LOS ANGELES - If it weren't for the egregious amount of shoe-gazing vampires flooding pop culture these days — a combination of brooding sex, mopey teen displacement and lame attempts to be fang-tastic — the world might groan at the notion that zombies are back in vogue.
But AMC, which launched the five-part series "The Walking Dead" on Halloween, has found in producer-director-writer Frank Darabont ("The Shawshank Redemption") the perfect person to flesh out the popular graphic novels of Robert Kirkman.
During the 90-minute premiere, Darabont manages to push all of the familiar zombie-genre buttons even while expanding the visual references to classic Westerns — the main character is a lawman, and the title sequences feature him riding a lone horse into Atlanta while the outbound traffic is all burned husks of cars and buses — and dystopian films of isolation and panic. He also adds a complicated love story and an even more ambitious notion: that what we're capable of doing to one another is far worse than having a zombie eat our guts.
It's the kind of scope only a TV series can achieve — not having to truncate the see-zombie, kill-zombie-while-running-for-your-life game into two hours. That's not to say "Dead" isn't wonderful popcorn fare. If all you want are superb costume and makeup moments of shuffling zombies with their faces falling off and their incessant need to eat, you can find that here. And because it's on cable, it's a veritable exploding-head carnival thanks to everything from high-powered rifles to baseball bats and pick axes to arrows.
Yet people who hate horror and gore should still give "Dead" a chance to unfold its boldly different story. Darabont, Kirkman and fellow writer Tony Moore have seized on the deeper motivations in Kirkman's source work, asking what man is really capable of when pushed. Does the moral fabric tear when your world is turned into a nightmare? Is there room for compassion when nothing makes sense and terror rules the day (and night)? Does it take extreme situations for us to realize who we are and what we want? This is familiar territory for Darabont, whose films sometimes pull the heartstrings a little too tight. But here, empathy and sentimentalism effectively disarm any rote zombie tropes the genre might subconsciously trigger in the viewer.
Andrew Lincoln stars as police officer Rick Grimes. He's a good cop with a wife, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), and young son, Carl (Chandler Riggs), who seems to be enduring the familiar strains of any marriage. A shooting rampage by criminals before the zombie invasion leaves Grimes in the hospital. He wakes up weeks later to what seems to be a disorienting, postapocalyptic nightmare: a world abandoned, pieces of dead bodies everywhere. Plus zombies. Darabont leaves the how-did-this-happen answer until later so as to keep the confusion alive in Grimes. He roams the hospital, still weak and wounded, then ventures into town, searching for his family.
From here, Dead sets itself apart. Grimes meets a man (wonderfully played by Lennie James) in town trying to protect his young son. He nurses Grimes back to health while enduring the nightly roaming of his own dead wife, who repeatedly returns to the house, turning the knob, trying to get back in. This interaction naturally tears his young son apart. James infuses the series with empathy in one beautiful scene in which he's got his zombie wife in the scope of his rifle but can't pull the trigger, tears filling his eyes.
One drawback in "Dead" is that Lincoln plays his emotion a little too close to his deputy's badge. We're told — by him — that all he wants to do is find his wife and kid. His belief that they still are alive is the emotional drive of the story, but there's not enough deep pain that seeps up to coat the dialogue Lincoln delivers. Nothing's going to stop him, he says, but after witnessing the work of James and the moral struggle to shoot your own wife for the betterment of your child, well, that's how it's played.
Cool and aloof works well for the notion of payback, however, and watching Lincoln turn Grimes into a dead-on gunslinger dispatching zombies has its satisfaction. "Dead" does a lot right with the aesthetic look: There are far more scenes in the bright daylight than there are in a typical zombie movie. Sure, they come out at night, especially if they hear loud noises. But having them roam the streets and the parks in broad daylight — without the hazy-gray filter of smoke, darkening clouds or charred buildings — makes Grimes' wake-up call all the more believable. This is particularly true when he watches an oozing, struggling female zombie slither with just torso and arms across a sunny park. Grimes watches her crawl and struggle, looking for food, and apologizes to her for the fate she's suffering. (Then shoots her in the head, of course.)
Would a zombie series that goes on for 13 episodes and five seasons keep anyone's interest? Debatable. Unlike vampires, there's not much mythology to work with. These are just dead people walking, normally slowly, in search of food. You shoot them in the head, end of story. But Darabont and Kirkman have at least pushed the genre into a territory that could be explored further. Empathy is not a big player in the zombie genre. Neither is introspection. Films of this type are quick to devolve into video-game shoot-em-ups with brains splattering everywhere. Here, Darabont uses the TV-series format to break convention not only by defying the predictabilities of the horror genre (boo!) but also by infusing the recipe with more storytelling elan. In "Dead," the survivors grapple with the notion of not losing their humanity when surrounded by the living, not just the dead.
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