Monday, 26 May 2014

The Walking Dead TV Series, and other zombie films, its an apocalypse NOW...

Its funny, I’ve never been as into the whole zombie apocalypse idea as everyone else seems to be.  I’ve been amazed that it continues and continues, more films year after year.  I mean, there have been zombie films I’ve always loved, in my horror buff way – the Romero franchise likely comes to mind (the original 3 that is, after that, it all got a bit derivative).  And of course  - I love the Italians of the 70s, and they do a horror and a zombie unlike anyone else. But The Walking Dead is a phenomenon (and one I came to late, as I do tend to - I get there when other people have stopped talking, usually).  I can see the roots of it, and I can see why its different from what came before.  Here's my rambly thoughts.

To begin, here's a short list of some of my favourite zombie films of the past, in absolutely no order whatsoever, other than to put the Romero franchise first because it influenced all the others that came after in one way or other, the first one in particular for the Italians; the second one for the way the US film industry has viewed zombies ever since:

  • Night of the Living Dead (1969) – what a wonderful social commentary, and the black guy was shot at the end because he was black and the white guys were rednecks – not because they thought he was a zombie, anymore than they thought he was a troublemaker because he was black!  That always hits me very hard, that point – it worries me about the prejudices we all hold, for one group of people or another, for whatever reason…
  • Dawn of the Dead (1978) – more blissful social commentary, about how we're all zombies in a consumer hell...that’s why we like the zombie stuff so much, we all want to think we're in the band of plucky survivors; truth being, we're all still asleep on our feet...watching TV, not living our lives…Also, a brilliant group performance by all the leads, especially Ken Forees.
  • Day of the Dead (1985) – my least favourite of the trilogy, but still possessed of some very good ideas, though the only likeable character IMO is a zombie, the poor Bub.
  • The House By the Cemetery (1981) – I LOVE a Fulci and this is my favourite.  Everyone says the Dr Freudstein (yes, right, ehem) that we see at the end is a zombie, and I suppose he is – but what this film really is, is a very nasty gory haunted house film, with some memorable creepy child performances, and a very dreamlike druggy ending that reinforces the ghost theme.  It’s bleak.  I love it.
  • Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971) – memorably gross in a way only Euro horrors can be!  I am referring to the set up of a mother and her very strange pre teen son, who are too close in terms of breastfeeding.  The exceptionally creepy son, who has now turned, is alone in a room with his mother – she doesn’t run – he eats her, starting with his usual favourite place.  Gratuitous.  Gothic, and very atmospheric – you have to be in the right mood, but if you are, this is a strange and disturbing film. 
  • Nightmare City(1980) – an Italian-Spanish co-production and possibly one of the most depressing zombie films ever made.  Some lurid sequences, of great garish Euro-silliness (the workout studio massacre); and a suicide at the end that makes you think you might do the same in the situation, even if it does involve jumping out of a helicopter and bumping on things on the way down; ouch.  Also has a strange - 'it was all a dream, no it wasn't' ending, which only emphasizes the GRIM.
  • Antropophagus: The Beast (1980)/ The Grim Reaper (1980) – not strictly zombie films, again, but an extremely menacing and cannibalistic and unstoppable creature.  I think Joe D’Amato is underrated – he should have spent much less time working as a director in hardcore porn and more doing horror, I reckon. (Porn as a genre I cannot overemphasize when talking about horror of the 70’s in particular – they are incredibly closely linked in camera work, female focus and brutality – fascinating and very disturbing if you look into it, but if you’re into horror of that era, you cannot miss the parallels).
  • Zombi 2 (1979) – Fulci, in my opinion, dominates the zombie genre, for classic non US films.  This is the one with the weird shark fighting underwater with zombie scene; it’s the one with the uncut version that shows the famous Fulci obsession with eyes getting poked out.  It’s the one where at the end, zombies hit mainland USA, staggering about over the Brooklyn Bridge.  It’s been seen so many times, people overlook it now.  But it’s oddly hard hitting, if so gory as to make you disbelieve…
  • City of the Living Dead (1980) – another Fulci gorefest: this one memorable for the beautifully intense and minimal soundtrack (why does no one ever comment on it??), and the intestine regurgitation scene (about which many apochyphal stories abound).  This again, is VERY bleak, you would not want to live in the world as it is by the end.
  • Dellamorte Dellamore (1994) – one of the weirdest takes on the zombie tropes that have developed that there is.  Never look at Rupert Everett the same way again…This film is almost heartbreakingly sad and existential.
  • The Fog (1979) – those pirates are zombies aren’t they??  Just because this is another one that seems cross genre, in that its sort of ghostified…its interesting that zombie films rarely seem supernatural, they are so often about infection, and science; as if the reanimation of the dead were not a very strange thing, and therefore likely to be considered supernatural.  The soundtrack and camera work make this film; as does Jamie Lee Curtis, of course.
  • 28 Days Later (2002) – IMO The best zombie film of recent years.  Cillian Murphy, to the tune of In the house in a Heartbeat, taking down an entire military installation to save his friends held prisoner at the end, is one of the most perfect sequences in a film, I have ever seen.  The ruthlessness of humans married to the unstoppableness of the Infected…I get shivers every time I watch it.

