[6 November 2011]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
The more you know about the behind-the-scenes drama of The Walking Dead, the more depressing it is to watch The Complete First Season Special Edition DVD.
When AMC—still running high off of the critically adored shows Mad Men and Breaking Bad, two of the best shows on TV today—announced that Frank Darabont wound be taking Robert Kirkman’s famed graphic novel series The Walking Dead and turning it into a long-running TV series, fans everywhere were justifiably excited. When the series’ first episode premiered on Halloween of 2010, it became both a critical and commercial smash, scoring record high numbers for AMC.
Although the series was very much truncated, running a mere six episodes, that didn’t prevent it from stoking up excitement from both fanboys and industry observers alike. After all, zombie movies were a dime a dozen—but to explore the zombie apocalypse over the long-term? Nothing had ever been attempted like that before (and given the show’s Season Two premiere ratings were the best ever for the network, coupled with the growing popularity of FX’s American Horror Story, it became readily apparent that people were excited for honest-to-goodness horror TV).
Then, the stories began to emerge. First came the sacking of the entire writing staff. Then came disagreements wherein Mad Men‘s creative visionary Matthew Weiner played rough with his high-end contract negotiations, resulting in AMC depleting funds from their other hit shows. Breaking Bad‘s Vince Gilligan threatened to go to another network before AMC agreed upon a 16-episode final season, whereas the $250,000-cut-per-episode on The Walking Dead is what was rumored to have caused Darabont to walk out, until reports emerged days later that shortly after a Comic-Con appearance to promote the show, Darabont was fired by the network.
The reason why this whole thing is a bit bittersweet is because virtually every special feature on this DVD set is about Darabont in one way or another. The man brought the series into fruition, convinced Kirkman that he should be the man to tackle this (and in one of the new featurettes on this DVD set, “Adapting the Dead”, Kirkman notes how he’s turned down people numerous times before due to their lack of understanding over this being a character—not zombie—driven story), and wrote and directed the series’ pilot, staying on as Executive Producer after that. Every single featurette—both carryovers from the first DVD set and the new ones here—has Darabont’s presence front and center.
Although many of the featurettes on here are wildly informative—ranging from behind-the-scenes looks of how the show’s zombie effects and visual effects are done (the latter being especially fascinating for when it comes to doing small changes: adding flies to corpses, keeping Andrew Lincoln’s hat on after it flies off during a take where he runs off on a horse)—the real takeaway is a new three-part, hour-long documentary called “We Are the Walking Dead” by Constantine Nasr, who is there to capture every single day of filming straight through. Narrated only by the people that appear in front of his camera, he captures Darabont at his finest and his most frustrated, starting with the first major shot of the series: a car chase that goes bad, with a car flipping on a rural two-lane road.
It’s fascinating because the shot is attempted three times but the car refuses to flip. The stunt driver is canned, a backup driver is flown in at the last minute, and on his first try, he nails it perfectly. Darabont absolutely shines at the results.
As the doc rolls on, Darabont waxes back to when he was making films as a youngster, he and his friend getting a “smooth camera motion” by attaching a camera to the end of a 2x4, then laying that 2x4 on top of another one and then slowly pushing it forward to get that clean kind of shot for tight spaces. He explains this concept to his crew who builds a far-more-professional version of that same idea for about $900, and uses it during a sequence wherein Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) is trapped underneath a tank in zombie-infested Atlanta.
We also see a shot wherein zombies rip apart the horse that Grimes was riding on, eating its delicious innards, and one zombie extra is blocking the cameraman from getting an extraordinary shot, during which Darabont actually goes up and yanks the actor back by the collar of his shirt so that the shot can go on as planned. Intercut with scenes of the actors and crew discussing their characters, the show, and filming outdoors in too-hot Atlanta, it all adds up to one remarkably satisfying behind-the-scenes experience.
The other notable feature on this DVD set is what is turning into a Darabont staple: a black & white version of his work. He did it with the special-edition version of The Mist on DVD, and does it again here with the pilot episode. Although one might wonder what can be gained from watching the exact same thing with fewer colors, the show’s opening shot (panning across an open highway decorated with trees and overturned cars) makes a lot more sense after you hear Darabont discuss multiple times how Night of the Living Dead is the zombie “Book of Genesis”. When that camera swoops down on Grimes driving up to an eerily quiet tent city that sprung up around a gas station, the Romero references become crystal-clear.
Darabont is shown multiple times on this DVD set openly wondering why he spent so much time making all of those “talky” movies when he could’ve been out there living his zombie-movie dreams, and the B&W cut of the pilot, while not revealing anything new, gains just a bit more creepiness from its drained hue.
Although the new commentaries for each of the episodes are generally informative (Darabont’s take on the pilot, unsurprisingly, the most fascinating of all), the problems and peaks of the show remain what they always were: some characters are drastically underwritten (see friend of the site Jeryl Prescott’s character of Jacqui), the zombie effects and sense of apocalyptic dread are spot on, the drama between the survivors remains palpable if a little muddled (it’s only in the DVD featurettes that we find out that Jeffrey DeMunn’s character Dale is gay, even if it doesn’t do much of anything for the plot), the season finale is good if lacking in game-changing impact (for lessons on how to make your season finale explosive as all get out, defer to the book of Breaking Bad).
In short, The Walking Dead Season One Special Edition DVD set doesn’t rewrite anything about the show itself, but for those curious about its genesis, its workings, or even how to make realistic zombie makeup with things you buy from the store (yes, there’s an awesome featurette for that), then look no further. It’s an embarrassment of riches, but with Darabont now gone, one wonders if Season Two’s DVD set will illuminate the same kind of charm.