Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The gentrification of the living dead

I was expecting to enjoy Sunday night's premiere of The Walking Dead on AMC; I was expecting to be impressed. I wasn't quite expecting to be as blown away as I was.

Seriously: based on the first episode, this is a very good show. It hits all the sweet spots: it is beautifully shot, extremely well acted, and—above all—well written. In fact (as far as last night's episode is concerned, at any rate) it far exceeds the source material. I realize this assertion will be seen as heretical by the comic book / graphic novel crowd, given that Robert Kirkman's Walking Dead series inspires nigh-fanatical reverence. Having read the first volume of the series, I must confess to be less than impressed with it: it is good, but often somewhat simplistic and heavy-handed in its storytelling, and crams in way too much exposition. The premise is solid, as it is concerned principally with the psychological state of a besieged collection of survivors as they travel a post-apocalyptic landscape in search of safe haven. The serial nature of the ongoing story allows for a much greater exploration of the characters than a film typically does, though I found many of the various conflicts, and the characters involved in them, to be overwrought and melodramatic, and frequently rather contrived.

What's good about the AMC adaptation (among other things) is that it pares away a lot of the graphic novel's narrative clutter, and settles itself into a comfortable, unrushed pacing. The first episode, "Days Gone By," ran for ninety minutes and did not hurry the story at all (anyone whose preference in the zombie genre is a lot of action and frequent scares, this is not for you). It opens with a kinetic car chase and gunfight, in which deputy sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) gets shot. Then, in what feels like a nod to the opening of 28 Days Later, Rick wakes up in a deserted hospital after an indeterminate time spent in a coma. The world without has ended, and he walks around in shock, past bodies stacked like cordwood in the hospital parking lot. His first encounter with the living dead are as pale, dessicated fingers pushing through the cracks in a chained and barred hospital door daubed with the warning "DON'T OPEN DEAD INSIDE." He flees down a pitch dark stairwell, lighting his way with matches in a sequence that—in spite of the fact that nothing happens—is easily the scariest part of the first episode. He then finds his way out into the parking lot and past the stacked dead.

I won't rehash the episode; suffice to say the writers are smart enough to let the story tell itself and not burden us with excessive exposition. Though they follow the source material fairly closely, where they do take liberties is telling—they bring a nuance and depth to the characters that is lacking in the graphic novels, which is heartening, for it bodes well for how the series will progress. As mentioned, the story is character-driven, essentially acting like a thought experiment in survivor psychology. The zombies are actually incidental, to a large extent—they could be substituted for almost any other post-apocalyptic scenario, and so neither Kirkman in the original or the writers in this adaptation seem inclined to do anything funky with them or trope them specifically one way or another. The living dead are very much in the George A. Romero mode, slow-moving and not especially dangerous alone, but terrifying and inexorable in large groups. The series is going to do what high-end television from AMC and HBO does best: tell stories that unfold at their own pace, are not formulaic, and attract actors serious about their craft. Andrew Lincoln, who plays Rick, joins the ranks of British actors who put on American accents in such series (think of Dominic West and Idris Elba on The Wire, Ian McShane in Deadwood, Damian Lewis in Band of Brothers, Jamie Bamber in BSG, and of course the inimitable Hugh Laurie in House); I couldn't at first place where I knew him from, until someone reminded me that he was that guy in Love, Actually who made thousands of women swoon en masse with his cue-card declaration of love for Keira Knightly. And now he's wearing a southern accent and a stoic set to his jaw and killing the walking dead. Acting must be an interesting profession ...

What most impressed me about the premiere were the production values: AMC is sinking a lot of money into this series, and it shows. It was shot on sixteen-millimetre film, and they have veteran Oscar nominated director Frank Darabont producing. He directed the premiere, but doesn't seem to be slated to direct any of the other six episodes of season one—so I will be interested to see what the coming episodes look like, and whether there is a dip in quality. But for the record, episode one looked amazing. It was truly beautiful to watch, and had the kind of sequences you could easily teach in an intro to film class: the aforementioned hospital scenes, the dark stairwell, the horrifying parking lot littered with the dead, the car crash and gunfight that puts Rick Grimes in the hospital ... but perhaps most stunning is the sequence—shown in the trailers, and used in the advertising—in which Rick rides a horse into an apparently deserted and destroyed Atlanta.

Given that Darabont has made something of a career adapting Stephen King to film (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, The Mist) he seems quite well suited to helming such a macabre project. He has shown a talent not just for the scary and uncanny, but teasing out a nuanced understanding of how the scary and uncanny can warp and deform the human psyche.

Darabont's involvement also speaks to a larger issue with which I'm intrigued. My own preoccupation with zombies has been well documented on this blog (and I do promise one day to return to my Newfoundland zombie screenplay), but my recent presentation at the 2010 conference of the Canadian Association for American Studies was my first foray into an academic treatment of the living dead. One of the things attracting me to this is the critical mass of zombies in popular culture; and with a degree of saturation that suggests we'll soon be reaching genre burnout, the living dead have also partially emerged from the B-movie ghetto with a number of high-profile glossy films, as well as such accomplished treatments like 28 Days Later.

But in a twist that cultural critics probably wouldn't have predicted even ten years ago, it is the shift to television that is the hallmark of respectability. AMC has been carefully setting itself up as a rival to HBO, but because it lacks the same resources, it has had to very careful in its choices of original programming—and so far, it has not made a misstep. Mad Men, especially after this past season, is easily one of the best shows currently on the air (and a particular victory for AMC, as HBO passed on it); Breaking Bad I have not yet watched, but have never heard anything but glowing reviews of it; and likewise for Rubicon, which as a complex conspiracy thriller is something I should be watching, but there are only so many hours in the day.

With The Walking Dead, AMC is officially batting one thousand. I may be speaking too soon, but I doubt it—as long as the care that went into the premiere remains more or less consistent, the series promises to be really good.


Nancy Crozier said...

I agree with you about the premiere...what do you think of subsequent episodes?

Chris in NF said...

I haven't been as impressed with the subsequent episodes, but have been enjoying the series. There have been a few plot holes you could drive a truck through, but the show redeems itself with some amazing moments. Finding Merle's hand on the roof, the attack on the encampment, the final shot of the most recent ep when the door to the CDC opens ... Apparently Darabont has fired the writing staff and hired all new people for season two, so it will be interesting to see what happens.