Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The Walking Dead

Last night I watched the premiere episode of AMC’s new show, “The Walking Dead,” (which I keep calling the Waking Dead... which totally still fits, right?) which had been advertised for the past few weeks through super-creepy trailers that aired during episodes of Mad Men. After seeing a few trailers – one that had a man in a hospital gown walking down the abandoned and destroyed hospital halls and seeing locked doors at the end with DON’T OPEN DEAD INSIDE written on them, I wasn’t sure I could watch this show. Horror movies and I don’t mix. I saw Carrie when I was far too young (a babysitter showed my brother and I the movie when he was 6 and I was 8) and when I was 12 I watched a ridiculous movie called Sleepaway Camp at a sleepover that gave me nightmares for a year. I mostly stayed away from horror movies (save anything by Stephen King, because those weren’t about gore but were about the psychological horror that fascinates me much more) until I saw The Ring a few years ago and was traumatized by it.

So yeah. I don’t like scary stuff that much. I think my husband likes it even less. But it was AMC... I was at least going to check it out. And WOW, am I glad I did.

This past season Mad Men has been firing on all cylinders and was my favourite thing to watch in the second half of the year. With The Walking Dead, AMC has officially surpassed Showtime to rival HBO in my opinion. And, now that I think about it, is rivalling HBO.

Now, first, I’ll just say I haven’t actually read the graphic novels it’s based on, so I can’t speak to its success as an adaptation. There were moments in there that reminded me of other literature – the graphic novel of 28 Days Later (obvs), Day of the Triffids, and Stephen King’s The Stand (that scene where Rick is going down the stairwell in utter darkness reminded me of the Lincoln Tunnel scene. I was CONVINCED he was going to step on something, or someone). But it still felt remarkably original to me.

Yes, this is a zombie show, and yes, there’s a lot of gore, but it’s not really about the zombies or escaping them as much as what something like that does to a person. There’s a lot of humanity in this show that I wasn’t expecting. I won’t go into details, so if you’ve seen it, you already know what happened, and if you haven’t seen it, PLEASE stop reading now, go watch it, and then come back.

There were two scenes that stuck with me in particular. The first is where the protagonist, Rick, is holed up in a house with a father and his son. Just when you begin to wonder, “Hey, where is the boy’s moth—” a woman with hollowed-out eyes, a dragging shuffle, and a dead stare slowly lumbers up the porch steps. The boy screams, and you know there’s an immense amount of pain in him – his mother didn’t just die: she’s still walking around, but would kill him in a heartbeat if she saw him. That rotting corpse once housed his mother’s soul, and now it’s brain-dead but deadly. Rick goes to the door, and she seems to see him through the eyehole in the door. He stares at her, and she stares right back at him, and begins to jiggle the door handle. It’s frightening, but sad on such a deep level, as the little boy buries his sobs into a pillow while his father rubs his son’s back and looks like he’s experiencing his own emotional agony. This scene found its sequel later in the episode when the father perches himself in an upstairs window, shooting the zombies in an effort to bring his wife to the street (the zombies will follow noises) and when he sees her, he sets her up in the rifle’s crosshairs, and she stops and stares at him with an utter lack of familiarity. He’s taped a picture of her – alive and beautiful – to the window frame in an effort to remind himself that that creature down below is not the vivacious mother of his child, but he still can’t bring himself to pull the trigger. He stops shooting and breaks down in tears, and she, bewildered, turns and slowly lumbers back to wherever she came from. It’s a heartbreaking moment.

And yet, there was another moment that moved me even more, and took me by surprise by just how much it moved me. When Rick first leaves the hospital after waking up to a zombie apocalypse, he finds a bicycle and a body of a person that had been ripped in half suddenly rolls over with a disgusting cracking noise (presumably her lower half had been devoured by zombies, who then abandoned the corpse but she came back to “life” as a zombie and now is only half a creature). The face is mostly gone and it appears to be a black and yellowing skull with some long, wispy blonde hair, and with a long, bony arm, it reaches out to him and growls as he grabs the bike. He jumps on the bike, horrified (this is the first zombie he’s seen) and races to his house. When he gets his wits back about him and cleans up and heads out of town, he first remembers that thing in the park that growled at him, so he returns to the scene and walks out into the park. Sure enough, a few hundred feet away, the half-creature is dragging itself along the ground with its arms, and he walks up behind it, not scared because it’s not like this thing can actually jump up and attack him in any way. He stands beside it, and the creature, sensing living flesh, stops and looks up at him in all its horrific goriness. Echoing the words of Jacob to Locke, Rick squats and looks at the creature that is now peering up at him and says, “I’m sorry this happened to you.” He cocks the gun, but hesitates for a moment, and in that moment the creature pathetically extends an arm to him. There’s this half-second where the viewer can’t help but feel immense sympathy for this thing. She was human once, she was perhaps quite beautiful, had a family and friends, and has been reduced to half a body, dragging itself through a field and slowly starving to death while rotting. Perhaps there is still a consciousness in there of some kind, and the extension of the arm was as much a plea as a menacing gesture. Either way, when he pulls the trigger, you feel relief – not for him and his safety, but that he put that poor creature out of its misery. I couldn’t believe the director had taken this disgusting thing and made me feel sorry for it. It was an absolutely brilliant television moment.

