When I say that I’m not actually referring to the show’s reality containing zombies. What I’m actually referring to is much odder in my opinion. It’s the absence of zombies that gives the show such a strange alternate reality.
Fear the Walking Dead is a spin-off of The Walking Dead and as such features a world that goes to hell when an unknown pathogen turns the recently deceased into flesh-hungry monsters. I had the same issue with the original show but as it came out during the height of the zombie craze I found it less off-putting.
Both of these shows ask us to believe that shambling corpses would be able to completely topple modern civilization. I don’t buy it. I bought it in Night of the Living Dead and its many follow-ups. I bought it in the many rail-shooter video games of the nineties. Then the idea reached cultural saturation; zombies in their post-Romero incarnation were firmly embedded in modern folklore. As a result, they became less foreign and less terrifying.
I do not accept that a society that is aware of even a fictional image of a shambling cannibal corpse would be unable to put up adequate protections. My generation has fantasized about these creatures our entire lives. They frightened us when we were young and we imagined the joys of slaughtering them by the hundreds in our teens. There would be little confusion if such a plague actually started. We would know to strike the head. We would know to not get bitten.
Most modern zombie movies (that aren’t comedies) understand that with the understanding the fear has drained away. The auteurs of undeath responded by turning the zombies up to eleven. They stopped being limping bags of rot and turned into rabid, sprinting, grasping bear traps (Dawn of the Dead remake, 28 Days Later, World War Z). Special zombies with mutant powers (like the special infected in the Left 4 Dead game series) added unpredictability back into the equation.
Both Walking Dead series chose to avoid that route. They went with the classics. In order to make it believable that the zombies would succeed, they erased zombies from history. I’ve spent many seasons grimacing as pockets of dirty survivors come up with stupid nicknames for the creatures (walkers, biters, deadheads). Nobody calls them zombies.
Characters in Fear the Walking Dead stare at a fog-eyed open-mouthed rotbag strolling towards them with looks of complete confusion. They should not be confused if they have ever seen a horror movie. That’s what the creators did. They erased zombies from their culture so they could gawk in terror at the first sighting. The difference is, I’m not gawking in terror. I know exactly what I’m looking at. Their tactic is ineffective for building tension or dread.
Look at it this way: if you went to see a vampire movie and all of the characters struggled to find a word for the garlic-hating sun-avoiding bloodsuckers, would you enjoy it? Or would you be muttering to yourself, They’re just vampires you morons. Everybody knows what vampires are.
This is one of the reasons I’m not a big fan of either show. I think it’s silly for one of your conceits to be that you’re erasing cultural knowledge to make something scary again. That’s like pretending the books, movies, and games that inspired you to make your show in the first place didn’t exist. It’s odd. It’s not artistic progress so much as it is frantically erasing the last line you wrote. The horror movies have moved forward by making the creatures more powerful. The comedy movies have moved forward by breaking the zombies down and using them to represent everyday feelings.
The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead? Well… they have good practical effects.