With its attention to horror, human drama and, most importantly, craft, Robert Kirkman's comic book The Walking Dead harkens to the brilliance of George Romero's locally produced 1968 classic, Night of the Living Dead. Like people who presumed that story to be just another monster movie, those who presume this book to be just another spinning of the zombie yarn will be shocked. Yes, it has the required corpses walking the earth looking for human flesh, while the living, free of law and order, find themselves trapped by the age-old survival dilemma: helping myself or helping the group. Death is shockingly portrayed. But unlike so many zombie stories since Romero's classic, The Walking Dead, whose fourth installment will be released Nov. 18, achieves something greater than its genre.
Kirkman's tale is a story with characters -- not zombie fodder. Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard (both nominated for 2005 Will Eisner Awards for their work on this series) tell the tale expertly. Working in black-and-white, Moore and Adlard, create intimate emotional detail and sweeping illustrations of the scope of the zombie problem.
The story follows small-town police officer Rick Grimes in his quest to protect his family from the threats both dead and living. Kirkman surrounds the family with a cast of individual characters (diverse enough to include prison inmates, farmers, a street kid, a
former pro-football player and RV-driving retirees) and allows them to develop. Due to forces beyond a simple zombie threat -- changing perspectives on his own life, his relationships with his wife and friends -- Grimes goes from relatively sensitive good ol' boy to hardened and bitter alpha male
The Walking Dead succeeds because Kirkman does what Romero has perhaps been restricted from doing in the medium of cinema -- he can weave the complexity of his characters across what cinematically would be an almost impossible time scale. Romero tells separate stories across sequels; Kirkman is crafting one. Basically, The Walking Dead has what the Living Dead films cannot -- character-driven momentum. In other hands it would descend into soap opera, but with Kirkman (acclaimed writer of Invincible) the book will continue to enthrall both the seasoned, and those of us just now rediscovering the zombie genre.
I know some of you believe I'm missing the whole point of zombie stories, and I can hear you saying, "It's not about character. It's about ZOMBIES! Flesh-eating corpses wandering the world, trying to feast on humanity's last survivors! Gross-out shock and spectacle!" Don't fret. Try zombies that freeze to the ground in winter, zombies led like familiars by a sword-wielding mystery girl, and panel-busting showdowns. It's just that Kirkman's character-driven story welcomes a larger audience.
Yet, accomplished as it is, The Walking Dead lacks the sardonic social commentary that George Romero is so skilled at crafting into zombie stories. Romero's latest, Land of the Dead (released on DVD Oct. 18), contains compelling social commentary equaling that of his 1968 classic.
Finally realizing a minor theme in all of his zombie films, Romero makes the zombies deserving of our sympathy. He creates compassion to the degree that we feel sorry for these reflections of ourselves. They wander deserted streets in small towns, get strung up in bags for target practice, and chained up for photo sessions with tourist tormentors. Continuing his commentary on American society, from the nuclear family to racism, consumerism and militarization, Romero now damns imperialism from the view of the subjugated, the walking dead.
Yes, the plot is driven by the social commentary, and the characters become little more than gears moving things forward. But the machine works. It works because of a story which pulls the audience's sympathies between the zombies and the human race struggling to hold onto Pittsburgh, because of casting that includes John Leguizamo and Dennis Hopper, because of fast pacing, solid effects and of course, because of references to many things Pittsburgh (including a Land of Make Believe-like Punch and Judy show performed in the shell of a TV set). It works so well that Land of the Dead becomes Romero's best sequel, perhaps once again altering the genre.
So -- unless you're dying to see local filmmaker Tony Buba as a marauding biker wearing a sombrero in the Monroeville Mall -- skip Dawn or the Dead (and definitely Day of the Dead) and go right from Night of the Living Dead to Land of the Dead. The closing shots of Night of the Living Dead and the opening title sequences of Land of the Dead are eerily similar.