Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Walking Dead

This review was originally written in 2010 after the series premiere of The Walking Dead for the Horror Film class that I had been taking at the time.

Watching AMC’s new series, The Walking Dead, the proverbial elephant in the room is the presence of George A. Romero.  Romero’s generally recognized as the great-granddaddy of the contemporary film zombie with his 1968 film The Night of the Living Dead, in which, Romero set the standard for all zombies to come when he basically rewrote the rules for what constitutes “zombieness.”  Before Night and Romero, zombies were an archetype within the horror film genre signifying the Outsider status of former colonial subjects.  Locals such as Africa and the Caribbean were seen as threats to the West through their use of mystical religions and reanimated corpses.  Then came Romero.

What Romero did was update the zombie archetype to encompass the fears and anxieties of the generation that was grappling with Vietnam and Civil Rights and would soon have to deal with Watergate.  By contemporizing the zombie, Romero created an evolving symbol that could be placed over social concerns such as race relations, rampant consumerism, class issues, scientific hubris, et cetera.  Romero’s watershed film led to five sequels—Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007) and Survival of the Dead (2010)—two remakes (Night of the Living Dead (1990) and Night of the Living Dead 3D (2006)) as well as countless imitators, including 1979’s Italian Zombi and 1985’s The Return of the Living Dead.  From these humble beginnings the zombie contagion spread far and wide across the Hollywood landscape making zombies a much beloved part of the pop cultural consciousness.  Then came Frank Darabont.

Frank Darabont turned a career of making what is arguably the narrowest film niche ever (adaptations of Stephen King prison stories) into being one of the most powerful horror film directors out there.  From The Shawshank Redemption to The Green Mile to The Mist, Darabont has now brought his vision to the small screen in a serial adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s Eisner Award-winning comic The Walking Dead.  Premiering on AMC on Halloween (how very appropriate Mr. Darabont) The Walking Dead introduces the viewer to a very familiar film scene: an American landscape depopulated and scattered with cast-off cars.  From there we are introduced to Rick Grimes (played by Andrew Lincoln) who is a Georgia sheriff’s deputy in search of his family.  After our introduction to Rick, which ends in one hell of a bang … literally … we are presented the back story in flashback of how Rick—a family man—came to be alone in this dead world.

Following the tropes of the zombie film, after being shot in a police standoff, Rick wakes in a hospital bed alone.  Right now, I bet you are saying, But Bryan I’ve seen this before.  Many times.  Let me just say though, that Darabont took this directly from Kirkman’s comic who must have cribbed it from Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later who knowingly stole it from the 1962 British film The Day of the Triffids which itself was an adaptation of John Wyndham’s 1951 classic novel of the same name, so sure, you’ve seen this opening before, but it does not mean that we are watching anything that is derivative, rather it means you are in very good hands.  Darabont knows his horror lore, and uses it well.

Back to The Walking Dead.  Rick, predictably, staggers around, has no sense of what has happened (the hospital, in a bit of set dressing that must have taken a page from Romero’s Diary, is suitably post-apocalyptic-looking: flickering fluorescent lights, wiring exposed and draped vine-like from the ceiling, smeared blood, bullet-pocked walls, acoustic tiles akimbo) or is happening as he tries to find his way out of the building.  In spite of some cheap looking special effects (Rick sees a mangled body through a pair of doors that looks less human corpse than mannequin with red tempura paint) there are some genuine thrills and chills in the hospital, and we’ve only gotten twenty minutes into an hour-long pilot.

Ricks discovery of a set of doors that are padlocked, barred with a two-by-four slipped through the handles, DON’T OPEN DEAD INSIDE painted ominously across them, and which is then accompanied by the moans and groans of the undead inside and the peaks of a few fish-belly-colored hands is authentically frightening.  However, it is the next scene—Rick’s flight from “The Gates of Hell” (as they have been called by fans) through a pitch-black staircase that this reviewer found to be the most chilling of the episode.  Darabont leaves Rick, and us, in the dark.  No external lighting is to be had, only the brief, yellowed glimpses we get from a cast off book of matches Rick as found (probably filed under Deus ex machina at the nurses’ station) and there is no accompanying soundtrack.  All we hear are Rick’s labored breathing and the echoes as he makes his way down the stairs, barefoot and wearing a hospital johnnie, by the way, not exactly my choice in zombocalypse couture.

