And there’s no Blade Runner or Alien or Ex Machina or even John Carpenter’s Dark Star without 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In fact, director John Carpenter –whose influence can be seen in the films of Christopher Nolan and Jeff Nichols, among many others — was influenced by, among others, the films of Howard Hawks, John Ford, Dario Argento and others. Carpenter is no slouch when it comes to remixing the works of others, which is why it’s disappointing to hear classic horror director suggests that The Walking Dead is a rip-off of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and other zombie movies on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast.
Frankly, The Walking Dead is no more a rip-off of George Romero’s work than Halloween was a rip-off of Psycho. Carpenter borrowed several elements from Psycho (as well as Night of the Living Dead) and helped create the modern slasher film. But that didn’t make his work a “rip-off,” either. Carpenter, who’s quick to acknowledge his own creative debts in the same WTF interview, combined old and new elements to create original art. That’s the way the system is designed, and it’s exactly why the intellectual property system is set up in a way to allow artists to build upon existing ideas through the fair-use exception, otherwise the zombie genre would have began and ended with Night of the Living Dead.
Indeed, The Walking Dead is no more Night of the Living Dead than Halloween is Psycho. Yes, both properties contain zombies, but The Walking Dead’s debt to Night of the Living Dead is equal to that of every subsequent zombie property that has come along since, from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video to Shaun of the Dead to 28 Days Later. Romero invented the modern zombie (although, he himself borrowed elements from Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend), but in intellectual property sense, subsequent zombie flicks have “improved” upon the idea (even if many of those movies weren’t actually “improvements.”)
But zombies are where the similarities end. What’s unique and — whatever else you want to say about the series — original about The Walking Dead is how it doesn’t subvert the zombie genre so much as it builds upon it. In fact, Robert Kirkman’s creation of the comic series was borne out of the idea that he wanted to see what would happen after the events of a movie like Night of the Living Dead.
Most zombie movies take up the immediate aftermath of a zombie outbreak and end either when a solution is found or when everyone is dead. The Walking Dead, on the other hand, looks beyond the end, like a television series that follows a romantic couple for 10 or 20 years after their “happily ever after” moment. When The Walking Dead came along, there was nothing else like it on television, which is why so many networks rejected it in the first place. That includes NBC which, ironically, liked the series except for the zombies. On the one hand, that’s a baffling, boneheaded note for a series set in the zombie apocalypse. On the other, maybe NBC understood that the series was more Lord of the Flies than Night of the Living Dead and could succeed without the Romero-inspired elements.
Interestingly, the themes of Romero’s work and Kirkman’s aren’t that similar. Night of the Living Dead and its sequels offered allegorical critiques of the eras in which they appeared. They took issue with the U.S. government, the military, consumerism, and the media. They were skeptical of institutions and authority. The Walking Dead is the opposite: It’s an exploration of a world where lawlessness pervades and, in a way, how these survivors are trying to rebuild the government destroyed by the walkers. It’s the story of the new birth of civilization. It’s also, interestingly, an investigation into the different types of leadership. What are Rick, The Governor, Negan, and The Hilltop’s Gregory if not representatives of different authoritarian styles?
From a storytelling standpoint, The Walking Dead falters from time to time, including an arguably unnecessary cliffhanger at the end of season six. Its pace is occasionally frustrating, and it periodically struggles to develop its newer characters. That, however, doesn’t make it a rip off of Romero. Neither is it “milking” the 1968 movie by virtue of having zombies. Those zombies are little more than a plot device — like space in the Star Trek films or The Daleks in Doctor Who — that help push the story ahead.