I was on Book 5 of Robert Kirkman’s peerless graphic novel saga. It was February: cold, uniformly gray, the kind of weather that encourages solitary drinking. I could have used a pick-me-up, but Kirkman’s zombie apocalypse was so relentlessly bleak that I’d slump into a funk for days after finishing a book.
I was skeptical about AMC’s plans to turn Walking Dead into a TV show, as I am skeptical of all such conversions; plus, the world is much wearier for zombie shtick now than it was when Kirkman’s illustrated opus debuted in 2004.
I wasn’t prepared to like Walking Dead. I wasn’t even prepared to watch it; I just ran out of post ideas.
Zombie fatigue or no, I’m very glad I did.
First off, make no mistake: we are extremely fucking zombie-fatigued. The genre seems ot have mutated into a movement, straddling mediums and metastasizing from pulpy fun to social commentary to parody and finally self-parody. When we’re playing a humdrum shooter called I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES!!!1, we’ve gone too far.
Walking Dead not only had to prove its worth, but set itself apart. I’m shocked by the ease with which it does both.
Many reviewers have already remarked that Walking Dead feels more like a movie than a TV show. I chalk this up to the pacing, which has the deliberate slowness of indie cinema, and the quality, which is remarkable even in the age of Mad Men (also, notably, an AMC show). The steady and efficient camerawork lets the viewer focus on the horror befalling Walking Dead’s very human characters.
Andrew Lincoln (you might remember him from Love, Actually, which I totally don’t (yes I do)) plays Rick Grimes, a deputy sheriff in an Atlanta suburb. He’s a good guy, pretty much – things aren’t great with the wife, and it takes two to wreck a relationship. We get the sense that he’s a bit of a workaholic. He relates his lady problems to his jockish partner, Shane (Jon Bernthal), with tight-lipped stoicism.
We meet Grimes scavenging for gasoline in the cold open, which turns exceptionally cold when Grimes is forced to level his revolver at a zombified little girl. She shuffles towards him in a vacuum of background noise – no creepy violins, no creepy piano, just the sound of bare feet shuffling across asphalt. I jumped when he blew the back of her head open.
When I say “zombie,” I do so only because it’s convenient. While tiresome genre fanatics like to break the undead down by genus – the runners, walkers, shamblers, whatever – what Walking Dead gives us aren’t zombies, really, but victims of a disease. As explained by Morgan, a man holed up in Rick’s neighborhood, victims are consumed by fever, die, and rise soon after to stagger across streets, through backyards and so forth. Some keep echoes of their former selves; Morgan’s wife, for instance, will jigger the door handle of her once-home while her son, Duane, sits petrified.
I’ve never felt pity for zombies – most flicks are happy to let you revel in the bloodshed unencumbered by the gravity of horror. Walking Dead’s zombies are victims, not monsters. Once he raids the police department for guns and ammo, Grimes tracks down a zombie he passed earlier, a ragged torso that can only drag her yellowed femurs along the grass. Grimes tracks her through a park, finds her, and kneels, contemplating the corpse feebly trying to eat him.
“I’m sorry this happened to you,” he says, before blowing out the back of its skull.
Meanwhile, Morgan is perched in the second story of his home with a scoped rifle, trying to mercy-kill his wife. He holds her face in the crosshairs – she’s still in good condition, seeming more confused than undead – but can’t bring himself to pull the trigger. He breaks down into despairing sobs.
Clearly, Walking Dead hasn’t brightened itself up for the general public. It’s a grim show, and rest assured: it will get grimmer. There a few bright moments for Grimes down the road, but trust me: bleak times are ahead for Grimes as he heads to Atlanta in search of his wife and child. But I’ll be there. Walking Dead is sophisticated, serious and far better than scary – it’s horrifying. Look for it at the next Emmys. It’ll be the one snatching statues from Mad Men.