Sunday, 11 May 2014

THE WALKING DEAD Series 1-3 review


The apocalyptic adventure show The Walking Dead has the same vibe as the much-missed Terry Nation drama Survivors. Except with monsters that eat your brains

The original line-up of characters. (Image: AMC)


'People gotta do what they gotta do - or they die.'

I've never been a huge fan of zombie movies, with the exception of 24 Days Later. In that, the filmmakers made you believe that the shuffling, a-bit-comical creatures of earlier movies were a genuine threat: snarling, lethal, fast-moving killing machines. Then there was the sublime Shaun of the Dead, which sent up the shufflers of old by implying that because of hamster-in-a-wheel commuting, dead-end jobs and computer games, we were well on the way to becoming zombies anyway.

America's The Walking Dead series, based on the comic written by Robert Kirkman and produced by the impeccable AMC – Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Turn and the remake of The Prisoner. OK, so nobody's perfect – is a combination of the two. The old shufflers are back, but the focus is on the survivors and the struggle they have with retaining their humanity as the world around them becomes more and more savage. The implication is that if the post-apocalypse citizens give in to the doctrine of 'survival of the fittest', they're no better than the zombie plague that's devoured their world. In a handy metaphor for this, when characters die they're resurrected as the undead.  

The premise isn't exactly an original one, but The Walking Dead is so good I've avidly watched all of the first three series over the last few weeks. It starts with sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes (Brit Andrew Lincoln, doing a highly convincing US accent) waking up in a hospital in a deserted landscape (referencing 28 Days Later, which borrowed from Survivors which borrowed from The Day of the Triffids) and discovering what's happened. The first series revolves around Rick's quest to find his wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) and son Carl (Chandler Riggs) and, once he's found them, keep them alive. It isn't long before he's amassed a surrogate extended family, including his best friend Shane (Jon Bernthal). This situation has 'it's complicated' written all over it, as he and Lori became emotionally involved when they thought Rick was dead.

'D'ya feel lucky, punk?' (Image: AMC)
From here on, the similarities and differences with the same initial format as Survivors – after a devastating global plague, a motley band of miss-matched refugees search for a home – are fascinating to watch. The 1970s show was famously ridiculed for presenting a viral outbreak that wiped out the working class and everyone with regional accents, apart from a hippy who looked like David Essex and a Welsh tramp. There is more of a balance in The Walking Dead. Characters like the white trash, and possibly white supremacist, Darryl (the coolly taciturn Norman Reedus) and his thuggish brother Merle (Michael Rooker, in a swaggering the-man-you-love-to-hate performance) are centre-stage with Rick and Shane, rather than just being a grudging concession to change or comic relief.

Although it was hidden by the English countryside and the sensible outdoor wear of the main cast, Nation initially had a British Western in mind, with territorial wars fought on horseback in the shires. Due to that old chestnut 'creative differences', this idea never really took off in Survivors, but as the mythical 'Wild West' is ingrained in American popular culture, in The Walking Dead it's there from the start. Halfway through the first episode Rick has saddled up, and, in one of the series' most striking images, trots down a deserted highway towards a zombie-infested Atlanta - complete with stetson - for all the world like a sheriff come to clean up the town. Someone even sarcastically tells him that, acknowledging the iconography while neatly undercutting it.

The idea that a new, brutal world is like the Old West can be found everywhere in apocalypse fiction, from The Omega Man to the Mad Max films. However, with the increased scope for character development that a television series affords, The Walking Dead makes something fresh out of well-worn clich├ęs. Rather than looking forward to the next ruck with the 'walkers'/'biters'/'shufflers' or gun fight, you keep watching because you become so hooked on how the characters are developing; by the end of the third series, those left alive from the first are almost unrecognisable. That's the other must-see aspect of the series: you really don't know who's going to die next. Survivors tried for the same Russian roulette approach to its cast, but on the whole it was arbitrary and sometimes annoyingly off-hand. Here, everyone gets a shockingly effective death scene, made more dramatic because of how much you've become invested in their progression as a character.

Whatever you do, don't trust this man. (Image: AMC)
Things really pick up in the third series with the debut of the town of Woodbury run by another imported British actor, David Morrissey ('The Governor') and when Rick and his tribe take over an old prison. Without giving too much away, the series becomes even more metaphorical, setting a harsh institution where decent people live against an apparently idyllic community built on corruption. It doesn't sound too subtle when you put it like that - the series is adapted from a comic, after all - but the scenario is written and performed so well you don't notice the perhaps over-ripe symbolism. In a major plus, Morrissey is astonishing as an all too plausible, charming megalomaniac. One of the best moments in the series is the episode which revolves around the Governor and Rick trying to broker detente between the two groups. It centres on two great actors talking and it's totally mesmerising. 

I like to think Terry Nation would have enjoyed the 21st century expression of his ideas. While the ecological disaster in The Walking Dead is more grand guignol than the earnest back-to-nature theme of his own series, Nation was also a fan of American cinema – as his interest in doing an eco-Western showed – and I think he would have relished the bikers-with-crossbows, sheriff-against-monsters, wagon-train-under-siege style of AMC's hit show. If the direction and cinematography aren't as obviously stylish as Mad Men or Breaking Bad, there's a reason for that. This is a brutal world and, somehow, the no-frills style makes the horrible things that happen there even more shocking.

If you haven't already, give The Walking Dead a chance. It really is something to get your teeth into.