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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Consider The Source: "The Walking Dead"

click to enlarge BRAAAINS: Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead
  • BRAAAINS: Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead

Atlanta’s zombies population is booming these days, with AMC’s “The Walking Dead” production joining previous local (and local-ish) living dead projects, including the films Zombieland, The Signal, Dance of the Dead and the 2008 stage musical Song of the Living Dead at Dead's Dad’s Garage. The Shawshank Redemption director Frank Darabont is developing "The Walking Dead," which shoots its first six episodes in Atlanta, beginning in June.

“The Walking Dead” might not seem like the obvious choice for AMC, whose name means “American Movie Classics,” even though its contemporary rep rests with the terrific TV dramas “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.” Read writer Robert Kirkman’s original Walking Dead comic book series, however, and you may find more similarities to AMC’s flagship shows than you’d expect from a storyline in which ambulatory corpses try to eat people.

Set partially in and around Atlanta, The Walking Dead’s initial issues (drawn by Tony Moore) don’t disguise the premise’s debt to George Romero’s zombie apocalypse scenario, and the opening scenes prove derivative of the beginning of 28 Days Later… Rick Grimes, a police officer from a small Kentucky town, awakens from a coma to discover his hospital deserted and the community overrun with the living dead. From a couple of still-breathing townsfolks he learns of the undead epidemic and hears a rumor that Atlanta has become a regional stronghold for survivors. He makes his way on horseback to the ATL, where he finds no civil authority, lots of zombies and, miraculously, his wife and son among a small group of survivors.

Walking’s first major arc primarily takes place in a rural roadside camp near Atlanta, with some action set pieces set in downtown. It’s a hoot to see the city dramatized in the comic book, and it’s fun to see the details that feel a little off. For an urban area notorious for its sprawl, surely Rick and his friends could have found a more convenient gun shop without going all the way to zombie-infested inner city (at “38th and Pleasant”). Christmas comes during this part of the story, and December brings more snowfall than I’ve ever seen in Atlanta during that month. Presumably the Atlanta-based production will deliver more local color.

Visually, The Walking Dead serves as a combination of the stark, simple black-and-white rendering of contemporary graphic novels with gory grotesquerie of vintage horror comics like Tales of the Crypt. Charlie Adlard took over drawing duties with issue 8, and has a flair for conveying the cinematic pace of zombie-fighting scenes and the emptiness of rural and urban settings. (He also tends to draw the supporting characters as looking a little too much alike.)

Rick quickly becomes the leader of the group, and as the narrative progresses, the horrific shock value of zombie attacks gives way explorations of fractured group dynamics and the traumatized psychology of the survivors. When they’re not on the verge of killing each other, they’re on the verge of hooking up. (Hey, it’s just zombie-apocalypse sex.) At one point a middle-aged survivor with a young girlfriend wonders if he has many good years left, and she replies that none of them have any good years left.

Shifts of location – from gated community to farmhouse to high-security prison – bring different challenges from without and within. Rick, to be played by Andrew Lincoln, begins as a clean-cut, morally upstanding hero, but goes to questionable extremes in the name of protecting the group. Arguably he belongs in the company of such flawed TV protagonists as “Mad Men’s” Don Draper and “Breaking Bad’s” Walter White – and do either of them know how to sever a head in one motion? Actually, Don and Walter probably do.

Kirkman once described The Walking Dead as being the equivalent of a zombie movie "without an ending," in that the serial nature of the story ensures that the characters' attempts to survive will never reach a neat conclusion (for good or ill), unlike the average zombie movie. Hopefully AMC will do right by "The Walking Dead" to ensure it enjoys a long life (or lack thereof) in Atlanta.

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