It seems a bit odd that my three main objections to a graphic TV series about flesh-eating zombies is that it lacks realism, that its characters are hackneyed, and that it has too few flesh-eating zombies. After all, it’s hardly a genre most folks associate with realism or complex characters and not having zombies seems to miss the point. Our hopes were so high, but AMC’s The Walking Dead sadly does lack realism, falling into the usual horror film trap of forcing its characters to do stupid things for no better reason that it is necessary to propel the plot. If stupid were money, these characters would be George Soros.
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And the characters themselves are – in the classic critique offered by a thousand screenwriting teachers – less characters than caricatures. The first real redneck we meet is a racist loudmouth. As is the second. And the third is, so far at least, just a wife beater, though I expect he’ll end up hating black people too. This is no surprise. To people who write for the entertainment industry, if you live east of I-5 and south of the Mason-Dixon, you’ve got a sheet and a flammable cross in the back of your pick-up and you could someday grow up to be a revered Democratic senator.
Oh, and there’s not enough zombie action. Instead of flesh-eating terror, we get scenes of budding survival suffragettes complaining about having to do the laundry. Seriously. The little band of refugees can’t be bothered to set up the most basic security for the undefendable position they’ve chosen to occupy, but these walking, talking clichés have plenty of time to bicker about gender roles while scrubbing Dockers.
These chronic problems with characters and actions that do not ring true, mixed with lazy writing and an inexplicable decision to spend most of the each episode on discussions of feelings, means that after this six episode season ends, the viewers might not arise when the second season stumbles across the screen next year. What a waste.
Now, this criticism does not bring me any joy, because for as long as I remember I have had a weakness for zombie films. The only film that ever truly freaked me out me – besides Alien (1979) – was the original Night of the Living Dead (1968). I recall the immortal Bob Wilkins on the San Francisco Bay Area’s Channel 2’s Creature Features showing the uncut Night trailer in the mid-70’s (He later showed the entire film – unedited, because he was awesome and it was like 1:30 a.m. and no one decent was watching anyway). That thing scared the crap out of me – I didn’t feel such unadulterated terror again until ObamaCare passed.
Night is a great film – lean, mean (in fact, it is probably the bleakest film ever made) and utterly terrifying. Its crudeness is part of its charm, as is the fact that it was not made in shiny, fake Hollywood but in gritty, heartland Pennsylvania. Night did not (and does not) look or feel like anything else – despite the weird ghouls stumbling about, it had an air of realism (heightened by the use of TV commentators talking about the zombie plague) that made it that much more scary.
Now, in Night, director George Romero did the same things The Walking Dead is trying to do, except he did them right. This was probably just luck. Let’s be clear about one thing: George Romero is a hack whose movies have gotten steadily worse over the years. His latest films are literally unwatchable – Land of the Dead is one of the stupidest, most boring movies not starring Ashton Kutcher. Its follow-ups are, astonishingly, even worse. But in Night, his characters usually make intelligent choices, not that it helps. No, it’s not an Edward Albee living room character study, but the characters are at least drawn with a bit of subtlety (I like how the most obnoxious character is the one who has the best ideas for survival). And while there is plenty of character interaction, the zombies are never absent for extended periods while the survivors rehash Gloria Steinem-esque cultural battles from about four decades earlier.
The original Dawn of the Dead (1978) followed, with Romero moving his survivors into a mall. Again, his characters generally made good choices, like blocking the entrances and bringing lots of M16 ammo. The character work was not going to win any of the no-name stars Oscars, but unlike in The Walking Dead, they were not so obvious cardboard clichés that they practically wear signs reading descriptions like “Upright, Moralistic Cop,” “Spunky, Independent Woman” or “Evil Racist Who Probably Voted For Bush #3.”
Now, Romero did make political comments with his movies, though it is unclear whether he intended to do so or whether he just sort of nodded along when goatee-stroking pop culture course professors started pointing them out to bored sophomores seeking an easy elective “A” for watching movies all semester. Yes, the hero of Night is a black guy, and yeah (spoiler) the sheriff’s posse shoots him at the end – though it seems like they did so because he looked like a zombie instead of out of some arbitrary hatred of African-Americans that was so intense that the posse members felt the need to stop their battle for their survival in order to indulge it.
Dawn is supposed to be some sort of parody of consumerism. As such, it falls short. People like to buy stuff – if that’s Romero’s insight, it’s about as profound as a “COEXIST” bumperstickers or John Lennon’s “Imagine” – which is to say, not at all. But it’s a really good movie, once again probably by lucky accident. It is filmed with an almost documentary-level lack of finesse and a linoleum and pastel vibe that you had to live through the mid-70’s to really recognize and understand. The ordinariness of it – the JC Penney’s-style normality of the setting, combined with the uncertainty of that era and the appalling Technicolor violence – made it a truly modern American suburban monster movie. You couldn’t tell yourself that bad things only happened in Transylvania. The scary part was that this was Pennsylvania, this was the suburbs, this was us.
