I’m one of the millions who obsess about “The Walking Dead,” the AMC series that is the greatest thing since Leo Fender created his electric guitar. The third season began last week; last Sunday’s episode was the most watched basic-cable drama EVER. If you didn’t see it, consider this a warning: If you don’t like on-screen zombie-killings, fields of “walkers” sniffing for prey or the gory, shocking sight of a zombie-bit man getting his lower leg chopped off by a hatchet — thereby saving his life, apparently — well, you wouldn’t have dug it.
I did. Immensely.
In an odd way, the problem with “The Walking Dead” is that it is a post-apocalyptic zombie drama, and it’s the best one ever created. By definition, most zombie cinema is rubbish: bad action, bad scripts, bad camera work. It’s also as clichéd as a locker-room interview. People die; people turn into zombies; zombies chase people.
Don’t get me wrong. “The Walking Dead” does that better than ever before. It’s not cliché; it’s scary as hell. The special effects, the sight of the dead feasting on the bowels of the
living, are grade-A. For me, however, what makes this series a must-see isn’t the dead or the gore. It’s the fear in the living’s eyes.
That fear grips you. It puts you in the living’s place: Tired, scared, desperate, scrambling. How would you react? Would fear paralyze you or energize you? Could you survive in a world in which you are the hunted? In which you have to kill — incessantly — human forms to live? Could you retain your humanity in a world that seemingly has none? Remember Tom Hanks’ character in “Cast Away”? Different, more plausible story, but the same emotions. How would you react? Could you survive?
There are “Walking Dead” fanatics who treat the show like wrecks at a NASCAR race; it’s all about slaughtered zombies. The more the better. But what makes the show so intense is the living’s never-ending struggle to stay alive and retain slivers of their humanity. If the world is ending, do you become animalistic in the chaos, killing and foraging with no emotion, or does your soul — your human soul — keep you on a higher plane?