Producing a television show about zombies is a difficult proposition. It’s not a genre that really provides a lot of scope for innovation as almost every zombie story exists within certain parameters as they almost always feature a small group of people forced to survive against the horde of oncoming undead flesh-eating obstacles. Plot-wise, there’s little that can be done that hasn’t already been explored to some degree. What the genre does offer is plenty of scope for metaphor and exploration into the nature of humanity.
The best zombie-films take a cue from Romero. His films are heavily metaphorical, offering a satirical comment on society. The obvious key example being Dawn of The Dead in which the brain-dead flesh eaters roam the aisles of a suburban shopping centre.
The Walking Dead does not embrace the heavily metaphorical nature of the Romero zombies, with just cause. Stretching a metaphor for zombies over the course of a (hopefully) long-running TV series would quickly wear thin. Instead, The Walking Dead works to the strength of the television medium and is instead focused on the characters and their humanity. Much like the comic book series it is based upon, The Walking Dead examines what happens to humanity in the wake of a zombie plague. How does it affect people’s lives, their dreams, and their understanding of self-identity?
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Other TV series have attempted the zombie genre in the past. Charlie Brookers series Dead Set was a noble attempt to bring a Romero-style zombie series to the small screen in a 6-part series featuring reality TV show performers in a zombie-survival story. Unfortunately, once the initial clever conceit of that series was unveiled, there was little else compelling in Dead End. Babylon Fields was another worthy attempt (that never made it past the pilot phase), showing a world in which the undead return to live among humanity. Much like The Walking Dead, that show sought to examine human relationships amid its zombie-centric concept. That show failed with its execution lacking in inspiration and a general dull production-look. Where both of those shows failed, this show absolutely crackles. With very high production values (the make-up work is outstanding), a crackling script, and a strong & distinct on-screen presence by the cast, this is off to a very strong start.
Showrunner Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) has adapted the black & white comic book series by Robert Kirkman The Walking Dead into this new TV series. Produced for AMC (the same channel that airs Mad Men and Rubicon in the US), a first season of six episodes have been commissioned. The first episode uses material from the first two books in the comic series (currently up to issue 78) in a way that is not slavish to the source material, providing a lot of depth to the characters that isn’t present in the comics. Yet, it remains very faithful to the intent of the story presented in the comics. As evidenced in this pilot, the original comic series translates very nicely to the structure and rhythms required from episodic television.
The plot of the pilot is fairly simple. Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) is a police officer in Kentucky who is shot in the line of duty. He awakens in a hospital bed, where he has been in a coma. The hospital is in disrepair and zombies now walk the streets. With the assistance of a father and son who he meets on the street, he finds that his wife & son have packed up their home and are no longer there. Rick sets out alone to find his family.
As I’ve read the first 24 issues of the comic book series, I have a rough idea of what to expect plot-wise from the show for the first season. Armed with that knowledge and from what I have witnessed in the pilot episode, The Walking Dead is set to be a very strong series.
It may be difficult to say something new about zombies, but there are always opportunities to say something new about us. About humanity, who we are, and where we’re going as people. The Walking Dead comic book series has done this, and, as evidenced by this pilot episode, the Walking Dead TV series is on the same path while exploring it at greater depth. It’s smart, without being too high-brow. And accessible, while never pandering to the audience.
The Walking Dead is a zombie TV series with one heck of a lot of bite.