The Walking Dead, Season 1, Lookback

Zombies. Good lawd they are popular these days. So, how do you reinvigorate a tired genre?

I still remember the warm fuzzy feeling I got in 2010 when Marc Buxton told me that AMC, in a move of unprecedented brilliance, would be creating a television series based on Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s The Walking Dead. Like all die-hard fans of print material destined to undergo The Change, my hopes were extremely high. I could not believe they had commissioned a short, six episode season (which indicated that they were aware of the risks inherent in this undertaking) with an expansive budget. Hallelujah! This would allow the quality of each episode to be above par (a fact that was immediately apparent in the gorgeous cinematography), while the limited amount of overall show time would force the writers and actors to bring their A game. Very few networks understand the value of quality over quantity and AMC’s execution of the first season was beautifully done.They should have stuck to this formula. Sadly, it became immediately apparent in Season 2 that this was not a lesson the AMC executives quite grasped. The six episode run turned out to have been a mere toe they used to test the water; a reasonable risk considering the legions of fans already in place. The risks paid off and three seasons and three show runners later, AMC is trying to beat their zombie horse to death. What has the show devolved into? A beautifully shot and acted hour long Hyundai Tucson commercial.

But I digress.

We are here to consider the greatness that was TWD’s first season, which was one of the finest pieces of programming ever produced for television. Oh yes, I went there.

Zombies. Good lawd they are popular these days. The word used to conjure images of a putrid corpse that wouldn’t die, shambling hungrily after the living. The creature was once human, but its individuality has long since been stripped away. The undead have been reduced to two simple functions: to pursue and to consume. Like all monsters, zombies are manifestations of fear and depending on the cultural climate, that fear can take many shapes. In the past fifty years these narratives have focused primarily on consumption; zombies shamble around malls wearing ruined designer suits and are apt allegories for rampant first world consumerism.

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TWD is a mite different. Sure, there are zombies who inexplicably sit on city buses, congregate on suburban streets and get trapped in hospital cafeterias, but they are not particular to areas that represent extreme capitalism. Instead you get a little undead girl, clutching a scraggly, blood stained teddy bear while walking aimlessly around a highway clogged with empty cars.

A filmmaker once told me that it takes a brave director to literally show the death of a child on screen (instead of merely implying it). It doesn’t test well with audiences; parents don’t like to see that sort of thing. This is the type of imagery that makes the viewer uncomfortable, anxious and possibly even a little sick. The death of a child is an extreme emotional trigger; which is why Darabont did not shy away from showing it.

Viewer discomfort seems to be exactly what Darabont was after. Season 1 of TWD is not run of the mill horror, trying to make you jump from cheap thrills. Darabont set out to make his zombies both scary and deeply disturbing. No mean feat when you consider how anesthetized modern audiences have become after decades of Thriller reruns, zombie novels (World War Z), zombified classic novels (Pride, Prejudice and Zombies), comic books (Marvel Zombies), video games (Left for Dead), cartoons (The Simpsons), iPod apps (Plants vs. Zombies), charity drives (Zombie Walks), survivalist groups (Zombie Squad: We Make Dead Things Deader), modern art (Ezra Li Eismont) and apparel (virtually everything I just mentioned can be found on a t-shirt).

This begs the question: how do you reinvigorate a tired genre? By acknowledging and paying homage to the genre’s masters, by giving your characters heart and motivation and by transforming faceless monsters into sympathetic victims.

Of course Darabont’s little girl zombie is a nod to the man who put the undead on the pop culture map: George A. Romero. Who could forget when Karen Cooper ate her father in Night of the Living Dead? Thematically, Night is closer in message to TWD than Romero’s sequels. You can keep your allegories about shopping; a zombie child is ten times worse than the adult version. Congratulations viewer! The director has decided to kick you in the face with your own mortality. Test audiences be damned, wake up people! Do you honestly think death cares about age?

Speaking of zombie children, we never explained just what the heck is going on here. Why is this happening? It stands to reason that the audience would like to know why the world has ended. That’s just too bad. Darabont is even more sparing with exposition in TWD than Romero was in Night. Looking back, it might be easier to ask what hasn’t caused a zombie pandemic. Over the past eighty years outbreaks have occurred due to magic, religion, radiation, radiation from space, infectious disease, infectious disease spread from animal bite, infection spread by aliens and accidental exposure to agents created for biological warfare (to name a few). Within the construct of narrative, the cause of a zombie outbreak is every bit as revealing as the zombie itself. Both elements reflect the state of the cultural climate as conveyed through media; for example, critics have long since argued that Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) was a manifestation of the U.S.’s ideological fear of Communism.

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TWD is not about to give you the pleasure of easy answers and the cultural ties that have resulted in such a positive popular response to the series are for you to deduce (feel free to flame me in the comment section on this point). The only clues to what caused the apocalypse that Darabont gives us are visual. Season 1 is set amidst the ruins of Atlanta and its outlying counties in the immediate aftermath of the outbreak. Zero hour has already passed and whoever survived is now dealing with the consequences. Sure, there’s some implication that the condition is caused or transmitted by virus, but we will never know for sure. What a great source of anxiety for characters and viewers alike! Withholding as a thematic device is just as potent as the walking dead themselves.

