11/28/11

The Walking Dead - Season 2, Episode 7 - "Pretty Much Dead Already"

Spoilers. . .


Many professional and amateur viewers of this season of The Walking Dead have pointed out the primary problem with the development of the series -- that is, in a world where zombies could attack and kill you at any moment, the rest of life's dramatics (illicit affairs, pregnancies, and the like) become more inconsequential.  Much has been written about the uneven nature of TWD's second season -- particularly the clunky nature of the Shane-Lori-Rick love triangle and Lori's pregnancy -- and how the human drama hasn't quite measured up to the zombie drama.  I've written here about the need for the show's creators to expand and deepen the cast of characters and to complicate their relationships, and for the most part, I think they've done that well enough.  There have been some dull moments in episodes 2 through 5, but what has mattered most -- Shane's ruthless pragmatism, Hershel's iron-willed faith, and Daryl's hillbilly genius -- is rolling right along.

After the airing of truths in last week's "Secrets," matters come to a head, driven mostly as Shane and Rick try to position themselves as leaders, not just of the RV Gang, but of Hershel' farm as well.  The tribal nature of survival in the post-apocalyptic world is a prominent theme in the comics and was clearly demonstrated in Season 1's "Vatos."  The truth is, if Hershel really wants to survive on his own moral terms (zombies are just sick people, not killers, and therefore properly kept in the barn), he is perfectly correct in demanding that Rick and the RV Gang leave as soon as possible.  But when Glenn lets it drop to the RC Gang about the zombies in the barn, Shane has one plan in mind, although Rick thinks he can work out an arrangement with Hershel.

Hershel calls Rick away on a zombie-wrangling mission.  A couple of walkers have gotten stuck in the swamp, and, apparently, the usual routine on the Greene farm is to round them up and stick them in the barn with the rest of the herd.  While Rick is stumbling around in the mud trying to capture zombie, Shane has to track down Dale -- who's attempting to hide the RV Gang's guns -- and get the weapons back.  Dale makes a nice principled speech about keeping his nice principles, but Shane simply is the more aggressive man.  The momentum of the episode carries quickly to the final ten minutes, with Shane headed for the barn locked and loaded and Rick going the same way with two rescued walkers on snare poles.  The entire cast converges on the barn for the final scene in which Shane -- not Rick -- take charge of the situation.  Hershel is too idealistic even to see the walkers as a threat, and Rick is too concerned with protecting the group to take decisive action, but Shane knows exactly what he wants to do.  He gives out guns to the RV Gang and opens up the barn.

What follows is a clear demonstration of just how ready the group is to defend itself.  A score of walkers emerge from the barn and are dispatched with ease and not a little gore.  Shane kills efficiently, Andrea shows her new cool, and the rest of the group -- even Glenn -- mow down the undead in a matter of a few minutes.  Daryl blasts away at the zombie that used to be Hershel's wife.  While the killfest probably won't satisfy the hardcore action fans, it does make up for the lack of zombies seen in the middle episodes of the first half of the season.  One wonders if there are budgetary or time constraints in terms of the presentation of zombies on TWD.  The most powerful moment of all -- and one that was indeed spoiled over the weekend for those who cared to look for it online -- came when Sophia, now a walker, emerges as the last of the barn-zombies.   Her mother, Carol, runs toward her, only to be restrained by Daryl.  Of all people, Rick steps up and, with his own pistol, puts a bullet into walker-Sofia's skull.  End of episode.

What has the gang learned?  If you get separated from the group, you're as good as dead; for Rick, this means that you don't run off so easily on errands of mercy.  Walkers are not people; for Hershel, this still may not be something he can accept, whereas for Carol, it may be.  The best walker is a dead walker; for Shane, this is the argument he's been making all along, and Rick, it seems, comes to agree with him.

While the time on Hershel's farm has been useful in giving the writers time and space to develop the characters, it hasn't been without risks in terms of holding audience attention.  Although TWD isn't quite up to the epic scale of a big-budget, serialized show like Lost, it's worth remembering that Lost did a little wandering in Seasons Two or Three (Mr. Eko? Ana Lucia Cortez? Nikki and Paulo?), but found its way back once an end point to the story was reached (no more than six seasons).  It seems to me that, based on "Pretty Much Dead Already," TWD writers have a general sense of how to get to these big payoffs, but that the details of the more mundane human drama are tricky.  One hopes that the second half of the season will show more improvement in the scene-to-scene situations and dialogue.

To take a few cues from the comics, TWD might work more effectively if the following were kept in mind:

1. Anyone can die at any moment. Many of the most shocking moments in the Kirkman's comics are simply the deaths -- accidental or intentional -- or major characters.  Although it certainly shouldn't be overused, and it would probably be a nightmare to keep secret until airtime, the death of a featured cast member in the middle of the season would strongly establish the danger of the world of walkers.

2. The problem is people.  A clear theme in the comics lies in the exploration of how humans, as social animals, reconfigure their relationships, morals, and behaviors to suit new circumstances.  While Hershel's farm is a good starting point for exploring this theme, there are far more effective settings and social arrangements that can be borrowed from the comics -- and who knows what the show's writers might come up with.

3. Carl is potentially the most interesting character.  In the comics, Carl is seven, whereas on the TV show, I believe  he's 12.  It's a widely held opinion that Carl is one of the strongest and most compelling character in the comics.  Now, maybe it's me, but most 7th graders I know are relatively sophisticated and capable pretty much of taking care of themselves.  As played by Chandler Riggs, Carl rings most true to me when he's demanding to be treated like an adult -- wanting to learn to shoot, for instance -- and sneaking around a bit as he tries to be a grown up.  A fertile ground for the writers might be a short arc where Carl is separated from the group and has to fend for himself -- like those very strong moments from Daryl Dixon this season.  As a kid in a world where death lurks around every corner, you've got to learn to kill walkers, and kill them well.  It might be shocking to see at first, but what an opportunity for some real innovative television.

Zombie Quotient - 1 (none) to 10 (major herd) - 7
Zombie Kill of the Week - Shane, a pistol, point blank against the skull of a snare-poled walker.

11/22/11

The Walking Dead - Season 2, Episode 6 - "Secrets"

The snowclone for today's blog entry is "When X learns that Y."  All set?  Here we go. Spoilers. . .

1. When Andrea learns that Daryl has no hard feelings about her shooting him, it's another sign that Daryl is more complicated and principled than we give him credit for.  That's about it in this episode for Norman Reedus, who plays Daryl.  Both the character and the actor probably need a rest.

2. When Dale learns that Hershel has been keeping zombies in the barn, kindly Dale attempts to reason with the increasingly cranky Hershel, only to be rebuffed.  We're not murderers, says Hershel, and those are people in the barn.  Yeah, right.

3. Glenn learns that Maggie thinks he's totally awesome -- courageous leadership material, dammit! -- after he risks his life again on yet another supply run.  Glenn has a fine zombie-kill, using a drugstore shelf to take out a particularly nasty walker that attacks Maggie.

4.  When Carl learns that his parents will let him learn to shoot, he shoots the shit out of a bunch of stuff.

5. When Andrea learns that she can shoot a gun pretty well, Shane decides to increase the difficulty of her training, and when she starts to lose her composure in trying to hit a moving target, Shane yells at her.  Not cool.

6. When Lori learns that Hershel expects the RV Gang to hit the road once Carl and Daryl are fully healed, she's not happy that Rick's been keeping that little logistical detail from her.

7. When Shane learns that Andrea wants to have sex, they have sex.  In the car.  Parked in the middle of the road.  Very cool.

8.  When Rick learns Lori that is pregnant, he's worried that she's going to get rid of the baby.

9. When Lori learns that Rick has known about her affair with Shane, she's more confused than apologetic.

10. When Dale learns that Andrea likes hanging around Shane, he confronts Shane about it, only to have Shane threaten to kill old man Dale if he presses the matter.

