Kirkman and Erickson’s new series promises to continue to elevate the intellectual and literary appeal of their particular brand of horror.
AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead (FWD) premiered on Sunday and I was thrilled to death! I have been a huge fan of the flagship series for the last three years and I have been dying to see a spin-off because, well, I have a ravenous hunger for zombies that just refuses to be sated! Forgive the puns––they are just one of the delightful conventions of the genre to which Kirkman and Erickson pay some homage in the new series. (When her boyfriend fails to show up as planned, Alicia texts him “You better be dead!” Eeeeeeeee!––the delicious irony!) As with the original series, although FWD engages selectively with genre conventions and delivers thrills in the ways that delight zombie fans everywhere, its lasting appeal is in the ways that it has elevated the storytelling and character development above what is normally found in zombie flicks, allowing it to carve out its own niche (sorry, I couldn’t help myself!)
Unlike the bulk of zombie films––many of them slasher B movies––The Walking Dead (WD), both on TV and in the graphic novel, has always placed its focus on examining human nature: how we organize ourselves together as a society and what happens to us when the stabilizing elements of our systems of infrastructure, justice, and norms are ripped away. Most zombie films follow a more static plot structure––an opening, confusion and discovery, battling and fleeing, and finally the escape of one or two survivors––and maintain a narrower focus on shock, violence, and gore. Where the films usually only manage to differentiate themselves through minor differences in setting, the details of props and weapons, and zombie characteristics, WD’s broader interest in the human character allows for endless narrative possibilities that are intriguing, compelling, and stimulating for the imagination. WD’s different focus arises from Kirkman’s particular interest in the zombie story. In a behind-the-scenes feature from WD season 3, he states that he always felt that the zombie movie ended just when the story started to get interesting––that is, right after the protagonist has managed to survive the initial wave of the invasion. For Kirkman, the intriguing question is what next? This is precisely what he set out to explore in the graphic novel series upon which the two TV programs are based.
Kirkman’s interest in the what’s next question is evident in the structuring of the plot of WD’s very first episode, which almost entirely skips the scenes that make up the bulk of the standard film plot. Rick Grimes wakes up from his coma in the hospital after the initial wave and major carnage. The cities are already burned out, the military already defeated, and the mobs already fled or fallen, so he sets out to discover how to live in a post-apocalyptic zombie world. It should also be noted that at the time of the first episode’s airing, the genre in general and the WD graphic novel series more specifically were not yet as widely known and loved, meaning that this episode needed to arrest the audience’s attention and convince it to tune in to episode 2. It did this by offering a non-conventional plot and compelling characters, while capitalizing on other favourite standards of the genre such as suspense (the descent through the dark hospital staircase), horror (the crawling zombie torso), disturbing images (the child zombie), and plenty of violence.
FWD, on the other hand, arrives with the advantage of a well-established fan base, and thus Kirkman and Erickson have the freedom to open the series with a very different first episode, one that relies less on fast-paced action and aims instead to lay a groundwork for characterization and a play with perspective. The main character of this episode is Madison Clark (Kim Dickens), a high school counsellor and divorced mother of two teenagers. I really enjoyed Dickens’s performance as Joanie Stubbs in Deadwood (2004-6). She played this role as a Wild West prostitute with a tragic dignity and depth of character that makes me think that she will be excellent in the types of scenarios we can expect to see in FWD. The other main character of episode 1, Madison’s heroin-addicted son Nick played by Frank Dillane, delivers another promising performance. The compelling characters make up for the relatively sparse action. Despite the lack of zombie kills and gore, however, the second season appears to be more willing than the first to indulge in one of my favourite conventions from the zombie film genre, one that I call the “confusion and discovery stage.” This is the point when zombies are beginning to infiltrate the landscape and cause havoc, but none of the characters have yet figured it out. This gap in understanding between what the characters and audience know and expect allows for all kinds of out-of-the-ordinary situations. Some films have used the irony of this stage quite effectively for humour. The scene from Shaun of the Dead (2004) comes to mind, when Shaun and Ed’s drunken singing is punctuated by timely moans from the silhouette of a staggering figure nearby in a display of classic genre humour. However, whether looking for laughs or not, the “confusion and discovery stage” is mostly about creating tension and suspense as unsuspecting characters blunder carelessly close to the clutches of danger and certain ignoble death, followed by the satisfaction of resolution as the surviving characters come to finally understand, at various points, the reality of their situation. Where WD was content to include very little of this stage, it would seem that FWD is going to draw it out (as of the end of the first of episode, there is only confusion, no discovery, no word on Alicia’s boyfriend) all the better to exploit its power to titillate the audience.