Do you have any idea how difficult a technique this is to master? Remember Andy Kauffman’s rendition of the Mighty Mouse theme song? He used silence to accentuate a single repetitious line to beautiful effect. Own your silence; it forces your audience to use their imagination and fill in the gaps with their own worst fears.

Despite all of these storytelling risks, the show is a proven success; ratings gold.

Similar, although not identical to the comic series, TWD follows a group of post-apocalyptic survivors led by the ridiculously sexy Andrew Lincoln, who plays Sheriff Rick Grimes. His motley crew of morally ambiguous weirdos actually competes with the walkers for most interesting on-screen presence. What Darabont does with the zombies is positively jaw-dropping. There are actually three iterations of zombie: the ones closest to the camera have full wardrobe/makeup/prosthetics, the second tier back has less makeup and the background zombies are basically rumpled hobos they rounded up off the street (kidding, they are just extras in street clothes). The very first zombie to cross the screen is also the first one Rick (who has conveniently just awoken from a coma) encounters after he stumbles out of the wreckage of a deserted hospital. The zombie is a naked, desiccated woman lying on the side of the road, her body missing below the waist. This is a straight up monster. She looks like a monster, groans like a monster, tries to nibble Rick like a monster. Straight. Up. Monster.

Right? Hold that thought.

In the same episode we meet Morgan and his son, who appear to be the only survivors left in Rick’s old neighborhood. While everyone else was fleeing to Atlanta, Morgan’s wife got sick from, and eventually succumbed to, a zombie bite. She was too sick to move, so the family hunkered down. After she died, her husband couldn’t bring himself to put her down. Instead, he put her out of the house where she continued to wander around the neighborhood while slowly decaying in her night gown. As Morgan is explaining this to Rick, she comes right up onto the porch of the house they are hiding in and looks in the peephole. She bobs her head from side to side in a birdlike movement. Very animalistic and easily one of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen.

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On paper it seems cliché that she finds her way back to the house she died in, but she is not the only zombie following a pattern of behavior here and in the context of Darabont’s world it works perfectly.

Morgan’s wife, as a zombie, is relatable as a person and a victim. She still resembles the woman her husband knew and loved; albeit she is a bit more disheveled. After Rick leaves the neighborhood for Atlanta, in search of his own wife and son, he finishes out the episode looking for that first zombie by the side of the road. He finds her in a lush green park that is completely deserted. The half-lady is slowly dragging herself through the grass, strands of her guts trailing in her wake. She’s still a monster, but now Rick can see past that to the person she was before. He kneels beside her and says, “I’m sorry this happened to you.” Then he shoots her in the head, effectively killing her once and for all.

The whole thing is wrenching, but don’t worry, Darabont is not done gut punching us emotionally, not by a long shot.

Fun side note, if you watched the mini-episodes about the zombie outbreak as it happened, which AMC made available on the web, you might remember that before she was turned, the half- lady sacrificed herself to save her children. They were fleeing to the park, where they had heard the military was still actively rescuing survivors. The woman died, distracting a zombie hoard while her children ran to safety. It makes you wonder that Rick found her slowly crawling through the park. Did some spark in the zombie brain compel her to go where her children had been headed? Is it the same spark that kept Morgan’s wife returning to the same house?

The idea that Darabont’s zombies still retain some vestige of their human behavior is, well, really freaking horrifying.

I will admit that this review has spent an inordinate amount of time focusing on the zombies instead of the characters. As I mentioned earlier, that is part of the genius of Season 1 of TWD; the zombies are characters in their own right. An apocalyptic narrative is as much the story of the people who died as it is the story of the survivors.

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I found the zombies more sympathetic than the characters, whose behavior was often incredibly stupid. Much how I imagine my behavior would be in the same situation. Why Rick’s wife Lori decided to bang his best friend Shane is no mystery. Why she decided to do it in a zombie infested forest was so ridiculous that I found myself wishing a zombie would shamble up and bite one of them on the tush. TWD features a cast of characters who would feel right at home on the Island of Misfit Toys, meaning they came off as normal, authentic people. A diverse group of everyday folk who were thrown together under dire circumstances and who tend to act like jackasses out of fear and the desire for self preservation. They are sweaty and unwashed and hardly any of them are up to the task at hand: violence for the sake of survival.

Again, we can thank Darabont for this. He cast actors who understood that the roles called for real people, not glorified action heroes. They are untrustworthy, devious, earnest and loving in all the right places. Also, I would have liked to beat Lori to death with a stick. Her character, who continually makes bad decisions out of self interest is a wonderful foil to Rick, who is working himself into a mental health condition in an effort to save everybody.

But you can’t save everybody from the zombie apocalypse, Rick. Everyone has to die and when they do, they might even become zombies who are just as tragic and captivating as the shambling horde that came before them.

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