The 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake was slicker – hell, everything is slicker than the original Dawn – but director Zack Snyder also understood the need to have interesting characters doing smart things with plenty of zombies to break up the chatter. He also kept the gore and bleakness; only his running zombies raised questions among the aficionados.
In 2006, Max Brooks published World War Z, a fascinating “oral history” of a zombie apocalypse. Using the stories of individual characters, he covers the event from the micro level we had seen in movies (small bands of survivors) to the macro-level, discussing how governments deal with a huge, inexplicable threat to mankind’s survival. This was the part that was most interesting to me – on my military side, I have worked on catastrophic event planning and operations for two decades and his tome about man-eating cannibal corpses was the most insightful piece of fiction on how people and peoples react to enormous disasters I’ve read. He draws solid characters, who do smart (and dumb) things, and while there is a ham-fisted indictment of Dick Cheney in there (as if Dick Cheney wouldn’t have opened up a keg of zombie whoop-ass given the opportunity), it is a terrific book with serious insights.
So where has The Walking Dead gone wrong? The first wrong turn seems to be the idea the producers embraced of focusing almost solely on the people, not the zombies. No, no, no, no, no. The point of a zombie movie is how people react to the zombies. Yeah, they react to each other too, but that’s of distinctly lesser interest. No one cares about the stupid soap opera “I did your best friend but at the time I thought you were dead but you aren’t and now we gotta deal with this emotional baggage” crap. This isn’t a telenovela - stop exchanging sensitive looks and shoot some ghouls, damnit!
And have the characters take actions that are remotely intelligent. At least in Night the folks barricaded the doors – in The Walking Dead, the rag-tag fugitive flunkies gather on a wooded hilltop, vehicles scattered hither and tither, tents pitched here and there. Security consists of a fat guy with a deer rifle sitting on the roof of his RV in a lawn chair. You don’t have to have 20+ years in the Army to find this kind of cluster-flunk distracting.
Part of the fun of apocalyptic fiction is the “What would we do if this really happened?” factor. I’d probably, you know, find a defensible position with multiple exits and integrate the fighting positions should they get past my outer security. But apparently, the gang from The Walking Dead would allow the zombies to get close enough to overrun and eat them, if they didn’t die in crashes as everyone tried to turn their cars around to use the single exit route.
And yes, I am aware I’m talking about a zombie show. But I’m just not ready to include tactical insanity within the scope of my “suspension of disbelief.” I find it distracting.
I also find the fact that these people only have about five guns between them bizarre. The producers decided to center the show on the only group of people in the American South who can’t find guns. Hell, in Georgia most of the guns themselves own a couple guns.
But then the writers have some odd ideas about Southerners. The great, scary Michael Rooker plays one Southern guy – I don’t remember his name but it’s probably something like “Merle.” Guess what? He’s a redneck racist psycho who hates black people. Then there’s his brother – his name is “Darryl” or the like. Guess what he is – do I hear “a redneck racist psycho who hates black people?” And there’s another Southern guy who seems to hate everyone equally and who also beats up his Southern wife, who is played by someone channeling the silent, abused Alison Janney character in American Beauty.
In short, we get the full variety of Hollywood writer Southern folk stereotypes – both of them.
You can tell the heroes and heroines because they are handsome white men, or spunky/pretty women, or wisecracking minority sidekicks. Again, these writers are pushing that envelope…inward.
Oh, and only occasionally do we see a zombie, which I find strange, since zombies are kind of the reason there is a show. It’s like Twilight without shiny vampires. I guess I should be happy we haven’t been told that the zombie plague is somehow the result of a scheme by Halliburton, in conjunction with Bu$hitler, the Koch Brothers, Big Oil and the reverse vampires. But I can feel that coming.
Again, this does not make me happy to say. AMC has a solid track record with its shows. Frank Darabont, the creative force, is a talented director. People say good things about the source material, a popular comic book (save your “graphic novel” euphemism for your dork pals, Pointdexter). AMC is also allowing the kind of gross-out blood-letting we’ve come to expect. The Walking Dead should be cool, and I really want it to be cool. Come on, dudes, be cool!
But you can’t be cool and boring, or cool and stupid, or cool and annoying. We can only hope that in the last few shows of this season, and in the second season, they dump the clichés, smarten-up the characters, and start kicking some zombie asses instead of sitting on their own talking about their feelings. If not, someone might as well bust a cap in the noggin of this zombie show – a zombie show in both senses of the words.