Monday, October 24, 2011

Also, There Were Zombies

As has become an October tradition, last night was spent watching the latest episode of AMC's excellent adaptation of Rober Kirkman's wildly popular comic series, The Walking Dead. A new fall staple on Sunday nights, the TV version of Kirkman's post-zombie apocalypse epic is a must-watch for fans of the comic or for fans of zombie films in general.

As I've always said when talking about the series, The Walking Dead is the story of the people--the survivors of the zombie plague--and their day to day struggles in a landscape that has changed into something foreign and horrific.

In that world, there just happen to be hordes of zombies roaming the country, looking for flesh to devour.

But the problems and social interactions that the characters face are, essentially, everyday human situations. They're not busy trying to construct some unstoppable, impossibly fortified school bus/zombie rammer as we've seen in so many zombie movies of the past.

They're busy dealing with things like love triangles and finding food and members of their group getting older and getting sick and making sure that the kids are spending time reading when they can.

The folks on the TV writing staff have done an amazing job translating this to the show. Yes, AMC's whole marketing campaign for the show is centered around the zombies. Duh. People like zombies, and it's Halloween Season.

But the show itself is so much more than the typical, "run from zombies, kill a few, hide and run some more, kill a bunch, find a good place to hole up until the sequel" zombie film that we've seen over and over.

The Walking Dead somehow manages to put viewers--me, at least--in the shoes of these people, more than any zombie film I've seen and probably better than any general horror movie save The Exorcist.

Take the season two premiere, which aired a couple of weeks ago. The opening--which I won't give away--literally had me on the edge of my seat, wondering not only what might happen to the people on screen (people, I have to add, that I've grown to care about as the show has progressed), but also what I would do in that seemingly possible situation.

That, I think, is the mark of the very finest horror.

So few horror movies do this. Even some of the best have elements and plot points so far out there that the suspension of disbelief can only take you so far. With Walking Dead, though, because the zombies are essentially reduced to background noise, this never happens.

I should also add that the term "zombie" is never used. They're referred to as "walkers" most of the time--a nice touch that furthers the real world feel of the show.

John Carpenter's Halloween worked in a very similar way. In that seminal horror film, the director put the boogeyman in your neighborhood, in your house. And it was incredibly effective; sure there were moments that made you jump, but the feel of the film was also creepy and unsettling because the way in which the killer goes about his business--with a simple kitchen knife--is real and something everyone can relate to in terms of fearing.

We see stabbings on the news every single night but somehow Carpenter manages to make Michael Myers more real than what we see on TV. An impressive trick, that.

Walking Dead works in much the same way; the crew assembled by AMC gets the source material. They understand that the shock value horror is not what people are going to stick around for--some may come for that, okay, but the long-term viewer will need more.

And just going by the numbers for the season two premiers--over 7 million people tuned in--this show not only has the all-important, up-to-the-second buzz, but it also has legs.

For me, it's something to look forward to on Sunday nights though I spend much of the hour cringing, just waiting for something bad to happen on screen.

With or without the zombies.

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