The Walking Dead

Friday, December 2nd, 2011 Horrorthon Posts

I’ve been MIA all through the festivities this year because I’ve been very busy with a couple of things, but also because I’m just not really in the horror movie vibe right now (Sacrilege!). I’ve lurked and read a lot of the (great) reviews and I’ve been impressed with the quality and quantity of everybody’s output here, but as I see the little photographs of bloody faces, ghouls, knives etc. flow past day by day on the site I realize that I’m not really in the “horror movie” headspace right now.

But then I discovered The Walking Dead, just this week, and now, having watched the entire series in two days, I’m so excited about what I’ve seen that I wanted to come back here and mention it. (I understand there’s a blogger website created by enthusiastic and smart horror fans…) With one or two small niggling issues, I’m totally sold on the series and I have a couple of meager observations:

First of all, I’m not going to summarize or “critique” the various elements in Walking Dead, because, well, boring, right? I could go through the scenes, the performances, the excellent moments, the complex plotting, the various homages to the rich tradition of zombie stories. (I could even pull out little framegrabs and give them witty captions like “This guy’s had enough lunch” or whatever.) But there’s plenty of that kind of thing all over the web and I don’t think anybody needs me to talk about Lori’s character development or whether Rick made the right decision or whatever.

What’s vastly more interesting to me is the larger questions of horror storytelling. AMC (creators of Mad Men and Breaking Bad) (obviously) put Frank Darabont in charge of this, and really, what’s provided here is exactly the antidote to my “horror fatigue” that I was discussing above. The classic, vanilla “zombie apocalypse” that occurs here is not any different than any other ZA (including classic Romero but also Zombieland). Romero’s movies invented a storytelling format that’s been copied by everyone else (including the makers of 28 Days Later and other near-beer variations on the idea), but they also invented the ZA, which is pretty much a constant through all zombie stories (since zombies = zombie apocalypse, which has been demonstrated elsewhere on Horrorthon).

What’s different here is the post-Sopranos long-form cable-tv storytelling mode, and this is a seismic shift. Gangster movies were revolutionized by The Godfather, but even The Godfather is dwarfed by The Sopranos, which was the first example of what I’m calling a new kind of storytelling that isn’t really movies or television but has more to do with long-form novels or book series. The Walking Dead uses the Zombie Apocalypse as a setting for its story (not as the story itself), so that the Achilles’ Heel of horror—inferior characterizations and drama—is eliminated. It’s not that the writing/acting/directing is suddenly at Kubrick levels or anything like that: it’s simply the format itself that allows for something new that can’t be done on a movie screen.

I’m not knowledgeable enough about zombie lore to properly contextualize The Walking Dead against the backdrop of the dozens and dozens of zombie movies and comics and TV shows that are out there. Nevertheless, for me, this series was like the perfect antidote to “horror fatigue,” because that part of me that’s so damn tired of putting up with the chronic inadequacies of horror (bad characters, bad acting, feeble human story) was so invigorated and refreshed by this series. It took forty years to get from The Public Enemy (where James Cagney defined the movie gangster) to The Godfather (which finally brought novelistic depth to the idea); it took about the same amount of time to get from Romero’s prototypes and templates to The Walking Dead‘s far richer exploration of the idea.

So, sorry I missed Horrorthon this year, but (as I’m saying) I got a little burned out, and this wonderful AMC series was just what the doctor ordered. (Anyone who wants to talk at length about the series can meet me on the comment page.)