Thursday, November 4, 2010

If You're Dead And You Know It, Clap Your Hands

In 1985, my buddy and I were too young by a year or two to see the unrated Day of the Dead but our moms convinced the theater personnel to let us in unattended. As we sat in that theater and saw the famous 'tongue' zombie shamble into the frame, we knew we were in for a film made strictly for the strong of stomach.

George Romero has affectionately called Day's devoted cult of followers "trolls" and that's an apt description for all old-school zombie fans - not just Day devotees. Once upon a time, zombie cinema held a gnarly, subterranean appeal. Even the comical zombie pics, like 1985's Return of the Living Dead, had an underground edge (a punk edge, in that film's case). Even though Michael Jackson did a zombie dance routine in the biggest music video of all time, real zombies were found on the fringe.

Up until, well, now, the idea of approximating the signature splatter of the Romero Dead films on TV would've been considered impossible but the premiere episode of The Walking Dead got away with showing sights comparable to what Tom Savini fought tooth and nail to keep with a R-rating in his 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead and some of the ghastliness even broached Day of the Dead territory. Courtesy of KNB's Greg Nicotero (a Day of the Dead vet), we saw a rotted zombie with its lower half gone crawling across the ground dragging its entrails. We saw a horse ripped open by a zombie horde and its intestines pulled out. We saw multiple gunshots to the head. And it was all right there on American Movie Classics.

Of course, The Walking Dead is about more than gore (just as Romero's films have always been). With Oscar-winning writer/director Frank Darabont running the show, this is prestige television - the kind of series that will probably win Emmys and all that. On a strictly technical level, it's good. Acting, writing, directing, music, special effects - it's all well above average. But something about the comic has bothered me from the start and it's hard not to carry that over to how I feel about the show. I don't see the comic as being innovative or imaginative. Or even the least bit original. To me, it's like Romero paved the highway and Kirkman is just driving on it.

Romero's latest films regularly get dumped on but while I think some of the criticism is warranted, I like the fact that Romero is still being quirky with his zombies. He's bending the familiar rules, tweaking convention. He could be giving the fans exactly what they want (and be getting a lot less grief) but I get the feeling that's boring to him. He's just not that calculating while Kirkman, I get the impression, is.

Romero approaches his zombie films as a way to keep telling stories that interest him (even if they might not interest anyone else) while Kirkman is shrewdly shepherding a franchise. That's not to say that Kirkman doesn't care about the stories he's telling but whatever paths The Walking Dead might take, whether it goes for ten more issues or two hundred, I expect it's always going to stick to pretty conventional developments (for instance, I bet it didn't take the book long to make the Romero-esque point that people are more of a threat to each other than the zombies are).

I'd be more ok with The Walking Dead if it had just been a miniseries, that Kirkman wanted to get his fanboy rocks off by playing in that sand box and then move on to something more original. But no, this is going to be his cash cow for a long time to come. I don't go into Hot Topic but I'm guessing if there isn't Walking Dead merchandise for sale there yet, there will be. It's also inevitable that there'll be a Walking Dead feature film at some point. And in the meantime, Romero will still be making zombie movies for peanuts - that is if he's still making movies at all.

That Darabont can shape Kirkman's work into good television is likely. So far, the reaction to The Walking Dead has been almost unanimously positive. That's fair. I think there were several moments to savor in the premiere episode. It's a well-produced zombie show that treats the genre seriously so there's no reason not to approve of it, even celebrate it. But I reserve the right to be a troll instead.

11 comments:

Revil Fox said...

The basic idea that Kirkman had when he came up with the idea of The Walking Dead, as I understand it, was that this kind of thing, were it to happen, would never end. The comic doesn't have a planned ending point. While that's not a novel concept within the Zombie mythos, it isn't something that is truely possible within the context of a movie. At the time, Kirkman figured that the only way he could show that was in comic book form, and at the time he was correct. He may even still be correct. As good as the TV show did, I would be shocked to see it last longer than, say, Buffy did. But it does have something uniqie. The trees are all the same, but the forrest is far vaster than anything else like it.

Jeff Allard said...

Maybe following the show will change my mind but to me, I don't see an endlessly ongoing zombie story being such a hot thing. I didn't keep up with the comic because I anticipated it just cycling through a lot of same-ish scenarios where survivors band together in a community but then the community unravels from within or some such thing. I am curious, though, to see how The Walking Dead shapes up as a TV series and whether the audience will stay interested after a season or two.

J.D. said...

I think this show will sink or swim like a lot of shows - on the strength of its characters. Will we care about what happens to them week in and week out? So far, I'd say yes. I like how they developed the main protagonist and have given him a purpose: to be reunited with his family. And there's suspense built into that as we know more than he does and the fun is in the anticipation of what will happen and how he will react when he finds out what's going on with them. We shall see but so far the show's gotten off to a helluva start, IMO.

Jeff Allard said...

Yeah, Darabont is doing a fine job. I'm not a big fan yet but maybe I will be once it gets deeper into the season.

dogboy443 said...

So far the first episode has been a good adaption of the first issue of the comic book. There was some added pieces that helped flesh out the story, and one piece, the buddy-buddy speech, that should have been left out. If our survivors, once banded together, make it to the prison , then it just takes off from there.

Will Errickson said...

Haven't read the comic except for a few glances in the bookstore, but does it have that "cheat" in which we think Grimes is about to kill himself under the tank but then leaps inside it at the last moment? I dunno about that one. Otherwise I felt the premiere was pretty solid, although I was cringing through the opening monologue by Grimes's cop buddy. Oh well. I loved Morgan's breakdown when trying to kill his "wife." That's true horror, man. True horror.

Marty said...

I gotta say the pilot bored the heck out of me. To the point where I doubt I'll work too hard to watch subsequent episodes. The concept/execution is boringly familiar; the characterization is a bit lazy, and there's one too many 'convenient' narrative moments to scare me off its storytelling power.

I'm really surprised at the near-universal praise its receiving.

Jeff Allard said...

Yeah, I mean there's a level of quality to the show, clearly, but I agree that the gushing praise is unearned. As I said in the post, Romero has already covered this ground more than adequately. And based on what I've seen so far, a longform zombie story is just going to mean that there's more narrative contrivances to be found (like the "cheat" Will cited above where Rick finds his way into the tank).

Matt-suzaka said...

I agree that on a "zombie" level, there is a lot of familiar territory, but with as much zombie cinema as there has been over the years, that's not much of a surprise.

I do think the show's success is solely based off how well the characters become fleshed out, however, to expect to fall in love within the first few episodes is near impossible in my experience.

I would say almost all of my favorite TV shows are ones that took me up to a half season to finally get the right feel for the characters, and a lot of that has to do with making them complex and challenging to the viewer. If they were too easy to like, they would get boring very quick.

I'm really digging the show so far, but I do think that it should only improve as the world and the characters unravel and open up to us.

knobgobbler said...

I watched episode 2 last night and I'm still kind of hovering in my judgements...
I've heard/read a number of comments that it's 'nothing new'... just a well done zombies-by-numbers story so far... and so far that's true.
It sounds like the story in the comic doesn't really go anywhere... it's just a soap opera... with zombies. I'm guessing a lot of people will be fine with that if they get their weekly fix of action/violence... at least for a season or two.

Jeff Allard said...

Well, I caught up with episode 2 and I'm still not impressed. Aside from the novelty of seeing gore on basic cable, this is middle of the road stuff. Not bad, just uninspired and average.