columnist, critic; USA (@suddenlyquiet)
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When Lost went off the air last spring who knew that it would be back so soon--and that it would be called The Walking Dead? With its small band of survivors that finds itself in one precarious situation after another while trying to maintain a semblance of civilized values, AMC's hit series picks up thematically almost exactly where ABC's left off. Indeed, the former's appeal even to those who know nothing of the comics upon which it's based demonstrates just how deeply resonant the "We're hanging in there" meme is in our culture these days. Alternating between darkest despair and an affirmation of sunny values such as heroism, family, and hope itself, these shows help illuminate our moment in history: we suspect the end may be near, but we want to remember to lay in a store of our own humanity along with batteries, firearms, and refillable water bottles. The only real difference here is that while Lost dropped its characters somewhere in the middle of the Pacific, The Walking Dead casts its survivors adrift in an equally vast sea of zombies. 

I don't mean to imply, of course, that the zombies are some kind of afterthought. In fact, for most fans--and zombie fandom overspilled the banks of the horror genre a while ago--The Walking Dead represents everything they could have hoped for on both the micro and macro scales. Thus we get the compelling rattiness of the pilot's "bicycle girl" zombie and a convincing evocation of a major U.S. city in all its post-apocalyptic glory. In fact, in many ways The Walking Dead is the Romero movie we've been waiting for thirty years, the one that doesn't substitute self-conscious social commentary for actual excitement (Diary of the Dead) or, because of budgetary constraints, presents a very thin slice of the big picture that's supposed to stand in for the whole (Land of the Dead). With The Walking Dead we get the whole enchilada, and the result is a meal that's both satisfying and addictive.


Of course as a medium television presents its own limitations, even if they might be a bit harder to notice. Visually, comics can be more forgiving. For example, the eye tends to overlook characters appearing in the background of a panel while those in the foreground exchange some heated dialogue. Yet on a screen such confrontations can come across as stagy, like you're watching people standing around and watching other people, and this is a feeling I got more than once with The Walking Dead. Also, despite the presence of strong acting throughout the first season (any series with Michael Rooker is already in pretty good shape) and the way such performances add to characterization, the use of "types" is far more conspicuous than in Robert Kirkman's source material. Perhaps we expect social/psychological shorthand in a comic, I'm not sure. In any case, it's interesting that variations on several of these types also happened to have appeared in Lost: the ornery redneck, the nice old feller, the funny Asian-American, the siblings who need to "look out for each other," and so on. That's possibly one of the downsides of the same big budget that allows for all the authenticity and spectacle that I praised earlier: producers need to generate numbers from the get-go, so characters need to land in ways that are instantly recognizable to a mass audience.   

Most importantly, the television series, for all its virtues, seems to have shed part of the horror component. That may partly result from a glossy feel replacing a decidedly pulpy one. Yes, Greg Nicotero and his team are to be commended for showing great fidelity to the look of Charles Adlard's zombies, but what they couldn't duplicate was their goony cartoonishness that recalls horror comics going back to the EC days. Similarly, the gore quotient is certainly high, if not groundbreaking, for broadcast TV. However, the same technical skill--from stunts to camerawork and editing--that makes the zombie set pieces so accomplished and often thrilling can work against the genre underpinnings. That's because we gradually get the sense that we're watching an exceptional action/adventure series interspersed with some family/romantic drama... and true horror only occasionally thrown in for additional spice. 

To be clear, none of these observations are really knocks on The Walking Dead, just stuff that comes to mind because Frank Darabont and Gale Anne Hurd have done such an admirable job of getting all the obvious things right. In fact, the same generosity of scope and attention to detail is evident in the Blu-ray release from Anchor Bay. Sure, the "Making of the 'The Walking Dead'" indulges in a bit of the self-congratulation that one expects from such featurettes, but it quickly moves beyond this and offers up some neat insights into how the creators approached the first season, e.g., as a series of six films, not as "episodes" per se. Building on this, six five-minute segments drill down into the content by succinctly taking us "inside" each of the episodes. Rounding out the overview-type features is the video record of a Comic-Con panel and a couple of segments focusing on Kirkman. The only problem with this brand of comprehensiveness is that some of the information starts to repeat itself over the course of all these extras:  several times we hear Darabont make the exact same remark about how character-driven Kirkman's tale is, and more than once we see Steven Yuen hold up a comics page to show his physical similarity to the character he brings to life.  

Again, these are, in a real sense, nitpicks. You'll quickly forget such matters when enjoying, for example, the inevitable zombie-makeup segment. I expected this to be your standard glimpse "behind-the-scenes," but it's actually a fun and practical piece that shows viewers how to transform the living into the living dead with supermarket-available ingredients; it's ideal for Halloween or, I'm thinking, your next zombie crawl. Likewise, a piece on a "zombie school" that coaches actors on how to move like the undead would be pretty fascinating even if it weren't specifically related to The Walking Dead. All in all, this Blu-ray, or the two-disc DVD release, is the kind of gift that any serious zombie enthusiast should consider giving--even if just to him- or herself. Beyond that, it gets one excited about where this series is headed... in fact, I have the distinct sense that many of my comments here won't even apply after the second or third season, and that's a neat feeling to have.
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