Nowadays, it’s nearly impossible to throw a rock and not hit some zombie franchise or another. TV shows, movies, comics, and video games are a dime a dozen. That wasn’t always the case, and I want to throw it back a decade and look at a two-week window where zombies really returned to full pop culture relevance, a mantle they still hold today. We are going to look at three specific releases, two video games, and one TV premiere. Those properties are Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare DLC, The Walking Dead, and Call of Duty: Black Ops. Sorry, Dead Rising 2, you didn’t fit the timeline, and in my mind you don’t belong with the others anyway. @ me, if you must. So go ahead and fire up some Cranberries to listen to, and let’s dive in.
October 26, 2010: Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare DLC is Released
The base version of Red Dead Redemption was released in May 2010 and was an instant hit. Lauded by critics and players alike, this game was an instant game of the year contender. With all of the awesomeness that made up the massive single-player campaign and multiplayer mode, it was easy to assume there would be some time before any new content would arrive. That made this trailer from Rockstar Games, released September 30, 2010, feel like it came from nowhere:
It looked cool. Maybe a zombie-based wave survival mode was being hinted? That could be kinda fun around Halloween. We didn’t know what to expect or when to expect it, the trailer just ended with “coming very soon” (that’s what he said). What dropped on Tuesday, October 26th blew anyone’s expectation. It was a full-blown single-player campaign. The multiplayer was expanded. It wasn’t just a zombie wave survival, but they had that too. They merged elements of western and zombie perfectly, adding in the Four Horses of the Apocalypse. This standalone DLC content is considered one of the greatest ever released for a video game, and it served as the ultimate appetizer for another cowboy hat wearin’, gun-toting badass…
October 31, 2010: The Walking Dead TV Series Debuts
Ahead of its 2010 premiere, there was excitement about The Walking Dead, but no one knew quite what to expect. By the end of the pilot episode Days Gone Bye, it was clear there was a new phenomenon afoot. For some additional context, this was six months before Game of Thrones would drop, and a year before American Horror Story season 1, so there was no certainty that a story as grand or scary would resonate with an audience. Fast forward a decade, TWD is still going (but will end after it’s 11th season), there are two spinoffs actively airing, there are two more spinoffs that are coming, three movies that are in production, numerous Emmy-nominated shorts, and a talk show that recaps the events.
Another important note is that TWD helped turn AMC into the powerhouse it would become. Yes, Mad Men was a huge hit and an awards darling, but even the best show the network ever put out, Breaking Bad, was on shaky ground. There was a chance it would never get a fourth or fifth season. To gain perspective on how popular TWD was out of the gate, in the six years and 62 episodes of Breaking Bad, it only got higher viewership than the pilot of TWD four times, the first episode of the final season, and the last three episodes of the final season. Speaking of the finale of Breaking Bad, two weeks after it aired was the premiere of TWD season four; six million more people watched TWD than the finale to Breaking Bad. TWD allowed AMC to blossom as a TV network and let them begin to churn out shows. Speaking of churn:
Nov 9, 2010: Call of Duty: Black Ops is Released
The Call of Duty franchise has seen near-annual releases of new games since the first title launched in 2003. In 2008’s World at War, a new mode called Nazi Zombies could be activated once you completed the main campaign. Intended to be a side mode, it was met with overwhelmingly positive reviews and success. 2010’s Black Ops saw the return of that game mode, fully embraced. Zombies was now a standalone mode, no longer a mere easter egg to be found. There were characters, voices, and a story if you had the skills and patience to find it.
Black Ops sold like gangbusters. It sold over five million copies in the first 24 hours and brought in over $1 billion within six weeks. It remains one of the most successful CoD games ever released a decade later. I don’t think it could be highlighted enough that a huge reason for this success was the attention to fans in bringing in a zombie mode, and has become a staple in the Black Ops series of titles, including the upcoming Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War.
The timing of these releases and the synergy across them is what made them truly stand out in my mind, even 10 years later. Undead Nightmare whet the pallet, TWD put zombies straight into the mainstream world, and Black Ops provided a new outlet with a massive player base to further explore your zombie-slaying prowess. Whether you wanted to pretend you were Rick Grimes riding out to Atlanta on a horse or you wanted to simulate being trapped in a building with a swarm of zombies bearing down, you could achieve that and more. All this zombie awesomeness and it was all in a two-week window.