Monday, September 28, 2015

‘Fear the Walking Dead’ taps into modern angst




Warning: Minor Spoilers Ahead

Many reviewers and “Walking Dead” fans, (including me) feared that “Fear the Walking Dead” would be at best an inferior version of its parent series, or at worst, a cynical cash grab. Both of those expectations could not have been further off the mark. Instead, as the moody “Fear” heads into its sixth and final episode of the season, it stands as flat out the scariest piece of television drama since the early seasons of "The X-Files" (as well as Chris Carter’s other 90s horror series, “Millennium”).

The writers and producers have given us insight into something most “Walking Dead” fans have always wondered. How did everything go down? What was happening in those early days when Rick was in a coma? How exactly did the world end?

Well, as one character says in the pilot episode (and was again re-iterated last night by the great Ruben Blades in episode 5):

“When the world ends, it ends fast.”



The show runners behind “Fear of the Walking Dead” astutely took a very different approach than the parent show. “The Walking Dead”, despite it horror trappings, is essentially an action adventure show. The walkers are part of the landscape, and to be sure, despite their familiarity by now, hordes of flesh eating zombies can still be terrifying. But the true horror in “Walking Dead” comes from the evil humans in the form of governors, gangs, child rapists, wife beaters, and even flesh-eating (literally) cannibalistic humans.

But while “The Walking Dead” hit the ground running in one spectacular staged action sequence after another—“Fear the Walking Dead” has been unleashed in a simmering, slow burn of orange-hued cinematography amid the urban angst landscape of a drought plagued L.A. Setting the series deep in the heart of Los Angeles and telling the story via a “modern” family of very real (and very relate-able) people is another wise move. 

A tense sense of dread permeates everything in the early on in the pilot episode, and the atmosphere of suspense continues to build slowly throughout each show.

This is a drama that understands the art of patience and payoff. Ground your story. Create realism and draw the audience into the world of the characters. Then when the horror does it—it will be all that much more effective.



This is also a show that understands the art of the payoff—how to effectively build the suspense. We first only hear about the “infected” who have the “flu”. Then we get glimpses of them on social media video footage. Then, when have our first true encounters with the undead, it is absolutely terrifying.

There are three sequences in this series, (Nick’s drug dealer, Maddie and her student facing down the Principal in the eerie, desolate school, and the neighbor zombie in the house scene), that are riveting, talk-back-to-screen, clench your jaw, cover your eyes, super scary.

Of course, strong writing, brilliant on-location cinematography, and great atmosphere mean nothing without the right cast, and this cast is outstanding!

Kim Dickens as Maddie anchors this series with the same impressive gravitas and charisma that lead to her stealing “Gone Girl”. She is this show’s Rick, and just like Andrew Lincoln, this role will cement her reputation as a major star who can carry anything. The entire supporting cast is equally up to the challenge, but the true standout here that must be mentioned is Rubin Blades as Daniel Salazar—what a great character!

What is terrifying about “Fear” is how closely the on-screen horror mirrors our own brooding real-life reality. When there were a couple of isolated Ebola cases in the U.S. last year, fear-mongering madness ensued. An American nurse returning from East Africa, with no symptoms of the disease, was detained and locked into a cage by blow-hard loud mouth New Jersey Governor Chris Christi. The rhetoric on all sides was apocalyptic as paranoia ran rampant. Now imagine what would happen if anything even remotely close to any widespread epidemic were to strike—not to mention an actual zombie virus.

Chilling stuff. There is a scene in “Fear of the Walking Dead” where I actually felt the need to begin stockpiling weapons for the day when that epidemic hits. This is a show that will get under your skin.


Bottom line: **** (out of four)

Creepy, chilling, brilliantly photographed and scored, with strong performances from Kim Dickens and Ruben Blades—“Fear the Walking Dead” is scary stuff.


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