“I can’t believe this is on cable.”
That sentence was the refrain of my experience with the pilot of “The Walking Dead,” AMC’s newest original series. “Dead” took over “Mad Men’s” timeslot on Halloween night (10 p.m. Eastern), and was watched by a record number of viewers. Its 1.5 hour premiere was nothing short of a horror movie – there was plenty of action, and its not exaggeration to say it showed the goriest images I’ve ever seen on television. “Dead’s” incredibly high production values make it truly cinematic, and will potentially earn it a place in the extremely elusive A-list horror genre (think The Shining).
- They’re slow. This is important because it dramatically affects the playing field. Traditionally, all zombies were slow, but then movies like 28 Days Later re-imagined the undead as sprinters. Slow-moving zombies don’t seem as threatening, until you find yourself facing hundreds of them. The lack of control and level of exhaustion, surrender, and panic involved when you're finally overtaken by a slowly staggering corpse makes them scary (it's the Mike Meyers phenomenon - he never ran, he just walked calmly towards you). Spoiler: it should be noted that the “city” zombies in Atlanta seem to move faster than the “small town” zombies.
- They’re dumb. This is one of the big distinctions between Vampires and Zombies, and a major reason why Vampires lend themselves to sexualized teen-girl movies where Zombies tend to corner the more awesome B-movie market. Vampires are intelligent, attractive and persuasive, but zombies are literally just animated corpses. Zombies can’t think; they can only act on their single driving impulse: to eat you. This is a major reason zombies are so much scarier than vampires – zombies don’t have a conscience, and they don’t have a brain that makes choices. You can’t seduce a zombie out of killing you; you can only try to kill it first.
- They're attracted by loud noises. Cars, screams, and unfortunately gunshots will draw a pack of zombies, so make sure you have plenty of bullets before you fire off one. Plus side: this seems to be the only really active zombie sense, so if you creep silently near one you might be safe.
- To kill a zombie, you need to target its head. In some movies, you have to actually decapitate the zombie, but apparently in “Dead,” shooting it or smashing it in the head is sufficient.
The point is, “The Walking Dead” is closer to serious, high-concept shows like “Six Feet Under“ and “The Wire” than self-mocking “horror” shows like “True Blood.” Unlike “True Blood” (which, for the record, I adore), there’s nothing campy or kitschy about “Dead;” its violence is startling and sordid, not sexy. There are no necks with delicate puncture wounds, but rotting faces and bodies. And let me tell you, the creatures in “Dead” are not for the faint of heart: they’re so extremely foul and disgusting that I, a self-proclaimed lover of gore, had to watch parts of the pilot through my fingers.
This is the major reason “The Walking Dead” will probably avoid comparison to the other A-list horror guru, Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock made thrillers, not blood baths. The violence in “Dead” is more akin to The Evil Dead, but higher-brow. Let me give you a visual: the bathtub scene in The Shining. Yeah, that’s the level of disturbing I was going for.
(If you missed it, AMC is streaming the whole pilot episode for free here.)