From there Darabont takes Rick to meet Morgan Jones and his son Duane who provide most of the exposition to both Rick and the viewer.  We are given the back-story to the zombie outbreak (though at this point, little is known) and we are told Rick’s story (his wife and son are missing), and in one of the most pathos-inducing moments of the show we learn that Morgan’s wife (Duane’s mother) has died and turned into a zombie and is now haunting the locale where Morgan and Duane are staying … coming nightly to the house and trying to get in.  (Is there anything more spine-tingling than something unknown turning a locked doorknob this way and that as you watch?  Or has that image now reached the moment of clichĂ©?)

The rest of the story unfolds as one might image: Rick, luckily enough, is a Sheriff’s deputy and still has the keys to his station.  He is able to arm himself and Morgan with the weapons from the station and then launches off in search of his wife and son.  We are told that they might just be in Atlanta, since the Center for Disease Control is there as well as the fact that that is where the army was creating a safe zone for survivors and off Rick rides at first in his sheriff’s car and then when that runs out of gas, on horseback, until he reaches Atlanta, runs afoul of a zombie “herd” and has to take refuge in an abandoned National Guard tank.  Now, there is much more that happens: what happens to Rick, is Morgan able to kill his wife, what about Rick’s wife and son (who, as it turns out, have fled Atlanta with Rick’s partner on the force and who is seemingly involved in a romantic relationship with Rick’s wife)?  But there has to be some surprises, even in such a conventional zombie tale as The Walking Dead.

But is The Walking Dead conventional?  That is where some interesting questions begin to arise.  My gut reaction is “Yes, yes it is” but that only takes me so far.  It is conventional insofar as its use of the genre tropes (since the 1968 Coming of Romero): flesh-eating, mass contagion, world destruction, break down of law and order, and yet what Darabont has done, again taking a page from Kirkman’s original material, is make this not a story about the zombies, but rather a story about the survivors.  Zombie films are notorious for flashy special effects, extreme gross-outs and hastily-sketched characters: take Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead.  A film that is okay for what it is, and yet never is really able to transcend the fact that it is a handful of stereotypical characters (and lucky coincidences) thrown together to showcase zombie-based carnage.  The Doctor, the Cop, the Loving Family, the Bitch, the Arrogant Bastard, the Everyman, the Slut, the Thug … they’re all there in Snyder’s film.  Do we care about any of them?  Not really.  Not in any meaningful way.  They are all just fodder for the zombie maw that awaits them and the only surprises are when each of them is snuffed off.  That is not to deny some truly masterful touches: Andy’s bloody smear on the whiteboard from the top of the gun shop as he succumbs to a zombie bite gives me goose bumps every time; yet in Dawn of the Dead, these moments such as the one above are few and far between and the film is mostly about what kinds of cutting-edge special effects can we show?

While it may be too early to call it for The Walking Dead, it would seem that Darabont is trying to take the show in the direction of Kirkman’s comic book.  That is to say that it is a story about the survivors and how they change in the face of such overwhelming odds and is less about the technical wizardry.  If the show is able to pull off more moments such as Morgan’s attempts to shoot his zombified wife and his son’s heart-breaking reactions (curling into a corner, crying, hands pressed against his ears, and rocking as he prays) juxtaposed with Rick’s compassionate euthanizing of an unnamed zombie which, in one of the more breathtaking special effects in the show, is missing the lower half of its body and has to drag itself by its arms than I have hope for The Walking Dead.  However, if it becomes just a showcase for zombie special effects as the pilot does in the last five minutes, then perhaps it would be best to put a bullet in The Walking Dead’s head and let it die a dignified death.

I for one will be keeping one hand on my pistol (cocked and ready) and my weather eye on AMC and Darabont to see which direction The Walking Dead goes.