While "Secrets" is not the kind of mid-season cliffhanger we might expect from a series with zombies, the plot threads that have been playing out from the start of the season are nicely tangled halfway along here.  Shane, who's role in the comics had been extinguished by this point in the Hershel's farm storyline, now becomes as essential to the plot as Rick.  Shane loves Rick's family, and would do anything to help the people he cares about, and how he's developed a meaningful bond with Andrea.  Dale, whose passive-aggressive, cards-close-to-the-chest approach has worked until now, is quickly being pushed aside by the younger, more aggressive characters.  Andrea has made a play to become a survivor.  Lori's general avoidance of hard choices has caught up with her.  Glenn and Maggie are clearly going to be asserting themselves more in the general mix of things, as Maggie' confidence will bolster Glenn's developing skills as a leader.  Rick's got plenty to deal with in terms of Lori, and Shane -- and there's a looming conflict with Hershel's folks that still has to begin playing out in the second half of the season.

So, while there wasn't much zombie-killing this week, there was a real sense of movement in the characters, particularly internally.  If characters best reveal themselves by the decisions they made when faced with challenging situations, "Secrets" laid bare the thinking of most of the RV Gang.  As others have said, for the show to succeed in the long term, The Walking Dead needs to be about more than Rick.  And, in a way that avoids gimmicks like "Last Week on The Walking Dead" and, for the most part, Lost-style flashbacks, the creative team have found a way to move the show from being about one character to being about a dozen -- in the space of six episodes.

With a closing shot of Lori and Rick standing in the middle of the road, at an impasse in their conversation, it seems that TWD is primed for a great many reactions from the cast of characters, probably in the additional context of Hershel's barn causing more and more problems.  Next week, we'll reach a stopping point of sorts with the episode "Pretty Much Dead Already," as the series goes on a two month hiatus.  Hold on to your hats and pass the ammo.  After that, no new episodes until February 12 of next year.

Zombie Kill of the Week: Glenn, with shelving.
Zombie Quotient - from 1 (none) to 10 (major herd): 4

11/14/11

The Walking Dead - Season 2, Episode 5 - "Chupacabra"

For those who aren't familiar with the Chupacabra, it's one of those mythical creatures -- like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster -- whose existence has been suggested but is unrecognized by scientific consensus and often regarded as highly unlikely. Dropped into a conversation towards the start of this episode, it becomes a theme for this installment of The Walking Dead, which has had its work cut out for it this season in maintaining its nervy tone while fleshing out its characters and introducing the world of Hershel's farm.  The reality or unreality of the Chupacabra depends largely on what you choose to believe, your sense of priorities, and your values. In a world where walkers exist, where the vicious goat-sucker of legend is real, how do you proceed?

After a much-needed flashback that resets Shane's attachment to Lori and Carl, as well as reminding us of what an incredible asshole Carol's husband Ed was before his welcome demise, the men of the RV gang set off on their search for little lost Sophie, even as Carol suggests to the RV ladies that they should prepare a nice meal for  everyone at Hershel's farm.  Andrea, who's had more than enough of doing laundry and the like, takes up a sentry post atop the RV, a scoped rifle at her side.  There's a quaint attachment to the old habits of domesticity that completely lacks appeal for Andrea; she's got survival in mind.

In a fine scene between Shane and Rick, what starts out as a light conversation about old girlfriends moves quickly to Shane's questioning of Rick's leadership -- another stretch of dialogue that gets to the point and, frankly, probably doesn't need to proceed much further.  Are Rick's priorities in the right place, as he insists on continuing to look for Sophie?  As Shane says, Sophie's survival only "matters to the degree to which she don't drag the rest of us down."  Rick still holds out hope that Sophie might be alive still, out there in the forest, like the Chupacabra.  Later on, Hershel and Rick have some tense words, as Hershel clearly suggests that the RV Gang and the folks on the farm shouldn't be mixing their business.  "I'll control mine, you control yours."  The most serious example of people mixing it up, of course, are Maggie Greene and Glenn, who, having done the deed in the last episode, are stumbling their way towards another tryst, although Glenn is a little bit clueless as to how to go about it.  Everyone's working from a different set of priorities.


Easily, the best scenes in the episode happen, as they often do, with Daryl Dixon, off on his own -- this time on horseback -- searching for Sophie.  But his horse, spooked by a snake, throws Daryl into a ravine.  In the tumble down the deep slope, one of his crossbow bolts is driven through his side -- a bloody mess, but not fatal.  After some moments, Daryl is able to rouse himself, fetch his crossbow, but doesn't have the nerve to pull the bolt out of his side.  He finds Sophie's doll -- a sign!  He attempts to climb out of the ravine, but on the point of making it, falls back down and badly hits his head.  As with some of the most effective moments in film, much of this excruciating business is done with no dialogue, and is all the more watchable.


In a vision, Daryl's big brother Merle (Michael Rooker) appears, a strange sort of guardian angel, taunting his brother for getting himself in a situation while looking a a little girl on behalf of people who don't care about him at all.  He's become nothing but an errand boy for "pansy-asses, niggers, and Democrats," says Merle.  "Ain't nobody ever going to care about you like me, little brother."  And, as Merle's taunting gets more physical, Daryl comes to just in time to kill the walker that's started to gnaw on his boot.  In order to kill another walker that's been drawn by the commotion, Daryl has to pull the crossbow bolt from his side and load up.  Those are your two zombie kills for the week right there.  In the end, Daryl managed to bind up his side, drag himself out of the ravine, and back to the farm.


Daryl's scenes in this episode are so primitive -- even the imagined bits of conversation with Merle are blunt and brutal -- that the contrast with the relative silliness back on the farm is stark.  Daryl might not be sure why he's looking for Sophie or why he fights so damn hard to survive, but he will not give up and he will not be killed.  He's not a wild-man, exactly, but he's not a pastoral dictator like Hershel or a gritty lawman like Rick.  Daryl simply does what he needs to, without flinching.  Hell, he'll eat a raw squirrel if necessary.  (He does, by the way.)  When Daryl finally stumbles out of the treeline, he's spotted at a distance by Andrea, who thinks he's a walker.  And, while all the men take up their blunt instruments, puff out their chests, and tell her to stand out, "Better let us handle this!" -- Andrea, who's fed up with being held back, still pops off a round.  She's a good shot, but not quite good enough, and grazes Daryl's temple.  The prodigal son returns, and this is what he gets.  Daryl's fine -- just a flesh wound -- but he'll have to miss dinner.


So let's just say that the big dinner that night, with the RV Gang and Hershel's Flock all sitting down together, is a tense affair, made all the more tense by Glenn and Maggie passing notes back and forth as they attempt to find a time and place to knock boots.  Glenn's note, which Maggie doesn't open until after dinner, suggests a roll in the hay -- the hayloft of the barn, he means, and Maggie just catches Glenn in time as he discovers that Hershel has a little secret.  Nope, he doesn't kill walkers.  He keeps them locked in the barn.  Ah, the secrets we keep from each other.


What works in this episode is the convergence of plotlines -- finally -- and the reliance more on visual storytelling.  As much as the writers have had to spin off most of the characters into their pairs and trios to develop this or that, that tense "family dinner" tells us everything.  There's some major shit going down very soon, and everyone's just being too polite about it.  Leave it to Glenn -- reckless, goofy, gossipy Glenn -- to stumble onto that barnful of walkers, which should pull everything together in the next episode.  And the visual dimension of the series -- the really pretty greens and earth tones of the forest and the farm -- are of course illusory.  There's darkness and dirt and rotting flesh, you just have to know where to look for it.  Down a well, in the woods, penned up in the barn.  And, of course, if you don't go looking for the undead, they are sure to come looking for you sooner or later.


Zombie Kill of the Week: Daryl, with a stick, Zombie #1 in the Ravine
Zombie Quotient - from 1 (none) to 10 (major horde): 3.5

11/13/11

The Walking Dead - Season 2, Episode 4 - "Cherokee Rose"

Getting caught up today!  Spoilers ahead. . .

While I can imagine the gore-and-gunpowder purists objecting to the interpersonal developments in "Cherokee Rose," I would note that those protesting must have be tone deaf to character.  With Carl recovering from his shooting, there's not much for Rick and Hershel to do in this episode but enter into a quiet sort of negotiations about whether or not the RV Gang will be staying at the farm.  And we find out about Lori what we'd been suspecting all along -- that she's pregnant, although nobody can say if the baby is going to be Rick's or Shane's.  Now that is an interesting development, and a fine peg on which to hang the plot for many episodes to come.