     At what point are you alive but dead, because of what you will do?  When is civilisation over?  When there is no one to read the books, or write them?  The Walking Dead borrows from this film and its ideas, as well as from Romero’s starter, and the bleakness and grossness of the Italian offerings.

Now, several things to note with this list.  I’ve left off hundreds, of course.  There’s a thin line between zombie (dead rise up), infected (sick rise up), and possessed (supernatural forces, religious or general, cause bodies to rise up be they dead or not) films.    I haven’t included any of the early greats, like The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (Germany, 1920), White Zombie (1932), or I Walked with a Zombie (1943).  Or later weirdnesses, like Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), Psychomania (1971), or Reanimator (1985). (Lovecraft stuff walks a very odd line between several horror genres; it has also sprouted its own semi religion, within today’s chaos magick, in some circles.)

The thing that most of these on my list have in common is the immensely sad and depressing picture of human nature they paint.  By the end of most of these films the characters are either, dead, wish to be, are about to be, or haven’t got long to live – in a world that is entirely no longer theirs in any way.  It’s worse than any war zone, and its relentless, it doesn’t stop.  Its bleak bleak bleak

Enter The Walking Dead (2010 – still going).  Its bleak, it’s relentless, it Does Not Stop.  But.  The picture of human nature it paints is far more layered and interesting, due to the time it has to expand it, than has previously been able to be explored within this horror sub genre.  Sure, the characters have to do awful things, every week, to survive (and some can’t, and they don’t last long).  You are shown characters all obviously suffering from violent forms of PTSD, some of them becoming grandiose and delusional – and it’s all completely understandable.  Just as Romero managed to do some nifty (if arguably heavy handed) social analysis with his franchise; The Walking Dead manages to show what it would be like if you did survive, into this bleak new world, for any length of time.  The apocalypse ceases to be the end of the thing; and becomes the new reality.  How do you choose to live?  How do your children become?  Are your water sources and soil terminally polluted with whatever goo the zombies extrude that makes them infected (a matter, granted, they skim over, but it’ll come back, I’m sure)? What social structures arise?  There are moral dilemmas all the time. 

The thing that keeps this series going (I can’t speak for its original source, the comic books, as I haven’t read them) is clever plotting, and character growth.  Between those 2 things, and an enemy that is still here, it reminds me a lot of the original seminal series Survivors (by Terry Nation of Dr Who fame, 1975) – watch it if you haven’t; and be prepared to argue with your partner about farming methods and electrification as if your life depended on it!!  They dealt with a post apocalyptic situation, but the disease outbreak that decimates the world’s population is over; whereas in The Walking Dead scenario it is still going, so many of the things the characters try to do to create a new society are constantly undermined by the basic need for food and safety.  They can’t adjust, the threat is still present.

All in all, for a gruesome gorefest (and it is, and I’m an old school gorehound); it is one of the most thought provoking series about human nature I’ve seen in a long time.  More than just horror, way more.  (Also – some very good tunes. Blackbird Song, anyone…)

Some thoughts on each series below, from 1-4.  I’ve concentrated more on series 4, as the latest, than any others, as it’s the one most UK readers will remember most clearly, having only just been with us…all thoughts only IMO, so don’t go getting mad and leaving rude comments!

  1. The Walking Dead Season 1
    I thought of watching it because Andrew Lincoln is English, and I think he's always been incredibly underrated: he's never had enough to do in the homegrown parts we've given him - and always such a nice guy, only.  Watched with Fry, as something to absorb us on my last visit to him.  We didn’t know what was about to hit us!  A concept I thought was old and tired and couldn’t possibly go on for many series’ as it has without significant use of flashbacks…how wrong was I?  Its all about moral choices, who you are, who you choose to be, who you can afford to be in a violent and brutal new world.  What’s important, what will you protect, and how will you do that.  It started off all 28 Days Later (person wakes up and its all already happened, they have to learn to survive).This series had a very light touch compared to later ones, but it was gripping from the very first.  And I saw quickly that it’s ruthless with its characters – almost anyone can die.  Which is good.  Creates realism within the situation.  ADDICTIVE.  And why is Norman Reedus asDaryl Dixon [and his crossbow] not EVERYONE’S favourite character????!!!)

