A typical scene in Fear the Walking Dead: two cops around a Los Angeles hospital bed. Some junkie kid got hit by a car while he was running down the street screaming about the undead horrors he’d just witnessed — a drug den where a half-naked zombie girl is feasting on human flesh. One cop says, “You were raving about flesh and blood and viscera.” The dude mumbles, “I don’t know what viscera is.” Uh-oh — people eating people? This could be a bad sign. Is this just the drug-addled ravings of a zonked-out junkie? Or is our nation on the verge of a full-blown zombie apocalypse?
You’ve probably already guessed the answer, with some help from the title. Fear the Walking Dead is one of the year’s most hotly awaited TV debuts, the companion to AMC’s mind-boggling, massive Walking Dead juggernaut. If you don’t know what viscera is, you will most certainly find out. The Walking Dead, based on the Robert Kirkman comic books, is a blockbuster of flesh-chomp zombie porn that just keeps getting bigger. Meanwhile, this Kirkman-supervised prequel cleverly expands the franchise, taking us back to the early days when law-abiding citizens can only watch in terror as their friends and neighbors suddenly turn into monsters. As one character puts it, “When civilization ends, it ends fast.”
Fear the Walking Dead starts off with an ordinary dysfunctional L.A. family. The dad, Cliff Curtis, is a high school English teacher, leading a class on Jack London and the eternal battle of civilization versus nature. (His spoiler: “Nature always wins!”) His girlfriend, Kim Dickens, is the guidance counselor, with her own brood of alienated teens: Her son Nick is a heroin addict, looking very James Franco in his ratty Eighties Baracuta jacket, and her overachieving daughter, Alicia, is on her way to Berkeley. Unless, that is, something goes horribly wrong. Like maybe a mysterious flu epidemic that turns out to be something much, much worse.
The zombies here aren’t exactly big on personality, but part of the appeal of the whole saga is that there’s no pressure to get emotionally involved with anyone onscreen — there’s just the chompers and the chomped. (Or the not-quite-yet chomped.) The humans aren’t underdog heroes, especially since most of them have slightly less survival instinct than your average squirrel. So you don’t root for any of them; you just try to guess which one gets picked off next. And after watching these dreary folks bicker on and on about their feelings, you’re more than ready for some zombies to show up and bring the ruckus.
But the best thing about Fear the Walking Dead — and the reason it adds something genuinely new to the recipe — is the way it makes L.A. the main character, playing around with locales we recognize. At one point, two lowlifes meet at what seems to be the exact same diner where John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson argue about bacon in Pulp Fiction. Except instead of debating whether it’s disgusting to eat pork, they’re talking about zombies stuffing their faces with human brains.
There’s an element of burn-Hollywood-burn sadism behind all the urban-breakdown violence. Fear has the vibe that L.A. suffers because it gets stuck with the blame for everything that’s wrong with our sick society. That has driven melodramas from Earthquake to Demolition Man, from Helter Skelter to the infamous Quincy punk-rock episode. L.A. is the city that’s pretty when it cries — that’s why it’s so good at starring in disaster stories. As George A. Romero himself figured out by the time of Dawn of the Dead, there’s only one thing scarier than zombies in the woods: zombies at the shopping mall. This is the real decline of Western civilization, made all the nastier by the fact that the undead will be munching on whatever’s left. L.A.: It’s what’s for dinner.