The “confusion and discovery stage” is also an excellent convention of the zombie genre because of its ability to draw in the audience and undermine the concept of reality. At the opening of most zombie movies, characters are very relatable to the audience in that they inhabit a setting familiar in its realism and they exhibit rational points of view and expectations for scientific explanations similar to the audience’s. When characters initially respond with incredulity to the clues that there are dead in their midst, the audience is likely to see themselves in those actions. This means that when the characters’ world is turned upside-down, their trust in science seems misplaced, and the dead walk again, the audience’s identification causes their own sense of reality to be disturbed to a greater degree, heightening the emotional impact of the drama. For most zombie movies, this is the extent of their limited concern with realism, but in the WD franchise, this is where it excels. Its unspoken credo is to explore how lifelike characters would adapt and evolve in a reasonably accurate projection of what would enfold should the world ever experience the very unrealistic event of a zombie apocalypse. In doing this with a measure of success, WD intensifies the emotional impact on the audience to a level that most horror films do not reach. This is also why I contend that the entire franchise can and should be analyzed for its literary merits.
One of the most important ways that the WD franchise explores human nature is through the themes of evolving personal perspective and the excavation of what we take for granted. These themes have a strong presence in FWD from the very first moment. The first episode opens on Nick’s face, which is upside-down and fills almost the entire screen. The camera cuts to reveal a squalid room with mattresses on the floor, collections of junk, writing on the walls, and makeshift window-coverings. In other words, it is impossible to tell whether this scene is pre- or post-apocalyptic. The veteran WD fan has probably also scrutinized the definite redness of Nick’s eyes and wondered of he is already infected. We quickly discover that, indeed, the setting is still pre-apocalypse and that Nick’s eyes’ redness and the state of his hovel are due instead to his problem with heroin. However, this initial ambiguity sets up WD’s prominent theme of the relativity of perspective, one that I argue is where the strength and genius of the writers truly lie. As WD’s characters evolve to adapt to their ongoing life in the post-apocalyptic world, they must continue to reevaluate how to strike a balance between the necessities of survival and the strictures of pre-apocalyptic morality, exposing the relativity of perspectives and norms. Additionally, by ripping the societal rug out from under the feet of its characters, (F)WD reminds the audience of all the elements of our structured society that we take for granted––those things that provide us with stability and order, protect us from people’s baser and more violent instincts, and give us the freedom to spend our time developing the finer aspects of culture. By beginning this series in the eyes of junkie, we are already a step outside of society’s norms and structure and we find ourselves unsure of how to understand what we are seeing. This is symbolically suggested in Nick’s floating, upside-down face and stoned eyes and is then developed more literally in Nick’s confusion throughout the episode, as he struggles to learn whether he really saw his friend eating a corpse or if it was merely a feverish, drug-addled dream of his own making. Unlike the rest of the characters, Nick starts from a position of being suspicious of his own perspective. The irony is both that the audience knows that what Nick saw was real and that we in the “real world” would show exactly the same incredulity as Nick’s unbelievers, even though in his world, they are the ones who are dead wrong. FWD forces us to examine our assumptions and makes us share in the weakness that allows the victims to be blindsided by the unexpected hoards of zombies. By including a character with a drug problem, FWD addresses the theme of relative perspectives right from its first moments and in a way entirely new to the TV format––a very promising sign that this series will continue to engage with fascinating ideas, characters, and situations in a literary way.
Words by Carrie Lynn Evans