TV review: AMC's 'Walking Dead' feeds our zombie love alive

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 31, 2010; E01

Early this week, on the same morning that the Lincoln Memorial was briefly visited by a couple dozen zombies who were there to promote AMC's irresistibly gross but curiously lifeless new Sunday night series, "The Walking Dead," the Internet was abuzz with yet another viral video clip.

In this one, it appears that a lefty activist is being dragged, pushed and stepped on by supporters of Rand Paul at an Oct. 25 candidate debate for the Kentucky Senate race.

The clip has a zombie-movie feel to it, and not just because I had the first three episodes of "The Walking Dead" knocking around in my brain. It was something about the way that the Paul crowd paws and pulls at the activist and then forces her to the ground. One man then appears to try to stomp on her head and neck. After it was over, the would-be protester, Lauren Valle, told the TV news crew she was shaken and sore, but fine.

Still, she had that freaked-out, wary look in her eyes.

* * *

Slowly, as is their wont, the undead have shuffled across the vastness of Western culture, and then shuffled all the way back again. Set loose by West African and Caribbean voodoo traditions and later revivified as a Cold War-era, counterculture metaphor by George Romero's campy "Night of the Living Dead" in 1968, zombies have proven themselves immune to the whims of monster trends and fads.

"They're coming to get you, Bah-bara," taunted horn-rimmed Johnny in the cemetery. "There's one now."

There, wandering among the headstones in his tattered funeral suit. Then more. Then too many of them. Then pandemonium, apocalypse, the end of everything.

Barbara, they are still coming. So much of our collective culture feels zombified in 2010. We move in packs, everywhere, lured by the slightest hint of political outrage or ironic comedy or something disgusting and weird to click on and watch. A lot of times it's literally about zombies. We have become zombies who watch stuff about zombies.

Twenty-three million of us clicked on a YouTube video to see Michael Jackson's "Thriller" re-created in Filipino prison yards ; and you can sometimes see the same putrifried dance, on a much smaller scale, at Class of '85 reunions, where most everyone looks . . . terrifying. There's Jane Austen's Elizabeth Bennet with decomposed flesh falling off her chin on the cover of the best-selling "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies." There's always a Facebook invite to yet another event where people dress up as zombies and slowly amble along the streets or shopping plazas.

Just look around at all the zombies. Everywhere. Mobs lined up outside the Apple Store, groaning with the desire to devour Steve Jobs's braiiiin. The moans coming from town hall meetings and campaign stops; the stench left in the "comments" field of online articles; the shrieks and cries coming from cable news networks.

Look at how many thousands of people will shuffle in whatever direction Jon Stewart and Glenn Beck tell them to go, lured there by the scent of fresh meat and moldy whiffs of constitutional parchment. Imagine the founding fathers, up out of the soil that contained them, wormy and squirmy, watching the Don't-Tread-on-Me crowd march by and stomp on dissenters. Join the crowd? Or eat them?

* * *

True encounter: On the morning before Beck's August rally, I walked down my front steps, iPod earbuds blaring, and saw an older woman with a rolling suitcase waving strangely, beckoning me from across the street. She grumbled something about being lost. She was in a neighborhood that one Web site had cautioned Beck's followers to stay away from while they were visiting Washington. The map on that Web site had attracted much derision from those of us who actually live quite nicely in D.C.'s supposed danger zones.

She wanted directions. I approached her warily, the way I do all zombies at first.

Then I realized how she saw me: dark clothing, Ray-Bans, permanent frown -- an East Coast zombie with his own fixed ideas and corpulent stink. We should have mauled each other, just on principle.

Look around some more.

The bug extermination ads on TV that implore you to bunker yourself in and "protect what's yours." The way people move down the street dazed by texting, unaware of their surroundings, bumping into everything. The way teenagers look at you when you talk to them, eyeballs rolling up into their sockets. The glassy stares and donutty drool in office staff meetings, when conversation turns to an Internet marketing strategy. The faces of the people (people?) driving the cars in the lanes next to yours during the nightly crawl up I-270.

The opening of 2004's "Shaun of the Dead" captured this spookiness brilliantly in its opening moments, as Shaun, who works at an electronics store, begins to notice a cadaverous quality to the other passengers on his daily bus ride, while an early-'80s dirge called "Ghost Town" (by the ska band the Specials) plays in the background:

This place is coming like a ghost town.

No job to be found in this country.

Can't go on no more,

The people getting angry . . .

