Fear the Walking Dead: the zombie spinoff that will keep you up at night

Fear The Walking Dead

This companion piece for AMC’s ratings monster The Walking Dead gives fans an origin story that’s full of the same addictive brand of guts, gore and gloom

In the opening scene of Fear the Walking Dead, the “companion series” to AMC’s zombie blockbuster, a man stumbles upon a zombie feasting on the flesh of the living and scampers away to safety only to be hit by a car. It’s classic The Walking Dead, where someone flees the dangers of the undead only to be felled by something incredibly human.

That’s sort of where the similarities between the original and this new show end. The biggest difference between Fear and its bigger, badder brother is that there are actual cars still operating – and cell phones and the power grid and all of the other modern conveniences that we take for granted. It’s so nice to see characters running around wearing nice clean clothing and not the same gnarly outfits caked in months of dirt, sweat, and walker gore.

Fear takes place in Los Angeles in the very first days of the outbreak that causes society’s collapse and follows one family as it tries to survive. Madison (Kim Dickens, whom you may recognize from House of Cards and Treme) is a high school guidance counselor who lives with her boyfriend, English teacher Travis (Cliff Curtis), and her teenage daughter, Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey). Her junkie son Nick (Frank Dillane) is the one who stumbles upon the zombie in the opening scene and no one quite believes the horrors that he’s seen or the danger that it puts them all in.

The first couple of episodes that were made available for reviewers center around the family’s escape from the city to the desert, where they think it’s safe, and the characters picking up Travis’s son Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie) from his ex-wife, Liza (Elizabeth Rodriguez, who plays Aleida on Orange Is the New Black). The streets are dangerous as the cops try to stop the first few marauding infected and people begin to riot, attempt escape, or succumb to the sickness.

While The Walking Dead concerns itself with the terror of trying to rebuild civilization after it has been lost, Fear is about what it would be like to lose the civilization that we know today. This tactic hits a lot closer to home, because the world that The Walkind Dead’s Rick Grimes and his fellow survivors inhabit is one completely foreign to us, and, while it tells us some things about our own humanity, it is not something we are actively afraid of. After all, there aren’t zombies tapping at our windows and gun-wielding hordes canvassing the streets. The fear in Fear is induced by picturing just how we would do when the apocalypse finally came. How quickly would we go from worrying about our jobs, family, and petty problems before we had to start worrying about where our water comes from, how we’re going to eat, and our colleagues succumbing to a virus and attacking us in the hallways.

The frights here are less about 100 zombies storming someone’s house and more about a slow, creeping dread, about the one or two monsters that no one understands getting loose in the neighborhood. Co-creators Dave Erickson and Robert Kirkman (who writes The Walking Dead comic) and director Adam Davidson do this perfectly, showing us less rotting flesh and more ambient eeriness, like a homeless man who disappears behind a tree, a tattoo that looks like a heart descending into chaos, or some passing graffiti that depicts skeletons coming back to life. It takes the everyday and makes it sinister in a way that will have viewers inspecting the locks on their front doors and worrying about every little cough.

Fear is not lacking in drama, but it is lacking in action. Getting away from one undead assailant is difficult, but not as heart-racing as having to extricate one’s band of survivors from a train station inhabited by cannibals with a cavalcade of zombies attacking the gates, for instance. Without that action, the pace here is a lot slower, like a family drama that just happens to coincide with the end of the world (just imagine Brothers & Sisters, retitled Brothers Eat Sisters).

The lack of action calls attention to just how formulaic some of the plotting is and just how leaden some of the dialogue. Maddie’s boyfriend actually says to her at one point, without irony: “Come away now, angel. Come away.” There are not enough eye rolls in the universe.

While some of the actors struggle a bit with subtlety (especially Dillane, who looks too close to Johnny Depp circa Benny and Joon for comfort), Dickens puts in some stellar work, as she usually does, as a woman who is trying to hold together her family and herself as everything is falling apart around her.

That brings up the question of this show’s future. How many seasons can it take to get this family out of LA and into the desert? And what happens once they get there and have to start worrying about basic survival? Will they hook up with other survivors to fight the enemies from within and without? At that point this just becomes The Walking Dead: Los Angeles, a copycat of a familiar formula like NCIS: Los Angeles.

But the future is very far away and entirely uncertain in these first few episodes. The programme’s problems are small detractions from a show that is otherwise compelling and extremely effective in ruining your sleep schedule. I mean that as a compliment. Fear may be about the end of the world as we know it, but it is also about figuring out what is really important to us when tragedy strikes. That, too, is a wonderful similarity between this and its parent program.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Brian Moylan, for theguardian.com on Sunday 23rd August 2015 13.00 Europe/London

  • Fear of the Walking Dead premieres on Sunday 23 August at 9pm EST

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