Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Walking Dead: Zombies Matter Here

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on November 9, 2010. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.


Vampires might get all the good press, but the fact is that zombies have also been enjoying a renaissance of late. There have never been so many quality zombie films: beginning with the phenomenal success of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later in 2003, Edgar Wright’s riotous Shaun of the Dead in 2004, the triumphant return of zombie-auteur George Romero with Land of the Dead in 2005, and Andrew Currie’s biting satire Fido in 2006. In the book stores, we’ve got Max Brooks’ The Zombie Survival Guide (2003) and World War Z (2006). (The film adaptation of the latter is now in pre-production, with Brad Pitt in the lead role.) But there has always been one realm the zombies have failed to successfully (de)populate: the small screen. With the Halloween premiere of AMC’s The Walking Dead, the zombies have finally come to our living rooms.

Last year, AMC retired its original motto “TV for Movie People” and introduced its current slogan, “Story Matters Here.” In the 90-minute pilot of The Walking Dead, both principles are in full effect. Developed for television by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Frank Darabont (Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile), and adapted from Robert Kirkman’s long-running black-and-white comic series of the same name, The Walking Dead is set in the weeks after a zombie apocalypse decimates the human population. While it is unclear how much the show will be following the plot of the comic series (now in its seventh year), its writer Robert Kirkland is on-board as a writer for this first season. Darabont himself wrote and directed the first episode, and it is a masterpiece of restrained storytelling. True to the comic book source material, Darabont lets the visuals tell the story. The early scenes are given hardly any incidental music, and long stretches of the first episode pass without a word of dialogue. This slow, cinematic build-up—as eerie as it is suspenseful—lets the landscape reveal itself, both to the viewer and to our lead character, on its own terms. Check your zombie expectations at the door: there are no cheap scares, no cartoonish violence, and no pounding music. The Walking Dead is a show about character and story: this is a story about the living, not the dead.

Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes
The story follows Kentucky sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) as he awakens from a coma to find the hospital abandoned, his town deserted, and its streets littered with the dead, some of whom don’t want to sit still.  When he finally makes his way to his home, he finds it as empty of the streets outside, his wife and son packed up and gone. Desperately searching for his family, he eventually makes his way to a small survivors’ camp, set up outside of Atlanta.  (This opening will no doubt remind filmgoers of the stunning opening sequence of 28 Days Later. However the comic’s first issue—from which that scene is lifted—and Boyle’s film were released within a few months of one another, and neither can be truly said to borrow from the other.)

A television series about zombies is perhaps difficult to imagine. How can you build a continuing story around beings that can’t speak, can’t walk faster than a shuffling amble, and lack any motivation beyond an inexplicable and insatiable hunger for living flesh? Darabont’s answer is simple: by taking the drama out of the cemeteries and darkened alleys, and putting it firmly in the emotional and interpersonal lives of his characters. By focusing on the real anguish of loss and survival, the show achieves a realism that belies its apparently narrow, fantastical conceit. Certainly, it comes with some gore and provides its share of scares, but the real horror of The Walking Dead is existential. The show’s ostensible villains—the ‘walkers’—are as tragic as our heroes. While the revulsion they inspire is visceral, the zombies in themselves are more pitiable than hateful. In the end, the true core of every scene of the show is about the choices, large and small, that the survivors are compelled to make.

Lennie James
Early in the pilot, Grimes meets Morgan Jones (Lennie James, Jericho) and his son Duane (Adrian Kali Turner) who fill him in on some of what’s happened since he fell into his coma. Morgan sums it up with tense elegance, telling Grimes and us all we really need to know: “the bite kills you, then the fever burns you out, but then after a while you come back.” Lennie James does a remarkable job here with the few scenes he is given. If the series stays true to the comic, we won’t be seeing Morgan and his son again anytime soon. But their story remains the true centrepiece of the first episode, and its heart-breaking emotional realism is enough to establish the moral universe of the whole series. With these few scenes, Jones portrays the anguish of loss and the horror of living too long, plus the pain that comes with survival itself. The Walking Dead of the title refers as much to the surviving human remnant as it does to the ambling corpses that fill the streets.

The second episode, which aired this past Sunday, tells a more traditional stand-alone story, and is directed by Michelle MacLaren, an Emmy-nominated director for my current favourite AMC series, Breaking Bad. While this episode doesn’t have the same emotional punch as the pilot, it does introduce us to our wider cast of characters, some drawn from the pages of the comic, like the resourceful young Glenn (Steven Yuen) while others – like T-Dog (IronE Singleton) and Merle Dixon (Michael Rooker, most famous for his starring role in 1986’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) – are original to the TV series. It also paints a richer portrait of the survivors’ camp outside of Atlanta, where it appears much of our action will be taking place.  

Recent shows like Lost, Jericho, and Battlestar Galactica have portrayed communities in isolation or in post-apocalyptic scenarios before, but very soon, the human relationships inevitably take a backseat to an overarching mystery and developing mythology. As larger questions like “Why did it happen? Who is behind it? and How can we stop it?” take over, the story begins to forget to show us how the characters are dealing with that situation. With The Walking Dead, I am hoping that Darabont follows the comic and avoids the powerful televisual temptation to build up too deep a back story to the zombie infection. The great advantage of a zombie story, in my opinion, is that these questions can be bracketed at the outset. It is a recent innovation in zombie lore (following from 28 Days Later and I Am Legend) to make the search for reasons, and thus for a ‘cure’, central to the drama. But the best zombie stories avoid ‘why’ questions altogether. Zombies simply are: avoid getting bit or scratched, and aim for the head. What else does one need to know? The true drama lies within and between our survivors, not in conspiracy theories, metaphysics, and amateur epidemiology. And the more our story stays with our characters, the truer that story will be.

Though AMC only green lit a 6-episode first season, based on the blockbuster ratings for the October 31st premiere, a 13-episode second season has already been confirmed. I myself can’t wait to see where The Walking Dead will be taking us.