Shane isn't doing so well with his I-Killed-Otis-and-Left-Him-To-Die secret, but in and around his limping sulkiness, he makes time to talk guns with Andrea, who's eager to learn.  For me, Andrea's development can't be moved along quickly enough, as it seems a waste of a fine actor in Laurie Holden.

Everyone's favorite redneck-with-a-crossbow, Daryl Dixon, becomes even more engaging in this episode, dragging his grimy self back into the woods again in search of Sophie, returning only with the flower that gives this episode its name -- Cherokee Rose -- and a lyrical speech to Sophie's suffering mother that offers comfort where none could be found.  If, as the show's producers have been hinting of late, Daryl's super-jerk of a brother Merle does make his return, there's sure to be a grand falling out.  I can't quite put my finger on how Norman Reedus manages to make Daryl into such a compelling character -- something about his ease with solitude and the dogged way he keeps searching for Sophia, I reckon.  There's much there that will be unpacked, I'm sure.

What made the headlines, of course, was the most disgusting zombie of the series yet, another "stranded" sort, this one trapped in the well that's used to water the animals on Hershel's farm.  The RV Gang decides they need to get it out -- all the better to preserve the water quality.  None other that Glenn volunteers to drop down the well and loop a rope around the walker -- call him a wader in this case -- although, as usual, Glenn nearly gets eaten.  And no sooner is the zombie pulled out of the well than --well, you'll just have to see for yourself.  Let's just say that nobody's drinking from that well ever again.  At least Dale and T-Dog had something to do in this episode.

And, just as Glenn has thrilled the crowd yet again with his devil-may-care attitude, he's sent into town to get supplies, along with everybody's favorite farmer's daughter, Maggie Greene.  They ride in on horseback to the drugstore, and, in a moment of misunderstanding (Glenn's getting a pregnancy test for Lori), Maggie all but propositions him.  From this point forward, Glenn will certainly be happy to work on Maggie's farm, although I don't suspect he'll be volunteering to go exploring down any wells again. There's something fresh and hopeful about even this awkward romance in the midst of all the bleakness.

"Cherokee Rose" is another episode of building characters and their relationships, with one great zombie appearance and demise.  There's a great deal of humor and pathos to be found throughout.  For some, this won't be a memorable episode, but it's a necessary one nevertheless.

Zombie Kill of the Week: The RV Gang, with a rope, by the well.
Zombie Quotient - from 1 (none) to 10 (a major herd): 2

The Walking Dead - Season 2, Episode 3 - "Save The Last One"

As always, spoilers ahead. . .

Well, the most excellent Pruitt Taylor Vince had it good on The Walking Dead for about two-and-a-half episodes as the hefty, slightly bumbling but goodhearted Otis.  As you might remember, it's Otis who has shot Carl Grimes in a hunting accident, requiring Rick to make a mad dash for Hershel's Farm, and Hershel, a veterinarian, is able to stabilize Carl long enough for Shane and Otis to volunteer for a medical supplies run to the clinic at the local high school.  The previous episode hung on the cliff of Shane and Otis, having gotten the supplies to possibly save Carl's life, only to get trapped in the high school by a stirred-up-and-hungry hoard of ghouls.

"Save the Last One" opens with Shane returned (whew), and paying close attention to his personal hygiene.  In fact, he's decided to take the clippers to his manly mane and reduce his handsome head to a meager crop of scalp-stubble.  But why, Shane, why?  Turns out that Otis didn't make it back, as he and Shane had to shoot their way out, but Shane's at a loss for words.  There's not much time, as Hershel has to operate on Carl and two dramatic questions linger over this episode:  What really happened to Otis? and Will Carl make it?


Other questions linger from before -- Will the RV Gang ever find Sophia, whose disappearance set all this in motion in the first place?  Will Andrea continue to put up with the patronizing attitudes of the other alpha males -- especially Dale?  Will Daryl Dixon continue to be awesomely crossbow-riffic?  Is Rick going to figure out that Lori and Shane had an affair when they thought he was dead?  Is Hershel really this nice?  Will T-Dog and Glenn find something useful to do?


Glenn (Steven Yeun) appears to be a little more than dumbstruck in the presence of Maggie (Lauren Cohan) , Hershel's daughter, who rode in last episode and saved Glenn from a walker.  During one of the more compelling quiet scenes, Glenn and Maggie talk about faith, and he is more impressed with her than she with him.  Glenn's still carrying a great deal of self-doubt and hesitation, whereas Maggie seems to know much more clearly what she wants and how to act.

Another fine moment happens between Daryl and Andrea, off in the woods looking for Sophia, as they happen upon a rather pathetic zombie, a biting-victim who has hanged himself and then come back, only to be trapped in the noose long enough to have his lower limbs gnawed off.  The creators of the show are certainly finding interesting ways to "strand" zombies of late, and are finding a degree of humor with the walkers, who are, at times, almost a nuisance to be dealt with.  It seems clear that Daryl -- the ultimate pragmatist -- and Andrea -- who wants to be an independent survivor -- fit together well.

But as to the main dramatic questions, let's get to it.  Carl does indeed pull through.  And Shane, it turns out, has a dark survivor's streak -- driven perhaps out of his twisted love for Rick's family -- and, indeed, the reason Otis didn't make it back from the high school is revealed.  Shane shot him and left him behind as walker-bait while he hightailed it home.  Shane's shaving his head to cover up the tuft of hair Otis ripped from Shane's scalp in the struggle to get away.  Ugly business, but a decision that had to be made, and Shane's clearly the character to watch in upcoming episodes.  Not having lasted this long in the comic books means that Shane can be almost anything the producers need him to be.

While some viewers have complained about the slow pace of the series, I can't say that I agree.  Granted, there's got to be some degree of development between and among the characters, as most of them don't really know each other.  Drama is as much driven by internal conflicts based of love and loyalty as much as they are on external factors, so I don't see how later episodes are going to have much emotional payoff unless some investment is made in creating new relationship dynamics.  It might be worth some time and thought to devote a bit of attention to a flashback here and there -- I'm thinking a little borrowing from the narrative structure of Lost -- should one character or another need depth.  Dale is a bit of a mystery, as is Daryl.  But payoffs are coming, certainly -- between Andrea and the rest of the group, in the Rick-Lori-Shane triangle, between Hershel and Rick, between Maggie and Glenn, and between Daryl, T-Dog, and the others when old one-hand Merle makes his return.  Give me a couple of good zombie appearances a week and I'll stay with it.

Zombie Kill of the Week: Shane, with a shotgun -- take your pick.
Zombie Quotient - on a scale of 1 (none) to 10 (major herd): 6.5

10/24/11

The Walking Dead - Season 2, Episode 2 - "Bloodletting"

The best moment of "Bloodletting" comes early, when Rick, having carried his gun-shot son Carl over hill and dale to the farmhouse where Hershel Greene (Scott Wilson), an elderly veterinarian, has managed to stabilize Carl.  In the briefest of moments, Rick stands on the porch and has a quick talk with his friend Shane, who wipes Carl's blood from Rick's face.  Rick, who's been the picture of action and nerve countless times, is at his most desperate and devastated, and actor Andrew Lincoln's raw agony is almost unbearable.  It's over before you know it, but it sets the tone for the rest of the episode -- confused, anxious, and weary.

Most welcome in the episode is the introduction of a new group of characters at Herschel's farm -- familiar to readers of the comic book -- and, given the resumes of the actors cast Chez Greene, we should expect to spend some time with these folks.  Scott Wilson's Hershel is almost unnervingly calm and confident; the excellent Pruitt Taylor Vince lends a strange gravitas to the farmhand Otis, who accidentally shoots Carl and later volunteers to make a run for medical supplies; a seriously de-glammed Lauren Cohan as daughter Maggie Green (and a horse) completely steal a scene in the forest as she is sent to bring Lori back to the farmhouse to be with her family. There's much ground to cover here, but show-runner Glen Mazzara's script and Ernest Dickerson's direction never seem hurried.

