Even within the first few minutes, it is clear that nothing is sacred in AMC’s latest show The Walking Dead. The tone and expectations are set. There will be zombies, there will be blood, and this show will not hold back when it comes to showing any of it. Furthermore, the show is set in Atlanta and the eerie ruined backdrop of an all-too-familiar city makes the overall effect especially creepy for any Georgia native.
There are two general approaches to zombie stories. There is serious, dramatic survival-horror and there is ridiculous and funny bordering on self-parody. Since zombies are inherently ridiculous, pulling off the former successfully is far less common. Standing out from the melodramatic failures of the past, The Walking Dead delivers genuine zombie drama.
Many zombie stories forget to actually tell stories, preferring broad strokes: there are zombies everywhere, try not to let them eat you, everybody bring shotguns, etc.
The Walking Dead, on the other hand, does not focus on zombies right away. Instead, it begins by developing the central character of the show, policeman Rick Grimes, played by Andrew Lincoln.
The slow introduction of the zombie apocalypse through his eyes is far more compelling than any opening sequence of a rampaging horde of zombies.
The weekly television format provides exciting possibilities for the zombie apocalypse genre, bringing the promise of more complex character development and plotlines. The main character has certain goals and motivations, but these might evolve and change over time.
There is the opportunity to introduce new characters as the show moves on, circumventing the common pattern of killing off an initial group of survivors one by one. Without the typical two-hour time limitation, there is potential to tell a type of story that has never been done before.
The Walking Dead takes its zombies very seriously, but this attitude does not feel forced or unnatural. The creepiness of the situation is very clear from the blood-smeared messages on the walls to the half-eaten corpses of the fallen. The humanity of the survivors also shines through, making the people and their situations feel very real.
Survivors take photo albums instead of survival gear, hoping to remember the family they will never see again. A man struggles with destroying the zombie husk of his wife, unable to let go of the past.
Another man pauses to reflect with sympathy for a fallen zombie, saddened by what its body had become. While these moments easily could have been melodramatic, the solid acting and writing hold them together and serve to strengthen the emotion of each scene.
Another advantage of The Walking Dead is its fantastic production value. The cinematography is skillfully executed and the visual effects are impressive. Much of the story is told just through the camera, no dialogue necessary. One particular shot pans through a door, letting the audience in on a small, self-contained narrative that the main character will never even know.
Furthermore, the effects, while not as spectacular as modern technology might possibly allow, are compelling enough that the unreality of the premise is brushed aside, drawing attention instead to the story and the characters.
Hopefully as the show continues it will maintain the standard of quality that it has already established. The Walking Dead has proven already that it cares about character development and well-constructed narratives. If it maintains that focus without degrading into a generic gorefest, it has the potential to be a new and better zombie story than anything that has come before it. Some people will watch this show simply for the zombies, but anyone who loves good storytelling should give it a chance as well.