Taking walk on the wild side will lift your spirits
Back when he starred in 90s coming-of-age drama This Life, the worst Andrew Lincoln had to worry about was the odd row with a house mate over who had used the last of the butter.
He faces a rather more grown-up stripe of conundrum as star of The Walking Dead, the hype-slathered new series from Mad Men creators AMC, debuting on RTE next week.
Waking in a hospital after a road accident, Lincoln discovers that not only has the world been overrun by gibbering zombies (think the Dublin boardwalk after dark) but that, as he is playing Texan sheriff Rick Grimes, he is required to speak with a good ol' boy twang.
The latest in the long, but not especially glorious, tradition of Brits-pretending to be Americans, Lincoln doesn't fare too disastrously. Certainly his stab at sounding as if he's from Houston rather than Hull is several orders more convincing than Hugh Lawrie's grumpy tilt at Yankee diction in House.
Not that there's much for him to say in the opening episode of The Walking Dead, where he spends most of his screen time running away from zombies and looking mildly perplexed as he comes to terms with the collapse of human civilization.
As would be the case with most of us, Lincoln's first instinct upon emerging from his coma is to return home. He discovers his wife and child are missing, the house occupied by a shot-gun-toting squatter and son. His objections are muted, though, as the interlopers are helpfully keeping at bay the hordes of shuffling cadavers which have assembled outside hoping to chomp on some delicious human brain.
There's a poignant interlude when the boy's mother -- now fully zombified -- shows up, her maternal instinct warped into gruesome cannibalistic compulsions by her newly acquired undead status. But such tender-heartedness is infrequent in a show that is adapted from a best-selling comic and lifts shamelessly from such zombie classics as George A Romero's Night of the Living Dead and Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later.
Following the success of Mad Men, it's no surprise AMC would make another foray into quality drama. The shock is that it's plumped for horror, a genre almost never attempted on television. There's a good reason for this. Like comedy, horror carries an inbuilt risk -- if it isn't scary, there's no point. You end up with something like Ghost Whisperer, the most terrifying element of which is Jennifer Love-Hewitt's acting.
The same is true of horror at the cinema, of course. However, on the big screen, you can always fling gore at the problem. Look at the rise of "torture porn" which, with its bucketfuls of viscera and cheerful sadism, aims to shock and disgust as much as disturb. Wall-to-floor entrails are not an option on TV, meaning shows live or die by the quality of the writing.
Adapted by Shawshank Redemption director Frank Darabont, The Walking Dead delivers some authentically disturbing moments, such as when Sheriff Grimes comes across a rotting cadaver crawling pathetically across the grass in the hope of nibbling his ankles. Still, Darabont recognises modern audiences don't have the attention span for a story meted out in slow spoonfuls (in the classic Night of the Living Dead, the characters spend half the movie systematically zombie- proofing their house) and great chunks of The Walking Dead consist of Grimes being pursued by ravenous zombies through post-apocalyptic Houston.
A tacked-on side plot revolves around the fate of his wife and child which is the clunkiest thing about the show but at least gives some respite from all the frothing, gibbering undead (whom viewers old enough to remember the 80s will constantly expect to break into the 'Thriller' dance).
As is the case with vampires, pop sociologists read all sort of meaning into the popularity of zombies. Where fangs and Dracula capes allegedly represent repressed sexual desire/latent homo-eroticism/an unhealthy R-Patz obsession; our terror of zombies is often seen as springing from our fear of crowds and wariness of strangers.
In his movies, Romero ran with the metaphor, employing the mindless undead hordes as a stand-in for unthinking consumers (Day of the Dead was actually set in a mall). Darabont has no such pretensions. His humble aim is to frighten the bejaysus out of the viewer whilst serving up a bit of relationship cornball on the side. It's a measure of how well he succeeds that The Walking Dead will have you hooked even if you've never watched a horror movie in your life.
How ironic that a programme about dead people should be one of the liveliest things on television.