Zombie films by their very nature are part of the larger post-apocalyptic genre in which a crisis threatens humanity with near-total destruction. Whether the story takes place at the early stages of a disaster (viral, natural), mid-stream, or a while afterwards, the focus is often on a small group of scarred humans trying to make sense of a disaster that decimated a city (Dawn of the Dead) or town’s (The Crazies) infrastructure, killed millions (28 Days Later), and obliterated enough traces of technical infrastructures (The Omega Man) and cultural history that whoever’s left roaming the Earth (Virus / Fukkatsu no hi) has to survive off crumbs from the old civilization, and create a new one (Daybreakers).
Zombie films are unique in that unlike a natural disaster, a viral or biological assault doesn’t change the physical landscape; it’s just the people that are affected. From a writer’s stance, it opens up the possibilities to create small stories when survivors eventually begin a journey of seeking answers, a search for others, and their need to travel offers up all kinds of adventures and horrors that make up the meat of a zombie tale.
The Walking Dead is a strange amalgam of literary and genre elements, plus filmmaker idiosyncrasies that in any film or TV marketplace would’ve remained undeveloped had the right combination of creative talent not been involved.
As it stands, Dead is post-apocalyptic zombie TV series with a massive humanistic component, and gore interludes zombie fans expect to see. Moreover, writer / director / producer Frank Darabont seems to have taken the dialogue style from his Stephen King film adaptations – The Mist (2007), The Green Mile (1999), and The Shawshank Redemption (1994) – and applied it to the characters from Robert Kirkman’s eponymous serial comic book.
There are parallels to King’s The Stand, turned into a mini-series in 1994: the world has gone to hell, a demonic force is redefining the pecking order of whatever humanity remains, and most of the conflicts stem from different factions of survivors engaging in power struggles, alliances, and search for loved ones.
The finales in The Stand and the Dead, though, are different. For one thing, because it’s a TV series, the Dead is still ongoing, but there’s also the quality of the dialogue: Darabont may be one of the few screenwriters able to evoke King’s character nuances without being hampered by the tin ear that often affects King’s own screenwriting efforts (of which the nadir may be Storm of the Century, which King adapted for TV in 1999, using repetitious phrases, and a kind of small town everyman speech used by no one on planet Earth.).
Perhaps the key reason Darabont bonded with Kirkman’s novel lies in the latter’s focus on how extreme horrors affect ordinary people. Whether Darabont simply expanded on Kirkman’s character moments; transferred the indulgences from his lengthy King adaptations; or mimicked the human interest vignettes with far-reaching conclusions pioneered so extravagantly in TV’s Lost, the formula works in the six episodes that comprise Season 1 of The Walking Dead.
It’s hard to say whether the series would’ve been different without all the rule-breaking done by Lost’s writers, but Dead is an anomaly because it unravels the way a good post-apocalyptic tale should: slowly, carefully, but with dramatically dynamic events that scar characters even further, or harden the determination of specific characters to push on and find a solution, ending a rag-tag life on the road, or passing through ramshackle environments where one or a few weary folks decide to settle down like pioneers.
Cable channel AMC also let the filmmakers make a pilot episode that flowed naturally, and wasn’t structured to end every seven minutes with a pre-ad break bang. Episode 1 was given a 90 mins. time slot, and although the remaining five episodes run just under 45 mins. with credits, the episodes themselves can be broken down into distinct narrative chapters: Character Intros, the Action Episode, Internecine Conflicts Revealed, Flight, and the Search for Answers on the Road.
When a major character among the survivors dies, the death becomes a moment of human interest instead of a gore sequence (even though the series’ gore is often spectacularly disgusting, courtesy of KNB Effects). After one character is bitten and dies, the episode stops cold to cover a relative’s bedside vigil, awaiting the cadaver’s sudden return to life as a zombie.
When another is in the process of dying from a lethal bite, it’s similarly covered as a private, anguishing experience. The character’s final request becomes a moment where even the group’s most violent redneck element feels sadness, and that reaction somewhat restores a bit of dignity to a group of people already hardened by kills and a pitched sense of self-preservation.
Darabont’s 70 min. pilot episode is slow – scenes could’ve been trimmed, if not the opening teaser involving a cop’s search for gas – but it establishes the series’ focal point on many intimate moments usually shorn or ignored by filmmakers because of running time issues in feature films, and the need to give shocks instead of having characters reflecting after a new lethal event.
Detractors of Lost generally found that series slow, weird, talky, and filled with far too many unresolved mysteries, and it’s likely The Walking Dead won’t impress that group either; Darabont’s series design is very measured, and he sets aside whole episodes for dialogue scenes usually compacted in a conventional TV series into a 5-10 mins. worth of scenes.
The survivors in Dead don’t travel far within six episodes, and the music score is incredibly sparse if not stealth, but Dead is a remarkable concept that manages to open up the zombie genre into something much broader and richer that the makers of 28 Days Later (2002) and particularly 28 Weeks Later (2007) failed to capture.
Anchor Bay’s Blu-ray set boasts crisp transfers of the episodes – four on Disc 1, the last two + extras on Disc 2 – and a great sound mix that often cheats us with quiet moments preceding a major shock.
The Georgia locations are amazing, and this may be the richest evocation of a post-apocalyptic world without phony CGI effects. There are digital enhancements, but Darabont and his team really milked the city’s architecture, be it vacated city blocks or old and abandoned buildings (such as a crumbling factory, or a central edifice from which trees are sprouting from windows and rooftops). The cinematography often consists of striking compositions, and many of the special effects are practical (including the disgusting flesh-tearing, or a riveting car roll that demolishes a classic muscle car).
Extras include multiple making-of featurettes, 4 minute making-of featurettes on each episode, zombie make-up tips, footage from a 2010 ComicCon convention panel in San Diego, and on set footage.
By adopting a conservative episode run for the first season, the filmmakers were able to plan out tight story threats and character arcs, but it’s going to be an excruciating wait until Season 2 begins in the fall of 2011…
Also available: an interview with composer Bear McCreary.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan