The Girl With All the Gifts, by MR Carey

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MR Carey’s novel The Girl With All The Gifts is currently making quite a few waves at the moment, and not without good reason. Featuring a small cast of well-drawn characters, it’s an original and fast-paced horror thriller as you’re very likely to read, and even manages to put an entirely fresh spin on what’s fast becoming the hoary old cliché of zombies and the walking dead.

The main character of the title is Melanie, a young girl who spends her days in a classroom located deep inside a military bunker where she is learning alongside other children. However Melanie is the brightest of them all, and she soon sees the disconnect between the world she is learning about from her teachers and the clues she picks up about what actually lies outside the concrete walls and barbed wire fences.

It’s a post-apocalyptic scenario set 20 years after the world was ravaged by a plague that kills everyone it infects and then turns them into mindless flesh-eating feeding machines called ‘hungries’. Circumstances conspire to violently eject Melanie and a small group out from their protective cocoon in southern Britain into the reality of this ravaged world. It’s not only Melanie who has some shocks coming at what they find: her favourite teacher Helen Justineau, scientist Caroline Caldwell, battle-hardened Sergeant Parks and raw recruit Private Gallagher will all find their preconceptions overturned – about the world, the hungries, each other and even themselves. Read the rest of this entry »

The Walking Dead S4 E9-16 (Fox)

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Despite its critical and ratings success, The Walking Dead has always appeared to have a big ongoing problem with balance. It obviously can’t be just an unending parade of horrific beheadings and shock deaths every episode; but any effort to pause, take stock and build up new characters is instantly greeted with complaints from fans that the show has become too slow, lost its way or is veering too much into soap opera territory. Finding the exact pivot point to please everyone is surely impossible.

For me, I had thought that the first half of season 4 was the most consistently excellent run of episodes that the show had so far put together; but I was concerned that its decision to go for a huge mid-season cliffhanger by essentially blowing up its jailhouse setting and killing off several important and well-loved characters might prove to be the tipping point. There’s only so many times you can pull that trick without the audience going, “What, really? We have to start from scratch again?” without them wondering whether it’s really worth it or whether it’s just become an unsatisfying neverending undead version of Groundhog Day. Read the rest of this entry »

Dawn of the Dead (2004) [DVD]

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With Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel out in cinemas and zombies also once more rampaging their way across the screen in World War Z, I had a sudden desire to go back to see this 2004 horror remake which was Snyder’s feature directorial début and also (along with 28 Days Later) one of the first films to break the old ‘shuffling undead’ trope and cause ructions among the genre purists by suddenly having the zombies able to run at you at full tilt.

Snyder chose to step into some very big shoes with this reimagination of George A. Romero’s seminal 1978 horror classic, in which the zombie apocalypse maroons a bunch of survivors in the unlikely setting of a huge shopping mall in Milwaukee. For some reason the mall proves a Mecca for the undead who continue arriving by the thousands, perhaps driven by vestigial memories of this being somewhere they came when they were alive that was important to them.

Romero’s original was a sharp satire on modern consumer society, whereas the remake is a more out-and-out action horror. Pleasingly – and unlike so many other movies in the genre of the last decade – this film throws itself into that task with relish and aplomb, with full-on blood, guts and gore together with proper industrial-grade foul language and a dark, nihilistic view of the outcome for pretty much all concerned. Read the rest of this entry »

The Walking Dead S2 E1 “What Lies Ahead”

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When you find yourself with a stunning and wholly unexpected break-out hit on your hands – as American cable TV channel AMC did with the six-part The Walking Dead mini-series in 2010 – the big question mark and headache hanging over things is: can you repeat that success in the sophomore year? Can you convert that flash in the pan to something sustained and long-lasting, or will it fall apart in your hands when you have to get serious about it?

It doesn’t help when the production’s co-creator and showrunner (Hollywood director Frank Darabont in this case) suddenly leaves the project a couple of episodes into the making of the second series, after most of the writers have also just been replaced. It speaks volumes of considerable trouble behind the scenes, and means that when you’re watching the finished episodes you’re actually micro-analysing it thinking: “Is this where the quality dips? Where the rows set in? Where the shark-jumping begins? Is that why Darabont quit/was fired/delete as applicable?”

Fortunately, even with the micro-analysis set to full-strength, it’s hard to see how the first episode of season 2 represents a shift in direction or dip in quality thus far. The opening half hour in particular in staggeringly strong and also very simple in premise, as our heroes get stuck in a motorcar graveyard on a freeway in the middle of nowhere. Inevitably, a wave of the walking dead approach – too many to fight off, so all our heroes can do is hide and take cover in and under the wrecked vehicles as the zombies shuffle past inches away, in a deeply nerve-wracking extended sequence that leaves you holding your own breath past the point of comfort.

Critics fear that Darabont’s departure means they’re ‘soaping it up’, but certainly in the first half of this episode the ‘soap’ elements are simply those that existed in the first mini-series – the tangled relationship of the sheriff’s wife and his deputy; Andrea contemplating suicide. Yes, the second half of the episode does feature a long sequence where the sheriff (Britain’s own Andrew Lincoln) has a chat with his Saviour in a church in the middle of nowhere – but by then we need the respite, and the potentially mawkish moment has been paid for upfront by the deliriously macabre black comedy spectacle of zombie worshippers sitting silently in the pews, before promptly getting hacked to pieces or their heads caved in by an explosion of righteous retribution from the good guys. Even the falseness of the church itself (the tolling bell is the total artifice of a timer-activated recording played over a loudspeaker) adds an edge to any potential sentimentality-overdose from the ‘talking to God’ sequence.

Nor does the episode end with a pat resolution. We do not find the missing member of the group we’ve been searching for; and then out of nowhere there is a shocking gunshot during an apparently magical encounter with the ‘natural world’, and one of the members of the regular group that we’ve always assumed would be safe to the end is on the receiving end of it.

Far from finding any cracks or signs of shark-jumping in this season opener, I thought this was possibly the strongest episode we’ve seen of The Walking Dead since the pilot. It continues the tension and genuine outright horror (one of the scenes where the group have to check out what a zombie had for its last meal is astoundingly gross), deftly juggles the ‘soapy’ side to things, but at the same time it now has a new sense of self-confidence in what it’s trying to do and a new swagger in how it goes about doing it that stem directly from the success of the first season.

Whether this is just Darabont’s last triumphant hurrah at the helm and the cracks (if indeed there prove to be any) will start showing in two or three episodes’ time is another question entirely, but for now The Walking Dead is at the top of its gleefully grotesque game.