Most of the RV Gang reconvenes at the traffic jam on the highway, and a decision is made to travel to Hershel's farm, despite the circumstance of Carol's daughter Sophia is still lost in the woods.  Everyone's favorite redneck Daryl Dixon -- winner of Zombie Kill of the Week -- is demonstrating ever increasing degrees of cool and resourcefulness.  He delivers the funniest line of the week ("Am I the only Zen one around here?"), gives the injured T-Dog painkillers and antibiotics, and quickly devises a plan to both take care of Sophia and get everyone back to the farmhouse.  Dale and T-Dog have a couple of conversations, both of which seem to be a little bit of treading water:  Dale is reassuring but a little condescending; T-Dog is paranoid about his being the only black guy.  Andrea continues to be pissed at Dale -- and generally pissed at feeling like a victim.  No doubt she wants her gun and needs to start practicing with it -- and damn quick.

This week's rolling plot-ball revolves around Carl's gunshot wound, which Hershel can treat, but only if he can get the proper equipment, and said equipment is (of course) in a place where there are A Lot of Zombies.  Shane, who manages to do the right thing by Rick -- above and beyond, really -- agrees to travel with good old Otis in the old Ford pickup to an emergency medical station to get everything needed to save Carl's life.  Night is falling, Carl is fading, Rick's running out of blood to transfuse, and while Otis and Shane make it to the supply room just fine, getting back home is another matter, and we end the episode with Otis and Shane trapped inside a building, a horde of hungry zombies banging at the gate.

All in all, despite the perfunctory scenes with Dale -- who, old man or not, needs an ass-kicking from somebody and soon -- this episode moved along nicely, although it was probably short on walkers for real fans of the undead.  Still, there was a clear "oh crap" moment when a shambling mass of walkers was discovered milling around the medical supply station.  For me, it never gets old, and I think one of the secrets of The Walking Dead is how the producers manage, in some episodes, to keep the zombie-quotient relatively low.

The setting of Hershel's farm is a particularly noteworthy development, in addition to the new characters and new possibilities in the plot.  It is, for reasons yet fully explained, zombie-free, and almost ideally clean and untouched by the collapse of civilization.  And Hershel's uncanny sense of calm in the face of everything has to be more than a little curious.  There's a hint of what's ticking inside Hershel Greene in a conversation he has about the nature of the apocalypse, saying that, in his view, it was very little different from AIDS or any of the other diseases and catastrophes humanity has faced.  Humanity prevails, he insists, but he doesn't necessarily seem all that hopeful.

Zombie Kill of the Week: Daryl Dixon, crossbow at close range, delivered with the line, "Oh, shut up!"


Zombie-Quotient - on a scale of 1 (none) to 10 (major herd): 3

10/17/11

The Walking Dead - Season 2, Episode 1 - "What Lies Ahead"

Spoilers. . .

The episode opens with Rick on the rooftop at dawn, talking on the radio to Morgan, offering a recap of Season One, a warning to stay away from Atlanta, and news that the RV Gang will be moving on to Fort Benning, a little over 100 miles south by the highway.  I like this Rick-on-the-radio device, as it might help avoid the usual "Previously on The Walking Dead. . ." setups that the most complicated serials require.  As a longtime Star Trek fan, I also like the similarity to the often-deployed "Captain's Log."  At any rate, we're hitting the road.

We don't get very far before there's a traffic jam of wrecked cars and desiccated corpses on Interstate-85, and even as the gang snakes its way through the mess, that pesky radiator hose on Dale's RV manages to blow.  I can't say I like the trope here, and it's going to get overused pretty quickly, but it does afford the group an opportunity to 1) get over their squeamishness about scavenging for supplies, and 2) introduce the concept of the Walker Herd.  In the comics, it took a while for Kirkman and Company to establish the idea of the herd, these large groups of zombies who cling together, but as an adaptive trait, it makes perfect sense.  One slow-moving, rather dim zombie -- no problem!  Hundreds of them -- you're dead.  With Robert Kirkman and Ardeth Bey splitting the writing of "What Lies Ahead," this further establishment of the rules of Walker World is effectively placed.

At this point, everyone pretty much hides from the herd, and three plot lines spin off from the arrival of zombies en masse.  T-Dog, who badly cuts his arm while attempting to hide is rescued from a certain devouring by the increasingly resourceful redneck Daryl Dixon (played by the increasingly awesome Norman Reedus).  Andrea, who gets trapped in the RV, manages to kill a zombie with a screwdriver, but she clearly is not going to let that happen to her again.  Most significantly, Carol's daughter Sophie, fleeing the highway from a couple of zombies, escapes into the woods, where Rick follows here, and in an unmitigated display of badassery, kills both zombies with a rock and his bare hands.  Sadly, Sophie slips away and gets lost.

Rick returns to the highway, brings Daryl back with him into the woods to search for Sophie, but any trail she's left simply disappears.  They manage to take down a walker in their afternoon's work, and, in one of the truly gruesome (and awesome) moments in the episode, Daryl cuts open the dead zombie to check its stomach for evidence of Sophie.  Nope, just a woodchuck.  Although Daryl was not an original character in the comics, his addition in the series here makes sense, as the heightened realism of television might require that at least one member of the group have serious survival skills.  With his crossbow, buck knife, and a complete lack of squeamishness, Daryl is an abrasive personality everyone must put up with if they want to stay alive.

Also welcome is the increasing assertiveness of Rick and Lori's son Carl, who finds a very useful cache of cutting weapons -- whose relative silence won't draw the attention of walkers in the way that guns do.  Carl also insists on coming along the next day to help search for Sophie.  Similarly contentious is Andrea, who isn't exactly happy with Dale for the emotional blackmail he pulled on her to get her out of the CDC fireball at the send of Season One.  Andrea wants her gun back, but none of the men want her to have it.  In both Carl and Andrea, you start to see a quickly dawning awareness of the basic requirement for survival: Be ready to kill a walker on your own at any time in any situation.  Other characters fade into the background in this episode, namely T-Dog and Glenn, with Dale lacking much to do save frown at Andrea and pretend he can't fix the damned radiator hose so the group will have another day to search for Sophia.

And search they do, for the remainder of the episode, which dawdles a little to let Shane and Lori grumble at each other, to establish Shane and Andrea as outsiders, and to bring everyone to a church in the woods for the exploration of some spiritual themes.  After clearing the pews of a few undead (crunch, splat, squish), there's time for Carol to ask God about the mixed messages he's sending, and, later, for Rick to apologize for his faithlessness and ask for a bit of good luck.  As Shane, Rick, and Carl head back to the highway, they encounter a big, beautiful buck -- and the men let Carl walk right up to the deer, much to the boy's delight.  Is it that sign that Rick was looking for?  Nope.  A gunshot rings out from somewhere unseen, killing the deer, passing through its body, and striking Carl, who falls to the ground, clearly wounded.  Cut to black.

We really couldn't ask for much more from The Walking Dead in a season premiere.  The RV Gang is clearly trying to move on, but the new developments (lack of reliable infrastructure and herds) makes this almost impossible.  Although we're treading water with the big players from last year, there are clearly strong developments coming for Daryl, Andrea, and Carl -- this last character being one of the most important and fascinating in the entire run of the comics.  The makeup throughout was outstanding as usual, as were the various "zombie kills," a particularly specific aesthetic of the genre.  AMC clearly has no hesitation in showing what for television is groundbreaking graphic gore.  The gross out factor aside, "What Lies Ahead" has two truly gripping moments:  the sheer size of the zombie herd as it shambles its way through the chaos of the highway, and Rick's one-on-two with some fairly fit walkers in the woods.  There's nothing like a good hunk of granite for crushing skulls.

Next week - Season 2, Episode 2 - "Bloodletting" (written by new show runner, Glen Mazzara)

10/16/11

The Walking Dead - Season 1 Review - Part 2: "The RV Gang Hits the Road"

1.5 - "Wildfire"

Finally, Rick and the gang get moving in the wake of a fairly substantial nighttime attack by walkers.  The first twenty minutes of this episode offered up the mundane gruesomeness of life with zombies: burning the incapacitated walkers, making sure you're destroyed the brain stems of your bitten-and-killed loved ones, and terminating the loved ones who've reanimated before they can attack you.  Although most people would point to Andrea's determination to spend as much time with her dead/undead sister as possible as the most gruesome of these early moments, I think Carol Peletier's tortured finishing-off (with a pick axe) of her abusive husband as much more effective.  Actor Melissa McBride conveyed a truly horrifying mixture of rage, regret, and grief with each blow she delivered.

Thematically, the zombie-fever that is killing Jim (bitten in the last episode) brings out an idea that should prove very important in most episodes:  in a ostensibly hopeless situation, are people entitled to take their lives in the way they see fit.  As the decision is made for the gang to pack up camp and head to Center for Disease Control back in Atlanta, they don't go very far before Jim is left by the side of the road, under a pleasant tree, with a little shade and a little breeze, to die on his own terms.  It's a sad, merciful moment for the crew, those goodbyes to Jim -- in part because it's still another death in a world full of death, but more in how some people might wish as well to leave the world as Jim is doing.  Why not?

The small caravan of survivors reaches the CDC building, and there's another chilling moment of cinematography.  The sleek modern building is surrounded on all sides by dead bodies, those bodies rotting and swarmed by flies, and the camera makes the most of wide and boom shots to convey the sense of total disaster in a place where one might expect order.  The gang makes it to the doors of the CDC just as the sun is setting, and even as the dark and the walkers close in, it appears that the building's steel doors will not be opened for anything.  Pinned against the building, the crew is in full panic mode, but Rick sees one of the remote cameras move, and demands that the doors be opened.  Inside, the solitary scientist Dr. Jenner, who we've seen before in a few video logs and short scenes, finally relents and opens the door -- brilliant with light, just as the episode ends.

Aside from deepening several characters' personalities -- Andrea's, Carol's, and Shane's (whose tensions with Rick are clearly leading to darker developments -- "Wildfire" establishes the difficulty of staying put for any length of time, the correctness of some people to exit this terrifying new world on their own terms, and, with the CDC storyline, the possibility that civilization has truly collapsed and that there is no hope of recovery or cure.

1.6 - "TS-19"

As effective a machine as this episode as keeping the plot ball rolling, it resorts to a couple of narrative devices that I have problems with.  First of all, Dr. Jenner, who has opened the doors to let the RV Gang into the CDC underground compound, is a bit of a puzzle in terms of his characterization.  He's compassionate enough to let people into the complex, to share his food and wine, hot water and soap, and even share what he's been able to learn about the disease that's creating the walkers.  At the same time, he's arrogant and cynical enough to lock everyone in once the underground complex's auto-destruct sequence automatically kicks in once the power's run out.  Even though Noah Emmerich is a fine actor, the script does do his character any favors in terms of motivation.  He lets people in only to kill them the next day?

My bigger problem in the countdown self-destruct clock that rushes the plot through the final two acts.  Could we think of a less hackneyed plot device, please?  At the same time, it's certainly impressive that the grenade Rick picked up back during his clusterfuck by the tank finally has a use -- to blow out the unbreakable glass of the CDC lobby, allowing the gang to escape just before the Season Finale Giant Fireball.  And although the final shots of VEHICLES TAKING A U-TURN is a little disappointing as a cliffhanger, the basic work of TWD's Season One is complete.  The job is to set the mood and style of the series, establish the primary characters, and set the ground rules of this fictional world.

But to return to much of what worked!  Having cast off several characters in the last episode -- Jim Who Got Bitten, Andrea's sister, Carole's husband, and the entire Morales family -- we lose Jacqui, who dies in the fireball with Dr. Jenner.  Rick's leadership is solidified, Shane's deranged nature is made more extreme in his near-rape of Lori, and the relationship between Dale and Andrea is complicated, as he convinces her not to take her own life as the self-destruct sequence counts down.  Driving away at the end of Season One are most of the key characters from the comics, with the addition of T-Dog and Daryl, both of whom are mixed up in the mystery of What Happened to Merle.  That's tidy.

Of lesser importance is the establishment of the "ground rules" for zombie-creation and the possibility of a cure.  The deal with the latter first: There is no cure, reports Jenner.  Even the French cannot find a cure! (I suspect that's some species of meta-joke.)  As far as zombies are concerned, nobody'ssome of these questions need to be addressed.  The writers covered enough to get us to Season Two.

On we go.  Good luck, Rick and everyone else.  let's hope you don't meet up with Merle too soon.

10/15/11

The Walking Dead - Season 1 Review - Part 1: "Origin of The RV Gang"

With the Season Two premiere of the The Walking Dead coming up tomorrow night, it's time to review the short, spectacular first season of AMC's zombie series.  Rather than take last season episode by episode (as I'll be doing for all of Season Two), I'll cover the two main story arcs from last year, which we'll call "Origin of The RV Gang," followed by "The RV Gang Hits the Road."

"Days Gone Bye" - Episode 1.1

Much has been made of the exit of series developer and Season One showrunner Frank Darabont, before the start of Season Two, but I would argue that Darabont's exit may be the best thing for helping The Walking Dead have a long life as a television series.  Darabont's most impressive credits come from the movies -- and rest primarily on The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile -- and he did an amazing job in crafting the first episode, "Days Gone Bye."  The pre-apocalypse scenes with Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and Shane Walsh (Jon Bernthal) -- particularly the long conversation about relationships as the two sherriff's deputies talk about their relationship problems -- create the heart of the dramatic questions that will dominate the primary character's lives for much of the first season. Shane's got little patience for the woman in his life; Rick's got nothing but frustration with his own family of Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) and Carl (Chandler Riggs), but he still loves them.  From that point, the action picks up as Rick and Shane rush to set up a roadblock to help in a high-speed police chase.  The criminals are stopped, and ultimately taken down, but Rick is badly injured in the shootout and ends up in a coma.

Many weeks later, Rick wakes up in a hospital.  The power is out, the building in complete chaos, and there are unnerving signs of bloody, gory struggles around every corner.  Rick manages to find his way outside, where he staggers past hundreds of bodies laid out in the hospital parking lot, past a crashed helicopter, eventually making his way back to his house, which is deserted.  Andrew Lincoln's performance as a man struggling to comprehend what exactly has happened to the world is movingly painful, and he's all but given up as he moves back out into the street, where, before he can be attacked by a walker, he is saved and then rendered unconscious by Duane Jones.  Duane and his father Morgan (Lennie Jones) have been holed up in a neighborhood home, unable to move on, as the now zombified Mrs. Jones is hanging around.  The Joneses get Rick into better shape, explain the basics of the zombie apocalypse.  Rick takes the Joneses back to the Sheriff's Department building for supplies -- including plenty of guns -- and they part ways.  Rick gives Morgan a radio, and suggests they try to keep in touch, as Rick's going to try to reach Atlanta to find survivors.  In what for me was the most tragic scene in the whole series, Morgan takes to an upstairs window, scoped rifle ready, knowing that he has to take out his zombie-wife before he can move on, but breaking down again and again, unable to pull the trigger.

Rick, in the meantime, works his way through a series of horrors,finally arriving in Atlanta on horseback (as gasoline is scarce), but not encountering any zombies until he reaches the skyscraper-dense downtown, and when he does, it's terrifying.  Rick rounds a corner and there are a hundred zombies coming at him; his horse panics, throwing Rick and his big bag of guns to the street.  While the horse is torn apart by the hordes of walkers, Rick scrambles under an abandoned National Guard tank, and pulls himself up through the bottom hatch to safety.  In one last "Yikes!" moment, a zombified solider almost grabs Rick, but has the top of his skull blown off.  Rick finds a pistol with a few rounds in it, and a single grenade, but escape seems impossible, as walkers have been drawn directly to the tank by all the commotion.  Then a voice comes over the radio: Hey you, dumbass. Yeah, you in the tank. Cozy in there?"

There's so much to admire in this first episode, which feels much more like a movie than a television series -- right up until the twist in the final ten minutes.  Darabont's script and direction borrow much from Robert Kirkman's initial issues of the comic book, right down to very specific images -- most notably the wide shot of Rick on horseback clip-clopping down in the interstate into Atlanta.  Enough can't be said in praise of Andrew Lincoln's performance, which has to carry credibility and humanity almost every scene, most of them without the benefit of other actors.  At this point in his odyssey, Rick still dons his uniform and tries to serve the greater good.  At one point, he finds one particularly pathetic zombie who's been torn in half and can only drag herself weakly across the ground.  "I'm sorry this had to happen to you," says Rick, who then delivers a incapacitating bullet.  Not that viewers would know it at the time, but the great strength of this first episode lies in its loyalty to much of the material from the comics -- from the characters, to the dialogue, to the storyboarding.  The zombie makeup and, for lack of a better word, choreography is particularly gruesome and disturbing.

