Book Marx: The Walking Dead

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Many fans of horror – especially those who enjoy zombie movies – consider George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” to be a masterpiece.

In several ways it heralded in the modern age of horror. It introduced a diverse group of strangers and trapped them together in a terrifying situation, a formula that has since become a staple of scary movies. It was set in the present and featured people who acted like real men and women instead of stock movie characters, so the fear felt more intense and personal. And it established the mythology of zombies as flesh-eating monsters instead of voodoo-controlled slaves, which made the “villains” morally ambiguous. Zombies weren’t good or bad, not in any measurable way. They were just mindless killing machines doing what they had to do to survive. In fact, the humans were sometimes more cold and ruthless than the zombies themselves, blurring the definitions of good and evil that much more.

“Night of the Living Dead” can’t quite escape its B-movie roots. Some of the actors aren’t as talented as others, at times the zombies barely shuffle while at other times they move relatively fast (depending on what the script demands), and some of the scenes are devoid of logic. In the opening sequence, for instance, Johnny gets knocked unconscious by a headstone while fighting a zombie in the cemetery. Instead of feasting on his flesh, the zombie leaves Johnny’s body untouched and chases after Barbara instead. It’s certainly dramatic, but it makes no sense.

Even so, “Night” is a remarkable achievement. The characters were complex and fully realized. Judith O’Dea did a great job as Barbara, taking the clichéd “scream queen” role and replacing it with a dazed and all too vulnerable human being. Duane Jones was perfectly cast as the man who tried to save them all, and having a black man as the hero of the movie made a bold and courageous statement in a year when the most famous civil rights activist in America was gunned down. It was the final twist, however, that guaranteed “Night of the Living Dead” would be one of the most memorable horror movies of all time. George Romero gave us an unexpected, shocking, and visceral ending that was unimaginable and yet brutally honest.

It’s not surprising that Robert Kirkman would want to write a comic book that is, for all intents, a continuation of Romero’s movies. Zombies are more popular than ever. “Shaun of the Dead”, a hilarious satire of the genre, was a critical favorite. The new version of “Dawn of the Dead” grossed more than 100 million dollars worldwide. And Romero’s zombie movies have inspired countless writers, including the master of horror himself, Stephen King.

There’s something disturbing about finding “inspiration” by copying someone else’s work, though. The “Walking Dead” comic book has always felt like a pale version of “Night of the Living Dead” and its sequels. Even the initial setup – a police officer wakes up from a coma to find that the country has been overtaken by zombies – is almost identical to the beginning of Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later”.

The characters are sadly one-dimensional, although part of this seems unavoidable. As more and more people are introduced to keep the supply of victims flowing, it’s easy to forget who’s who (or even care). But Kirkman’s rather clumsy attempts to humanize his characters – he gives them soap opera storylines dripping in melodrama at the expense of insight or personality traits – only accentuates how interchangeable and forgettable his cardboard creations often are.

And the coincidences and plot manipulations are sometimes far-fetched. The main character travels to Atlanta to search for his wife and son, for instance, and damned if the guy that saves him from certain death doesn’t lead him to his family (healthy and completely unharmed, of course) before you can say “deus ex machina”. Surely Kirkman could have reunited the hero and his family in a slightly more believable fashion.

Still, if someone is looking for personal insights and character development, picking up a comic book devoted to zombies is probably not going to be the answer. It’s also difficult to complain about far-fetched plots when you’re discussing a story about rotting corpses that feed off the living. And in all honesty, while I’m a little uncomfortable with what “Walking Dead” appears to have taken from other sources, horror has always been a genre that cannibalizes itself.

Besides, the comic book is fun. And in the end, that’s what counts.

“Walking Dead” might not be the best-written series around, and it’s certainly not the most original, but it is entertaining. There’s plenty of zombie action and senseless death scenes, and that’s exactly what fans want. Trying to judge this comic book by the standards of other titles is ultimately futile and misguided. It would be nice if Kirkman would add a bit of the humor he uses to such good effect in “Invincible”. “Walking Dead” desperately needs to lighten up. The flaws that plague the series wouldn’t be nearly as noticeable if the series didn’t take itself so damn seriously. But that aside, Kirkman gives his readers what they’re looking for: blood, gore and more zombies than you can point a gun at.