A friend of mine was excitedly telling me about the episode on Monday and saying he couldn’t wait for me to see it, and he said the only way a show like this will survive is if it’s not about zombies but transcends that. And I think that if Mad Men is a show that isn’t about advertising as much as it’s about the people who are trying to survive in a dog-eat-dog world, and The Sopranos wasn’t about the mafia but about a man’s personal demons, then this show can easily transcend the zombie genre if it keeps up this level of storytelling.

I’m interested to keep watching and learn some answers. When the protagonist, Rick, first woke up, I was actually thinking it was all a figment of his imagination, that what we were seeing were the fever-dreams of a man drifting in and out of consciousness. But the moment we saw the other group – Rick’s wife and son with his partner and some others – it moved the action away from Rick’s point of view and to a new one, so I don’t think that can be the case. So I can focus on the other questions raised in the episode: Will that man ever shoot his wife? (Will we ever see him again or was that a one-off appearance of the father and son?) Was Rick’s wife having an affair with his partner before the zombie apocalypse or did it happen after when they were thrown together in the midst of all of this? (Since it’s pretty damn harsh to leave your husband behind in all of that, I would think it was already happening when the two cops were chatting in the car.) What caused the zombie apocalypse in the first place? And how was Rick’s life spared when he was in the hospital? Who’s the guy on the other end of the radio at the end of the episode? How the hell is Rick gonna get out of THIS one?

Needless to say, I can’t wait for next week’s episode.


Doe said...

Thank you. The one question I kept thinking of is how did this guy not get attacked while in a coma?? And yes what started all of this. And who didn't see his partner being with Rick's wife coming? I am like you - not into gore. I've never watched all the Saw movies, the first was enough and I hear they get gorier. Those are the types of movies I don't watch. But I saw the previews and figured ok - we'll try zombies. I mean if they're willing to try me I should at least reciprocate. LOL. I, of course, watched it during the day though not at night before I go to bed. LOL. I also watched the Dead Set special on IFC which is also zombie based. My friend who loves gore said she couldn't believed I watched it (again not at night :o) as she thought that was gory. I guess I can handle zombies (for now) and will be sticking with the show. It was pretty darn good and tastes like chicken. :o)

Page48 said...

I find it hard to resist shows like this, whether it's any of the body snatcher movies (including the recent "The Invasion", "I Am Legend", or a show like BBC's "Survivors" or, as you mentioned, "Day of the Triffids".

It's not blood and guts that makes them fascinating to me, but the way it uproots people living comfortable lives and places them squarely in the path of a sudden and horrifying death. Jobs are gone, family takes on a new meaning, and people bond to complete strangers when they understand that they are going to have to depend on each other for food, shelter, and personal safety. On the surface, it seems to be the perfect solution to a boring, predictable life.

It's always good to see Lennie James, too. I'm still a little bummed about "Jericho".

Anonymous said...

Rather off topic of this show... but you should think about doing a topic on the shows you're watching this season! Wouldn't have to be anything detailed- it could just be a list if you didn't want to elaborate. I'm really curious what you're watching these days!

Batcabbage said...

I watched this just out of curiosity. Being a huge comic geek (and totally proud of it), I had heard of this comic, but never picked it up. I am now going to be picking up all the trade paperbacks. I loved this premiere. Nik, I actually meant to ask you the other day whether you'd caught it, because as Batkitty and I were watching, we both said 'I think Nik would dig this.' So glad you did. It's funny you should mention the Stand and that going downstairs in the dark scene, because as he was losing his match, I said to Batkitty (creepy growly voice) 'Come down and eat chicken with me, beautiful!' She just looked at me like I was a naughty and exasperating child and replied 'I'm a vegetarian, you dickhead.' I'll have to get her to read the Stand one day. :)

Great post, Nik, and please, keep them up on this one! I'm really interested on how this one could go, and I'm interested in your take on it.

Anonymous said...

I believe the father and son appear again in the comics quite far down the line so if we get a few seasons we may get to see them again.

Ashlie Hawkins said...

We just read the first volume of Walking Dead for my graphic novel group and it was amazing. I can't wait to read more, and I'm so glad that the show is so great!

yourblindspot said...

Having read the books (which are terrific, by the way, harsh and rich and compulsively readable), I've been practically foaming at the mouth to see this show for months now, so much so that I almost scheduled a day off work when they held an open casting call for zombies back in May (I live about an hour's drive north of Atlanta). I certainly wasn't disappointed by the results, either -- the premiere was really strong, I thought, and held remarkably true to the comic's notion of a very grounded, character-driven take on a great narrative conceit that is too often wasted in schlock. I can't wait to see what they keep from the source material and where they strike out on their own, because things get pretty ugly pretty quickly in the books. At any rate, with numbers like they earned Sunday (ratings even higher than Boardwalk Empire's premiere), I'd imagine a full-season order is just a formality at this point.

