The scene: a pack of undead creatures lurks in the night. You can practically smell the rotting brain matter. Nothing going on in their skulls – except appetite. They lurch onward, and all that’s left of their emotions is the instinctive urge to gnaw at the innards of the living.
But enough about Fox News on election night. The Walking Dead almost hits the same level of creepy. The AMC zombie splatterfest gets gorier than ever in its third season, and – no coincidence – it’s racking up monster ratings. Every episode keeps upping the vomit ante in its admirable quest to reign as the most entrail-jaculatory horror show in history. AMC knows America loves to spend Sunday nights watching cable prestige dramas and ordering pizza – The Walking Dead would like a few words with that pizza.
It might seem incredible that The Walking Dead has even made it to a third season, since it’s really a one-idea premise: a zombie apocalypse. And it has its obvious limitations: The human characters are mostly nonentities, and they never do anything except run away from zombies. Except when they pause to discuss their feelings, which is when you really start rooting for the zombies.
But the sheer physical brutality makes up for the shortcomings, and AMC knows which side its brains are buttered on. So this season they’ve just decided to kill the fuck out of everybody, whether it’s a golf ball through the head or a prison-shank C-section. You have to give them credit for knowing what works: more carnage, less conversation.
As Rick, the sheriff who leads the human survivors, Andrew Lincoln is impressively haggard – in psycho-widower mode, he’s starting to look downright Chuck Norris-like. But the new season brings in a couple of key characters from the original Robert Kirkman comic books: the Amazonian warrior Michonne and the sinister cult leader the Governor. They’re the two most interesting humans by a mile. And when Michonne finds out the Governor has a zombie daughter he keeps locked up, the human-walker conflict takes a fascinating new turn. Are the zombies so different from the humans? They’re both dying – the humans just a little slower. In The Walking Dead, they’re all doomed, and they’re all stuck with one another. Born to die, baby.
The season’s most shocking twist so far will clearly go down in history as The Walking Dead‘s money shot: Rick’s pregnant wife, Lori, an annoyance from the gitgo, finally got gitted to go. Her horrific death scene was an excellent example of what The Walking Dead does perfectly (gore, horror, nausea) and what it doesn’t really bother doing (acting, words, human emotion). For all the undeniable stomach impact, it was total sap. Sorry, but in real life, people generally don’t give flowery goodbye speeches on their deathbeds, especially when they’re supposedly dying from an exploding uterus.
But what did feel believable was the scene where Rick finds out about her death – easily the show’s most emotionally vivid moment. When he gets the news, he does his own little zombie stagger before collapsing in all-too-human pain. These humans might be fighting to stay human, but there’s always the idea that grief and misery make you less human than you were before, and witnessing all this bloodshed turns everyone into a zombie at heart. That’s the most chilling thing about this whole zombie plague, and that’s why this grim world just keeps getting grimmer. Walking dead – aren’t we all?
This is from the December 6th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.