Which is why the fourth volume of the series, the ironically-titled “Heart’s Desire”, is such a shock. For some reason, Kirkman sets up the story so that the monsters barely appear. When they do show up for a few panels here and there, they can’t get through the fences protecting our heroes, so there’s nothing to worry about. There actually comes a point when one of the little children admits the zombies don’t scare her anymore. “I just feel sorry for them,” she tells her friend, “because they look so sad.”

What the hell?

I can live with paper-thin characters that barely register and overwrought storylines that “Melrose Place” would have rejected without a second thought. But a zombie comic book that forgets the zombies?

I remember when boxes of Ritz crackers used to have a recipe on the back for “Mock Apple Pie”. The whole concept fascinated me, because I couldn’t figure out who would want to make a fake pie in the first place. If someone is hunkering for a slice of apple goodness, wouldn’t the apples be a necessary part of the equation?  Did Nabisco really think millions (or even dozens) of people were clamoring for a pastry made from cracker crumbs and cinnamon? If the idea took off, were they going to introduce a recipe for cherry popovers using only Oreos and Triscuits?

Call me crazy, but I like apples in my apple pie. And I like to see zombies in zombie comic books.

“Heart’s Desire” starts out with Michonne, a Buffy the Vampire Slayer wannabe, who wields a sword and kicks zombie ass. But before you can even blink, Michonne’s weapon is taken from her, the zombies are all but forgotten, and the woman is giving blow jobs to Tyreese in the gym. This makes Carol jealous, so of course she tries to commit suicide. After Rick gets in a major fight with Tyreese, a recovered Carol makes a pass at him (neglecting to mention that earlier she tried to get some tongue action from his wife).

Say what? By the end of the book, I had a major headache.

Nobody seemed to have a problem with Tyreese slowly and methodically killing the boy that murdered his daughter. “I mutilated him,” Tyreese admitted in front of witnesses, “I had to carry his pieces outside and burn them before everyone woke up so they wouldn’t see the horrors I performed on that boy. And I enjoyed every... minute right up to lighting the fire!” Sounds like someone you want to cuddle up with, right?

But because Rick shot Dexter – a convict who tried to force everyone to walk outside at gunpoint so they could be devoured by zombies – Rick was a bad person and had to be replaced as leader? That makes no sense.

“Heart’s Desire” takes everything good about the “Walking Dead” series (zombies, gratuitous death scenes) and removes it from the mix. What remains is an unfocused and disappointing mess, like one of those “Saturday Night Live” skits that keeps going on long after the audience and even the actors have lost all interest. I could care less about the histrionics, I can’t begin to understand what motivates any of the characters anymore, and the only thing that died was my interest.

I enjoyed George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”. The sequel was also good, although I didn’t think “Dawn of the Dead” was as great as some people claim. Long stretches of it were boring, and the social commentary – zombies searching for familiar surroundings naturally congregate at the mall – was funny but hardly earth-shattering. The third movie was okay. “Day of the Dead” had some nice moments, but nothing worth watching a second time through. As for the fourth (and hopefully final) movie in the series, the less said about it, the better. Calling “Land of the Dead” one of the most predictable and badly-done films of all time is overestimating its value.

Romero should have stopped while he was ahead.

“Heart’s Desire” isn’t as bad as “Land of the Dead” (although “Land” actually had zombies in it, which is always a nice touch when you’re telling a story about zombies). Still, is there really an audience longing for comic books about people learning how to grow a garden or tailor prison uniforms to fit better? If the zombies are no longer a threat, what’s the point? Complacency isn’t scary (or interesting, for that matter). As the book finally limps to an end, Rick screams out, “We are the walking dead!” I wanted to tell him I know EXACTLY how he feels. If life after zombies is going to be like an overripe Jackie Collins novel, then here’s hoping I die quickly.

There’s always a chance the series will improve. Surely the zombies will be featured again at some point in the future. But this is where I step off the ride. There are simply too many reasons why I don’t think this series is worth reading anymore, and I’d rather spend my money on something better.

Call it the rule of the Ritz. With so many apples available, it seems silly to be satisfied with cracker crumbs.

Disclaimer: The preceding article was a commentary, not a review. If it had been a review, it would have been informative and well-written, with quotable phrases like “I laughed, I cried, but I never touched the pie.” Instead, it’s an opinionated rant by a man who wishes Randy Lander would reconsider retiring from the Fourth Rail website. If you agree with anything I’ve written, please send cash. If you don’t agree, please send money. But either way, please feel free to leave your own opinions on the Lowdown forum. Thanks!

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