* * *

Now shuffles forth AMC's "The Walking Dead," which is based on an award-winning graphic novel series begun in 2003. The TV series, written and directed by Frank Darabont ("The Shawshank Redemption"), has been lavished with the thoughtful, grown-up touches that AMC, home of "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad," holds dear.

Which makes it surprising to discover that the initial episodes of "The Walking Dead" aren't in any way surprising. There is plenty of bloody viscera, goo and gore in the first three episodes, which will make for a delightful accompaniment to the premium Halloween candy you've hidden from the kids. (It should go without saying that you should hide this show from them, too, unless you enjoy nightmare patrol.)

For all the fun and attention to makeup, something about these particular zombies fails to truly terrify. In its first two episodes, "The Walking Dead" feels constrained by the strict canonical laws that govern all zombie storytelling, as if following some assembly kit for tales of the undead. Much of "The Walking Dead" may seem like old hat to anyone who has seen more than one zombie flick; I'm not yet convinced that the show rises to some of the best and more recent zombie movies, including "Shaun of the Dead," "28 Days Later" and "Zombieland." Is it possible that we're zombied out, and now inured to the concept?

This story begins in far exurban Atlanta, where sheriff's deputy Rick Grimes (a compelling lead performance by lanky Andrew Lincoln) is wounded after a shootout. Comatose for an undetermined amount of time, Rick wakes up in an abandoned hospital, unsure if the strewn debris and smeared blood in the hallways is part of a bad dream or not. (For some, the waking-from-coma scenes may hew a little too closely to the plot of "28 Days Later," but that film and "The Walking Dead" comic book came out too close to one another to fully support accusations of ripoff. Anyhow, all zombie movies are ripping off Romero, in one way or another.)

As he learns about the extent of what's happened, Rick suits up in his deputy's uniform, arms himself with rifles and ammo, and sets off alone for Atlanta on horseback, trotting across deserted towns and freeways, convinced that his wife (Sarah Wayne Callies) and son have sought refuge at the Centers for Disease Control.

Here, "The Walking Dead" at least does a lovely job of imagining a ruined but tranquil land, which for me is the real draw to zombie films: Who are we once you take away the safety and security of total convenience? Once money is worthless and the laws of race and status no longer apply? Who has the skills to escape and find resources and live anew?

Better than nuclear annihilation, alien invasion or even Cormac McCarthy's depressing post-everything visions in "The Road," a good zombie story enthralls us with the fantasy of a complete reordering of civilization. With everyone "dead," there's a lot left over for you; the only hitch is that you're also a potential dinner.

In these contentious, cranky times, I don't think it's an accident that American audiences are repeatedly and perhaps subliminally drawn to this against-all-odds story of the few of us versus all of them. All politics are local -- and zombie.

* * *

In downtown Atlanta, Rick's poor horsey quickly becomes a Thanksgiving feast for a crowd of "geeks," as "The Walking Dead's" cast refers to them. Rick is narrowly rescued by Glenn (Steven Yeun), who is part of a band of survivors on a mission to gather supplies downtown and then return to their safe camp in the forested hills outside the city.

Rick's fellow humans fill him in on this strange new horror, and here is where those zombie ground rules dictate the plot: Shuffler or sprinter zombie? (Shufflers.)

How to kill them? A blow to the brain, of course.

What about matters of spatter? You can get their fluid on you but not in you. (The exposition in zombie films is sometimes like reading the posters in an HIV clinic.)

When Rick joins the group, "The Walking Dead" takes on familiar -- and frankly "Lost"-like -- duties of ensemble drama, a microcosm-America fraught with racist acrimonies, criminal behavior and secret love affairs. Gender is presented as the real bugaboo, as the men in the camp appoint themselves as chief decision makers. "Can someone explain to me how the women wound up doing all the Hattie McDaniel work?" a woman asks her fellow sister survivors, as they laboriously wash clothes in the river under the watchful eye of another woman's abusive husband.

"The Walking Dead" prefers the regressive, "Lord of the Flies"-type approach to dystopia, as does almost any zombie endeavor, which ultimately asks the question: Who's worse? The humans or the zombies?

Darabont and his cast excel at conjuring up a taut social study, but let the horror scenes fall oddly flat. Being a big fraidy cat myself, I can only puzzle over why "The Walking Dead" fails to cause my usual reflexive responses, such as putting my hands over my eyes and still watching what happens through parted fingers. I hope it gets scarier.

Despite that, the show is undeniably intriguing and creepily contemporary, tapping into the national paranoia: Can I trust you? Are you one of them? How do we go on, now that we're surrounded? The things all Americans ask, every day, amid the din of moaning.

The Walking Dead

(90 minutes) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on AMC.

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