An Apology To Frank Darabont, Or How The Walking Dead Made Me Eat Crow

November 8, 2010

The Walking Dead Cast Poster

by Joel G. Robertson

Okay. Here’s the deal folks.

This post is not about a forgotten flick. Hell, it’s not even about an older, well-known flick. It’s about the filmmaker Frank Darabont and his involvement with two recent entertainments, The Mist and The Walking Dead.

Sometimes these Mall Twin Musings will feature commentary about modern movies and television and how they connect and relate to movie or shows from the past. I find myself drawn to the idea of the past informing the present. In other words, examining how the movies I grew up with, the good and bad, from different decades and differing genres, shaped my tastes and the entertainments I’m drawn to today.

For me, that’s a whole lot of horror films and comedies from the late 70s, through the 80s and into the early 90s. For you, it might be 70s Blaxploitation, or The French New Wave of the 60s, or 50s melodrama. We each have a unique viewpoint and a collective body of cinema going experience that can really heighten the pleasure of modern entertainments.

I Can See Clearly Now, The Mist Is Gone

When I first heard The Mist, a 1980 Stephen King novella, was (finally!) coming to the big screen and that Frank “Shawshank Redemption” Darabont was writing and directing I was beyond excited. Here was a great filmmaker bringing one of my favorite King stories to life. Many years before, I remember reading that King himself championed the idea of Darabont doing The Mist because the filmmaker told him he’d love to shoot it low-budget and black and white, which was how King envisioned it. And while this isn’t how the project ultimately came together, I still knew it had mucho potential. (Note: There is a black and white version available on the two-disc DVD.)

I wasn’t able to see The Mist in theaters (my wife and I were about to have our second child), which was disappointing, but as soon as the DVD was released I was on it like stank on diaper. I felt that old, familiar giddiness I got as a kid whenever a new “Stephen King movie” movie was coming out. It wasn’t judgmental or cynical, or worried about how faithful the movie was to its source material, it was just excited. You see, I grew up during the Golden Age of King Movies. From the 1980s with cinematic adaptations (like Creepshow, The Dead Zone, Christine, Cujo, Stand By Me, and Pet Semetary) to the early 1990s with titles like Graveyard Shift, It, Misery, Sleepwalkers, and The Dark Half, when it seemed like every month brought a new Stephen King-based movie.

So, I pressed play, sat back, and for the first 120 minutes or so, I was riveted. Here was a faithful King adaptation. This was how it should be done, or so I thought.

And then, after watching David Drayton fight to save his son and escape the grocery store they’ve been holed up in, we arrive at The Mist’s final moments. (If you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about. Originally, I wrote a 400+ word diatribe about the ending. But I decided it was too spoilery, childish and self-indulgent. However, I wasn’t about to trash it, so you can read it here, if you’d like. I warn you though. It gives away the ending of both the novella and the movie…)

While I realize this ending was meant as some larger, more profound statement about politics, or man, or whatever, instead of the intended irony, it felt cynical, cheap, and false. I don’t want happy endings. I don’t want sad endings. I don’t want ironic endings. I want the ending that fits the story and the characters best. In this case, it felt like Darabont made the entire film just so he could have that final Twilight Zone-wannabe ending. Here’s a filmmaker who’s always made movies where the human spirit triumphs over the darkest of circumstances (see his adaptations of The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile). But with The Mist, he wanted to prove what an “edgy” filmmaker he could be.

Needless to say, I was a little peeved.

I swore that I’d never watch another damn thing Darabont put out. I didn’t trust him as a storyteller any more. The worst part was, I loved the majority of The Mist, but I felt the ending rang so false, so unnecessarily cynical, that I was done.

The Walking Dead and Eating Crow

Fast forward a couple years. I’m watching the trailer for a new AMC show. The Walking Dead, based on a comic book series of the same name, features a small town sheriff, Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) who comes out of a coma only to find himself in post-apocalyptic America. He and a handful of survivors must fight for survival as they battle hordes of, well, the walking dead.

Sheriff Grimes walks through zombieland.

