Thoughts on The Walking Dead/ Fear The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead is one of television’s most lasting phenomena. AMC’s post-apocalyptic zombie soap opera has been one of the, if not the, most watched shows globally for close to a decade at this point, and with each season passing by it becomes ever harder to discern why that is. Nostalgia, I’m sure plays a part in it; even I, long since having grown to despise the show for all its failings, continue to return to it every few months in hopes of finding it reinvigorated and reinvented, closer to its exciting, Darabont-directed roots. Never mind each one of my endeavors to give the show another chance has so far been met with overwhelming disappointment, I’ll keep trying as long as I still remember the excitement of those first episodes, of the introduction to the world and the dreams of what could’ve been but never came to be.

I’ve been through this whole spiel before, and if I were to indulge my disillusionment for just a moment I would once again end up ranting about the technical ineptitude of the crew, the horrendous quality of the script, and of course the cast’s increasing reluctance to even attempt to hide its overwhelming lack of enthusiasm at the prospect of being dragged into yet another season of a show that should’ve ended years ago. I have no wish to go over this for the umpteenth time; none the less, I will now do just that so that I can finally have an article to link to whenever mentioning The Walking Dead in one of my other TV-related works.

Season 8 followed the All Out War plot line from the comic books which focused on Rick’s group of survivors, now known as the Alexandrians, facing off against the Saviors, a rather large community ruled by wannabe authoritarian Negan. Authoritarians, as we know, are as authoritarians do, and Negan ends up using his military strength to subjugate nearby groups and communities, dragging their people into serfdom while murdering all those who misbehave and show signs of rebellion. Alexandria is one of those subjugated groups… not for long, of course, as plot armor has a tendency of giving its wearer superhuman strength and confidence in his or her abilities.

The final episode of the season was (sort of) dedicated to the titular All Out War, as in it was supposed to feature the long awaited confrontation between the two main forces in the story’s world, but once again AMC’s attempts to make as much profit off as small an investment as possible resulted in a laughable stand-off that featured all of 40 extras alongside the dozen or so main characters. The bad guys’ guns got sabotaged by an undercover good guy who won their trust before betraying them, the baddies turned out not to be baddies after all but just ‘people doing their jobs’, the good guys spared them and let them go in the name of some abstract conception of a better world, and Negan got his ass handed to him after allowing Rick to drone on about peace and all other manner of kumbaya shit rather than killing him on the spot in mano-a-spiked bat combat. Oh well, the idiot plot is one of the most common tropes in modern entertainment and one could scarcely imagine a big-name television show or blockbuster movie not utilizing it in order to both provide cheap thrills and appeal to the lowest common denominator in the name of commercial viability, but that’s to be expected, and it doesn’t always necessarily result in a sub-par product, so much as it just adds certain elements that are necessitated by the desire for dumbing down. The issue is that every single aspect of the show has deteriorated beyond comprehension at this point; there is not one facet of The Walking Dead that works, not so much as a minute of quality film making to be found not only in the finale, but in the entire season as a whole.

Where to start? It’s hard to decide what is the worst thing about the way the show presents itself nowadays. Is it the horrendous CGI that turns every supposedly serious battle into a schlocky snooze fest straight out of a cheap 80s knockoff movie you picked up at the local Blockbuster? No, it can’t be that; AMC pulled the same stunt with The Terror and that ended up being, surprisingly, one of the best shows to come out in more than a decade, meaning CGI, while integral, doesn’t make or break a show as long as it isn’t a constant presence on the screen (which it thankfully isn’t). Could it be the overly hammy acting that ruins even the brief moments of mediocre writing in an ocean of straight-up awfulness? It’s possible, but that’s more of a consequence than a cause.

No, for my money, the most infuriating part is the ridiculous faux-psychologism that the show runners have made such a huge part of the show over the past few seasons. A never-ending barrage of surface-level ruminations on morality in a collapsed world and the choice one has to make in order to keep one’s sanity and purity. None of this ever goes anywhere, there is no synthesis in sight, just more and more rehashes of the same few ideas, retold ad nauseum, with each iteration becoming slightly more melodramatic and shoddily thought-out; the show’s attempts at being intellectual are the cinematic definition of diminishing returns. Morgan switches his opinion more often than Maggie switches designer hairstyles during a zombie apocalypse – he’s either in ‘kill nobody’ or ‘kill everybody’ mode with no in-between and he seems liable to switch states at the drop of a hat, he’s already done it about three or four times and there’s no signs of him getting off this wild pseudo-philosophical joy ride that the contemptible dilettante Gimple’s decided is much too thrilling to put an end to. And then, of course, there’s the single most pretentious aspect of the show – its laughable attempts at mimicking Terrence Malick’s plot retardation and non-diegetic character monologues.

