Friday, December 10, 2010

The Walking Dead, and the mainstreaming of zombie horror

Every now and then, a TV show comes along that is worth making a noise about.

Not the noise of revulsion that you make when someone eats a rat-dick vol-au-vent on I’m a Celebrity. I mean the noise where you tell everyone you know how great it is and you get more and more vociferous in the show’s praise as they look increasingly skeptical.

So it was with The Sopranos and The Wire. Both reframed the cops and robbers format as something far more thoughtful and thought provoking, while still finding room for action, humour, and no small amount of sexy.

I’m old enough to remember when there was no sex on British TV. I’m old enough to remember when there was no sex in British-made movies.

The ‘X’ certificate, the equivalent of today’s commercial suicide ’18’, was awarded almost exclusively to horror flicks.

Looking back from today’s perspective on Hammer’s lovably camp output, it’s difficult to see why Christopher Lee’s conjunctivitis or Ralph Bates’s improbable transgender antics might endanger the equilibrium of young minds, but that was the age that we then lived in.

The age of the shambling monster; Frankenstein’s creature, the zombie and his exotic cousin the living Mummy seemed over as we segued from the shockable Sixties into the seen-it-all Seventies.

Serial killers and other assorted psychos moved into that space. The shamblers never really went away, of course - George A Romero almost singlehandedly kept their dim, brain-hungry flame alive.

The only creatures who seemed able to survive the end of the classic horror era were the vampires. The thing about vampires - as currently demonstrated in True Blood - is that it’s not much of a stretch to make them sexy.

Yes, even though they’re essentially talkative corpses.

Not even Michael Jackson could make zombies sexy.

In 2002 the beginning of the 28-whatevers-Later series gave the zombie a shot in the arm. Although nominally not zombies the poor unfortunates infected with the Rage virus were effectively turbocharged zombies with - perhaps most constructively - a halfway plausible backstory.

The old school zombies had their genesis in Voodoo ritual.. The new breed of undead plays to our modern fears of a global pandemic enabled by cheap and widespread air travel.

Edgar Wright pulled the gormless brutes a little closer to the mainstream with the near-perfect tribute/spoof Shaun Of The Dead in 2004. What he got right - apart from the gags of course - was the believable and likable cast of characters.

The problem is, of course that zombies don’t really have personalities. You can have saturnine manipulative vampires, louche sexy vampires, even twinkly emo vampires. With zombies it’s all just “aaaggghhhhhhh…brains” and bits falling off. Not much to get your teeth into there. As it were.

All zombies can really do, in terms of advancing the plot, is get their heads blown off by Woody Harrellson.

New TV series The Walking Dead is trying to mainstream genre zombie flicks in the way that Buffy & True Blood mainstreamed vampires.

But without any contribution from the bad guys, the whole onus of capturing our lasting interest hangs on the tiny band of survivors at the show’s heart.

First among these is the bloke from This Life, the one who looks a bit like some guy you went to university with but never really spoke to properly.

He’s supported by an ensemble that seem at first to be a usual suspects lineup of stereotypes. On extended viewing though, little inter-group tensions bubble to the surface that promise sustained interest long after the spectacle of a decomposing body strolling around gets old.

And therein is the real secret appeal of The Walking Dead. Men watch stories on TV, women watch characters. By wedding the plot-driven action and adventure zombie yarn to complex sexual triangle dynamics, writer Frank Darabont has come up with a show that couples can watch together.

Is there any better kind of TV than that?

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