“The Walking Dead” came back on TV screens in the US last week with 15.8 million viewers in the US. Add to that all of the other viewers worldwide and the results are pretty impressive. Basically, “The Walking Dead” is a juggernaut.
So how did a TV show, based on a niche Zombie comic, explode into the mainstream and into people’s consciousness.
In order to understand the answer you need to go back to the beginning. And the beginning for “The Walking Dead” goes back to 1968 and a movie called “Night Of The Living Dead”.
“The Walking Dead” is a classic case of building on works already in the public domain as well as building on existing copyrighted works by creating derivative works.
First the whole Zombie genre owes a large debt to George A. Romero’s classic “Night Of The Living Dead”. Many of the accepted Zombie formulas started here. Something that is quite common to us in 2014, was all brand new to audiences in 1968.
Due to a late name change from “Night Of The Flesh Eaters” to “Night Of The Living Dead”, the distributor forgot to include a copyright symbol on the release and due to this omission, the movie entered the Public Domain on its actual release date. That meant that anyone could do derivative works and also build on the existing story.
Remember my catch cry, “Progress Is Derivative”. George A Romero stated that he was originally influenced by writer Richard Matheson and his book “I Am Legend”. In the 2008 DVD release of “Night of the Living Dead”, Romero mentioned that he had written a short story, which basically was a rip off from the Richard Matheson 1954 novel called “I Am Legend”.
Progress Is Derivative
The whole opening scene from “The Walking Dead” of Rick Grimes waking up in the hospital alone, is taken from the movie “28 Days Later” released in 2002, which also drew inspiration from a 1951 post-apocalyptic novel called, “The Day of the Triffids”.
In “The Day of The Triffids, the main character awakes to a silent hospital to find that his town has been overrun with blinded people.
In “28 days Later”, a bicycle courier awakens from a coma to find the hospital and the city, completely deserted and overrun by people infected by the rage virus.
In “The Walking Dead” comics that came after all the works mentioned above, Rick Grimes wakes from a coma in the hospital to find his town overrun with walking corpses, referred to as ‘walkers’.
SOMETHING, SOMETHING COPYRIGHT
Romero did miss out on a hefty payday due to the copyright bungle with “Night of The Living Dead”, however did that stop him from making any more movies. Of course not. Romero’s story ends well.
The film’s popularity OPENED UP MORE OPPORTUNITIES. Romero continued to create movies and the fame that his Public Domain movie gave him, opened up other offers around comics and novels.
For “The Walking Dead”, “28 Days Later” and “Resident Evil”, the lapse of “Night of the Living Dead” into the public domain turned out to be a godsend. The rules were established by Romero and Russo and others went to town building on those rules. And the best thing about building the genre was that the writers didn’t need to license anything, and they had no fear of being sued.
Call “Night Of The Living Dead” the Blues. And as Keith Richards once said, “You can’t copyright the blues”.
In the end, the lack of copyright around one movie, grew and helped defined the zombie genre in the same way that the lack of copyright around earlier blues and folk standards grew and helped define the classic rock genre. So next time someone tells you they need stronger copyrights or longer copyrights, point them to the “Night Of The Living Dead” example.
That is why “The Walking Dead” is a success. It is a derivative work created without the threat of a lawsuit. It is a derivative work that is allowed to build on previous works.