It isn’t the most original show on television. In fact, the post-apocalyptic survival epic The Walking Dead could be written off, if you were so inclined, as a mash up of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and its sequels and Stephen King’s The Stand, as a plague of flesh-eating zombies gnaws the human race down to a bloody stump, to a close-knit band of hardy survivors. (Romero is the Bram Stoker of the flesh-eating-zombie sub-genre.) Feature films from The Day of The Triffids to Children of Men and I Am Legend, and the current TV shows Falling Skies and Terra Nova, and many others, are all built on much the same template: world-ending horror as a catalyst for interpersonal conflict and bonding and eventually, in the more optimistic variations, for an upsurge of world-re-building resourcefulness.
The key to the success of Walking Dead, as it was put together by creator and recently cashiered show-runner Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) is that it is first and foremost a survival drama, an ensemble tale about the people stranded by the disaster, the resilient few fighting their way across the decimated landscape of the Deep South, around Atlanta. This is a refugee story that is as psychologically acute and plausible in its details as a first-rate production team can make it.
The special zombie effects executed by Greg Nicotero and his crew are just goopy enough (and just squishy enough in stereophonic sound) to make their point about the vulnerability of human flesh, without seeming to revel in grossness. The use of wide open outdoor spaces to suggest devastation is eloquent, as plumes of smoke rise in the distance, at the limits of human vision. And the gliding genre craftsmanship of suspense and terror is exemplary. A sequence in which the humans hide under the wrecked cars in a freeway pileup, able to see only the feet of the flesheaters shuffling past, is a classic nail-biter.
Without a threat that felt real The Walking Dead would be much less gripping in its depiction of what the challenge brings out in the characters: leadership, cowardice, inventiveness, greed. The members of WD’s uniformly excellent cast, and the bonds and conflicts animating their characters, are smoothly reintroduced in the new season’s first episode, which is an expertly crafted danger-filled chase adventure. (The directors credited on-screen are Ernest Dickerson and Gwyneth Horder-Payton.)
Years ago, action master Walter Hill stated that in his movies, “when someone puts a gun in your face, character is how many times you blink.” Here, too the leading players are sorted out by whether they rise to the occasion or flake out, turn tail or step up. Deputy Sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) is shown to be the perfect team leader, in large part because he doesn’t want the job and is therefore less likely to abuse his authority. Laurie Holden’s Andrea, who lost her sister in season one, argues passionately for the rationality of choosing death over further suffering in some situations. The nod for Most Improved should probably go to Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus), a former White Power knothead who has morphed into a dauntless survivalist commando, always first into the breech.
If you want to get heavy about it, all of the survival sagas hark back to the The Plague, Albert Camus’s all-time ode to the force of life resisting death. The instrument, this time, may be a snarling, shambling pulp horror cliché, but the zombie is also one of the purest avatars of menace in the pop culture lexicon. So denatured that beyond being sub-human they no longer behave even like animals, apparently feeling no pain or fear, a destructive force almost as mindless as Camus’ plague bacillus. Only with teeth.