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Every sunrise they greet a new dawn of the dead
They’re out boltin' and brandin' and countin' the head
No glory, no diamonds, no frills and no mansion
It just, just pays the bills when you’re out zombie ranchin'
-- Opening lines of the Zombie Ranch Theme Song
Zombie Ranch is a weekly webcomic produced by the husband and wife team of writer Clint Wolf and artist Dawn Wolf. Having its start in the Fall of 2009, the story is a twist on the usual elements of the zombie genre, heavily influenced by Science Fiction, westerns and "dangerous job" reality television.
Sometime in the 21st century, the Great Zombie Plague wiped out a fair portion of civilization as we know it. But it wasn't the end. Humankind adjusted themselves to the disaster, fighting back against the undead menace until the immediate threat was over and an uneasy equilibrium was achieved. In the U.S.A. the aftermath left pockets of walled-off, technologically advanced Safe Zones with occasional oversight from the weakened Federal government, but much of the country remains a Wild Zone where law and order is scarce and the surviving denizens eke out their living with a frontier mentality reminiscent of their pioneer ancestors.
Set about twenty years after the declared end of "The Wars", Zombie Ranch is the title of a reality show concept being filmed by the powerful ClearStream Corporation, which is looking for new entertainment fodder to broadcast to its Safe Zone populace. In this world the existence of zombies is not only accepted fact, but a huge new industry has grown up that is based around harvesting and processing them for profit.
Several remote controlled camera drones have been deployed to a Wild Zone ranch owned by Susannah Zane, the latest in a long line of Texas cattle ranchers. The Zanes lost their livestock to the teeth of zombies, but found a replacement herd in those same undead hordes and adapted their techniques and know-how to strange new times.
Zombie ranching is about the most dangerous job there is, but for Suzie and her compadres, it's just a day in the (un)life...
Zombie Ranch provides examples of:
- All There in the Manual: A World FAQ on the site explains a lot about the background setting. It's promised that everything in that section should sooner or later be brought to light in the actual comic, which has been slowly happening, but some details remain unrevealed as yet.
- Art Shift: The comic occasionally switches between a more realistic style showing actual happenings on the ranch (and beyond), and a cartoony style representing the media ads and inserts for the TV show.
- Black Comedy: A lot of the comic revolves around this, from the all-in-day's-work attitudes of people wrangling former human beings for profit, to the overly cheery media presentations.
- Cowboy: Several of the crew at the Z Ranch fit the first type -- even though technically they're no longer working with cows.
- Cruel and Unusual Death: Dying from the zombie bite itself is considered one of the worst possible ways to go, and a horrible act of cruelty to let occur. At least one outlaw gang uses this as a ritual punishment.
- Days of Future Past: The Wild Zones have reverted to an Old West/frontier model of society, and even the Safe Zones seem to have adopted a lot of the same fashion and accessories alongside more modern ones.
- Determined Homesteader: Suzie doesn't care whether there's cattle or zombies in the pens, she has a ranch to run and a family tradition to uphold.
- Glowing Eyelights of Un-Death: Formerly human zombies have glowing red eyes. Zombified animals seem so far to lack this feature.
- Gory Discretion Shot: Shown here. A child zombie's head is detonated, but all we see is the splatter on the wall.
- No Zombie Cannibals: Averted. They won't eat each other under normal circumstances, but it's standard practice at zombie ranches to "recycle" destroyed or non market-worthy zeds into feed for the rest of the herd.
- Not Using the Z Word: Very, very much averted. Not only does the in-universe show have the same title as the comic, the characters are constantly referring to the zombies as zombies. There's no denying their everyday existence, so why make up new words?
- Our Zombies Are Different: They hunger for flesh and their bite is incurably infectious and fatal. Their blood, on the other hand, is not only harmless but miraculously beneficial when processed correctly. It can even cure cancer. For this reason they're often called "Green Gold", and people risk their lives herding them for profit.
- Raising the Steaks: Zombie horses, mules, and even prairie dogs have been shown. Although carnivorous, their behavior seems mostly unchanged compared to human zombies, and their bite isn't infectious to people. Zombie horses are even considered a preferred mode of transportation, but zombie cattle were put down as useless. Regardless of your former species, zombification apparently makes you taste terrible.
- Removing the Head or Destroying the Brain: The front part of the brain "don't matter", but destroying the rest is a sure way to put a zombie down or prevent an infected person from turning. Notably, if you stay away from the brain you can kill an infected person and they'll still rise again later.
- Rhymes on a Dime: The sheriff's Deputy loves to do this. "Bit by a zed? You're already dead." "If he's bit, you must acquit."
- Shoot the Dog: In a world which has dealt with zombie infections for decades, it's considered not only a duty but a kindness to put down someone who's been bitten as soon as possible (assuming amputation isn't an option). The law is even on your side in this practical matter.
- Show Within a Show: Although instead of watching the show, the characters are part of one. About themselves. Also, the readers have been treated to several scenes that seem to represent the heavily produced final product.
- Stealth Pun: The plant of a pharmaceutical corporation (probably one that processes zombies) can be seen. It is called "Parasol". A parasol keeps the sun from you. Hmmm, what similar object keeps away the rain? And where do we find a corporation named after that object?
- Twenty Minutes Into the Future: The exact timeline has been kept deliberately vague, but a lot of the technology shown already exists in some form or is in development. Then again, there's the free floating camera drones. Then also again, cellphones seem to be a thing of the past, at least where the Wild Zones are concerned.
- Undead Child: One is seen in the first chapter, but put down with an explanation they aren't as marketable as zombies who were turned as adults.
- Undeathly Pallor: People turned into zombies become noticeably green. Other mammals just seem to go green on the inside.
- Weird West: Or in this case, a Weird New West, though so far the supernatural elements all seem to be limited to zombies or the products of their existence.
- Wild Card: Rosa Amarilla. She's even portrayed as the Joker card in what appears to be a poker hand on the cover of issue five.
- Zombie Apocalypse: The events of the comic take place over two decades since the dead began to walk. In this case humanity not only managed to survive the disaster, they have adapted so thoroughly to the reality of the undead that they have specific new laws and customs regarding them, and zombies have even become a prized consumer commodity.