  2. The Walking Dead Season 2
    (This really kicked off, and I think it’s the best season so far.  Many of the original characters are still there; they are on the road.  All the way through, Rick and Shane, almost brothers, are fighting.  Shane loves Lori; Lori is with Rick.  Shane is realist through terror and is prepared to do terrible things to protect what he sees as his; what he imagines Rick cannot or will not stand up to protect to the degree Shane would. 

    No matter what else happened in this series, it was actually run on a powerhouse performance by Jon Bernthal, who stole the entire thing.  I agreed with almost all his terror driven choices – showing perhaps what an unpleasant person I might end up being in this situation.  Though I really got where Rick was coming from too.  Holding onto any kind of principles in this situation would be fiendish, if you wanted to live. 

    I can’t really comment on other characters in this series, because the arc was so dominated by Shane, Ric and Lori.  Except to say I got where Lori was coming from too, but I think she handled everything very badly indeed, and made a difficult situation much worse than it need have been.  I also found her sanctimonious and sexist [that argument with Andrea in the kitchen about roles of women post apocalypse, grrrrr]. 

    Even though Shane clearly had to die, it was built up and built up, and its clear that so far at least, Rick is the one character who cannot be sacrificed to the plot drive…when Shane did die I was still hugely shocked, because I didn’t think Rick had it in him.  I loved this series. 

    The one problem: its women are written ambiguously and I’d say badly – they are all mean to the men, so far, and unrealistically engaged with the situation in one way or other.  Except Andrea.)

  3. The Walking Dead Season 3
    (I thought this season was weaker than season 2.  Partly it lacked Shane.  Partly they were trying to stay in one place and I preferred them on the road together.  But there were great strengths too – the ruthless, callous killing off of cast members was quite something, even 2 major members in one episode.  That really did up the stakes.  This was the season that had Carl kill his own mother, where we lost T Dog.  And others.  It was where Carol started a very interesting and later to bear fruit, character arc.  It was where Fry fell in love with The Governor [my son does love a baddie]. 

    That was an interesting character.  I didn’t quite GET him.  I got Shane completely, hence I was thrilled and fascinated by him; but I didn’t get The Governor quite so much.  He was more of a cardboard twirly moustache villain, for me.  He was there to contrast with Rick’s attempts to stay principled [much as Hershel was there in a different way, for the same purpose in season 2].  I didn’t quite buy The Governor’s hatred of Rick and all he stood for. 

    I did get his hatred of Michonne – who was almost the niftiest thing about this entire series.  I LOVED her.  Though it’s never explained how she became so handy with a sword – and made it a bit comic booky [fantastical, in an annoying way].  I would have liked more background to her.  We do get some in season 4, but it actually contradicts the only one line of background we get from her in season 3 here [“they weren’t human to begin with” – about her chained walkers]…there were some very good episodes indeed here, and a couple of fillers. 

    Still immensely obsessing and addictive though.  Can’t stop thinking about the characters, really wondering about them and how they live, develop.  So whilst there may be faults – I’m hugely overinvested…so they are writing some bits of this, like angels.)

  4.  The Walking Dead Season 4
    (I would say this was the weakest series so far.  But it had some stand up episodes in it, and some stand up bits of episodes [e.g. I thought the finale had a back to front feel – there was an extremely emotional and shocking set of events right at the beginning of the episode; that do, yes, lead up to the last thing Rick says in the episode to set the tone for the next series…on the other hand – I felt it finished like a sudden blue afternoon going overcast and you have to come inside just when you were getting comfortable ‘cos its gone all damp and chilly….it lost atmosphere at quite a rate]. 

    The idea of a disease sweeping through the prison, coupled with the fact you turn into a zombie when you die whether you are bitten/ scratched or not [which as you’ll recall, in modern zombie tropes, is how it all began in the first place – you just reanimate and its never entirely explained why to begin with] was a very good one.  They needed an enemy not only within, but NOT zombies to break up the admittedly wonderful-and-I-was-very-happy-for-them-for-2-seconds-before-I-realised-it-all-HAD-to-go-west-or-we-have-no-plot-development-at-all….and that was a perfect vehicle.  Without modern medicine…?  I learned elderberry tea can bring down a fever.  I love when TV teaches me stuff! 

