If there is one thing I am more tired of than vampire stories, it would be zombie stories. In both cases, I feel that every story about the undead has been told. They all tell the exact same story. In each case, in the zombie films, the world is essentially ending. I suppose that would be the case if all of the dead came back to life and started eating the living, but it is the same exact story. In each case the story is set in some post-apocalyptic setting. In each case you have dozens and dozens of actors made up to look dead and in various states of decay. In each case, a sharp blow or shot to the head is the only way to stop the zombies.
Essentially, the stories have all been told. Very few of the stories have ever been as good as George A. Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead. In that movie, slow, shambling zombies attack people trapped inside a house. It is, and was, terrifying beyond all measure. The scenes of the zombies eating human flesh still manage to disturb even if you know it was just ham covered with chocolate sauce.
So, it wasn’t with much enthusiasm that I was waiting for the new AMC television series The Walking Dead. When I first saw the commercials I despaired the absence of Mad Men. I did not want an entire, weekly series based on the idea that the world was coming to an end and taken over by zombies. Yes, there would be a few ragtag survivors roaming about. However, hadn’t we seen it before? Hadn’t we seen it done seriously in endless movies? Hadn’t we seen it done a comedic tone in movies like Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland?
However, the advanced word about the series was that it was pretty good. In fact, it was getting such good buzz that I decided I would have to check this thing out. While I was correct in that the basic premise of the show is unoriginal (in fact, outright stolen) the writing, filming and characters manage to find new depth and inspiration. This is a powerful story that, I think, benefits from the longer format afforded by a television series. It allows us to explore things more deeply and ponder things more carefully.
The television show is based on a comic book. It opens with the story of a sheriff’s deputy named Rick Grimes. We see him doing his job along with his partner. He ends up shot and then he ends up in the hospital. He falls unconscious and when he awakens, the world is not as he left it.
Of course, this is the same plot device that was used in the movie 28 Days Later. Still, this show manages to find a way to make it even more creepy. The hospital is a true nightmare and Grimes doesn’t actually see his first zombie until he is outside the hospital and as he steals a bicycle. Then, the zombie we see is only half a person, disturbing, scary and vile.
Before long we meet others. Grimes is confused and running around in a hospital gown and not much else. Nothing makes sense. Then he meets a father and son who are hiding out in a house. The man’s wife died of a severe fever so hot that you could feel the heat radiating off of her like a radiator. Of course, she then came back as a mindless, flesh-eating zombie. What is more nightmarish is that she keeps coming back to the home where they are holed up and trying to get into the door.
The world of the zombies is pretty standard fare here. They shamble more than they run. They are attracted by noise, such as that of a gun. If you get bitten by one, you will get the fever and die and then return as a zombie. They all die if you strike them in the head or shoot them in the head.
Where The Walking Dead manages to find and cover new ground is when they allow themselves to explore what these characters are and their inner selves. These survivors are not just standard people out of a horror film. The writers have attempted to make them real people trying to survive in a real, albeit horrifying, world.
There is a powerful scene where, after he has gone back to the sheriff’s office, Grimes gets loaded up with his guns and his uniform. He hands the father a rifle with a telescopic site. He then sets off on his own to track down the half-zombie he saw the previous day. He does and he ponders the sad, gross, disturbing site of a woman pulling herself forward on her elbows. The zombie is mindless, grotesque and hideous, but he pities it. He tells her, “I am very sorry that this happened to you.” Then he shoots her through the head and ends her misery. It is horrific, yes, but also strangely touching.
Then there are the father and son. They are still grieving the fact that they have lost a wife and mother. When the father tests out his telescopic rifle and ends up with his own wife, mindless, eyes wide and shambling, and tries to pull the trigger, it is heartbreaking. Could you do it? Could you shoot the woman you fathered a child with and loved?
The show manages to entertain and provide heavy doses of gore and horror. This is not a pretty show by any means. However, it does continue AMC’s recent spate of excellent original programming. The fact that AMC has managed to conjure up a variety of shows in a variety of genres that are all excellent is remarkable. They are to be applauded.