Sheriff Grimes walks through zombieland.

I loved everything about the trailer. The look and feel of the show. The fact that these zombies were the far superior slow, lumbering kind made me downright giddy…

… and before you get on your high horse screaming “NO! The fast ones are scarier!” Let me just say that the fast ones make no biological sense. After someone dies, rigor mortis sets in and the body begins breaking down on a cellular level. I highly doubt that zombies, if actually in existence, would do full-on wind sprints, Jesse Owens-style, down Main Street. No, they’d be slow, lumbering hordes. (Additional Note: 28 Days Later doesn’t count in this argument. Those aren’t zombies; they’re people who are alive and infected with a “rage” virus that makes them eat human flesh and act animalistic. So, it makes perfect sense why they’d move fast.)

Personal preferences aside, the trailer had me stoked to watch The Walking Dead (especially that final shot with the tank!), until I saw who was behind it: Frank Darabont. That familiar twitch returned, even though I knew Darabont was a talented writer and director, who was more than capable of creating a great show. I wanted to like it, hell, I wanted to like The Mist too, but I couldn’t get past that damn ending.

I knew I had a choice to make. Hunker down and be a man of principal, adhering to my “fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me” philosophy. Or give into that all-powerful urge to watch a show that looked excellent in every possible way. So, I watched the trailer again… and again…

…and like any good, card-carrying hypocrite I broke down. Not only did I decide I’d watch The Walking Dead, but I went so far as to pay for the season pass on iTunes, ‘cause I don’t have cable.

And Manos Hands of Fate am I ever glad I gave into my weaker, lesser self!

To say The Walking Dead’s pilot episode “Days Gone By” hit every single right note is an understatement. It was a symphony; a Romero-inspired dream of a show told with the slow, steady, deliberate hand of a master filmmaker. From the opening shot (that low angle on a rural two-lane stretching like a mad man’s tongue from the mouth of the forest) to the lengthy silences, to the vibrant daylight exteriors creating a false sense of security, it all worked.

It just felt right.

Zombie girls need love too!

Zombie girls need love too!

Two moments, however, really stood out for me (not counting the episode’s ending in Atlanta, which was, quite simply, awesome!): When Sheriff Grimes returns to the park he’d stumbled through days earlier, half dead himself. He’s searching for the grotesque, half-woman corpse, who he finds, dragging herself through the vibrant wild-green Georgia grass. Kneeling beside her, he tells her, “I’m sorry this happened to you,” then lowers his Colt to her skull and brings down the hammer. It’s a hauntingly beautiful moment and when he tells her he’s sorry, he really means it. Another similar moment, involves a character deciding to take out a loved one (I won’t go into details to avoid spoilers). But this scene is so emotionally devastating. You can feel the character’s struggle, his inner battle, that sick knot pressing low in his bowels as he tries to make an impossible decision. It’s the humanity, the depth of concern for the characters. That’s what The Walking Dead is about and it proves that Frank Darabont still gets it.

I’m sorry Frank… even though I still hate the ending of The Mist.

So, what did we learn today kiddies? Well, for one, I might be a wee bit over-dramatic and reactionary, especially when it comes to movies that I want to love. I guess this is one of the problems with being a true blue movie fan—when you set the expectations too high, you’re setting yourself up for a fall that’s gonna hurt. But then again, I suppose that’s part of the fun. Far too many of us have lost that unbridled, intense anticipation for the newest Stephen King movie (or whatever your inner-child movie fan longs for). But I’m working on reclaiming it. And I’ll start right now as I await episode two of The Walking Dead!

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Also, starting tomorrow (Tuesday 11/09/2010), I’m excited to tell you about a new game in town… the Dale Lloyd VHS Movie Quiz Challenge! Dale, a friend I met through Twitter (you can find him at @VivaVHS), offered to let me host his movie-related quizzes right here on Forgotten Flix! I think you’ll really dig his unique twist on the “Guess Which Movie”-type of quiz. More details about this exciting weekly game tomorrow…

So, until next time, remember a flick is only forgotten if you’re not talking about it!

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