Finding salvation in the horror B movie

I am writing a series of blog posts about The Walking Dead. In Part I, I revisited the troubled Scott Gimple era of the television show. Part II concerns the show’s embrace of the zombie’s roots in horror B movies. Part III will concern who I think is the true main character of the series.

Gimple still presides over the broader fictional universe of The Walking Dead, and as with his time running the main show, the results are not for everyone. Fear the Walking Dead, for example, has evolved into a kind of post-apocalyptic Kung Fu, but Morgan clearly has psychiatric issues that Caine did not, and Morihei Ueshiba’s Art of Peace is failing to work as a form of therapy. The philosophy horror also seems to be in full swing, including monologues, but at least they are now being delivered by characters who themselves are genuinely horrific, such as the serial killer Teddy. As for World Beyond, the overarching menace of the Civic Republic, the planned new shows and films, the jury is still out on whether all of these will congeal into a coherent franchise.

One thing that has happened during this recent phase of the universe has been an embrace of the zombie’s roots in the aesthetics of horror B movies – and in my opinion, the results have been excellent. Fear is indisputably the strongest in this arena, but the main show under Kang has also done very well since the introduction of the Whisperers. This has been an interesting evolution for the franchise, because both the original comic book series and the main show long seemed ambivalent about their inheritance from George Romero.

Why the ambivalence? I think it is not as simple as the erroneous interpretation one sometimes find that The Walking Dead wanted to be a survival drama that happened to have zombies. That was never true, for the zombie had always been the series’ central symbol and plot mechanic. Nevertheless, it was surprising to me that, pretty much until The Walking Dead’s Wilson and Fear‘s hurricane and radioactive zombies, there were not more imaginative scenarios. This seemed unjustifiable not only in terms of the zombie genre, but also in terms of the show’s aspirant realism. After all, would there not be an increased likelihood of more extreme and exotic situations after so many years into the apocalypse? I think what seemed like ambivalence was actually a storytelling strategy that focused heavily on the psychological dimension at the expense of the aesthetic dimension. Consequently, the audience came to know much more about the inner world of this apocalypse than its outer world. That is now no longer the case, not only because of the franchise building we are witnessing, but also because of the embrace of the horror B movie aesthetic.

A definition is in order before proceeding. By “horror B movie aesthetic” I do not mean gore per se, which has always been in the show, whether the characters are covering themselves in guts or pulling a bloated walker out of a well. Nor do I mean the unsettling feelings aroused by watching a back-to-nature survivalist cult that wears the leathered skins of the dead, although Kang and her team are definitely adept at things like this. I mean a particular kind of cinematographic creativity that horror B movies are known for.

Big-budget horror films tend to be constrained in the kinds of ideas and images they can pursue because they need to ensure a return on investment. By contrast, horror B movies tend have more chutzpah, focusing their limited resources on doing something interesting or provocative. They may do so because the director is trying to get noticed, or because they want to have fun, or because they are trying to show something that has indeed never been shown before, but whatever the case, horror B movies have a long tradition of trekking into the foggy night and bringing back some real frights. The difference between big-budget and a B horror, then, is not a difference of substance per se, but of attitude. It is precisely this chutzpah, in combination with a return to strong characterization and drama, that has made the Kang era such a renaissance for The Walking Dead.

Despite the rise of the zombie in big-budget pop culture, this is a monster that originated in, and remains a creature of, the horror B movie. Not only does the zombie offer an incredibly efficient rate of behind-the-scenes financial investment to on-screen special effect, but conceptually it is also a creature intimately connected to spaces. Each of the films in Romero’s original trilogy were set inside, whether a house, a mall or a bunker, with the zombies outside; in Dawn and Day, they eventually infiltrate the safe inner space. While the Whisperers’ zombie mega-herd is certainly an impressive and intimidating thing to behold, being trapped in a cavern with that mega-herd is what gets the heart truly pumping, all the more so when you know that lurking around a bend or hiding behind a stalagmite may be a skin-wearing maniac with a knife.

The embrace of B movie inventiveness has led the audience to be presented with spaces that are both more imaginative and more symbolic, including the medieval dungeon of the Hilltop in the ninth season, the aforementioned labyrinthine cavern in the tenth season, and the haunted DC subway and suburbs in these first few episodes of the eleventh season. And as we have progressed through these new environments, the show’s cinematography, which was always strong, has become impressive, as though the team behind the camera has been inspired by the new aesthetic direction. It is hard to say which has been the standout moment so far, whether Beta rising from the grave or the Battle of Hilltop. For me, it is actually a rather small and quiet scene: when Negan encounters the charred “Judas” walker in “Hunted”. The camera movement, animatronics, autumnal setting and Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s facial expression all combine into an eerily elegant moment, far more eerie and elegant I dare say than we could ever hope to see from a major studio production.

Kang and her team have also given the audience more interesting, aesthetic and symbolic events, perhaps most notably the Whisperers’ murder of Paul in a cemetery. Consider: a character nicknamed Jesus, who was instrumental in the formation of the alliance of survivor communities, was slain in a gloomy graveyard by “evolved” zombies who can speak, plan and wield knives. I not only doubt that we would ever see something like this in a big-budget film today – as the religious overtones would probably be considered too controversial – but I also find the idea this scene is trying to convey to be both impressive and very relevant to what I want to talk about next, viz., that the true main character of this story is and has never been Rick, but civilization.

One Reply to “Finding salvation in the horror B movie”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: