Let me start out by saying that I am fully aware of the extreme popularity of AMC’s new show THE WALKING DEAD. However, popular does not make it good. I will also say right up front here that I consider myself a huge zombie film fan. How did that happen? Well, it was probably seeing NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD in a theater by myself when I was only 9. It was on a double bill with THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK. I was traumatized and thrilled, all at the same time. Ever since, zombies, when done well, have scared the living crap out of me. And no one does zombies better than NIGHT director George Romero. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be done well by another. That’s why I had such high hopes for the Frank Darabont/Gale Anne Hurd-produced series THE WALKING DEAD.
About five years ago, a producer I was working with (not a particularly honorable fellow, but a lover of horror films) handed me the first two graphic novels in THE WALKING DEAD series. He knew I loved zombie films and he thought these graphic novels would make a great series. I read them and felt, ultimately, that the characters were too thin and the plot too, well, tired and simple to be of much interest to me. I found the idea of a zombie series exciting, but if we were going to do something like that, I couldn’t see starting out with such lightweight material. Not that it wasn’t entertaining on a certain level, it was, but it was never truly engaging. And it certainly wasn’t thought-provoking. And contrary to studio belief, a story needs to be both if it is to be successful on more than just a monetary level. And while I do love me some money, it is almost never my main motivator.
So I passed on pursuing that particular avenue. When I heard it was finally being made into a series and that Darabont was attached, I had seriously hoped that he would bring something special to it; elevate it beyond its graphic novel roots. But four episodes in, I have to say, while mildly entertained, I’m more disappointed than anything else. There was a time when this might have been hailed as “ground-breaking” TV, maybe even daring. But the bar has been raised so high by cable shows like THE WIRE and DEADWOOOD, THE SOPRANOS and AMC’s own MAD MEN that, by comparison, THE WALKING DEAD is almost rubbish.
“But it’s just a zombie show! It’s not supposed to be MAD MEN!” Wrong attitude. Was THE WIRE just another cop procedural? Was DEADWOOD just another western? THE SOPRANOS just another mob flick? No. So THE WALKING DEAD had a chance to be more than just another zombie film (or series, as the case may be). But it’s not. The writing is average, nothing memorable or revealing, nothing elevated beyond the depths of a CSI or COLD CASE episode. Not that those are terrible, mind you, they’re certainly entertaining, but they don’t strive to be anything more. Even George Romero, over 40 years ago, recognized that his subject matter was ripe material for social commentary. And just as importantly, he knew how to make his zombies scary, and that’s another area where THE WALKING DEAD fails miserably.
One of the things that always made Romero’s zombies so vastly unsettling and downright terrifying, was that we recognized them. If not on an individual basis, then as types. They were our neighbors, our teachers, our friends, our children, ourselves. Any random image of a zombie in a Romero film would strike a chord, reach inside and mess with some part of our collective psyches. The zombies in THE WALKING DEAD are defined by “this one has a hanging jaw, this one isn’t wearing a shirt, this one is crawling, this one is limping.” They are “effects” not characters; mere background, not players. The filmmakers here have failed to allow the zombies to be us. Even when our hero takes a moment to identify and honor the body of a walking dead member of society whose guts he’s about to smear all over himself, it’s an intellectual exercise, not an emotional or visceral one. We never see the face of this once-person. He represents nothing to us, the viewer. There’s only one moment so far in the entire series when a zombie is actually disturbing and scary, and that’s in the first episode when one character must face the fact that his wife, now turned zombie, is wandering around outside the house with some vague memory, some basic instinct, to return to the house where she had once stayed. But in THE WALKING DEAD, she’s one zombie in a thousand. The rest are extras in makeup, nothing more.
Ironically, while it’s the zombies that should be societal archetypes in THE WALKING DEAD, it’s our main characters that are written as such instead. The Hick. The Cop. The Wife. The Best Friend. The Old Man. The Racist. The Smart Kid. The Son. The Crazy Guy. Tired melodramatic scenarios borrowed from too many other series are used here with little originality or invention. Secondary characters given special attention during an episode’s opening teaser, will most certainly meet a gruesome demise by that same episode’s close. The plots are predictable, used. They lack inspiration. The action is borrowed and rehashed from other zombie genre entries, with the characters never for a moment attaining three dimensions. Even the teaser from the very first episode was lacking in surprise or meaning; it was an unnecessary moment that seemed to have more to do with trying to “shock” the audience instead of engage it. It was poorly executed, devoid of character, sorely out of place in the chronology of the storytelling and, sadly, set the tone for the rest of the episodes to come. It felt as if the filmmakers didn’t trust their own audience right out of the gate.
It’s unfortunate. I had sworn off watching new shows before they were complete and available on Blu-ray. I’m not a fan of the wait between episodes or, even worse, between seasons, a gap that has grown so wide I find it takes me half a season just to remember the previous! But THE WALKING DEAD lured me out of my self-induced exile from currently-running series. It will also, unfortunately, send me back.
I will watch the remaining episodes of the first season out of some vague hope that it might get better, and out of some misguided allegiance to the genre. I suppose that makes me a zombie of sorts myself. But now that the show has been picked up for a second season, it’s gonna take a lot more than good word of mouth to lure me back in. I’m looking, hoping, to find something to hang on to here. But so far, I’m just coming up empty.