Animalistic and driven by definable sentience and need, vampires and werewolves have a place in the pop culture firmament that requires no embellishing. It doesn’t take much work to understand their allure. Yes, you can anthropomorphize the monstrous capabilities of both creatures in ways that make them seem more desirable and less terrifying, but that’s gilding the lily, generally to the advantage of teenage girls (that’s not an insult and “teenage girls” can actually equal “blood-thirsty romantics of all ages”).
That’s not really the case with zombies. Although some Halloween costumes would beg to differ, you can’t really make a zombie sexy. If the new kid in Forks turned out to be a zombie, you couldn’t craft a narrative that would make Twihards ditch Team Edward or Team Jacob in favor of Team Grrrrr. Zombies don’t pitch woo. Zombies don’t stalk in sensual and relatable ways. Zombies can’t master their inner appetites to kiss a nubile teen without biting into her scalp. Zombies rot. Zombies don’t sparkle.
In lieu of any sort of aspirational agency, zombies are most interesting when subtext can be read onto their lurching and insatiable hunger. Fortunately, the Godfather of the Modern Zombie, George Romero, was a smart enough guy to build a malleable subtext into the zombie mythos. Zombies can represent any sort of assimilationist hive-mind, any sort of thoughtless consumerism or any sort of disease that spreads without warning and turns the living populace into a quivering mass of fear.
I bring this up having glanced at the Washington Post‘s review of AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” a well-written, poorly argued, epic piece that spends two full pages trying to tie this zombie story into the current election cycle, on the grounds that if you can’t finesse “The Walking Dead” into some ideological corner, you’re stuck praising a show that’s only about zombies and the humans who hate them.
What’s scariest about the zombies created by Robert Kirkman for his comic series and adapted by Frank Darabont (and designed by Gregory Nicotero) for AMC, is that they really don’t mean anything. They’re slow-moving, decomposing, massing flocks of toothy death. Alone, they’re easy to kill. In packs, they’re a terrifying menace. And they don’t mean much of anything. They don’t have a root origin. They don’t have particular targets or gravitate towards particular locations, like that mall they frequented when they were living. They go where there’s food. And where there isn’t food, they’re pretty much loitering and listening without purpose and certainly without ideology. And while you’re free to contort your mind in any way you like to try to bring meaning to the endeavor, that’s really more about your needs than Kirkman or Darabont’s.
[More on “The Walking Dead” after the break…]
Kirkman’s comic world is cold and, in many ways, nihilistic. Main characters die without warning and they die without adhering to any of the established rules set by generations of horror movies. These zombies don’t care if you’re black or white or Asian or Latino. They don’t care if you’re a small child, the mother of a small child, if you’re a virgin or if you’re a teenager who just had sex for the first time. They also don’t care if you’re played by the A-list movie star or the pretty ingenue.
But the world isn’t completely nihilistic. In fact, although it’s bleak, it’s plenty optimistic, in a horrible, gruesome way. Along the way, human survivors come together. People continue to fall in love. They continue to overcome their preconceptions and become friends with unlikely allies. They continue to have children and to try to keep life moving.
Of course, the world isn’t really plenty optimistic. Because strong people still take advantage of the weak. Power is still abused and the atrocities committed by humans are worse than the thoughtless noshing of the undead.
What I’m saying is that “The Walking Dead” is about zombies, but it’s really about the survivors, which isn’t exactly revolutionary for the genre. What’s revolutionary is that in a movie, the happy or sad ending has to be reached within 100 minutes. Our heroes have to either face death or find a possible escape. In Kirkman’s comic — I’m only on the ninth trade paperback — and in Darabont’s series — I’ve only seen two episodes — it could just go on forever.
Our point-of-entry is Andrew Lincoln’s Rick Grimes, a small-town police officer who responds to a distress call with his partner Shane (Jon Bernthal), gets shot, goes into a coma and wakes up in an nightmarish world of piled corpses and, as the title indicates, walking dead. [Some people are nattering about how it’s roughly the same introduction as in Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later.” That isn’t untrue. But it’s also the way our hero survived in John Wyndham’s “Day of the Triffids” and probably more books and films and TV shows in surrounded genres than I’d dare to count. It happens to be a good way to introduce a character to a changed world. Deal with it. Nobody’s ripping anybody off.]
Anyway, soon Rick is learning the rules of the new world, helped by a weary survivor played by Lennie James. Rick’s convinced that his wife (Sarah Wayne Callies) is out there somewhere and he sets off in the direction of Atlanta.