"Guts" - Episode 1.2


As strong as this second episode is, charging right into the action with Rick's escape from the tank with the assistance of Glenn (Steven Yeun), a former pizza-delivery boy whose intimate knowledge of the city streets is put to fine use by a character who, in the long run, will demonstrate a knack for tactics and logistics.  Glenn introduces Rick to the rest of his crew, all of them survivors from a camp outside the city who've come back to gather supplies.  Holed up in a department store, they are now unable to leave because of the disturbance created by Rick's streetside adventure.

The folks at the department store -- perhaps too many to give enough time to in a single episode -- are a cross-section of society: along with Rick and Glenn, there's the tough Andrea (Laurie Holdren), the "urban" T-Dog (IronE Singleton), the professional Jacqui (Jeryl Prescott Sales), the family man Morales (Juan Pareja), and, of course, the racist ex-con Merle (the awesome Michael Rooker).  There is some ugly business between T-Dog and Merle, whom Rick takes down and handcuffs to a rooftop pipe.  One problem solved, but how will the gang escape?

More time is spent at the survivor's camp outside the city -- barely shown in the premiere -- where we learn that not only has Shane saved his buddy Rick's wife and son, but that he and Lori have started an affair.  Among other camp-dynamics, the pragmatic retiree Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn) is trying to supervise day-to-day operations and get his RV working.  Among the residents, the most despicable is Ed Pelletier (Adam Minarovich), a hulking, bullying jerk who most certainly beats up his weary wife Carol (Melissa McBride).

Meanwhile, back in the city, here's the plan.  The folks in the department store turn a zombie corpse into a pile of guts, which are then smeared on Rick and Glenn's clothing, so they can sneak their undead-smelling asses a few blocks away and grab a big panel truck that can get everybody home. Glenn gets to tear around the neighborhood in a hot-wired Dodge Challenger, alarm blaring, to draw the walkers away from the department store.  Rick rescues the gang in the store, and everyone takes off for the camp.  Merle is left on the roof to fend for himself -- zombies or not.

As much as I enjoyed the premiere, "Guts" is the episode that got me hooked.  Its profanity and gore, its twisted sense of humor, and the deranged, sweaty, gritty desperation of it all made for an hour of television that I had not seen the likes of before.  After having read the comics, I'm not so sure about the addition of some of the characters to the television series -- Merle especially seems to be a wasted effort, as great as Michael Rooker's performance is.  But, overall, the moral ambiguity and ugly side of humanity that any effective post-apocalypse narrative explores is fully at work in The Walking Dead.

"Tell It To The Frogs" - Episode 1.3

Within the zombie-apocalypse genre, you won't find too much time for the kind of character-development like you find in "Tell It To The Frogs."  I suggested that my wife start watching The Walking Dead, and we tuned in for this episode, much to her disappointment, as she's a hardcore horror fan.  I can understand now that, form time to time in the modern-day television serial -- like Lost or Battlestar Galactica -- there needs to be the occasional "getting organized" episode.  Here's what happens:

1) Rick is reunited with his wife Lori and son Carl
2) Lori and Shane discontinue their affair, much to Shane's frustration
3) Walkers appear to be encroaching more and more on the camp
4) Merle's brother Daryl is pissed that his brother's racist ass was left behind
5) Rick leads a team to go back to Atlanta to retrieve his bag of guns and to rescue Merle
6) Shane beats the living crap out of Ed
7) Rick's rescue party finds nothing but Merle's hand back at the spot where they left him.  Did Merle hack off his own hand and escape before the zombies got him?

What works best in this episode is what should work best -- a little more opportunity for the actors to develop their characters.  Andrew Lincoln as Rick, now reunited with his family, is awesome, as usual -- although his willingness to leave his wife and son to return to the city is a bit of a stretch.  Jeffery DeMunn infuses the rumpled Dale with a casual gravitas, and Norman Reedus, as the bitter, hard-edged Daryl Dixon is outstanding as well.  There is the sense that, with three writers on this episode's script, the series is looking for a narrative direction.  "Where do we go now?"  "Let's go back to the city!  It worked before!"  But this episode and the next are necessary to set up Rick as leadership material, Shane as a tormented potential back-stabber, and the other characters in their eventual more fully developed roles.




"Vatos" - Episode 1.4


This episode is important in terms of the production of The Walking Dead because it features a script by the writer of the comics series, Robert Kirkman.  To have Kirkman aboard as a viable member of the production team means that his original sense of the world and the characters will have some weight as the series continues.  The plot elements that continue to develop here -- Rick's rescue team discovers that Merle has in fact sawed off his own hard, escaped from the roof, and cauterized the stump of his arm; the big bag of guns is retrieved; and the growing presence of walkers at the survivor's camp -- are secondary to the elements that Kirkman adds.

The title is a Hispanic term, essential describing a gang, "vatos" meaning, "dudes in a gang."  As Rick and his gang are trying to get out of the city with their guns, Glenn is kidnapped by another gang, but not before Rick's grew grab a hostage of their own.  Essentially, Rick's gang and the "Vatos" have a showdown over who will get the guns.  Rick wins the standoff, and is smart enough to leave a few weapons behind, as the baddies aren't so bad after all.  These scenes develop a prominent theme in the comics, that of the emergence of self-sufficient gangs, each with its own distinctive style of survival and its own (a)moral code, is a crucial feature of life in the post-apocalyptic word.  When civilization has its reset button pressed, what might appear in the reboot will shock and surprise.

Rick and the others return to the camp just in time to battle an invasion of night-time walkers, during which the scumbag Ed and a few others die.  Andrea's sister dies, and is likely to turn into a zombie within a few hours. All of this apparently had been foreseen by a fellow named Jim (Andrew Rothenberg), who had been freaking out everyone with his obsessive digging -- of graves, as we now understand.  With this development, Kirkman also highlights a second premise of The Walking Dead world: staying put is very difficult, if not impossible, as the walkers are bound to find survivors sooner or later, as their numbers and sheer relentless nature make the discovery of the living inevitable.  Jim knows this, and he's going mad as a result.  If we're going to stay put, best to prepare for the inevitable.

And, with the setting and primary characters established, The RV Gang is in place, and The Walking Dead takes to the road as it moved toward the season finale.

10/3/11

Return of the Living Dead (1985)

I'll admit that I don't quite know what to make of Return of the Living Dead.  The particular sub-genre of horror that the 1985 movie supposedly belongs to -- a horror-comedy hybrid sometimes known as splatstick -- contains some favorites of mine: Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2, Re-Animator, Dead Alive, and Slither.  I know that, in a roundabout way, ROTLD is descended from 1968's fundamental Night of the Living Dead, although John Russo, who co-created zombies with George Romero, had his script for ROTLD rewritten by Dan O'Bannon, who directed this goofy, hit-and-miss horror-comedy movie.  Return of the Living Dead scores fairly well across a number of audiences, and it has its place in popular culture, but it's just not to my taste.  I'll give it a shot, however.

The script mockingly calls attention to the far-out nature of the whole zombie premise, proclaiming at several points that everything is real, and giving precise times and dates events.  We begin at the Uneeda Medical Supply company's warehouse, where Frank (James Karen, "It's that guy!") is showing newbie Freddy (Thom Mathews) the ropes of the business, and they end up in the basement, eventually messing around with some "lost" canisters of chemically-preserved corpses, misplaced in the wake of the "original" zombie outbreak of 1968.  Of course, Frank and Freddy end up causing a leak, and the zombie-creating chemical is released into the environment.  Embalmed animals come to life, and the cadaver in the freezer is ready for dinner.
Don Calfa as Ernie

Newbie Freddy has a bunch of annoying teenage friends who are waiting for him to get off work, and they kill some time at the graveyard near the warehouse.  When the Uneeda boss finds out what Frank and Freddy have done, they take all their re-animated evidence over to Ernie the Embalmer (the excellent Don Calfa), who agreed to burn all the zombie parts in his crematorium.  This is, the chemically contaminated smoke that goes up the chimney is quickly returned to the ground by a sudden rainstorm -- returned in dead-reviving goodness right into the waiting soil of the graveyard.  Hey kids, your punk-rock-and-Stolichnaya party is over.  It's time to run or be eaten!