Malick’s late career is characterized by a certain type of slow-burning, almost poetical, character-driven drama that features long passages recited by the protagonists to the backdrop of scenes of nature going about its existence as it usually does, that is to say in a rather uneventful manner. These naturalistic shots are often purposely overexposed or feature overwhelming lens flare that gives them a very hazy, dreamy feel, and they are usually interspersed throughout the movie in order to cut up what little action there is, or to provide some manner of context to what is happening on screen in order to make explicit some of the themes that Malick wishes the viewer to explore while experiencing his work. Now, this works with Malick because the man actually knows how to write and how to meaningfully position these moments of extreme introspection and make all this enjoyable, despite its having halted the plot completely and taking the viewer out of the cinematic moment and transporting him into a completely different intellectual frame.

As one might imagine, the creators of The Walking Dead lack the expertise of one of modern cinema’s greatest directors, and their attempts at biting his style amount to less than nothing. What they instead produce is a mind-numbing series of back-and-forths between poorly paced drama, extreme close-ups of character faces while they repeat what amounts to unintelligible gibberish over and over again, and moments of inane dialogue for the purpose of performative character growth where there is no need for such. This is exactly the right use of the word pretentiousness – the parading of certain ideas that could potentially merit further discussion and analysis without engaging in said discussion and analysis, the equivalent of reading the intro to a Wikipedia article and presenting the knowledge gleaned from such a short summary as having been acquired through the consumption of the main source rather than the aforementioned watered down version.

Of course a critique of The Walking Dead wouldn’t be adequate without at least a passing mention of its horrendous editing and cinematography – the grainy 16mm picture was a nice stylistic touch in the beginning while the show was in the hands of Frank Darabont, but now it merely acts as a disgusting layer of slime that coats the camera’s lens and gives the story’s worst characteristics a fitting visual representation, aided by generic camera angles, frenetic editing during battles that befits an early 2000s action movie, some of the most boring and mistimed shot-reverse shot conversations I’ve ever witnessed in my years of watching film and TV, and above all else, a general lack of artistic flair. In that sense, it’s hard to even view The Walking Dead as quality escapism – it looks and feels more like a family drama set in a zombie amusement park, complete with the plastic-y sets and artificial environments.

There is still hope, though – Fear The Walking Dead has proved a much more adequate spin on the tired story, brimming with interesting characters, great performances (especially by the young Frank Dillane who somehow manages to impress me even more than his father did as Stannis in Game of Thrones), at least some degree of technical aptitude, and some decent to good writing that, while not exactly groundbreaking, doesn’t leave me scratching my head and scrambling to figure out why each and every single character behaves like an actual idiot. Season 4’s premier was rather promising, despite Gimple’s involvement – some tight editing, especially in the beginning of the episode during the montages featuring Morgan’s deliberations and consequent travels, decent bits and pieces of visual storytelling (especially as it concerned the passage of time and space as Morgan made his way out of Virginia), and a more competent hand behind the camera that added some cool movement and long shots that gave a better look at the post-apocalyptic world in the span of 20 minutes than the main show has throughout its past 2 seasons put together. Garret Dillahunt’s likeable character is also a breath of fresh air in a universe that has shifted too far into grim-dark territory with its protagonists and has become a self-serious nightmare of humorlessness.

In conclusion, The Walking Dead is absolute trash, but I’ll probably keep watching it out of habit. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me, fool me three times, I stop caring and accept the fate of a gullible fool.

Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead and a closer look at zombies in fiction.

It’s extremely unlikely that there exists a single person on this planet who hasn’t heard the word ‘zombie’ or seen a movie that features the living dead. We can thank (or curse, depending on your stance on the matter) the late, great George A. Romero for turning what was then an obscure subgenre of horror into one of the biggest film categories to ever exist. According to this list on Ranker, there were more than 400 zombie movies being streamed on Amazon Prime and Netflix Instant at the time of writing, and I’m confident there are quite a few missing as well. But, looking through this long list, one would be hard-pressed to find movies that are objectively good. Sure, there are some outliers like 28 Days Later and Dawn of the Dead, but the majority is just C-movie schlock that somehow slipped through the cracks and added to the slow yet steady decline of a genre that was already suffering from untimely erosion in terms of raw quality.

