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.