But, at this point, even as the action began to pick up, I found I lost interest.  The script is clever enough, and the production values respectable, especially in the effects department, but most of the performances are really awkward, and very few of the actors -- most of whom I'm sure weren't paid much at all -- can generate sympathy for their characters.  Nor do they succeed in making me really dislike them either.  Mostly, they seem to flail away at their lines, and all I could think most of the time was how uninteresting everyone was, even as they were running/screaming/dying.  James Karen does a decent job with Frank, and Don Calfa is strong -- but the rest of the ensemble appear to have no idea what they were doing.  So if the acting doesn't drive you mad, then you'll certainly be able to keep watching from one interesting zombie-feeding to the next.  Kill them already.  (Oh, scream queen  Linnea Quigley contributes several revealingly compelling moments both pre- and post-zombification, but I'm not going to be posting those screenshots here.)

"Who doesn't like this movie?  Who wouldn't love this face?"
Still, there's several noteworthy songs on the soundtrack -- numbers from The Cramps, The Damned, and SSQ -- and the makeup effects, as mentioned, are excellent, and it's one of the Saturn Award nominations that makes any sense now.  All in all, whatever my reaction might be, the film did reasonably well at the box office (relative to its $4 million budget), and had enough franchise mojo to produce four sequels, a healthy convention sideline for many cast members, merchandise, a definitive history, and, reportedly, a retrospective documentary.  I guess, in the end, the joke's on me.  Ooh, I got that one.  Ouch.

10/2/11

Day of the Dead (1985)

Note: My fall break from blogging is over, and with Season 2 of The Walking Dead upon us soon, I'll wrap up the run of movie reviews this time around with today's piece on Day of the Dead and tomorrow's on Return of the Living Dead, two very different films from 1985 that descended from the original Night of the Living Dead. That done, we'll have a succession of reviews of each of the episodes of Season One of The Walking Dead, leading up to the Season Two premiere on October 16.  Thanks for reading, register for the Twitter feed or subscribe via the reader of reader of your choice, and always remember the double-tap!


The third film in George Romero's Dead series is a subdued affair, but nonetheless effective in its examination of how a small band of survivors with some resources and a clear mission still can't keep it together in the wake of the end of the civilized world.  The narrative centers on a group of civilians, scientists, and military personnel who are holed up in an underground complex as a research team struggles to find a way to prevent or cure or manage the zombies that have overrun the world.  Aside from a few exterior scenes shot in Florida, most of the film takes place deep underground, the contrast between the tropical sunshine and the enclosed spaces of the facility contributing greatly to the claustrophobic feel of the movie.

Lori Cardinelle plays Dr. Sarah Bowman, a cool-headed member of the science team and, for most of the film, its focal point.  The primary antagonist is the profane, perpetually pissed Captain Rhodes (Joseph Pilato), an instantly unlikable character who leads a dwindling corps of soldiers, most of whom are unmitigated idiots or psychos, not the least of which is the brawny, bigoted Private Steel (Gary Howard Klar).  Cardinelle does her best to work with Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty), whose penchant for cutting up zombies to see how they work has earned him the nickname "Frankenstein."  Dr. Bowman's most trusted colleagues are the civilians -- helicopter pilot Bill McDermott and the communications technician known only as John (Terry Alexander).

Down in the underground complex, the military is ostensibly working for the science team.  Periodically, zombies must be trapped and delivered to Dr. Logan, who spends most of his time locked in his lab amid the scalpels and bone saws, with scarcely time enough to wash the putrid blood from his lab coat.  In fact, he doesn't bother any more.  Nice duds, Doc.  Zombie-wrangling is dangerous -- even deadly work -- and the soldiers are dwindling in number with little progress being shown from the science team.

Bub makes a call -- but to whom?
Now, Dr. Logan has figured out --more or less -- how zombies work.  Their brains are burned out save for their most basic central nervous systems, and the little movement they manage is very painful.  They move and eat mostly out of habit -- they can't digest the flesh they consume -- and whatever is making them zombies also slows the rate of decomposition.  Logan has given up on trying to reverse or prevent zombification, but he is working on trying to train them.  In fact, Logan has a particularly promising zombie subject, whom he's named Bub.  Bub is not as threatening as the other undead, and appears to recall -- if only in grunting pantomime -- some things from his former life: cassette recorders, books, phones, and (!) shaving equipment.  But in order to keep Bub docile and quasi-friendly, this zombie-pet requires regular treats of freshly hewn human flesh.  And don't ask Dr. Logan where he got it.

There's a great deal of arguing among the principal players, with a measured dose of excellent zombie encounters in Acts One and Two.  There's just enough undead hanging around to keep the audience from getting bored amid all the yelling.  Needless the say, the whole operation is unsustainable.  In Act Three, one injured soldier loses his mind and, in a fit of vengeance or hopelessness (it's not clear), he lets a whole freight elevator full of zombies into the compound, and everyone pretty much gets eaten.  Dr. Bowman and her two civilian pals do their best to make a run for it out the "back door" of the underground complex, and their escape makes for some of the most entertaining and carefully constructed zombie kills in the film.  Cranky old Captain Rhodes is torn asunder in particularly fine fashion, and Bub turns in some fine moments as well before it's all gone to hell.

Although Romero has said that Day of the Dead is his favorite of the zombie film's he's made, and both critics and audiences generally appreciate the movie, this 1985 entry doesn't fare as well in comparison to 1978's Dawn of the Dead and 1968's Night of the Living Dead.  What's most interesting in the film -- the notions 1) that there are still some groups of survivors well after the initial collapse of civilization and 2) that there is some sort of consciousness inside a zombie -- seems to be cut off because of the need for the story to fit into a feature film and hence charge to the inevitable will-they-escape-from-catastrophe ending.  What's most distressing about the film is its one-sided portrayal of the military as largely corrupt and homicidal -- a carry-over, one suspects, from cynicism the Vietnam era.  One can see Romero struggling to find ways to extend the premise of the plot in new directions.  If only they would have given him a TV series!

All in all, Day of the Dead offers Romero's usual thoughtful take on the problems of people as they are brought out by disaster, with truly excellent make-up effects from Tom Savini and an action-packed third act. While not as fundamentally sound a narrative as his two earlier films, Day of the Dead is still a severed head and shambling shoulders above the usual zombie films of the period.

8/5/11

Zombie (1979)

"Do I have something in my eye?"

Italian director Lucio Fulci's "sequel" to Dawn of the Dead is sometimes found under the title Zombi 2, but the hoards of zombie flicks -- ripoffs and otherwise -- in the 1980s would only confuse any numbering system.  We'll call it Zombie and leave it at that -- not the first word or the last word in ghoulish cinema, but a film of note to be sure.

The poster at right pretty much sums up what there is to know about Zombie: It's quite deliberately over-the-top in terms of undead gore -- as well as violence and nudity.  How about that tagline: "We are going to eat you!" No zombie actually says that, but you get the idea.  Taking the more gruesome realism of the modern zombie film and wedding it to the traditional mythology of the Caribbean island zombie, Fulci takes the best of both worlds and creates a uniquely deranged picture of a zombie epidemic.

Until recently, most if not all copies of Zombie on VHS and DVD were lousy, but I had the pleasant surprise of watching the 2004 transfer and remaster by Blue Underground.  This version really showed off the (sometimes) excellent cinematography and makeup, although not much could be done to help the soundtrack -- with its dubbed voices and synthesizer music -- a particular source or irritation for me.  If you're planning to watch, make sure you have a digital transfer from after 2004.  If you want a taste of the potentially poor screening experience, watch this trailer for the film.

Another note about the film is its violence and gore -- which, even today, are likely to make most viewers squirm.  I'll assume that if you're reading this far, you don't mind a little gore --but as I mentioned, Zombie goes out of its way to provoke.  It earned a special degree of scorn in 1979 from the British Parliament, in fact, helping to give rise to the term video nasty and the now defunct 1984 Video Recordings Act.  Shades of the PMRC anyone?  Here's my suggestion: Look at the lobby poster for the film (above) and judge for yourself.

