Friday 31 May 2019

Poem: A Convenient Wife


she’s the convenient wife
he bought at the market where
off-world traders barter wares
from across the galactic spiral arm,
he avoids the dream-dealers
jugglers, sky-opals and time-eggs,
but keeps a keen eye for a bargain,
he resents her price, although it’s low,
she’s elfin-skinny with bright black eyes
strong enough to work, and eats little,
requires only the occasional beating
to teach her obedience and the
appropriate degree of servility,
she works hard,
cleans his golden manse
on the headland of the endless sea,
cooks and serves him food
which is good, although he complains
and finds endless fault,
she sews and she sings and she weeps for
the luminous moons of her lost home-world

he decides he needs a convenient son
to assume his work-load while he relaxes, to
carry his proud name forward into coming years,
so in obedience to his wishes
when he forces himself upon her
she plants her seed within him
in the manner and biology of her people,
as the seed grows and begins to feed
she soothes his terrors and agonies
as the embryo devours him from inside,
until she retrieves the child from the
wreckage of what had been his body,
she loves her son as her son loves her,
they share the golden manse
on the headland of the endless sea
and stroll the harbour together
as the suns set in streamers of fire

Featured in:
'Dreams & Nightmares' (no.112, May 2019)
My thanks to editor David C Kopaska-Merkel
for a fine collection at work... from
1300 Kicker Road, Tuscaloosa AL 35404

Thursday 30 May 2019



 DVD Review of: 
 (33-Disc Box Set, 2017, AMC Film Holdings LLC) 
(6-Disc set including the 100th episode, plus 4-hours of 
bonus content, 2018, AMC Film Holdings LLC, 
Fox Network and eOne)

Post-apocalypse has a long tradition. ‘The Day Of The Triffids’ (1951) opens with biologist Bill Masen returning to consciousness in a deserted hospital, venturing out through empty corridors and wrecked wards to discover the outside world irrevocably altered. Just as Kane County deputy sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) wakes from his gunshot coma in the launch episode of ‘The Walking Dead’, he’s bare-foot and hospital-tagged, with strip-lights pulsing along bare corridors, amid fly-crawled body-bags. Unlike the John Wyndham scenario he finds the world infested – not with giant perambulating vegetables, but by zombie ‘walkers’. Naturally, we’ve been here before too. Richard Matheson introduced the supernatural apocalypse, in a modern vampiric sense, with his thrice-filmed novel ‘I Am Legend’ (1954), the third version – with Will Smith as sole survivor Robert Neville, appeared in 2007. Then there’s George A Romero, who serves up the TV-series’ most obvious flesh-eating antecedent.

The other niggling suspicion is, as in that notorious TV-Soap episode where Bobby Ewing takes his ‘Dallas’ shower, that Rick never actually wakes up. That everything that happens is all a nightmare fever-dream in his tortured mind. That the series will end when he does eventually wake. He wonders this himself, ‘Is this real? Am I here? Wake up, Wake up!’ Later, his gunshot in the confined space of a military tank sets off jarring echo-reverberations in his head. Post-apocalypse Georgia has all the ingredients of trauma hallucination nightmare. Although this dénouement becomes less and less feasible as season follows season.

The other worrying irritant is the time-scale involved. Rick has been shot by the third armed fugitive to escape from an overturned vehicle. When he wakes, the flowers on his bedside cabinet are dead. He’s been out long enough for the world to go to hell, but not long enough for his own physical emaciation to set in. There’s a flashback sequence in the season one closer, which shows Rick’s police-partner, Shane Walsh (Jon Bernthal) barricading a comatose Rick into his hospital room as Walkers and troopers overwhelm the Harrison Memorial Hospital. Later, the disparate group of stragglers arrive at the ‘Center For Disease Control’ – the first of many illusory sanctuaries they’ll encounter over the coming series, the shutters opening in a blaze of light resembling the ‘Close Encounters Of The Third Kind’ (1977) alien revelation, and Dr Edwin Jenner (Noah Emmerich) explains that it is sixty-three days since the contagion went global. Which provides a usable timeframe.

