The Walking Dead is based on a comic series of the same name and chronicles the exploits of a group of survivors trying to get by in a world overrun with the living dead. Sound familiar? Hold onto your seats because that is exactly what Frank Darabont , Gale Anne Hurd, and Robert Kirkman would like you to believe, just before they turn The Walking Dead into one of the rawest examinations of human nature to ever pop up in the dark-fantasy genre. Besides having plenty of pre-requisite Zombie shenanigans — head shots, entrail buffets, lumbering armies of decaying corpses — The Walking Dead transcends it’s b-movie creed and fast becomes a drama that gets you where it counts: in your sense of morality, decency, loyalty, and the ability to maintain all that to survive in an impossible situation.
Leave it to AMC to attempt bringing Horror back to primetime, and I mean that in the most respectful way imaginable. The fact is AMC’s reputation for playing host to some of the best drama on television was forged with some pretty major risks. As much as they appeal to our inner drama queens, shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men are always – albeit successfully – treading the line of bad taste from the morality-naut adventures of Walter White, to the touchy subject of a child’s sexual curiosity on Mad Men. Then you have the brain twisting works like The Prisoner, and Rubicon, that beg the question ‘is there anybody out there smart enough to follow this?'(There are, AMC — please renew Rubicon). That brings us to … The Walking Dead.
Horror has not had success in primetime for quite a while. Crossover pieces like Supernatural and The Vampire Diaries have done well for TheCW, but these are not true horror. True horror deals with the inescapable, the hopeless, the ever present oppression of something good. Real horror is gritty, visceral, and dwells on the darker tones of the human psyche. In real horror, there is no romance without tragic and often shattering loss. There is no subconscious knowledge that the heroes will defeat the boss monster at the end of the episode, and there is no talking about how cute so and so look together — or when they are going to break up, or reconcile. Effective horror spawns discomforting examination of the existential questions we try to avoid, and projects that on characters we can relate with. The Walking Dead is real horror.
My first concern for The Walking Dead was whether it would be adequate for seasoned horror fans. It’s a fair assumption to think that the producers would be reined in a bit — this is TV after-all — but this is not the case, at all. The Walking Dead is horror at its grisly best — but don’t mistake that to mean The Walking Dead is simply a gore fest, it is much more than that.
Man is the Scariest Monster
In his book on the horror craft, Danse Macabre, Stephen King often suggested that the human male was one of the most terrifying monsters both in our universe and his. Fans of The Walking Dead comic series will tell you that the writing in those pages pays King’s proposition dividends many times over. We’re all used to the clichÃ© of ‘should they worry about the monsters, or each other?’and, honestly, it’s a concept that rarely gets done well enough to matter.
The opening scene of The Walking Dead sets up what will ultimately become the center of the horror of the series: the evils of the human male; but it does so in a way that is so subtle it may not be appreciated: Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and his deputy partner Shane (Jon Bernthal) discussing how to deal with woman and their demand for all that sensitivity stuff. This is a pre-zombie apocalypse, but it none-the-less sets the stage for what is to come. We get a little glimpse into the subconscious framework of these two men who will, or will not, become heroes. To be fair, there are no heroes in The Walking Dead — there are people you will root for, but to use the word ‘˜hero’would be tantamount to calling the character work of The Walking Dead quaint. Having a bit of knowledge of where the story was going, I watched this scene — that does not exist in the comic — with glee, knowing that in the aftermath of the zombie takeover we would see these scrapes of psyche become exaggerated with the fierce need to adapt to a new world. It’s a carefully calculated bit of character development that bears the mark of a master. My mantra here is that The Walking Dead is not just good, it’s a great piece of epic storytelling rendered by masters of the craft.
The Walking Dead really should be witnessed with fresh eyes, but suffice to say this is not the only example of this sort of well formulated character work. In fact, I’d go as far as to say The Walking Dead is dripping with this sort of long-term/constantly paying off character progression. It’s the beating heart of this story. But don’t worry, there’s guts too:
How ‘Horror’Is It?
The look and feel is true to the very best works of the zombie aesthetic. When the zombies are on the screen, the imagery recalls the work of early Romero, and even Lucio Fulci, carefully blocked scenes composed for atmosphere and suspense. Darabont and his crew bring their own touches to this of course, and Greg Nicotero’s makeup for the undead is multidimensional, lending well to the Chiaroscuro lighting work — they are both ghastly and strangely otherworldly, painted with greying tones that give you the sense they might have walked right off of the comic page, yet realistic enough to turn your stomach — just a bit.
How Does it Compare with the Comics
The DNA of the comics is unmistakable, but Darabont and crew have expanded on Kirkman’s themes in some significant ways. Also, it is clear by the second episode that the television series of The Walking Dead is going to veer down a different, yet familiar, path from the comic series. I’d say all bets are off in terms of getting your spoilers from the comic books. In a sense of storytelling, the dramatic beats of the television series seem more mature — whether this is an underlying bias I have no idea, but the new material added to the TV series is far from superfluous, and gives Kirkman’s beats much more weight and purpose. The bottom line: it’s a collaboration between the comics and the series.
So What About the Episodes?
Of the two episodes I’ve screened it is clear that the series is a bit of a Chimera, containing elements of every ‘˜style’of horror film, while remaining true to its own original vision. The first episode, ‘Days Gone Bye,’is the one to display the most ‘˜representative’qualities of the series; that is to say, it has its own style. Stillness can be one of the most terrifying elements of a horror film. As perfected by John Carpenter in his slasher-film archetype Halloween, it’s the ability of the film to create a sense of foreboding even when nothing is going on, or nothing is moving. Darabont has proven himself a master of stillness with The Walking Dead, some of the most effective scenes are ones where no one is any immediate danger — yet the sense that danger will present itself looms heavily. ‘Days Gone Bye’eases us into the world of The Walking Dead with building sequences that strike at the horror of the world of the dead; the show’s chosen — apparently — theme of lurking misogyny rearing again with the introduction of the always fantastic Lennie James’s Morgan Jones and his dilemma of an undead wife who keeps trying to come home; an unsettling allegory on divorce and single-parenthood, perhaps.
‘Days Gone Bye’is really well balanced between a ghastly zombie story, and a smart character piece that finds its fuel in the domain of regret, loneliness, moral boundaries, and — as I mentioned — exposing the underlying facets of character that seed human evil.
‘Guts’is, pardon the pun, the most visceral of the two episodes. I don’t want to get into any of the details but I will say it is by far the most gory of the two. It maintains the high standards of character development and loads a few rounds of new blood into the dramatic shotgun of the series. What was most surprising, and effective, was the shift from subtle seasoned with action, to straight up non-stop edge-of-your-seat zombie fun. My concern with ‘Days Gone Bye’was that fans might, and I stress might, not feel the gravity of the less tangible devices of the story and become bored. ‘Guts’proved that The Walking Dead has something for all horror fans, even the sick and depraved ones , of which I occasionally fly the flag proudly, while upholding high standards of storytelling.
As a horror fan I found The Walking Dead to be an expansive entry into the genre that lends the craft some much needed legitimacy in terms of the quality of story-telling that can be done in the darker tones. You should watch The Walking Dead even if horror isn’t your thing because, frankly, it redefines the genre as a venue for bonafide drama to an extent rarely seen. Fans of intense drama will embrace The Walking Dead‘s deep and philosophical approach to story. Check your preconceived notions of the genre at the door, The Walking Dead is a rich character story painted against a grim tapestry of rotted flesh.
The Walking Dead premieres October 31st, at 10/9c on AMC