The plot is simple:  Anne (Tisa Farrow) learns that her father's boat has drifted into New York Habor, its only passenger a shambling hulk who attempts to eat a member of the Harbor Patrol who's investigating the abandoned vessel.  Meeting resourceful reporter Peter (Ian McCullouch), Anne agreed to go to the Caribbean island of Matool to find out what might have happened.  Arriving in the tropics, they join up with boat-owners Brian (Pier Luigi Conti) and Susan (Auretta Gay) to find the island.  On Matool, Dr. Menard (Richard Johnson), who works at the the island's mission clinic, is trying to find a scientific explanation for the "curse" of zombies that is beginning to overrun the place.  His wife Paola (Olga Karlatos) wants badly to leave, but Dr. Menard must find the source of the "curse."  In the end, of course, only a few of the main characters survive, and as they sail away, news reaches the ship's radio that increasing numbers of undead are appearing in New York.

While the plot is simple, the narrative lurches along -- slow and clumsy in parts, then surprisingly precise and effective in others.  Fucli is at his best in the scenes were he's trying to horrify you; he's at his worst in the interim, filling it with clumsy expository dialogue and, perhaps more compellingly for some, a great deal of nudity.  I feel compelled to point out that both Auretta Gay and Olga Karlatos had a generous amount of nude or nearly nude screen time in a manner that was nothing but exploitative -- there was no subtlety or cleverness to it at all.  Getting a little bored?  Here's a few minutes of naked!

"Do you have something in your eye?"
Two now-famous scenes are cited from Zombie.  The first is a cleverly conceived but clumsily executed underwater fight between a shark and a zombie.  Fair enough, and probably mind-blowing for audiences at the time.  More gruesome is the lead-up to the death of Paola Menard, who, left at home one night, after a very thorough shower, attempts to fight off a zombie home invasion, only to have her eyeball impaled on a shard of wood.

"You insurance doesn't cover reanimation!"
Without a doubt, the most effective scenes in the film come in the third act, when the Matool zombies are out in full force and bashing down all the walls and eating everyone.  Clearly, Fulci planned out many of these sequences, which are well-paced, interestingly shot, and with truly gruesome makeup effects and mindless performances by the lead zombies.  Most effective is how the story calls for all dead to rise from the graves, including the bodies of those dead centuries before, whose degree of decomposition is truly remarkable.  The lush beauty of the jungle contrasted with the rot of the dead is extremely striking.  Peter and the gang put up a good fight as they attempt to get away with their asses unchewed -- although it takes them a little too long to figure out the effectiveness of the head shot.

Gross and exploitative, unevenly plotted, and suffering from dubbed dialogue, Zombie is nevertheless a fun movie.  It's simple premise is best executed when the director is trying to shock and horrify you.  If you don't ask much more from a movie than that, let the dead walk among you.

7/24/11

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

After directing Night of the Living Dead for release in 1968, George Romero spent the better part of the next decade in and around Pittsburgh making independent films that dead with quirky horror plots.  In the mid 70s, Romero started work on his next zombie movie after being given a behind the scenes tour of the state-of-the-art Monroeville Mall.  Not a bad place to survive a zombie apocalypse, he must have thought.  With financing (about $2.2 million in current dollars) secured from Italian filmmaker Dario Argento, production began on Dawn of the Dead -- largely on weekends, when the same Monroeville Mall could be closed for shooting.

Much of the storytelling strength of Dawn of the Dead lies in the sure-handed development of its core question: What's the most likely way to survive if there are thousands of flesh-eating undead walking the earth.  The short answer: Get yourself a great big fortified storehouse, hunker down, and keep quiet.  If only things were so simple. . .

The plot begins with two pairs of characters.  There's Stephen (David Emge) and Francine (Gaylen Ross); he's a chopper pilot for the local television station, and she's a news producer.  Romero's opening scenes focus mostly on Fran as she attempts to maintain journalistic standards amid the growing social chaos of the zombie crisis.  It's clear from the way the reporters and production staff are arguing with each other that, in the end, the media may be the last place to turn in a real crisis.  Stephen finds Fran -- they're a couple, apparently -- amid all the hubbub and suggests they chopper it out of town as soon as possible.

The other pair of characters is more interesting, two friends on the police force -- the confident, intelligent, and strong Peter (Ken Foree), and the nervous, somewhat shrimpy Roger (Scott Reiniger).  We meet them in the middle of a zombie-sweep at a low-income apartment building, where Peter does what needs to be done, Roger hesitates, and a few of the other fascists on the force are more than happy to kill anything that moves. In the end, as well, law enforcement may be one of the last places to turn.  Roger, who knows Stephen, suggests that he and Peter say fuck the police and skip town.  Sounds good.

The four make their escape at night, refuel with a little zombie harassment, and eventually land on the roof of a relatively rural shopping mall.  Breaking in through a skylight, the find the service complex behind the scenes in the mall to be zombie free.  They lock and barricade the doors, engage in some gruesome zombie housekeeping, and disguise their hideaway just in case someone comes looking.  Roger is bitten during this process, which makes for a sad moment later when Peter has to decommission his zombified friend, but survival comes at a cost.

Everything in the mall, of course, comes at no cost.  As the months pass, Peter, Stephen, and Fran eat the finest (preserved) food, booze it up, wear mink coats, sleep on satin sheets, listen to classical music on a top-of-the-line stereo system, and make the most of the hundreds of retail outlets providing their every need and want. As you might imagine, it's not all it's cracked up to be. Peter, a leader and a man of action, ends up trapped and bored because of the success of his survival plan.  Francine gets tired of being treated like a girly-girl, even though she's pregnant.  Stephen, who's really kind of a putz, agrees to teach Fran to fly the chopper, but one still doesn't manage to like him much.  A fine, quiet scene comes about two-thirds of the way through the film when, after another delicious meal amid the luxuries, Fran asks, sadly, "What have we done?"

What they've done, of course, is survive. Survival in a true crisis often requires a real and antisocial selfishness, a cold ruthless approach to addressing immediately threats, and, in the long term, a radically proscribed existence to keep the dangers at bay.  It's an almost inhuman way to live -- an insight granted by The Last Man On Earth and I Am Legend.  But the problem, usually, is people.  They get bored, they get lazy, they get reckless, or they just get mean.  Remember those helicopter lessons Stephen was giving to Fran?  Well, that reckless act attracts the attention of a roving gang of meanies in the form of bikers.  Harleys, not Schwinns.

And here's where Romero shows that he understands how to make an entertaining film.  In Act One, set up your premise and get the plot ball rolling with a good dose of action and a generous glimpse of the monsters.  In Act Two, slow it down a bit and let the characters deepen the narrative in a thoughtful manner.  In Act Three, close with a rip-roaring finish that messes with the heart and the head.

The bikers break in to the mall, suspecting there's someone hiding in there, but really just to do some good-natured looting.  Of course, in all the ruckus, they bring a fair number of zombies behind them.  And Peter and Stephen can help but sneak out of their hideout to check out the scene, leading Stephen to deliver my favorite line in the film: "Hey, that's our stuff!" Then Stephen (the putz) starts firing his gun at the bikers.  Now it's Stephen and Peter against the biker gang against the zombies.  Stephen is overwhelmed by zombies, Peter makes it back to safety, temporarily, and the bikers retreat with their armloads of summer sausages and aromatic soaps.  In the end, Peter and Fran attempt to flee in the helicopter, but let's not give away the ending, shall we?

Aside from the fine, fundamental storytelling in Dawn of the DeadTom Savini for his makeup work.  Savini, a Vietnam vet who strove for a gruesome realism in his work, developed the blueish hue for the zombies in Dawn of the Dead, as well as a whole range of mangling, dangling, and gnawed fleshy parts.  One of the great visual contrasts in the film is the outright pretty artificiality of the mall and the ugly, deformed presence of all those zombies.  The effect is somehow subtle at first, almost unnoticed, which probably says much about how even normal people can shamble through the mall at times.

I won't be the first to write it, but Dawn of the Dead is an excellent zombie film, horror film, just plain film, that holds up well after all these years.  With a great concept that is well-executed and outstanding effects, George Romero's return to the land of zombies sets the standard in terms of balanced tone, entertainment value, and social satire that most other zombie movies should strive for.