Occasionally, we here at Andrew at the Cinema like to watch television.
Zombies have long constituted their own trusted and heavily explored sub-genre of horror, and in the last decade or so our favorite subtext-rich movie monster has seen something of a resurgence as filmmakers have gone back to the well to produce their own interpretations of the threat of a zombie invasion. The obsession with the shambling hordes of undead isn’t limited to cinema, either; literary works ranging from books to comics are all the rage today, too, from novels like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to– more notably– Robert Kirkman’s ongoing zombie apocalypse saga, The Walking Dead. So when it was announced this past January that the latter work would be adapted into a TV serial on AMC, it came as little surprise. Zombies have wreaked havoc and devoured the flesh of the living across a number of mediums already (and thanks to my alma mater, Goucher, they’ve even done so across college campuses)– why not television?
Kirkman’s comic series feels like the perfect candidate for adaptation– not because it’s an especially cinematic series but because it’s not an especially good one. Put bluntly, the comic ranges from oppressive mediocrity to outright cringe-inducing badness, with little in between to recommend it, and in the end it always makes the most sense to re-envision works that have a ceiling for improvement. Couple that with how much a story about a worldwide zombie crisis benefits from the television format and you’ve got great potential for a really arresting and engaging entry in the zombie lexicon. So with the first few episodes under our belt, has Frank Darabont delivered on the promise of The Walking Dead?
It’s hard to say. That’s not a knock against the show; the first few episodes have been, by and large, pretty good all around with some bright spots and some dimmer ones. But the show is clearly building up to something, and it’s hard to tell where it’s going if we’re not assuming that the program will merely follow in the footsteps of the comic. The basic set-up is the same and wholly familiar: Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), a deputy sheriff from a small Georgia town, wakes up in the hospital after being comatose for several months following a gunshot wound sustained in the line of duty. Confused and hopelessly alone, he realizes pretty quickly that something horrible has happened; everyone in the hospital is dead (perhaps), rotting corpses litter the parking lot outside, and his home is deserted and empty. From there, The Walking Dead flips back and forth between stories, simultaneously detailing Rick’s rude awakening and his journey to find human survivors in Atlanta while also depicting post-infestation life for a camp of survivors– including Rick’s former partner, Shane, and his wife Lori and son Carl– living day to day in the forest and far away from cities and towns.
Ostensibly a show like The Walking Dead yearns to portray the way that a disaster scenario can influence people’s personae and how it effects the ways that they interact with one another. It’s about how far people will go to survive when their world is flipped upside down and rendered forever changed. For the most part these particular themes are covered or at least built up well, but like the comic there’s a lot of nuance missing in how each survivor is characterized. Rick, for example, is so much the embodiment of the determined hero that he completely lacks any middle ground; all he wants (or all he says he wants) is to reunite with his family again, which he does in an emotional and incredibly touching display in the third episode, but when given the chance he rushes right back into mortal peril to save the life of Michael Rooker’s cartoon character redneck racist stereotype, Merle Dixon, from swarms of zombies. Where Rick’s a knight in shining armor, Merle is every bad cliche about Southern bigotry and general prejudice that you could think of without much else going for him besides Rooker’s excellent performance.
There’s a merciful streak of grey in Shane, Rick’s aforementioned partner in law enforcement; he’s kind of a chauvinist and we learn rather early on that he’s sleeping with Rick’s wife (on the pretty fair assumption that Rick’s status changed from “coma patient” to “goner”). He’s not fond of rushing into the fray to save lives, instead advocating a survivalist’s ideology– if someone calling for help is surrounded by zombies, he’s going to let them die because what’s the point of sacrificing his own life for nothing? Unfortunately The Walking Dead needs more characters like Shane, and there are none so pivotal or so developed as him to lend the show the ambiguity that it really needs.
What the show does provide in spades is a well-developed and fittingly unnerving atmosphere, supplemented with some pretty outstanding zombie make-up and a surprising amount of grue. FX legend Greg Nicotero and his team from KNB EFX consistently turn out some truly stomach-churning depictions of both the undead and the carnage they leave in their wake; if The Walking Dead can only be praised for one thing, it’s the effort that Nicotero have put toward bringing Darabont’s and Kirkman’s vision to life (so to speak) in each episode. But there’s a palatable sense of danger and fear that hangs over the production that makes the show’s shortcomings somewhat easy to overlook, too, a constricting feeling of hopelessness that pervades the narratives and adds gravity to the circumstances of the survivors. Sure, the writing might be missing some subtlety, but if The Walking Dead sustains that dread and continues to represent itself well with zombie horror, it’ll at least be a respectable entry in the genre even if it’s not a groundbreaking one.
But there’s no doubt, despite some sloppy characters and a rather standard starting point, that The Walking Dead is going somewhere and moving toward a specific goal. It’s simply unclear what that point is. That shouldn’t excuse some lazy writing dotting the first few episodes of the series, but if the show has a rough start and ends up making a smooth landing then it’ll be worth it. After all, this is a television show and not a movie– The Walking Dead, by its very nature, gets to takes its time and doesn’t have to rush out the gate with a clearly defined destination. Maybe all of the undercooked characters will really come into their own as we head towards the end of this first season. And in any event, itt looks like things are really going start picking up with episode four, and I cannot wait to see where the show takes us up to the finale in just a couple of weeks.