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STUDENT BLOG #6: The Appeal of Zombies, Pre-"Walking Dead"
November 12, 2010  | By David Bianculli
 

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AMC has cancelled Rubicon, its intellectual thriller about global conspiracies, but ordered a second season of The Walking Dead, its other freshman series, which continues Sunday night at 10 ET. Why are spies executed, but zombies allowed to, uh, live? Our Rowan University student correspondent, Rich Greenhalgh, looks at "zombie appeal" -- and finds it predating AMC's series in several surprising places...

By Rich Greenhalgh

Who would have predicted that AMC's The Walking Dead, a drama about the aftermath of a zombie holocaust in America, would be so lively AND so popular? However, if you thought the human struggle against "zombies" as fodder for television drama was a new idea, you are the last zombie to the brains, my friends.

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In October 2008, the undead were feasting on reality show contestants in the horror drama Dead Set, a TV series shown on the UK's Channel E4. The series, created by Charlie Brooker, aired over the week of Halloween, and eventually received a BAFTA nomination as well as critical praise. After several repeat British airings, and DVD sales, the series finally made its way to America courtesy of the IFC cable network -- just last month, again programmed over Halloween weekend.

The premise of Dead Set was simple: a zombie outbreak on the set of TV's Big Brother reality show. How do people who live in a fantasy TV world deal with the life-and-death hardships of Zombie Apocalypse?

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What I found most impressive about the series was that the director, Yann Demange, found a way to spin two seemingly unrelated plates simultaneously. On one hand, he employed viciously comic cultural satire. In the other, he propelled a tension-mounting drama of survival in a deadly crisis. It wasn't slapstick in any way -- and yet, when you add in the idiocy of shallow reality-TV parasites, you do tend to root for the zombies.

In case you missed the series last month when it was imported by IFC, you can see the original Channel E4 TV trailer by clicking HERE.

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The Brits in this cast never go for an easy laugh because the most biting (pardon the pun) moments are played straight, with either sheer terror or comic awkwardness. The breakout character of the series, clearly, is actor Andy Nyman, who plays Patrick, the egomaniacal TV producer. He's verbally shredding scenes, with nasty one-liners hurled at anyone in his path even BEFORE the zombies attack.

Not everyone in this show is a riot, as many are merely "types" designed to represent cultural flavors of who conflicts with whom in a reality-TV setting. The series doesn't focus only on the stupid, as it does have a few honest-to-human characters just trying to find their mates or do the right thing.

This series boasts quite a few cameos from the UK reality-TV scene, and it's hysterically gruesome fun, if you like gallows humor. The British have really revamped the concept of "fear of the undead masses" in the last several years, with movies such as 28 Days Later, and even comically, with Simon Pegg in Shaun of the Dead.

The Brits know how to make flesh-eaters entertaining to even the most discerning viewer. However, the Japanese beat even AMC and IFC to the human feast, with its own ultra-violent stylized drama series.

If the UK can make the zombie genre into an acclaimed drama series, certainly someone can energize and stylize the undead for the college crowd, right? Japan, as it happens, had no problem re-animating those walking corpses for an ultra popular ratings smash.

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In fact, it was as simple as actually animating them. Japan's Summer 2010 TV juggernaut High School of the Dead is just what hungry otakus (anime fans) were dying for. Such demand and buzz grew about the series that it was licensed to Anime Network in the USA and subbed in English before even airing in Japan, so it could be shown within hours of the Japanese broadcasts.

Based on the original horror manga (serialized comic) published since 2006 in Fujimi Shobo's Monthly Dragon Age, and known as Gakuen Mokushiroku (translation: Academy Apocalypse), written by Yousuke Kuroda, it was adapted for TV by Madhouse studios and directed by Tetsuro Araki.

High School of the Dead begins as smart but wayward high school student Takashi Komuro survives a pandemic that turns people in Japan into zombies. He and his group of survivors must escape their school and find safety. This group includes a bratty girl genius; the air-headed school nurse; a martial-arts team captain with a violent streak; a sci-fi nerd who is way too comfortable with guns; and the girl with whom our protagonist has been in love for years.

One interesting aspect of this version is how other countries are portrayed in sidebar stories, as the zombie epidemic is shown across the globe.

High School of the Dead is a dual-layered drama, as it deals with the inner battles within the survivors as they struggle with and against other survivors, as society's laws of morality and order crash around them rapidly.

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Madhouse stages the stylized battle-and-action scenes in ways that are sure to remind people of The Matrix and Resident Evil. Another stylistic choice employed is the liberal use of what's known as Ecchi (also called "fan service"), which essentially means sexy or lewd, depending upon the context.

Ecchi, for those unfamiliar with Japanese culture, is essentially the art of the visual tease or selective camera angles to accentuate a character's appearance or sexual attributes, without actually showing anything too risque. It can either be as safe as PG-13, or mature as TV-MA rating. They save the UNCUT versions for Blu-Ray sales and premium cable stations.

Its most comparable style for adult content is the Starz channel series Spartacus: Blood and Sand -- it's not as visually revealing as, say, HBO's True Blood. It's actually a well-baked dramatic action thriller, with real romance and gore.

To get a taste of all this, click HERE for the subbed version of the promo trailer for High School of the Dead.

These two series aren't even the first attempt at a zombie drama series. If you're familiar with the movie Zombieland, you might have heard that the film was originally a TV series, which was optioned, then later tweaked into a feature film. Vampires have trampled all over the TV fantasy drama scene for years, thanks to Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and CW's current The Vampire Dairies.

Is it possible these two shows -- Dead Set and High School of the Dead -- could inspire American remakes? Before you dismiss the possibility, I have one image for you: zombies invade the reality-TV home and cast of MTV's Jersey Shore.

"They're coming to get you, Snooki!"

 

2 Comments

 

Ed Q. said:

Ok, I'll read this whole post, I promise but I couldn't get past the 1st line without commenting. AMC canceled Rubicon??? Noooooo! Sure it was slow developing but it was smart, well done and really got going those last few episodes especially the last 2. I really thought having a show like that on a smaller cable station like AMC gave it great shot of building an audience, seeing how the DVD sales went and then deciding on a season 2 or even 3. Who does AMC think it is? NBC? Actually, NBC, no one watches you anyway, why don't you try something daring and pick up Rubicon?

Comment posted on November 15, 2010 5:03 PM


Lois said:

I agree with Ed Q; I was stunned at the cancellation of Rubicon. I waited all week for it and watched with rapt attention. OK, so it was slow; and also intellectual (is that the nail in the coffin now?), but it made Sunday viewing something worth waiting for. I had higher hopes for AMC than to do something like this. It's not like they are one of the networks...

Comment posted on November 16, 2010 3:30 PM
 
 
 
 
 
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