Jonathan Storm: Zombie invasion

From AMC's "The Walking Dead," based on the long-running comic book of the same name. Publicity for the series premiere includes live-action zombie outbreaks in cities worldwide.
From AMC's "The Walking Dead," based on the long-running comic book of the same name. Publicity for the series premiere includes live-action zombie outbreaks in cities worldwide.

Television's alive with the undead Halloween night - and Eddie Munster, too. 

Posted: October 31, 2010

It's Zombie Time. That should make Butch Patrick happy.

Patrick may have made his mark as werewolf cub Eddie Munster in the '60s, but he's a big zombie fan. "I get a kick out of really bad, low-budget movies," he says, "and some of the best of them feature zombies."

The provocative and entertaining zombies who turn up on TV Sunday night are anything but low-budget. Some would argue that the living dead on one show aren't really zombies at all. IFC's Dead Set features descendants of the new-age zombies introduced in 2002 in the feature 28 Days Later, moving so fast that even Shane Victorino would have trouble escaping one.

"Zombies don't run," says Patrick, a traditionalist, who has been lurking around Philadelphia the last few weeks, lending his celebrity to 13 of the region's spooky attractions that pop up every year before Halloween. He'll be appearing between installments during a 20-episode Munsters marathon from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday on the Hallmark Channel. Eighteen consecutive Addams Family episodes follow on the network, which is Channel 137 on most regional Comcast systems, Channel 830 in HD.

Both shows - goofy sitcoms, not scary horror fests - were briefly popular 45 years ago and have lived on in reruns ever since.

Old-fashioned lurchers, lots and lots of 'em, are the ticket on AMC's much-ballyhooed The Walking Dead, based on the long-running comic book of the same name. "They may not seem like much, one at a time," a survivor tells Our Hero, awakened after a coma into a new and horrible world, "but in a group, all riled up and hungry. . . ."

That's the whole zombie point, says Patrick. "They come from all angles, and they slowly, slowly surround you, and they build up the suspense."

And. Then. You. Die. And. They. Eat. Your. Flesh. And. Guts.

And brains.

Or maybe you do manage to slip away, taking it on the lam and hiding out in the countryside, like some of the characters in The Walking Dead, as the inexorable menace continues to build. Everybody bitten by a zombie turns into one, you see, and the power of exponents is, well, exponential.

Suspense is secondary on Dead Set, a five-episode 2008 British series that ran Monday through Friday on IFC and will be televised in one big chunk, with short breaks between episodes, from 7:30 to 10:15 p.m. Sunday. (On most of the region's Comcast systems, IFC is Channel 164. IFCHD is 893.) The show, a rare blend of satire and gore, is centered on the set of the British version of Big Brother.

The losers and fools locked in the reality show's communal house, along with a few of the show's producers, look to be all that's left of British humanity after the zombie outbreak gets rolling. Among them: a slob and a drag queen, and an overemotional naïf and an airheaded bimbo, who has spent her life doing whatever it took to be famous.

For her, the zombie jamboree is especially saddening because there may be no one left to pay attention to her.

Because they are not just soulless, but emotionally and intellectually bereft automatons, zombies, more than pop culture's previous supernatural darlings, werewolves and vampires, focus the spotlight not on themselves, but on the humans who must deal with them.

The pod of survivors on The Walking Dead, premiering with a 90-minute episode at 10 p.m. Sunday and will air weekly after that, share a lot with the Lost castaways - them against a confusing and menacing new world, where all systems have collapsed, that pressurizes their relationships. (AMC, on most Comcast systems, is Channel 138, and AMCHD is 889.)

Competing survivalists can prove more dangerous than the undead, and sometimes your heart goes out to a zombie, dead as a doornail, but still condemned to wander seeking sustenance.

In one poignant moment in the The Walking Dead premiere, the lead, a sheriff's deputy, returns to the park where he found a bicycle. The disgusting remnants of a child, no legs, ribs exposed, more skull than head, pulls itself along pathetically not knowing what it seeks. "I'm sorry about what happened to you," says the deputy before putting a bullet in its head.

Under the rubric of The Walking Dead, a bite is precursor to a devastating disease with a punishing fever. Death follows, and a zombie immediately arises in the corpse. Universally, the only way to kill a zombie is to destroy its brain, with a bullet, usually. But chopping off the head or smashing it to smithereens with a fire extinguisher, as happens in Dead Set, will do nicely, too.

AMC, which after Mad Men and Breaking Bad had gotten used to the power of massively promoted premieres accompanied by critical acclaim, barely made a ripple with its summer show Rubicon.

This time, it has spiked The Walking Dead publicity with targeted appeals to already-eager comic-book fans and has staged live-action (or is that an oxymoron?) zombie outbreaks in cities around the world.

But, as with the pointedly satiric Dead Set, it doesn't take a fanboy to appreciate the well-crafted AMC series, populated with capable, if lesser-known, actors, including Sarah Wayne Callies, who spent a couple of years running from less-apparent deadly threats on Fox's Prison Break.

These shows are gory and unflinching, field days for the makeup artists, not for children or the squeamish, but not as viscerally shocking as you might imagine.

And because the zombies are so pervasive, perhaps not as scary as more traditional ghosts and goblins that can pop out, unexpected, at any moment.

Those are Patrick's stock in trade at Halloween, which has been a big personal-appearance season for him for years. This year, he has been affiliated with a local group called 13 Haunts, which includes such attractions as Jason's Woods in Lancaster, Shady Brook Farm in Yardley, and the Bates Motel in Glen Mills - the No. 1 haunted house in America, as judged by HauntWorld magazine, says Patrick.

"I enjoy it. People take it very seriously. It's very competitive, but they do it as a labor of love."

Zombies may be tops on the tube this Halloween, but, Patrick says, ghosts rule in Philadelphia year-round:

"It's one of our oldest cities. There are a lot of souls still roaming around. The older the city, the more chance you have of people lingering on."


Jonathan Storm:

Dead Set

7:30 p.m. Sunday on IFC

Munsters Marathon

8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday

on Hallmark

Addams Family Marathon

6 p.m. Sunday to 3 a.m. Monday on Hallmark

The Walking Dead

10 p.m. Sunday on AMC


Contact television critic Jonathan Storm at 215-854-5618 or jstorm@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly. com/jonathanstorm.

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