Here’s the thing: I swear I’m not a party pooper. I know how to let my short hair down when the moment calls for it, and I have it on pretty good authority that I cut quite the rug at a wedding reception.
So when I use this space to critique wrestling companies for going a little off the wall, it’s not because I hate fun; it’s the exact opposite. I was having so much fun with WrestleMania Backlash, and the show was moving at a pretty good pace. And then the zombies happened.
The undead brought the show to a crawl—yup, that’s a pun—and completely lost me. The lumberjack match between Damian Priest and The Miz illustrates a significant problem within WWE, and this isn’t the first time it reared its bloodied head.
WWE’s desire to be everything to everyone means there are moments when the most pressing question is a simple one: who is this for?
Narratives have to be consistent, if only for the audience’s mental well-being. Beyond rules for characters, the world those characters live in needs to have parameters as well. There’s a reason we never saw Mr. Freeze in Christopher Nolan’s Batman flicks or why the actual Mandarin never showed up to torment Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, and no, it’s not to ruin someone’s childhood. Those characters went against those franchise’s established guidelines.
Without taking a leap of logic that even Superman would find hard to fathom, it’s difficult putting a guy who wears a snow globe for a helmet in Nolan’s very grounded Gotham City stories. When WWE goes from the very serious Reigns family drama to John Morrison finding honest to God zombies in a locker room, it’s just weird.
What takes it from weird to tonal whiplash of the highest order is the way it feels disconnected from everything else. The commentary team sold it like real zombies entered the ThunderDome. The Raw boys actually ran for a safer vantage point to call the action when a ghoul popped out from underneath their table. Priest and Miz were involved in what looked more like the Thriller music video than actual wrestling contest.
Who won the match? Not as important as the fact Miz and Morrison were devoured by flesh-eaters. Yes, Corey Graves noted with exclamation that a real-life human being was on the dinner menu for what we all know is a make-believe monster. But okay, sure.
It all felt for naught when Michael Cole and Pat McAfee took the reins as if nothing happened. I’m sorry, but zombies in the real world are a big deal, and they too must be acknowledged. A flippant remark by McAfee promoting Army of the Dead, ain’t it. WWE often presents things like people getting lit on fire, crushed in trash compactors, or whatever Alexa Bliss is doing that night as run-of-the-mill occurrences. The presentation rarely matches the events we see on TV. Their desire to sell the zombies as “real deal Holyfield” one moment but tongue in cheek the next says nothing presented matters or has any weight.
Every inch of the presentation needs to feel like part of a piece, even when it’s ridiculous. When The Rock “threw” Steve Austin into a Detroit river in 1999, it was perfectly in keeping with what WWE was at that time. The incident was treated seriously, and, thankfully, it was Raw’s last segment. It’s kinda crazy when something insane, whether it’s Austin getting punched into a cold river or zombies eating people, happens in the middle of an event.
Seriously, where do we even go from there? Unlike both commentary teams last night, Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler weren’t forced to ignore what they saw.
Even their reactions fit within the WWE of ‘99 as Ross and Lawler conveyed solemnity and utter disbelief. But the company got away with moments like Austin and Rock in Detroit or mostly everything Val Venis did because every piece of the puzzle fit together. On the flip side, Mae Young giving birth to a hand is an example of a bad idea that made no sense within the world WWE told me we lived in.
This isn’t to say zombies or sillier things can’t work in wrestling. Quite the opposite, actually. Lucha Underground successfully played with more than a few fantastical elements because they made sense in context. More importantly, Lucha Underground wasn’t conflicted about what it was or who the company served. When WWE deals with weird story beats or characters, they shouldn’t feel incongruent. Even if it’s to promote a movie, which WWE knows how to do, everything needs to feel like it’s a part of the same show.
Vince McMahon either wants his sports-entertainment conglomerate looked at as serious competition between good people and bad people, or he doesn’t. McMahon can color ever so slightly outside of WWE’s lines, or he can take his crayon and go all over the page because, to paraphrase that kid from The Matrix, “there is no line.” At least then, we’ll know who WWE is for and, hopefully, put an end to the mixed messages.
Serving multiple masters means no one is ever pleased—especially those of us eaten by zombie hordes.