Nikki Stafford said...

Batcabbage: Your comment just made me laugh out loud. Hahaha!!! And yes, I hope to post on it periodically.

Anonymous #1: Thanks for asking! I've been meaning FOR WEEKS to write up some roundup of what I've watched, what I thought about it, and what I'm still watching. But it's getting longer and longer and might end up a series of posts. Now I just need to get my butt in gear and actually do it.

ashlie: So jealous you have a graphic novel reading group. ;)

yourblindspot: Oh man, I would have LOVED to see you as a zombie extra on this!! ;) How many episodes have they filmed, do you know? I always assume with cable shows that they've got the entire season in the can before the first ep airs, and so I always go in assuming I'm watching the full season and it's not like a network show. It would be interesting to see how that actually works in cable. ;)

Ambivalentman said...

Great stuff, Nik, as always.

The premiere didn't disappoint me at all, being a huge fan of horror fiction. It was exciting, tense, and full of strong emotion. The scene with the zombie torso at the end, as you pointed out, was incredibly well-shot and edited to great effect.

I imagine what we'll get with this show is a combination of horror-carnage -- like the devouring of the horse at the end -- and the softer character moments. Like you, I'm hoping the horror serves as a foil for what's happening in the lives of the characters. Zombies are often a metaphor for conformist mobs, contrasted against a group of individualistic survivors trying to learn how to work together. I'm hoping that while the show will take a similar path, that it will distinguish itself quickly.

In a lot of ways, "The Walking Dead" is similar to "Boardwalk Empire" in that we've seen this sort of thing before, and it's up to the producers/writers to make it new to us. Alan Sepinwall pointed out that in this week's episode of "Empire" that the show got its first iconic character in Richard, the half-face veteran that befriends Jimmy. I thought that was a great observation, and it seems to fit with "Dead" too. Will there be a character soon that we haven't seen before, that could only belong in this world. Right now, the show is an amazing mix of zombie mayhem, great atmosphere, and subtle characterization. Is that enough to sustain it without those go-to characters, like Ben Linus, Spike, or Omar?

I'm excited to find out.

Austin Gorton said...

I'm glad you're watching this Nikki! I love a good zombie story but I wouldn't call myself an aficionado of the genre, but I'm willing to give most comic book adaptations a shot (even if I haven't actually read the comics, as in this case) plus, you know, it was on Halloween.

I'm glad I did, cuz I really enjoyed it.

that scene where Rick is going down the stairwell in utter darkness reminded me of the Lincoln Tunnel scene.

Me too! And, in hindsight (because at the time I was riveted) I thought it was wonderfully bold that in the end, nothing happened. The darkness, the unknown, was frightening, not a zombie or dead body or something. What a great subversion of expectations, and using that subversion to create suspense.

It was arguably the scariest scene in the premiere. And what happened? Absolutely nothing. Brilliant.

And how was Rick’s life spared when he was in the hospital?

My wife pointed out that Rick had to move a gurney away from his door after he woke up, so theoretically, that door blocked off his door and the zombies just kept shuffling past as the plague broke out.

Anonymous said...

Did anybody else notice that it was Norman Reedus's voice on the radio at the end of the episode.

yourblindspot said...

Nikki: As I understand it, this first season is just six episodes, with subsequent seasons to be a more standard cable order of 13 each. I'd imagine next season would start filming sometime after the first of the year.

State tax incentives have bolstered Georgia's film industry quite a lot in recent years, and there are rarely fewer than 8 or 10 different productions shooting in and around town. In particular, the television shows are great for the economy simply by virtue of their longer shooting schedules, and it's wonderful to add something as cool and high-profile as 'The Walking Dead' to a list that currently includes Chrissy's beloved 'Vampire Diaries,' Lifetime's 'Drop Dead Diva' and MTV's new episodic reboot of the 'Teen Wolf' franchise, none of which generate much excitement for me.

Batcabbage said...

Bought the first two volumes of the graphic novel yesterday, and I'm about to finish the second one. Everyone who hasn't read this, GO BUY THEM NOW! They are brilliant. I can't believe I've never read them before (which is also a good thing, because I get to read them all for the first time. Don't you love that feeling? I DO!) Go get em now!

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Jonathan said...

AMC has already signed on for a second season, which is good to hear.

E.B. said...

Nikki, I'm also hooked on this Dead show. I am terrified of horror movies but have watched my share over the years because my husband and my mom are fans. (I too was DISTURBED by the Ring) This show seems to have all the good qualities you outlined, and so far, I'm hooked.

Always a pleasure to read your thoughts.