A review of “Fear the Walking Dead,” Season 1 (2015)

I know that love for “Fear the Walking Dead” (2015) is not universal, but I needed to pipe in at least once to say that I thought that “Season 1” was terrific.  (I feel funny calling six episodes a “season,” but I’ve heard that de facto miniseries like this are a new trend in television.)  I’d give this apocalypse story a 9 out of 10.

For me, “Fear the Walking Dead” satisfied a longstanding itch.  If you grow up a fan of post-apocalyptic horror, you are constantly exposed to the aftermath of the end of the world.  In the vast majority of films and fiction, horror fans are treated to flashbacks, at best, of how it all went down.  Here we (partly, at least) get to see it all go down.

I’ll bet that stories so expansive in scope are a little harder to conceive and write convincingly.  Very few writers of prose or screenplays have expertise in disaster management, disease control, mass psychology or homeland security.  How much easier is it to have protagonists roam a landscape of burned out buildings, with only graffiti, snippets of conversation, and occasionally a blown newspaper offering hints of exactly how the end came about?

“Fear” deserves a hell of a lot of credit just for trying (as does “The Strain” over at FX).  It’s also why the globally plotted “Contagion” (2011) was such a frighteningly interesting thriller, and why Max Brooks’ stage-by-stage zombie pandemic easily made “World War Z” the greatest zombie novel ever written.  Through the eyes of an average family, “Fear” at least tries to show us meaningful glimpses into how police, emergency and military authorities would react.  The result is some interesting stories.  A nerdy high school student is the first to prepare, for example, due to his attention to the Internet’s alternative media.  And a doomed compact between a civilian neighborhood and their putative military protectors concludes in a particularly horrifying way.

Soooooo many viewers complained that there were “no zombies.”  Well, there were always a couple, at least — we got a great one in the first episode’s earliest minutes.  But that wasn’t the point.  The creators of “Fear” told us that this would be a different type of show, with a “slow burn” -type horror.  For me, that worked.  Look at it this way — we routinely see “zombie swarms” over at that other show (what was its name again?).  We’ve been seeing them for five whole seasons — the first repelled Rick Grimes’ ill advised solitary horseback exploration of Atlanta.  That’s fun for a zombie horror fan, but it’s nothing new.

“Fear” offers us something much different — a kind of “creeping horror.”  This seemed like the “Psycho” (1960) of onscreen zombie tales.  No, we don’t see zombies everywhere, but watching even one episode of “The Walking Dead” (2010) lets us know that these lackadaisical everyday people are in for a hell of a ride.  We, the viewers, know what they do not.  That’s what our high school English teachers taught us was “dramatic irony,” and it makes this a nice little companion show to “The Walking Dead.”  In fact, ALL the characters we see are probably doomed to die, given what we know of the statistics established by “The Walking Dead.”  That’s pretty dark stuff.

Other viewers complained about the characters being boring or unlikable.  I do get that.  Nobody here, I think, will ever gain the same viewer loyalty as Rick, Michonne or Daryl Dixon.  (If it were put to a vote among the women of the world, I’m pretty sure they’d rename “The Walking Dead” as “The Norman Reedus Show.”)  But “Fear’s” average (and, yes, sometimes boring) people seemed far more “real” to me — I think they functioned better as viewer surrogates, and better allowed me to imagine how I might react in a world like this.  I almost started viewing this as an end-of-the-world docudrama in the same manner as the BBC’s little known “End Day” (2005).

Besides, two characters in particular do show great promise.  I just can’t say who or why without spoiling that they survived.  Yet another character who appears suicidal in the final episode is one that I thought was pretty interesting, and we do not actually see this person’s death.

Sure, I had my own quibbles.  Los Angeles is remarkably empty for a city of nearly 4 million people.  I’m inclined to think that, even after an unlikely evacuation attempt, it would still be swamped either with people who still needed help, or with zombies.

Also … the sparse information we’re given about the zombie phenomenon here seems disappointingly contradictory.  We’ve established that a universal, invisible illness means people will return into undeath, regardless of how they died.  But we also see a flu-like illness affect some people (who are doomed to die shortly thereafter), but not all people.  Are these two different manifestations of the same disease?  Is it even technically a contagion, or is it an environmental illness?  (I know my questions here are absurdly silly, but this is precisely the sort of thing that horror nerds argue about over at the Internet Movie Database.)

Oh, well.  My recommendation here is to give this a chance, with the caveat that it definitely isn’t “The Walking Dead.”  It’s damn good.

Oh!  One more thing!  Keep an eye out for occasional homages to “28 Days Later” (2002).  And watch closely — one such plot arc is devilishly turned on its head in a subtle thematic twist.

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