Thursday, November 04, 2010

The Video Dead, part II

The Walking Dead is Frank Darabont's new series for cable, based on Robert Kirkman's comics of the same name. A lot of my horror friends were looking forward to this series with a kind of manic anticipation. I was kind of "meh" about it. I'm kind of tired of zombies, but I had the opportunity to watch the first episode with one of said horror friends. So I did. It's not bad, which makes me puzzle over why I ended up being so blasé about it.

This starts with the horror. Our hero, lawman Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), is searching for gas for his cruiser at a service station surrounded by a graveyard of cars. He spots a little girl, and when she turns around to display the fact that she is quite, quite dead, he is obliged to put her down. So far, so good. The killing of children is still kind of a taboo, even though zombie movies have been doing it since Night of the Living Dead. But then, the show flashes back to before the zombie apocalypse to a long scene of Rick chatting with his partner, pontificating on the differences between men and women, and I started to sour on things. I before the thing got properly going, I was saying, aloud to the screen, "less sexist bullshit, more zombie mayhem." Fortunately, the first episode strips our hero of conversational partners shortly thereafter and gets on with the zombie.

This line of thinking does Frank Darabont no good, though, because the contents of this series' opening scenes reminds me that there are exactly two interesting female characters in the three Darabont-directed films I've seen, and one of those two was a batshit insane stereotype (for what it's worth, I haven't seen The Majestic, and I like Darabont's other movies). There are surely women down the line, but this opening volley gives them short shrift. Where's Sarah Polley when you really need her, eh?

I think my fundamental problem with The Walking Dead is how safe it seems. Darabont and company, like Kirkman before them, hang the series on the strong lawman archetype, and in doing so, ground the whole project in a kind of conservatism. Say what you like about the Romero films, but in every one of them, law enforcement is shown to be every bit as much of a problem as the zombies. It's the law that shoots Duane Jones in the head at the end of Night of the Living Dead, after all. By moving a lawman front and center and having him hold on to that identity in the face of the collapse of civilization, the filmmakers are encouraging the viewer to cling to the institution he represents, to hold out the idea that things may get bad, but there's always hope for the future. Rick Grimes represents the old order overturned by the apocalypse. I think it undercuts the chaos. Maybe that's just me.

I'm also kind of disappointed in the way it skips the fall. By isolating its lead character after the apocalypse, it misses the opportunity to strip away the comforts of civilization. This has the effect of personalizing the terror of waking up in the midst of the zombie apocalypse for its hero as everyone else has had a period of adjustment. As I've said elsewhere, the process of institutions and infrastructure failing is half the fun of zombie movies. I think this is a structural flaw, but it is what it is, and since this is a series, I imagine it's something I would have had to get used to eventually anyway.

Still, Darabont's collaborators are certainly enthusiastic. Greg Nicotero's studio provides the grue, and it's fine, fine grue for being on American television. Occasionally, it even rises to the occasion. The pilot is good at staging tableaux, too, particularly those scenes that are inspired by comic book panels: the road to Atlanta stretching away from our hero as he rides into town like an old-style cowboy, a river of burned-out wrecks on the other side; the stacks of flyblown bodies outside the hospital where he has awakened; the vertiginous, Busby Berkeley-ish final shot. It's an honorable attempt. It is.

Maybe I'm just being grumpy.

1 comment:

Renee said...

I don't think so. I re-watched it last night and it still feels kind of empty to me. As something to look at, it's interesting. And the performances aren't bad. But (and I commented on this over at my Tumblr blog), I worry about there ever being any positive female presence that doesn't hinge on "the men" or "the children" in their lives (and especially given that this is a horror story derived from a comic written by a man). And although it hadn't occurred to me until now, I agree completely with the point about the lawman archetype feeling just a little too safe. I'm going to watch but damn, Dead Set spoiled me.

Now that I think about it, I know exactly what I should be writing for Novel Writing Month...a zombie story with a trans woman as the central protagonist. The struggle to find estradiol in the post-apocalyptic world, which we joke endlessly about, suddenly strikes me as being a shrewd and interesting twist on these survival tropes. I'm totally serious...I wish I had thought of this four days ago.