The spin-off prequel series ‘Fear The Walking Dead’ – which launched on AMC 23 August 2015, partially provides further answers, showing how Los Angeles gradually submerges in the zombie plague. There’s Chaos Theory and rumours of ‘toxins, poison water, virus’ as the Paul R Williams High School descends into a horror-show bloodbath, and social control collapses around a twitchy charismatic junk-head kid (Nick Clark, played by English actor Frank Dillane). As geeky Tobias (Lincoln A Castellanos) says ‘the desert will be safer because things will fall apart now. No satellites, no internet, no cell phones.’ Communications will fail ‘cause there’s no-one’s there to manage the servers. The electrical grid will collapse for the same reason. It’s all gonna go to hell. And that’s what they don’t get. When civilization ends, it ends fast.’ So yes, it hangs together. ‘This here is the new real.’

At the CDC, pathologist Jenner’s Wildfire project seeks an experimental cure, and shows for possibly the first time, the clinical Zombie rationale involved. Rick’s team watch the MRI scan of dying Test Subject Nineteen, as the glimmers of onscreen light denoting memory and personality flicker into extinction, then after a varying indeterminate pause, the single pulse brainstem reignites. But pure motor reflexes only, establishing absolutely that the Walkers have no human personality-remnants left, although there will be repeated futile attempts to prove otherwise. In season two, god-fearing Hershel Greene (Scott Wilson) argues with simple faith that, as with the AIDS-virus, medical science will render the zombie plague at least manageable, that it is ‘nature correcting itself. Restoring some balance.’ It’s the first, but not the last time the question will be asked. Can there be a cure? Not so to Jenner, ‘there is no hope, there never was.’ In a later episode Rick reveals he was told ‘we’re all infected. Whatever it is, we all carry it.’

We see the process at close range. Tormented mechanic Jim (Andrew Rothenberg) only escaped pursuing Walkers because they pause to eat his family. Now, in survivor-guilt madness, he compulsively digs graves. As Walkers overrun the survivor’s camp, Amy (Emma Bell) is bitten and killed. Sister Andrea (Laurie Holden) sits in vigil nursing her bloodied body. Then shoots her in the head as she reanimates. ‘I remember my dream now, why I dug those holes’ says Jim – who’s also bitten. ‘That sound you hear’ he says, ‘that’s god laughing while you make plans.’ At his request they leave him to die by the roadside.

The tentative first season consists of just six episodes, the pilot debuts 31 October 2010, faithfully adapted by writer Robert Kirkman from his scripts for Tony Moore’s black-and-white graphic novel series launched by Image Comics in 2003. Its overwhelming success breaks existing viewer-figures for any previous cable drama, guaranteeing more series. From Bear McCreary’s edgy title sequence strings that surge around the iconic image of Rick riding a horse down empty Highway-85 towards garbage-strewn Atlanta, it perfectly captures the flavour of what is to come. It’s the western cliché of the Lone Gunman riding into town. Only here crows feed on the corpses of dead soldiers in the streets. Through to the series closer as the CDC shuts itself down, to be blown sky-high in cleansing flame, and the survivors resume their trek to Bob Dylan’s stark acoustic “Tomorrow Is A Long Time”.

Post-apocalypse novels, from the classic ‘Earth Abides’ (1949) by George R Stewart or ‘The Death Of Grass’ (1956) by John ‘Samuel Youd’ Christopher, have the fictional effect of reverting our safe comfortable society to its basic tribal roots, and – with a particular relevance to the USA, creating a new unexplored wild frontier, thronged with dangers and unknown hazards. When we can no longer believe in Space as the Final Frontier, we can re-imagine the transfigured Earth instead. Apocalypse clears cities, and reclaims the world for adventure. Just as it creates what Andrea calls the ‘endless horrific nightmare we live every day.’

