Last night, half of zombie aficionados across the world tuned in to Frank Darabont’s new zombie series, “The Walking Dead.” (The other half was out in full makeup terrorizing teenage trick-or-treaters or drinking copious amounts of alcohol to celebrate Halloween.)
AMC has gained a (well-earned) reputation for airing some of the best shows on TV, so it’s no surprise Darabont went with the cable network when pitching a horror series. Many of us can’t afford HBO or Showtime, but a lot of us can tune into basic cable. Most TV series are made on a notoriously low budget, causing “Buffy”‘s disintegrating vamps to be pretty laughable and “Supernatural”‘s gore to be quite silly at times (but once you’re invested, you stop caring about that). “The Walking Dead” is confined to only six episodes this season, probably for budget reasons, but those six episodes will probably look and feel better than the average horror series.
Frank Darabont is well known for his attachment to Stephen King’s material–and his ability to make King’s lesser work not only more palatable, but more emotionally jarring. Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and The Mist are some of the best King adaptations out there (with due respect to Kubrick, De Palma, and Garris) because Darabont manages to take King’s rambling, melodramatic tone and sharpen it without losing the point completely. Hopefully he utilizes the same deft touch with the graphic novels that are the basis for “The Walking Dead.”
Needless to say, when I heard 1) Frank Darabont was making a show for 2) AMC about 3) zombies, they had me setting my phone’s calendar for 10pm on Halloween before the trailer was over. Niggling doubts circulated, though: is the series format right for zombies; what’s going to keep the plot moving? Can a cable channel produce horrible enough gore to satisfy zombie fans? Will the series be innovative enough to help revitalize a genre that’s been mowed down by sexy sexy vampires in the last few years?
During last night’s premiere, most of these questions were answered.
First: yes, handled correctly, the series format will work for a zombie apocalypse tale. The show is based on a series of comic books by Robert Kirkman, and the format should translate well. If the writers continue to feed the audience mere scraps of information every episode, then we’ll continue to tune in.
In the 1.5 hour premiere, we met sheriff’s deputies Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and Shane Walsh (Jon Bernthal), who are close enough to joke and talk pretty intimately about marital strife. Near the end of the episode, audiences experienced a minor bombshell when it’s revealed that Shane and Rick have a different relationship to each other than Rick believes (how long this has been going on, we aren’t certain yet). We already know there’s an encampment of survivors that Rick will eventually find, and that “safe zone” Atlanta is overrun by walkers. In the first episode, we also met Morgan Jones (Lennie James) and his son, who struggle to survive after “freezing in place” when Jones’s wife died (and promptly got back up again). These zombies are not your typical spookshow; characters react emotionally when they have to off the undead. We hardened aficionados can boast all we want (possibly while beating our chests), “I’d shoot my wife in the head if she became one of those monsters”…but could we really? The show posits it’s not as simple as that. These zombies are also not confined to consuming human flesh, which is an unexpected twist.
Due to laudable performances from Lincoln, James, and Bernthal, as well as the short introduction of some characters we haven’t really met yet, audiences will probably be invested. Darabont fans will be happy to see Jeffrey DeMunn (from all three Darabont-King collaborations) and Laurie Holden (The Mist, “The X-Files”) in the credits, and horror fans will probably stay tuned to catch Michael Rooker (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Slither).
Second, AMC is certainly not skimping on the gore. Zombie makeup legend Greg Nicotero serves as special makeup effects supervisor, and these creatures are satisfyingly gross. Since some of the walkers have deteriorated into crawling torsos, and it’s tough to do good brain-splatter on a TV budget, there’s a bit of computerized gore–but not enough so far to be a turn-off. Here we have flyblown corpses, blood spatters, mutilated skeletons with just a bit of flesh clinging to them, and a crawler whose exposed femurs drag behind her. Whether it’s AMC’s adult focus or the 10:00pm time slot, the creators and makeup artists seem wholly unfazed by TV’s rating system.
Third: will the series bring anything new to the table?
This is still under consideration. In the opening sequence, Rick shoots a young zombie in the head. This might’ve been shocking if we hadn’t already been inundated with child zombies from way back. AMC conveniently aired Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead before the “Walking Dead” premiere–and the first walker we see in the 2004 movie is a little girl. Manipulating audiences by exploiting the innocent is the oldest trick in the book. The little girl isn’t the only innocent to undergo carnage, though–and why is it that a horse’s death is somehow more heartbreaking to audiences than a little girl zombie’s? (This is perhaps fodder for another post.)
The insanity of the actual apocalypse plays no part in the show: Rick wakes up in a hospital to find that the whole world has collapsed. Anyone familiar with horror will recognize this plot point from 28 Days Later, which had a US release three months before the first of Kirkman’s graphic novels. Unfortunately 28 Days Later did a better job with the sheer strangeness of London’s vast, empty streets and the protagonist’s complete disorientation. Oh well: this is a nightmare scenario no matter the setting. To say the least, the first episode was derivative. However, we’re living in an age where pretty much everything is borrowed. The question is, can it be done in a more interesting way?
As an aside, I do hope at some point the characters start to refer to the zombies as, you know, “zombies.” Edgar Wright playfully jabbed at zombie movies’ tendency to avoid “the zed word,” and a story set in the modern world in which the characters are unaware of the term “zombies” is hard to believe.
Verdict: Yea. What say you?