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October 30, 2010

REVIEW: ‘Walking Dead’ and ‘Dead Set’ take zombies to next level

Posted in: TV

Los Angeles Times television critic Mary McNamara says its a special time for the moaning, shambling corpse crowd… 

"The Walking Dead." (AMC)

Zombies are back in a big way this Halloween, with “The Walking Dead” premiering on AMC and the British miniseries “Dead Set” on IFC. Frankly, it’s not a moment too soon. We’ve all but ruined all the other good monsters, turning perfectly decent vampires and werewolves into sad-eyed pin-up boys (and girls), reducing the dimensions of evil and corruption they once represented to eternal adolescent angst.

George A. Romero's "Night of the Living Dead."

But zombies, well, there’s not much you can do to a zombie. You can fiddle with their land speeds and their raison d’être (Worldwide pandemic? Overbooking in hell?) but there ain’t no way you’re going to make a zombie sexy. Not even the mopey, seasonal-disorder-plagued Bella could fall for a guy whose jawbone is hanging by a decayed thread.

Which doesn’t mean zombies aren’t complicated. While vampire mythology revolves around sex, and werewolves embody the animal in every man, zombies are more sociopolitical. Originally, zombies were created by voodoo to work the Haitian fields — the ultimate proletariat. They shook off their chains in the 1950s through “Tales From the Crypt” comic books and the novel “I Am Legend,” but it wasn’t until 1968 that they found their true leader. In “Night of the Living Dead” George Romero turned corpses into the ultimate power-consumers, and created the Rosetta stone of the genre.

“The Walking Dead” and “Dead Set” share the standard zombie apocalypse plotline and a slavering, saturated, graphically detailed grisliness (fake blood and disembowelment technology have certainly improved since “Night of the Living Dead,” or even “Braveheart”) but are quite different in ambition, message and execution. “Dead Set,” which aired in Britain last year as a five-part, 21/2-hour series, is a smaller and more pointed social commentary. As news reports of zombies fill the air, the crew of “Big Brother” remains oblivious and soon Charlie Brooker’s tale turns the reality show’s conceit inside out — the house is now one of the few safe places in the world and the ever-shrinking few must work together to survive.

"Dead Set." (IFC)

Though not as broad a satire as the marvelous 2004 film “Shaun of the Dead,” “Dead Set” imagines how ordinary people might actually act in a zombie-intense situation while brilliantly sending up the mindless nature of “Big Brother.” When the stricken go zombie, their eyes resemble the show’s logo and in one particularly harrowing scene, a literal evisceration is accompanied by a metaphorical one — Brooker is no fan of reality TV.

Based on the popular graphic novel, “The Walking Dead” is much more ambitious in both scope and tone. (For the record, it also had the most impressive display at this year’s Comic-Con.) Writer and director Frank Darabont (“The Shawshank Redemption,” “The Green Mile”) seamlessly stitches together grand American traditions including the western, the separated-family drama and, of course, the post-apocalypse tale, creating the first zombie epic, with sprawling storylines, archetypal characters and imagery to rival “Gone With the Wind

THERE’S MORE, READ THE REST.

By Mary McNamara

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