    This series suffered in that there was only 1 major character death, and one semi major character death – it didn’t have that ruthlessness season 3 had.  Too many people got out of tight situations [E.G. not to mention my favourite character, Daryl, astonishingly escaping a small windowless room at the bottom of the stairs in a house completely overrun by zombies – that was ingenious…and also a bit stupid.  E.G. As was the bit when Hershel gets beheaded, and Rick opens fire with a pistol and is fired back on by people with semi automatics who are quite close to him – and he makes it to shelter – I didn’t buy that at all.  That could have been written better, to make me believe it more.  E.G. When Daryl is supposedly getting kicked to death in the finale – and it went on long enough that he should have lost some teeth and broken some ribs; and had some internal bleeding – but no, he hops up and the action continues – that also, needed to have been done better]. 

    As for Michonne, I was most interested in her character development…but I’m in two minds as to how it went.  I felt she sort of lost her edge a bit, though I liked her relationship with Carl, and her realising she thought of these people as family, and did not in fact want to be alone when everything went wrong at the prison and they all ended up separated.

    Quick note: as the situation goes on and on, time passes, and these zombies do not starve to death – I am noticing that they have stopped looking for the most part, like modern zombies – that sort of modern make up, with emphasis on possessed-ish eyes and mouth bleeding makeup; they are starting to look more like old school Lucio Fulci zombies of the 70s – very rotting, very skeletal, in some cases, and very very wormy.  I quite like this development of the zombie look, it acknowledges the course of time.

    Why was I not more surprised and shocked when the lunatic child killed her sister??  Why was I not more saddened when she had to be executed by Carol [and if anyone is up to a vigilante execution, it is her] – why wasn’t Tyreese more shocked?  I think the only factor changing this from other slightly similar situations in the series [when Rick exiled Carol for a vigilante decision], is that there was a baby involved.  Which brings me to…

    The baby.  Is surviving.  I feel this is very unrealistic.  She must have run out of formula ages ago; babies get sick – I am not kidding you here – a lot, and I bet they haven’t got lots of Calpol (US equivalent).  The baby would make a lot more noise than they are showing – she is one of those ridiculously well behaved unrealistic TV babies.  This sentimental angle to the plot annoys me.  I think Lori was wrong to keep the baby in the first place – an adult is more useful and viable in that situation than a noisy and prone to sickness baby [have a baby later, in a more secure situation – I am not one of these ‘we must repopulate the Earth’ sci fi readers; no no no].  See how I am Shane?!!  It was also very unlikely the baby would have survived that flu outbreak, despite quarantine. 

    The most interesting thing about this series is the way the characters have all been separated – and the way I am not enjoying it as much as when they were all on the road in series 1 and for part of series 2.  I am not enjoying that Glenn has grown up to the point he is lacking personality – other than as a Terminator Maggie seeker; I felt Daryl had very limited character development even though they had a lot of time to do it, pairing him oddly with innocent Beth, as they did.  Rick and Carl had an interesting dynamic, and Michonne completed the little family unit.  Tyreese and Carol and the children had the most happen to them and the most tension that we knew about but he didn’t – THAT was well done.  It was also well done that this unit missed the finale, so will be in place at the start of the next series to help sort the mess Rick and the others have got into.

    A small word on the new character that reminds me of Duke Nukem, and his girlfriend who when we first see her, is wearing Total Military Apocalypse Chic [unpractical and very sexy shorts, boots, hair in bunches – as Fry said, “tomb raider ripoff”].  And the scientist that I’m not entirely convinced is real, that they are trying to get to Washington, which may or may not end up a big part of season 5…these characters started off as total sterotypes, and thankfully, got a bit of good development written in before the season ended, so that I liked them before it ended, and believed why they were staying with the other group despite their “more important mission”.  And Tara – I am liking her; though this is possibly due to the fact she really reminds me of a more vulnerable Asia Argento.

    In some ways, I feel this series is starting to slip.  But it is still as absolutely hooking as ever it was.  I’m interested to see where it goes next.  And don’t get me wrong, no matter what flaws I think it has – I NEVER thought the zombie apocalypse idea could ever run this long or go this far [and I know the comic books are up to the 20’s – they’ve still got loads of mileage yet].  And I am still 100% invested in these characters – I love them and I want them to be ok.  Where is Beth?????  For instance….)

Ah well.  I have to wait for Season 5 now, and I won’t touch it till I can eat the whole thing at once, so I’ll be waiting a while.  Just as well, as I was starting to do that gaming too much thing, of seeing zombies out of the corners of my eyes, in streets; I actually thought I saw Carol and Daryl in a coffeeshop the other day.  Delusions and madness – that’s where good writing can get you!!  I am impressed it’s hooked me this much.  I haven’t been this badly affected since The Tudors!

And that’s that.  Enough zombie apocalypse for now…Except to say, a friend sent me these links…see if YOU think it could really happen!

The whole matter wouldn’t be complete without a contribution from The Daily Mail, of course!

Till next time – don’t leave your crossbow at home! You need to learn how to use that thing...

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