I usually don’t talk much about zombie related topics here on The Satellite Show. Not out of any lack of interest, mind you– but I have a whole other weekly blog I do for my web comic, Zombie Ranch, so that’s usually where my ruminations on the genre end up (such as this one on the phenomenon of the Little Girl Zombie). It’s just more on-topic, while the Show is my outlet for, well, everything else I feel like sharing.
However, this week? There was way too much for even one of my megaposts to cover at once. I opted to use my Zombie Ranch space to report on Long Beach Comic Con 2010, which meant I didn’t get to chew over AMC’s premiere episode of The Walking Dead. And I’d like to, without waiting any further, because it was tasty stuff.
One of the hardest things to do in the zombie genre, in my opinion, is to present your piece with straight, stark realism and have it be compelling without straying into camp or self-parody (either intentionally or unintentionally). I certainly don’t make the claim to have done so in my own work (though to be fair to myself the satirical elements are purposeful), but to this day the only zombie movie I feel ever completely succeeded at this was the original “Night of the Living Dead”. That doesn’t mean that all the subsequent offerings since then are substandard, but they have a different tone to them.
For example, as recently as this last weekend I looked over one of Avatar Press’s comic books based on the film, and the very first page had a pair of stark naked teens graphically screwing in the back of their car, with the girl shortly uttering the obligatory “Did you hear that?” Now, Romero’s films may have gone downhill in recent years, but still, I can’t recall any of his zombie flicks where T&A was a major factor like that, and it was jarring. It seemed apparent that the content was going to be a mostly mindless fest of sex and gore, and so I gently placed the issue back on its display. Not because I’m against sex and gore in zombie fiction, but like I said, “Night” just had that unique, bleak tone to it that I felt sad to see reduced into the same camp terrority already well trod by features like Return of the Living Dead; incidentally, the comic was co-written by John Russo, so perhaps it represents the NotLD film Russo would have given us had he been solo on the project, much as Return of the Living Dead was supposedly his vision of the zombie apocalypse after breaking from Romero.
So you might think from the above that I fell instantly in love with the comic series of The Walking Dead, which was (and is) probably the closest spiritual descendent of the 1968 NotLD, right down to being presented in black and white; but in its debut several years ago it failed to grab me. I read the first few issues and appreciated the tone, as well as certain moments and images such as the hauntingly wonderful “ride into Atlanta” AMC replicated for the poster at the beginning of this blog (really, is there any better warning sign than a bunch of abandoned cars going entirely in the other direction?). But in 2003 the “wake up from a coma to find the zombies have taken over” schtick was already played out, and certain other story elements also just seemed same ‘ol same ‘ol to anyone familiar with the genre. I just never felt the driving urge to become a fan.
Until now. And it took an entirely new medium of telling the story to do it.
Despite my lukewarm feelings towards the comic, I was hotly anticipating the series, and it was mainly for one reason: Frank Darabont. After seeing his masterful work on “The Mist” (which fellow Showster Justin has already detailed), I had no question he was the right man to bring a NotLD/TWD style zombie apocalypse to the screen. Darabont is a man who understands how to build and relax tension. He understands the power of silence, and how the lack of a soundtrack can sometimes be the most atmospheric choice possible. In The Mist, he figured out ways to keep us immersed in the moment and rooted in human drama even as giant tentacles were waving around and mutant pterodactyls were stalking down aisle 4.
He also is just a fine craftsman where cinematic storytelling is concerned… I could hold up the entirety of “Shawshank Redemption” as an example, but one thing that will always stick with me in The Mist is that, in a chaotic scene of men screaming and flailing tentacles, the camera slows down ever-so-slightly in its wild panning as it tracks past a fire axe on the wall in the background, just enough to let you register in the back of your brain that it’s there a little ways before the protagonist grabs it. Where many directors would probably give you a big glaring still shot, and Michael Bay would keep the camera spinning in pointless gyrations, Darabont has wonderful subtleties like this in his cinematography that I just love.
Frank Darabont was a guy I desperately wanted to see direct more horror films, but failing that, how about a horror TV series? It’s a comparative rarity to see a successful horror series that’s presented as a running narrative rather than a series of vignettes. Dark Shadows, perhaps? Do Buffy and Angel count? Supernatural? Regardless, Frank got his chance at the zombie apocalypse, and I couldn’t be happier. Maybe it’s the change of medium, or maybe the tweaks he made to the original comic (where I do think he made some story elements much more effective), but I was sucked right in for all 90 minutes, despite the commercials. The match lighting scene on the hospital stairs, the door handle, the reveal of the family photo, the parallel cuts of two men seeking a certain amount of closure (one succeeding, one failing)… mmm. So, so good. Just changing “bicycle girl” to be the first full-on zombie viewing Rick Grimes has makes that whole arc so much more powerful (as I recall, in the comic he comes across her only after he’s already been mobbed by some others).
Now, I’m having to dial back my enthusiasm somewhat because I’ve learned Darabont only directed the pilot, and episode 2+ will have others at the helm, so we’ll see how things go from here. Right now, though, for the first time in over 40 years I feel like that NotLD tone has been recaptured, and that we have in TWD a series which, while not shirking from the gore quotient, is presenting the zombie apocalypse on a serious dramatic level and succeeding. I don’t think I can overstate what an accomplishment that is, and I hope that (unlike bicycle girl) The Walking Dead will have some legs.