Written and directed by Darabont, the pilot retains the overall shape of Kirkman’s books, but it finds a methodical pace of its own. Kirkman, for example, introduces Rick and Shane and hospitalizes the main character literally within a page. That’s narrative economy. There are zombies on page six. With an extra long pilot, nobody’s forcing Darabont to be that speedy and, in turn, he isn’t. For a solid 20+ minutes, Darabont gives us insinuation, desolation and warning signs galore, but he and cinematographer David Tattersall are all about the sense of unease. In the place of a score — Bear McCreary gets more work in subsequent episodes — Darabont uses the soundscape to create his alien environment and to set viewers up for what’s to come.
Boyle’s use of London in “28 Days Later” somewhat wrote the book on unnervingly empty urban spaces, so Darabont gets to put his own imprint on a rural space. This isn’t about going through a familiar city and seeing the landmarks devoid of humanity. It’s far more universal than that. The initial location in “Walking Dead” could be anywhere, “Our Zombie Town,” as it were.
I’m not sure that Nicotero is the *only* name in working makeup effects masterminds, but he’s certainly The Man. In addition to being the on-call makeup guru for auteurs like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez and John Carpenter, he’s also worked on several Romero zombie movies and established his “legit” credentials on thinks like “Milk” and “The Pacific.” He’s done zombies before and I’m not going to tell you that the zombies in “The Walking Dead” are like no zombies you’ve ever seen before. But it’s possible that because of their close embodiment of the zombies in the comics, they’re better than any zombies you’ve seen before on the big and small screen. They’re disgusting, but also recognizably human. [Sometimes, the more active they are, they may be too recognizably human. In the second episode, I occasionally was unable to ignore that I was just watching latex-clad extras eager for a couple extra on-camera seconds. Nobody likes a hammy zombie.]
You needn’t worry about the things you can or can’t say or can or can’t do on AMC. “Walking Dead” offers no shortage of gaping wounds, eroded flesh and forcefully expelled viscera. By my estimation, we’re at least two or three seasons away from parts of the comic that Darabont probably won’t even attempt to emulate.
The combination of Darabont’s evocative direction and the freshness of Nicotero’s critters makes the “Walking Dead” pilot a true triumph. It’s like a perfect set-up and a perfect punchline of fear. Add in Lincoln’s effectively weary and blissfully dialogue-light performance and the always welcome James and the “Walking Dead” pilot is the sort of thing that’s nearly capable of earning a place next to the “Boardwalk Empire” opener in terms of production values and cinematic craft. And that sucker was directed by Martin Scorsese.
The second episode, regretfully, isn’t nearly as good. It uses an Atlanta-based zombie siege as its focus and abandons every bit of the subtlety established in the pilot. The first episode is heavy on mood and the second episode is driven by very familiar action that introduces a pack of characters in a situation that’s like many, many zombie things you’ve seen before. I’d say, “Well, you have to show viewers there’s going to be action in the series,” but the pilot was gripping despite never betraying its “characters first” ethos. The second episode also has nothing to do with the trajectory of the comic, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, except for how much less I enjoyed it. “Less” is a matter of degrees, I suppose. The first episode just feels like the start of a developing and ongoing and possibly awesome series. The second episode felt like the middle 40 minutes of an acceptable zombie movie. AMC didn’t send me the third episode, so I don’t know which tone and pace is going to reign.
Even with the so-so second episode, the pieces are still in place for a very good series, even if the abandonment of character in the second episode leaves you two hours in with only Lincoln’s character having made a full impression.
Without sufficient character development time, I’m left fixating on superficial details like how absolutely nobody in the first two episodes is capable of delivering a Southern accent, despite the fact that they’re almost all supposed to be small-town Georgia residents. Lincoln’s accent is dreadful. Bernthal’s accent is dreadful. James’ accent isn’t very good, but the “Jericho” and “Hung” veteran is such a great actor that I’ve stopped worrying about which accents he can’t do. In this instance, lack of accents, probably wouldn’t have distracted me, so I almost wish they hadn’t bothered.
I’m hoping that at some point, the characters come together as a group of folks just trying to survive, because I’m confident that with Callies, Bernthal, Laurie Holden and Jeffrey DeMunn, among others, there will be chances for some fine acting.
I like zombies. I love Kirkman’s “Walking Dead.” And I love Darabont’s pilot for “Walking Dead.” If it weren’t for that second episode, I’d be telling you that “Walking Dead” is another total winner for AMC and that it’s one of the year’s best new shows. Instead, I’m taking the more reserved approach: Watch the “Walking Dead” pilot. You’ll enjoy it. My hopes for the rest of the series? Cautious, but optimistic.
“The Walking Dead” premieres on Sunday, Oct. 31 at 10 p.m. on AMC.