Monday, November 1, 2010

TV Pilot Time - Frank Darabont's THE WALKING DEAD


If there was one other brand-spanking new series I most looked forward to this fall season aside from Boardwalk Empire, it was The Walking Dead.  Hyped for a while by anyone following buzz on the internet - first that Robert Kirkman's bloody and bloody dark and bloody damn good zombie comic book that is still on-going, was getting adapted in the first place, then by the news that Frank ("Shawshank, Green Mile, Mist, Nightmare on Elm Street 3 scribe") Darabont would be developing and writing/directing most episodes - and an appearance by cast and crew at the NY Comic-Con earlier in October, it seemed to loom large.  Especially if, as if you're like I, read most (if not all) of the Kirkman comic series.

The series begins... well, I'll get to the very opening scene in a moment.  How the story starts is with some calm but direct conversation between two cops, one of them, Rick, the Sheriff, and mostly about women and Rick's relationship gaffs with his wife, Lori.  This calmness and shootin-the-shit is broken by the call of a crazy driver going all over the place speeding on the road.  Cops pursue, other cops leave nails on the road to stop the car, it turns and flips over, and the three bad dudes in it come out guns blazing, shooting at the cops, and Rick, by stroke of very bad luck (wearing a vest) gets shot in the side and seems to be down and out.  That is, until he wakes up in a hospital, totally abandoned and left in mostly tatters inside, with a strange sign on a door locked with chains and dead-bolt "Dead Inside Don't Let Out", to which inside it rattles.

How long has Rick been out?  What with the dead bodies all in white bags in the parking lot?  More-over, where is everybody?  Like the opening of 28 Days Later, only stripped of Danny Boyle's digital experimentation and urban decay of London and given a simplistic, bare-bones GODDAMN quality of just the camera shooting to tell the story in all of its awareness-of-the-environment beats, we know as Rick does the world has become fucked.  It's from here he meets a couple other survivors- a man and his boy and their own devastation at losing their wife/mother to the "Walkers", and Rick goes on - he must find his own Lori and son Carl, and he *knows* they're out there.  After all, they took the family photo albums with them when they ran out of the house.

First off, what is this you might ask?  "A Zombie-TV series?  On Cable prime-time?  Surely ye jest!"  No, I don't jest, I'm serious as a heart-attack in saying that this may just be the kick-in-the-balls that the zombie sub-genre of horror has needed for some time.  What works so well in favor of it, aside from the prestige of having Darabont as director and a cast of actors who are not well-known but all (at least so far) carry their characters' respective emotional weight with total conviction, is that the filmmaking (fuck it, let's call it filmmaking, it is by a prestige director of mostly films, not TV, though Darabont's done that from time to time) is completely in service to the characters.  And even if you really can't care too much about zombies - by this I mean *good* zombie stories - what matters are the people, how they react to it, their devastation that barely needs a word spoken, and is shared between one and the fellow 'walker'.

I can't remember the last time I've seen such a confluence of factors work in favor of such genre material.  In George A. Romero's classic films featuring his quasi-patented living dead who rise up from who-knows-what (radiation, could be anything) and attack the living by eating their flesh and then those bitten  and/or dead returning to life and song goes on and on, the atmosphere and social satire are what is always most memorable, dread and In-Your-Face commentary like an EC Comic.  And yet as a Romero fan (by this I mean Dawn of the Dead ranking with such masterpieces as The Third Man, No Country for Old Men, Pulp Fiction, etc among what I consider towering classics of post-modern cinema history) I have to admit that not all of his characters, and certainly not all of his actors, can be up to the snuff of what he's aiming for with the ideas and style.  If some of you out there watch Romero's work and feel the characters or actors sometimes lacking, even in the quintessential Night of the Living Dead, I don't blame you.

Darabont, a fan of good living-dead movies by the likes of Romero (as he noted at Comic-Con on the panel), takes the dread of the situation of a crisis of such magnitude and brings it back down to the crucial driving force of the characters.  To be sure if the series continues, and one hopes it will past this initial six-episode run on AMC, one may see more of the actual social satire that Kirkman gets to in the series (all I need to say is one character's name - The Governor - and those familiar will feel the blood chill and know what I mean, but I digress).  For now with this pilot Darabont, producer Gale Anne Hurd and company establish Rick, Lori, and a few other key players so particularly well.  We identify with them, we care about where they're going, and they really display a keen awareness of just how fucking shocking this really is.  For one of the few times in recent memory watching a more recent un-dead rendering in popular entertainment, I wasn't thinking "Hey, haven't these guys seen a zombie movie before?"  Hey, who cares?  What about his damn wife looking through the peephole and being DEAD AND WALKING AROUND!?!

There's always believability around them, and the story moves at a fantastic pace, especially when it comes time for the real action and suspense when Rick, riding on a horse (hey, no gas, he's horse), strolls into the decayed city of Atlanta only to be surrounded by the dead.  But the horror element does need to be strong, to be sure.  On this end Darabont makes a wise choice by giving Gregory Nicotero, who has worked with zombies before (Day of the Dead his first, and thru the recent Planet Terror, among others like From Dusk till Dawn) to do whatever he sees fit while staying true to the gruesome, ugly and precisely maddeningly awful look of the Walkers.  Not one un-dead creature looks inauthentic, in walk (it's refreshing to see that they're slow, but not so slow as to be unthreatening, more like power-walker zombies I guess), or look, and Nicotero and his crew make up several to be nigh unforgettable.

The opening scene is one of these moments where Rick comes face to face with a little girl, whose face is unabashedly hideous and scarred and rotting, and Rick isn't quite sure what to make of her at first.  Then she reaches for him, he shoots, makes the head-shot, and looks totally dismayed with himself.  There's intense fear, and it works on all fronts: performance, reaction of the camera and editing, the make-up and effects.  It sets the mood for everything else to come: where's the humanity here where there's nothing left in these things?  Another two moments in this particular pilot-cum-movie are when the black father figure, with a sniper-rifle, is up in his house aiming at the head of his wife.  Without saying more than that, it becomes one of the most harrowing and heartbreaking moments in any horror entertainment.  And then there's the connection between Rick and a cut-in-half zombie, pretty much starving oddly enough, and Rick says "I'm sorry this had to happen."  Is this to himself, the zombie, or us?  All three I'd wager - it's a message to anyone who could hear.

The Walking Dead kicks ass as human drama and the awful horror of the immediate post-apocalypse.  And as with Scorsese's work on Boardwalk Empire (or going back twenty years with David Lynch on the pilot of Twin Peaks if one is doing cinematic-guys), one sees a work that in and of itself works on its own terms and reveals the skill of the artist at work, while at the same time establishing the proper mood, tone, and what intensity and stakes there are for the characters in this story.  Darabont (who showed his chops with the dark horror of humanity with The Mist) and Kirkman, with both the previous/on-going comic series and now this show, are giving some hope for a kind of entertainment that can either be made with something to say and passion, or by hacks looking for bucks.  Considering the stakes *they* are in now- the first real Sunday night TV series on cable to have this kind of attention and marketability- better go for the former.

Sample of Kirkman's comic

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