Sunday, 6 February 2011

#5 The Walking Dead: You Say Generic Like It’s A Bad Thing

Those of you who’ve been following the blog so far will have come to expect my regular Monday updates. However, it just so happens that this Monday I am going to be in London, and in the event of a zombie apocalypse, those of us in a capital city will be the first to get chowed down by the undead. So I’m posting this early, so that my messy and untimely demise won’t deprive you of my zombie-related thoughts.
If I'm not back in time for next week's blog, come and rescue me
So, this will be my fifth blog, sixth if you count my introductory rant about writers, and their tendency towards thieving bastardry. So, care to take a guess how many zombie apocalypses we’ve looked at in that time?
Well, I’ve done a quick count, and it turns out, none, zero, also, zilch.
No, this isn’t because three of the previous four blogs have featured running zombies- we already had that argument. The zombie thing isn’t in question here. It’s the apocalypse part.
Night of the Living Dead’s zombie outbreak only affected a third of the United Stated. In 28 Days Later, the virus barely got off the British Isles. By the end of Pontypool the infection had only just escaped the eponymous town, and in Left 4 Dead 2 a map shows that there is still a sizeable portion of the United States untouched by necrotic, blood smeared hand.
So clearly it’s time to stop fucking about and starting about a real, honest-to-god Zombie smack down on the entire human race. Ladies and gentlemen, The Walking Dead. Here be spoilers.
Playing It Straight
The Walking Dead is a TV series, based on a comic series, about the zombie apocalypse. And it plays the tropes of the zombie apocalypse straight, absolutely straight. These are zombies straight from the Romero mould. They’re slow, they’re dead, they can only be killed with a headshot and (I had to google this, because the TV series hasn’t made it clear yet) if you die, for whatever reason, you’ll come back as one of them.
There is no clever subversion here, no twist on the rules of the genre. The first couple of episodes play out like the plot of well-made, but pretty formulaic zombie movie. The thing that sets The Walking Dead apart from its peers, is that it’s the zombie movie that never ends. Most zombie movies end with either everyone dying, or with the few surviving characters travelling into the horizon (where, most probably, they will die). But The Walking Dead sticks with those characters, because everytime they go over that horizon, there's another zombie movie waiting to happen. Despite its insistence on playing strictly by the rules laid down by the stories that came before it, The Walking Dead still manages throw some new elements into the mix, while reminding us of what we love about the old ones.
The TV series is very, very pretty. I’d go so far as to say the zombie apocalypse has never looked this good- the zombie make up, the abandoned city streets look better than any zombie movie I’ve seen.
It stars Andrew Lincoln, who you may remember as the likeable-but-useless one in This Life, or the likeable-but-useless one in Teachers. So no prizes for guessing who he’s playing here.
Pictured: The foppish, upper class buffoon from House
Yes, American TV is playing its new favourite game, taking British actors and casting them as American bad asses.
Except Rick Grimes, Andrew Lincoln’s zombie-killing Sherriff, isn’t really a bad ass in the traditional sense, he’s actually something remarkably rare in the zombie genre. He’s a genuinely decent human being. He cares deeply about his family, but is also willing to risk his life to save a stranger who helped him out once, or even the racist psychopath who he feels responsible for.
One of the things the creators of zombie fiction love almost as much as the sweet, sweet thrill of plagiarising each other’s work, is painting human beings as complete bastards who, on the whole, probably deserve to have their dead rise up and devour them.
It’s easy to see why. Writing selfish pricks is a whole lot more fun than writing decent, upstanding folk, and even the good guys are more entertaining when they do the right thing only after exhausting every possible alternative. It makes it easier to create that most precious of storytelling fuels, conflict, and it’s a short cut to making your story seem deep- “See? Are we any better than the zombies? I don’t need to shoot you in the head because I’ve just blown your mind!
Grimes however, is brave, competent, and in short, exactly the sort of person you’d want running your post-apocalyptic survivalist compound.
Assuming that Bruce Campbell isn't available, naturally
Of course, not all the characters are the paragon of virtue that Grimes is, our aforementioned crazy racist being a prime example, but as a rule the characters in this series work together to solve their problems, resolve their differences through discussion and compromise and only occasionally beating the shit out of a guy who abuses his wife.

The characters don’t just talk, they plan. Every zombie-based problem the characters face is usually followed by a discussion of strategy and the creation of a plan, and it’s usually a pretty good plan.
This isn’t a subversion or even a new addition to the zombie apocalypse story. One of the things I love about the genre is that the characters in a zombie movie, on average, tend to be smarter than the characters in most other horror movies. In Night of the Living Dead, when Ben and Harry get into their dick measuring argument over whether to stay in the house or the cellar, both of them actually have pretty good points, they have strategies that have actually been thought out. Even in Shaun of the Dead, the characters think through their survival strategy, even if that strategy is “Go to the pub”.
Maybe it’s because the stupid ones are the first people to get eaten during a zombie apocalypse, or maybe it’s that the slow moving zombie give us more time to think things through rather than blindly running into a dead end while wearing a white negligee. The fact is, if you’re watching a zombie movie you’re far less likely to get a characters deciding to split up for no other reason than that it lets them get picked off one by one.
For the drinking game rules this week you better not by driving anywhere. Do the characters spend most of the story under siege in some manner of building? Depends, if we’re talking the whole series, no, but several episodes are shaped that way. Take a shot. Are the people coming to rescue you incompetent or more dangerous than the zombies? I don’t want to give too much away, but take a shot. The zombies are walking dead (the clue is in the name) move slowly, can only be killed by destroying the brain and rise regardless of the course of dead. Take four shots. Then two more for the kiddy zombie in the pilot episode. And while the word zombie doesn't remain unspoken, people tend to call them "walkers" instead, so what they hell, take another two shots. But you know what, this week, I don’t think mankind IS the real monster. Doesn't that make you feel all warm and fuzzy?
Assuming I make it back from the capital alive, I will see you next week.

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