The other strengths of ‘The Walking Dead’ are undoubtedly the casting and character interactions. Rick as the central gravitational core, taciturn and solitary by nature, his sense of purpose nevertheless gradually assumes reluctant leadership of the survivors. To Hershel, Rick is ‘a man of conscience.’ Cycling from the hospital he first encounters black father-and-son squatters Morgan (Lennie James) and Duane (Adrian Kali Turner), who help him. Morgan’s wife (Keisha Tillis) is one of the encircling Walkers, rattling the door-handle. With a telescopic rifle Morgan lines up his gun-sights on her forehead, but can’t bring himself to pull the trigger. An ongoing continuity link is provided by Rick’s daily radio status update to Morgan, as the group moves on. Morgan will briefly reappear in series 3 (“Clear”) to warn Rick that ‘you will be torn apart by teeth or bullets.’

Rick’s more easy-going regular-guy friend and partner, Shane provides the counterbalance, and the emotional triangle. They go back to school-day pranks together. Assuming Rick to be dead he’s first glimpsed in the survivor’s Winnebago camp protectively assuming the supportive-role while fast-bonding with Rick’s wife and son, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) and Carl (Chandler Riggs). He good-naturedly jokes with Carl about the necessity of maybe having to eat frogs – Kermit-legs. ‘I would rather eat Miss Piggy’ Lori responds, ‘yes, that came out wrong.’ In a fairly explicit sex-in-a-forest-glade scene with Shane she removes her ring and drops it in the grass. In a flashback sequence she confesses her earlier marital doubts. Does she still love Rick? ‘Yes, trying to remember how that works.’ So Rick’s unexpected return in a white Ferenc van disrupts the cosy new tryst, as they exchange guilty tension glances. When abusive Ed Peletier (Adam Minarovich) wife-beats Carol (Melissa McBride), Shane explodes his pent-up rage by punishment-beating him. Then the group brutally gang-stomp and behead a Walker in an outbreak of murderous fury. Shane razors his hair with attitude. Will Shane shoot Rick? In the original graphic novel it is Carl who shoots Shane, but that occurs in a different narrative strand, and an alternate continuum.

There’s an argument that all the characters are psychologically damaged, that no-one can endure what they’ve lived through, and remain rational. Shane increasingly becomes the wild card. He’s out of control, leading to an out-of-out fistfight. When he insists ‘Rick, it ain’t like it was before’, he means that morality has been suspended. Rick is saying pretty-much the same thing when he tells Hershel that ‘it changes you. Either into one of them. Or something a lot less than the person you were.’ ‘Who says we’re civilised anymore?’ argues former Civil Rights Lawyer Andrea.

It’s Korean former pizza-delivery boy Glenn Rhee (Steven Yeun) who rescues Rick from the Atlanta Walker-horde. Escaping from a Department Store they smear themselves in disguising corpse-gore and entrails. ‘We need more guts’ says Rick in grotesque black humour, but it’s alright because ‘he was an organ-donor’. Until a cloudburst washes the death-smell away! Yet one of the series’ most intriguing psychological relationships is the one with redneck Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus). He’s initially under the sway of abusive older brother Merle (Michael Rooker, Colonel Edwards from ‘Stargate SG-1’ episode “Enemy Mine”, 2003). Merle uses the ‘n’-word to genial black survivor T-Dog (IronE Singleton), so ‘Officer Friendly’ Rick takes Merle down – calling him a ‘dumb-as-shit inbred white-trash fool’, and handcuffs him to a pipe on the flat rooftop.

The group will escape ‘only if we keep a level head’ demands Rick. ‘I can do that’ concedes Daryl, as Rick begins exerting his own control. Daryl rides a chopper motorcycle, uses a high-tension crossbow – a more sustainable zombie-slayer than gunshots, and he has backwoods tracker skills useful when’s Carol’s twelve-year-old daughter Sophia (Madison Lintz) gets lost in the woods in season 2:1. And Daryl shows unsuspected sensitivity when he tells the ‘Cherokee Rose’ story to Carol. But first, in their panic-escape they leave Merle still handcuffed to the pipe, in a sequence of genuinely skin-crawling horror, hallucinating terror as the Walkers begin breaking down the door towards him. By the time morally-conflicted Rick mounts a rescue Merle is gone, leaving only the severed hand he’s self-amputated in order to escape. 