Shaun of the Dead was the first movie to signal both the emancipation and death of zombie cinema. Its story beats closely mirror those of other movies in the genre, but unlike them it rarely takes itself seriously. Shaun is a loser and a bit of an idiot. None of that changes throughout the course of the movie. His plan is to quite literally have a pint in his favorite pub and wait for the whole mess to blow over. It’s not elaborate, it’s not heroic, hell, it’s not even reasonable. It gets most members of his group killed, but even that doesn’t make Shaun reconsider. There are dramatic moments, and they work very well because, in the midst of all the madness and hilarity, these rare minutes of somber clarity catch the viewer by surprise. But they’re just that – moments, minutes. The whole movie is just 100 minutes of satirization and dismantling of genre tropes and cliches. It’s almost ironic that Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead is cited today as possibly the greatest zombie movie ever created, when its whole point was to show how ridiculous the genre was and how easy it was for someone with actual talent and film making flair to come in and trample all the low-brow efforts that came before.

Then came Zombieland in 2009. While Shaun of the Dead was, like the rest of the movies in the Cornetto trilogy, Edgar Wright’s take on a tired genre, Zombieland seemed more like an effort to reinvigorate this particular dead horse. If I was only allowed but one word with which to describe this movie, that word would ‘fun’. It’s a lighthearted play on action movies in general, but instead of making fun of their relative simplicity, it takes the ridiculousness even further and uses it to create a story that is genuinely amusing. The characters are likable and witty, the dialogue and banter between them is engaging, with some neat reference sprinkled in to reward the more observant fans. Bill Murray’s cameo is one of the best I’ve ever seen, and possibly one of Bill’s best performances to date. The atmosphere switches effortlessly between optimism and melancholy, never lingering too long on either. The editing is crisp (if at some points too heavy-handed and distracting), the action is well shot and rather imaginative, with zombies being killed by all manner of items, such as banjos, pliers and even falling pianos. We’ve seen countless zombie movies try to be cerebral and deep, but none of them succeed because the people behind them have no idea how to achieve anything meaningful. George A. Romero was the first and last to successfully use the zombie as a vehicle for social commentary. The Walking Dead, AMC’s hit TV show, came close to being philosophical at times during its first two seasons, but then Frank Darabont was ousted and the role of director was given to a makeup artist who hasn’t the slightest clue about how to create a coherent, engaging narrative. Zombieland is the anti-thesis to all of this. It is, at its core, a movie that aims to entertain, while still successfully weaving in some more serious elements.

Both Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland failed to change the genre’s direction. Zombie movies are still fairly common, good ones are still a rare and valuable commodity. Train to Busan is the only recent one I can name off the top of my head, and it isn’t even a Western production.

But there is one movie in particular that has, over the past few years, made me appreciate just how mediocre the genre is, despite the incredible potential that it has. Brad Pitt’s World War Z is a bland, unbalanced and horribly paced mess that shambles its way to the finish line, carried only by Brad’s acting ability and its high budget action sequences that offer some degree of satisfaction. All of this in and of itself is not particularly bad, plenty of movies like this one get released every year and make huge sums at the box office, but what is particularly infuriating about WWZ is that the book this movie is supposed to be based on is one of the best pieces of zombie fiction ever created. It’s a series of interviews with various people from around the world, with occupations ranging from marines on a Chinese nuclear submarine to bodyguards of Hollywood celebrities. All of these people are survivors, meaning they made it through the outbreak of the zombie virus, and they recount their stories to the interviewer, a man working for the UN. The stories reveal the changes that the world went through during the crisis – religious, political, social, environmental, psychological. Does this sound anything like Brad’s movie? Not at all, because all the studio needed was a name that would sound well and make it easier to bank on the zombie craze.

I feel this is a case of ‘I’m not mad, I’m disappointed’. There is an incredible deal of potential not only in zombie movies, but in the apocalyptic genre in general. There’s so much room to explore deep themes, to create immersive and interesting environments a la Mad Max: Fury Road, to introduce the viewer to characters that aren’t your run of the mill Mary Sue or Mary Stu. And I believe there’s still hope for that. With David Fincher directing the sequel to World War Z (which is rumored to be a reboot, rather than a continuation of the first movie’s story) and Zombieland 2 in the works, maybe it’s finally time for the apocalypse to become interesting again.