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Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Van of the Dead DVD Review: The Walking Dead Season 1

The Walking Dead Season 1
2011 Anchor Bay Entertainment
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

What's your favorite zombie film? Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later, Zombieland, Zombie, The Evil Dead, hell, even White Zombie? It has to be asked, because zombies are so posh in horror cinema these days (along with vampires) almost every city has its own "dead crawl" event and people who have been extras or lead ghouls in zombie flicks proudly post it on their resumes--this writer, included.

Did anyone in their right mind expect to see a fully-developed zombie epic made for television? Alright, so AMC's The Walking Dead would never qualify for the censor standards of network--even if thongs, gratuitous cleavage, surgical evisceration, flatulence and every cuss word minus the F, S and C words are now permissable on The Big Three. Yet, let's take into consideration the fact AMC is the one sponsoring a very adult-natured television series, one with full amps of gore, intestine yanking, foul language, race issues, softcore sex (minus the nudity) and even a graphic depiction of the slaying of an undead child.

Not to chastise AMC for any of this, because their acquisition and revved-up presentation of Robert Kirkman's zombie romp graphic novel The Walking Dead is exactly what everyone's hyped it to be. It's just an anamoly, however, that this is AMC calling the shots. Here is a network called American Movie Classics that preluded Turner Classic Movies as the premiere station for lost classic films ranging all the way back to the silent era. The station was reknowned for Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Errol Flynn, Anthony Perkins, Olivia de Havilland, Bette Davis, the golden gods of Hollywood. Eventually AMC decided it didn't want to compete against Turner and opted for a younger, mainstream audience. When Buckaroo Banzai becomes quantified as an American movie classic, well, that's taking things too far--and with commercial interruptions, gads!

The truly shocking thing about AMC's The Walking Dead is how bold and unchained it is. AMC first made its dent upon cable courture with its fabulous Monster Fest marathons during the Halloween season. Everything from Universal to the fifties' B films to Hammer up through the mid-seventies was catapulted upon the horror public and it was a true delight to have much of October blocked off for these flicks. Unfortunately, AMC later passed off its Halloween season with recurring, censored plays of Halloween II through the sixth film for the final week of the Samhain season. If there's a true complaint about AMC's transition besides a loose valuation system, it's the fact they whack up many of the films they run.

With The Walking Dead, consider AMC fully redeemed.

It's not just the flying guts, the moist cadavers and the rough language (which is tastefully kept in check in this script) that makes The Walking Dead an instant classic, though you just can't seem to do a proper zombie film outside of Scooby Doo without all of that--and even Scooby had to confront a lopped-off head in his zombie vehicle.

The Walking Dead, inherited through Robert Kirkman and brought to visceral excellence by director Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) and Terminator and Aliens producer Gale Anne Hurd has thus far covered in one season George Romero's turf and places he hasn't.

You don't even need to be a zombie film expert to figure out The Walking Dead's premise. Kirkman's story and Darabont's direction, however, really puts some emotion into familiar territory. Less comical and more reality-based, The Walking Dead, as spread out through a full televised series concept, brings the focus upon the spectacle of the survivors more so than the shuffling corpses within its Georgia setting. Romero has been the master at conveying the devastating impact of what it means to be a thinned-out and isolated human race against an overwhelming percentile of undead. Darabont and Hurd thus pay homage then release their own catastrophic hounds.

Minus a housed-up sequence in the pilot episode, The Walking Dead Season 1 is less focused upon the trapped-in-a-compound element Romero was fond of in his first three zombie masterworks, though Darabont really plays the theme a foil in the final episode of this season. A large chunk of The Walking Dead is actually told inside an open-air encampment, which alone presents the opportunity for numerous stories. The threat of finding straggling death walkers (referred to by the cast as "geeks") inside their outer rim camp near Atlanta lingers like a pest through the second to the fifth episodes. A zombie can (and will) appear out of nowhere and eat recently-killed game for the survivors and you can assume correctly the chompers will arrive in numbers at a later point--and with dire consequences. This uncontained setting makes The Walking Dead even more claustrophobic than a mall or boarded-up house, because there is little-to-no way you can exercise damage control, especially when the numbers dwindle after zombie attacks and the leaders leave camp, as happens in this story.

