Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Walking Dead Is Scary, Gory And Troublingly Real.

The Good: Great plot development, Interesting initial characterization, Great special effects, Mood
The Bad: Light on character development, Only six episodes
The Basics: The Walking Dead is an utterly disgusting six-episode first season set that presents a dark world after the zombie apocalypse.

There are several genres that, as a geek, I am "supposed" to like. But, I'm not a video game geek and I am not a huge fan of the horror genre. So, it was quite a surprise to me that I would enjoy 28 Days Later (reviewed here!) enough to add it to my permanent collection. While I was working at the comic book shop, I became aware of The Walking Dead (I was very surprised by the fact that the person who bought all of the graphic novels from the series at our store was the most quiet, mousiest, young woman who frequented the store) and one of my favorite people in the world was raving about the television show The Walking Dead. So, last week, while my wife was not feeling well, after she would conk out, I would put on the first season DVD set of The Walking Dead and she became interested enough that I restarted the season with her and we made it through the two disc set over the course of one stomach-churning night.

The Walking Dead Season One is a six-episode season from AMC that focuses on the Atlanta, Georgia in the aftermath of an apocalyptic outbreak that threatens the existence of humanity. The dead walk the streets of Atlanta and bite the living, turning them into undead themselves. Heavy on the gore and light on character development, The Walking Dead Season One is frightening and heavily-serialized. AMC's original series is dark and horrific . . . and surprisingly good.

Sheriff Rick Grimes is part of a police blockade when he is shot and ends up in a coma. Rescued by his partner, Shane, Rick falls into a haze in the hospital and he awakens in a nearly destroyed hospital over a month later. Rick walks out into the suburbs to find most everything destroyed and piles of bodies everywhere. He is rescued by a father and son who inform him that the streets are filled with the walking dead, essentially zombies. When they stay - feeling trapped by the fact that Morgan's wife is one of the ambulatory undead still wandering the neighborhood - Rick grabs some guns and heads for the promised sanctuary in Atlanta.

In Atlanta, Rick finds himself trapped in an abandoned tank and he is aided by a nearby survivor who contacts him over the c.b. radio. Fleeing the tank, Rick meets up other survivors in a department store. On the roof, Rick distinguishes himself by handcuffing a racist hick up to a pipe and leading the others out of their entrapped position in a department store. Rick and the survivors escape Atlanta for their encampment in the hills.

After being reunited with his wife and son, Rick decides that the moral thing to do is return to the rooftop to rescue Merle. So, with Glenn, T-Dog and Merle's brother Daryl, Rick returns to Atlanta for the guns and Merle. While the team is gone, Shane asserts control over an abusive husband in the camp and the survivors do their best to get along.

In Atlanta, Glenn is captured by a Latino gang whose members want the guns Rick lost on the street. In trying to free Glenn, Daryl, Rick and T-Dog discover other survivors with an unlikely story. Back at the camp, Jim begins digging graves obsessively, which freaks out everyone in the encampment. But as Rick's group tries to leave Atlanta and discovers their ride gone, the encampment is attacked.

In the wake of the attack on the survivor's camp, Rick realizes that the location is no longer safe, a fact driven home to him by Shane's constant angry rants at him. As Jim begins to turn and Andrea mourns, the survivors prepare to move out with Rick setting the course for the supposed safe location at the Centers For Disease Control.

And in the season finale, the survivors take refuge at the CDC, but Dr. Edward Jenner - the lone survivor there - informs them that the situation is much more grim than they might have expected. And soon it becomes clear that the CDC is not the salvation they might have hoped it to be.

The Walking Dead is based upon the Robert Kirkman graphic novel series by the same name and, truth be told, I have not read any of it. I flipped through an issue of The Walking Dead Weekly while I was working at the comic book shop recently, but was so unimpressed with the artwork that I opted to not get invested in it. Fortunately, the television series is very engaging, even if it is gross.

And it is gross. The zombie apocalypse - even if they never call the "geeks" and "walkers" "zombies" - are utterly disgusting. The make-up is more than just people with pale skin, it is cinema-quality gore with walkers staring dead-eyed out of bleeding sockets with entrails and wounds frequently evident. Moreover, the directors focus upon the afflicted, so there is frequently no way to get away from images of human with torn up flesh, blood-soaked clothes or, in the case of the grotesque second episode, a scene where humans smear their clothes with walker entrails after bludgeoning in the head of a walker.

Usually, all that would keep me watching something like this is the characters, but the truth is there is astonishingly little character work done in the first season. Instead, this is a heavily-serialized plot-centered horror that is very much focused on the events more than the people. That is not to say there are not conflicts that are dramatically character-focused. Rick is a likable guy and my hope that Morgan would show back up with his son kept me interested in the show. There is an unfortunately soap operatic character/plotline wherein Shane has been having sex with Rick's wife, Lori, but that is left as a ticking time bomb for their relationship. I find that unfortunate because the writers leave it out there more for effect, whereas in a situation like the zombie apocalypse where there is a reasonable belief one's partner might be dead, such a hookup is much more understandable. In other words, the show missed a real opportunity to show how difficult dealing with the repercussions of that infidelity could be with realism in favor of making Shane more creepy and stalkerish with Lori.

The character is pretty much limited to Rick being a decent guy and Shane trying to keep everyone alive, often through more forceful methods. So, it's pretty natural that when Rick feels guilt, he is willing to lead a team back to the rooftop, whereas Shane's instinct is to stay with the camp and beat up the wifebeater. There are passing attempts at characterization outside the initial character definitions, but there is little in the way of development this season, more establishment.

What keeps the show worth watching, in addition to the exceptionally fast-paced and tense plot that makes the six hours of the season rush right by and the mood is the acting. Andrew Lincoln, whom I was only familiar with from Love, Actually (reviewed here!), is excellent as Rick Grimes. He plays the role with a real sense of determination and honest kindness that seems very genuine. Lincoln has a kind face and while he does some of his best acting in the first episode - emoting quietly in reaction to the horrors of the world around him - he maintains a strong presence throughout the show and it easily the one to watch.

Jon Bernthal does the angry manly man thing pretty well as Shane, but Sarah Wayne Callis is unlikably stiff as Lori. Lauri Holden easily differentiates herself from her character from the later seasons of The X-Files (reviewed here!) as Andrea. The child actors seem stiff at a few moments, but as kids it's easily excusable.

On DVD, The Walking Dead comes loaded with bonus features. While there are only a few deleted scenes, the second disc has a slew of featurettes on the making of the first season. There are many make-up featurettes and there is a commentary track which is informative, if gross.

Ultimately, the first season of The Walking Dead is pretty disgusting and tense, but for horror fans or those who like to visualize the end of the world, the show is strangely satisfying. While the level of gore is high, The Walking Dead succeeds in its premise, largely by showing how little of the world has changed in the wake of this zombie apocalypse. The racists are still racist, the gangs still work like gangs and law and order people do not just give up on the ideals they have spent their life standing for. In that way, the show is clever and surprisingly realistic. That, at the very least, makes it worth watching and worth looking forward to the upcoming second season.

For other science fiction or horror shows, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
True Blood Season Three
Invasion The Complete Series
Carnivale The Complete Series


For other television series reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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