‘The world ended. Didn’t you get the memo?’ banters Carol. The women gossip about the things they miss from their old lives as they wash their clothes in the lake… ‘texting’, ‘coffee’, ‘my vibrator’… ‘If I’d known the world was ending I’d have brought better books’ ruefully comments wise old Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn). The images are striking. The Southern Baptist church-bells still chiming on an automatic timer. The migrating herd of Walkers – although others say ‘Rotters’, ‘Eaters’, ‘Roamers’ or ‘Biters’. The empty inward freeway, with the outward lane gridlocked with fleeing dead traffic.

There’s intriguing speculation between John Wyndham and John Christopher concerning the aftermath of apocalypse. In ‘The Day Of The Triffids’ survivors co-operate to establish a stable Isle of Wight colony. In ‘The Death Of Grass’ engineer John Custace competes for resources in escalating violent anarchy with other survivor-groups as he attempts to lead his family to the hidden Cumbrian Blind Gill valley. Civilisation’s veneer of civility is tenuous, and once fractured, it’s hopelessly lost. For ‘The Walking Dead’, logic and reason suggest the survivors work together for the mutual good, pitting themselves against the common threat presented by Walker’s. Inevitably, that doesn’t happen. In Atlanta a rival Hispanic gang jump them as they retrieve Rick’s bag of guns. ‘The same as it ever was. The weak are taken.’ Until an old grandmother intervenes by interposing herself between their armed stand-off, and it becomes apparent they are caretakers protecting a hospital of oldsters. In this case, appearances prove deceptive. Worse will follow. ‘It’s all about slim chances now’ concludes Rick.

--- 0 --- 

‘Got Bit. Fever Hit. World Gone To Shit. Might As Well Quit.’ Daryl finds a suicided Walker suspended from a tree by his own noose. ‘Dumb-ass didn’t know enough to shoot himself in the head’ sneers Daryl. Hershel’s daughter Beth goes through her own suicidal crisis, but pulls through.

With thirteen episodes, the second series (from 16 October 2011) allows itself a less compressed, but nevertheless compulsive pace, centred around the next illusory sanctuary, Hershel’s bucolic idyllic rural antebellum farmstead off Route 9. Although he’s not a doctor as they at first assume, but a veterinarian, he saves Carl from gunshot wounds. From now on Carl wears Rick’s cop’s hat, and Shane teaches him to shoot. While – ‘Hello Farmer’s Daughter’, Glenn can’t believe his luck when he gets to get intimate with Hershel’s daughter Maggie (Lauren Cohan). And Lori is pregnant. Is it Rick’s or Shane’s child? Torn between two lovers. Will she use the abortion Morning After Pills? It’s every Soap Opera dilemma. Scott Wilson who plays Hershel Greene was also mad preacher Orison in ‘The X-Files’. But why is Hershel so keen that Rick’s people move on? What’s in the barn they’re not supposed to see? Glenn has two secrets – Lori’s pregnancy, and zombies in the barn. ‘My farm. My barn. My say’ argues Hershel, ‘I can shoot. I just don’t like to…we don’t shoot sick people.’

 The question hangs all the way to the absurdly grotesque yet movingly intense climax, as Shane releases the barn-Walkers, shooting Hershel’s family-members, wife and stepson as they emerge. And with grim resolve, Rick must shoot Sophia, as Carol howls in anguish. This time the soundtrack moves to the darker Stoner-metal Clutch track “The Regulator” from their ‘Blast Tyrant’ (2004) album. 

