When George A. Romero kick started the zombie genre back in the late sixties, it’s unlikely that he ever foresaw the impact it would still be having on popular culture well over half a century later. Following the release of Night of the Living Dead in 1968, zombies steadily became staple horror fare throughout the 70’s and 80’s. Romero honed his craft with his magnum opus Dawn of the Dead in 1978 and numerous outlandish European efforts soon followed suit, including the likes of Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters, Umberto Bava’s Demons and Jorge Grau’s The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, many of which are still revered to this day. But whilst recent admirable attempts such as REC and 28 Days Later have attempted to provide the genre with continued mainstream credibility, it hasn’t stopped the undead from becoming the go-to gimmick for a wave of first time directors whose budget productions are doomed too a lifetime in straight-to-DVD hell, with even Romero’s most recent effort suffering a similar fate in the UK.
But given the genre’s extensive heritage on the big screen and an obvious audience demand, it’s something of a surprise that it’s taken nearly fifty years for an American network to cotton on to the idea that a TV series set in a world mired by shuffling corpses could work as a concept. After all, aside from Charlie Brooker’s superb Dead Set, broadcast on Channel 4 back in 2008 and, at a push, that episode of Spaced, zombies haven’t really had their due on the small screen until now, which is where AMC steps in with their six-part adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s best-selling graphic novel series The Walking Dead. And, thankfully, a rather fine piece of work it is too.
Chronicling the aftermath of a sudden zombie apocalypse, The Walking Dead follows a small band of survivors as they make their way across a decimated America in a vain attempt at survival. Lead by County Sheriff Rick Grimes, who wakes from a coma to discover a world in tatters, the group make their way across America in search of refuge. But as hope begins to wane the group are forced to make devastating decisions in a futile attempt at survival.
For a show set in a world plagued by walking cadavers, there are surprisingly fewer zombies than you would perhaps expect which, shocking as it may seem, is by no means to the show’s detriment.
For the most part, the graphic novel’s transition to the screen has been a relatively smooth one. Bolstered by the enthusiastic involvement of Frank Darabont and Gale Anne Hurd, the show was promptly greenlit on the strength of its source material alone and whilst there’s little sense wondering what the show could have looked like in the hands of another network, it’s a credit to AMC that they were willing to afford a fantastical post-apocalyptic nightmare the same degree of maturity and sophistication as that given to the world of ad execs in Mad Men. As a result, it’s a hugely accomplished piece of work, very much in keeping with Kirkman’s source material, which culminates in a gritty and, at times, remarkably bleak piece of work, bereft of the slapstick humour that has come to define the genre in recent years.
That’s not to say The Walking Dead is without its lighter moments – inventive kills and amusing exchanges about prior world experiences come with the territory – but the show walks a fine line between grisly horror and affecting melodrama and the end result is remarkably nuanced. In fact, for a show set in a world plagued by walking cadavers, there are surprisingly fewer zombies than you would perhaps expect which, shocking as it may seem, is by no means to the show’s detriment. On the contrary, the show’s primary focus is turned on the survival of its ensemble cast, with shocks and gore serving purely as secondary elements to character development therefore maximising emotional impact. It’s a bold move, but one that plays to the show’s strengths, adding an essential emotional layer that’s tonally in-keeping with Darabont’s previous work whilst simultaneously encapsulating the sinister undertones of Kirkman’s source material.
Perhaps in part due to Kirkman’s first hand involvement, the show attempts to complement the source material, rather than outright re-create it. Both Darabont and Kirkman have acknowledged that, in adapting the novel for television, several alterations to the plot were required for narrative purposes, leaving several key characters whose fates were dealt with early on in the graphic novel alive and well by the season’s conclusion. It’s difficult to discuss this without teetering dangerously close to spoiler territory but this decision, however reprehensible in the eyes of fans, allows Kirkman to re-invent his own universe himself with the assistance of other writers. It’s still very clearly his baby, and it’s clear that the show represents an opportunity for him to develop his ideas further.
The genre may be something of a tried and tested formula, but The Walking Dead does at least attempt to do something new with the content. Whilst Kirkman refuses to let on to the source of the outbreak – it’s hardly worth trying to explain after all - he does dare to venture where few of his predecessors have before, by exploring the science behind the walkers. It’s certainly a novel approach to the genre, and though briefly touched on in the likes of 28 Days Later, Kirkman’s vision of a world in which science is powerless to assist is a chilling one, which further adds to the show’s unrelentingly bleak outlook.
Having barely dented the wealth of potential plotlines from the graphic novel, a second season consisting of thirteen episodes has already been commission by AMC, which bodes well for viewers hesitant to indulge due to the cancel-happy nature of the network television. With a narrative scope on par with any of the recent great American TV successes you’d care to list, and a downright jaw-dropping level of polish, The Walking Dead isn’t just the TV series the zombie genre has deserved for nearly half a century. It may well the best thing to have happened to the genre since Dawn of the Dead.
The Walking Dead is out on DVD / Blu-Ray 16th May
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