Deputy sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) is seriously wounded in a police capture and presumed to be dead by the time a full-on zombie outbreak wrecks havoc upon the United States. In search of his family, the confused Grimes wakes up to a devastated world and is saved by a father and son who brings Grimes up to speed on things. They soon part ways as Grimes is determined to find his wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) and their son, Carl (Chandler Riggs). There is promise of safe haven in Atlanta and as Grimes rides on horseback into a seemingly evacuated city (what a terrific visual this is, particularly the side of Interstate 85 leading out of Atlanta clogged by abandoned cars, the route in perfectly clear), he is attacked by a horde of zombies. The first episode ends on an adrenalized chase sequence that finds Grimes shacked up inside a tank, where he is spotted by survivors.

From here, The Walking Dead really develops it human interaction storyline. Grimes' new affiliates inside a department store range from a pizza delivery guy to a public works specialist to a trigger-happy woman. Worse, he is in the company of a bigoted hedonist (played by Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer's Michael Rooker) whom he subdues and handcuffs to the top of a building--and ultimately leaves him there. Rooker's despicable character Merle Dixon plays a hand (no pun intended, if you've seen the series) in the story's plot as Grimes gets a case of the guilts and recruits Dixon's equally gonzo brother Daryl (Norman Reedus) and his second benefactor Glenn (Steven Yeun) for a rescue mission. This mini-posse includes T-Dog (IronE Singleton), who has been beaten up by Merle in a racist attack, yet feels equally guilty leaving Merle on the rooftop. This subplot to The Walking Dead takes the story upon an entire different thread capped by a standoff against a gang of Latinos claiming rights to Grimes' abandoned artillery that brings a standalone flashpoint to the story.

Grimes miraculously finds his family at the survivor camp, though unbeknownst to him, his best friend and former partner on the police force Shane (Jon Bernthal) has been getting it on with his wife. You can see this rift ready to detonate in the second season as Lori declares her loyalty to her husband upon his return and renounces Shane. At one point in the story, Shane has Grimes in his gun sight and struggles with a decision on whether or not to plug his buddy and steal his family. This is where The Walking Dead steps up its game from a storytelling point-of-view. The enemies outside are hardly as dangerous as those within. In the pilot episode, you see Grimes' savior in tearful desperation as he cannot kill his zombified wife who keeps showing up on the porch where he and his son are hiding. It's haunting and sad, as are the struggles of the other cast members who are dealt bad deals from the zombies and have to make critical decisions. A scene where Grimes returns to an abandoned park to put a bisected crawling corpse (referred to as "The Bike Girl") out of her misery is rather touching.

One of The Walking Dead's key fears is these zombies react to extreme noise, such as gunshots and loud chatter. Pop one zombie with a gun, you're going to have two blocks' worth of them on your butt. They also smell you out. Priceless. The zombies in this series shamble around, but do have the capacity to pick up speed. In one of the season's most memorable sequences, Grimes and Glenn attempt to elude the zombie pack out on the streets by covering themselves in coats covered by the remains of a chopped-up zombie. Absolutely disgusting, but this will be well-discussed over the course of modern horror history.

As this series ends on a literal bang at the CDC (reported to be a team of scientists working on a resolution to the zombie plague), The Walking Dead Season 1, though awfully short, really primes its fans for a return this coming fall. 19 episodes have been commissioned, so take comfort The Walking Dead will be with us for least two more rounds.

This DVD includes numerous featurettes and commentaries from Andrew Lincoln, Steven Yuen, Frank Darabont, Gale Anne Hurd and writer Robert Kirkman. The Zombie School segment is pretty amusing and will no doubt inspire an actual program for aspiring "geeks."

If you think you've seen it all with zombies, you probably have, but The Walking Dead is still mandatory for its style, its rhythm, its soul and its tributary love of a horror standard that will undoubtedly usher in a new Renaissance for its network.

Rating: *****


The Real Cie said...

I saw the last two of this past season. I'll need to get the DVD to be able to see the whole thing. I was favorably impressed.

Ray Van Horn, Jr. said...

I don't divvy out 5/5s very handily, so definitely make it a priority if you're in the market to buy.