‘I’m not the good guy anymore’ admits Rick. And later ‘this isn’t a democracy any more.’ Later still he even claims ‘we are the Walking Dead’. Yet debating what to do with Randall (Michael Zegen), their prisoner from another rival group, Rick insists ‘we have to eliminate threat,’ but backs down from execution at the last moment. Bringing Rick and Shane into final confrontation in a well-structured episode. It’s the classic stand-off. The two friends and long-term companions ripped into unavoidable conflict by the irrevocable force of cruel destiny. By rivalry over leadership, and a woman they both love. It has all the elements of heroic myth writ large. Shane returns a gun to Carl, via Rick. Shane has a touching final reconciliation with Carl and Lori. Then Rick knifes Shane to death in a duel beneath the full moon. Carl shoots him as he reanimates in gory flash-frames. Then Dale is killed too. ‘Dale could get under your skin’ says Rick, ‘he sure got under mine. Because he wasn’t afraid to say exactly what he thought. How he felt. That kind of honesty is rare, and brave.’ 

Apocalypse used to come in the form of nuclear war, which fuelled a generation of great fictional speculation. But although the prospect of total End-Of-Times atomic annihilation has receded since the Cold War meltdown, apocalypse has four horsemen. ‘The Walking Dead’ succeeds because it subliminally taps into the fear of pandemic. In ancient times, as one civilisation declined in isolation, another was ascending a continent away. Back in medieval times the Black Death crawled its insidious way across Europe taking years. Today, we are a global culture. Now, a virus can jump species, and literally be around the world in six hours, as graphically illustrated in the opening credits airport sequence of ‘Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes’ (2014). We’ve seen HIV, ebola and avian flu, we know how this thing operates. It’s not that we fear an actual zombie plague – of course not, and yet ‘The Walking Dead’ feeds off that same terror. In an obsessively hygiene-conscious century, this is not the choreographed zombies of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, it’s the very real fear of infection, of disease, contagion and flesh-corruption.

There’s an Alamo last-stand as Hershel’s farm is over-run, elegiac against the blazing collapsing barn. The group reconvene, arcing the season back to the opening point where they’d originally lost Sophia. With Shane and Dale eliminated, Hershel and his daughters join them as the group move on ‘from one pipedream to the next,’ with Hershel assuming Dale’s wise old voice of reason role, into the sixteen episodes of season three (14 October 2012-31 March 2013) – ‘Fight The Dead. Fear The Living’, trailered by closing glimpses of the West Georgia Correctional Facility in the night, and Andrea’s rescue by a hooded figure drawing two chained and armless Walkers in her wake. This turns out to be the brooding charismatic Michonne (Danai Gurira), one of the most powerful of the show’s second generation characters.

‘We’ll find shelter somewhere’ says Rick. ‘There’s gotta be a place. There’s got to be a place. Not just where we hole up, but we fortify, hunker down, pull ourselves together. Build a life for each other. I know it’s out there. We just have to find it.’ Living as highway gypsies, looting, running and hiding, they eventually find the prison on Highway-34. Designed to securely hold miscreants inside, it now forms a fortress to keep the madness out. With new terrors, zombie guards in riot helmets and armour as their cell-block by block assault clears the penitentiary – T-Dog gives himself to save the others, Hershel losing his lower leg to a zombie-bite, and there are new antagonisms with five prisoner survivors.

There’s renewed post-Shane tension between Rick and a heavily-pregnant Lori too. Her guts tell her it’s close, and she dies as Maggie performs a crude caesarean. Carl shoots her in the head before she ‘turns’. But she will return as Katie Bowman – and as occasional director, in the alien-occupation Sci-Fi series ‘Colony’ (US debut 14 January 2016). Rick’s mad axe-rampage of remorse and self-recrimination over her death bizarrely ends when – as an episode-closer, the disconnected phone rings, and he finds himself in a conversation with her. In a state of what Glenn calls ‘crazy town’, he sees Lori, haunted by her ghost-image, through which he’s able to exorcise his feelings of guilt, and accept ass-kicker baby Judith. He also emerges into a renewed mindset. He was wrong. The group is a democracy after all. Decisions will be made collectively.

There’s also the rival centre of Woodbury, population seventy-three, an idyllic all-American town of bunting and Kool-aid, which just happens to have zombie-baiting gladiatorial contests too! Andrea and a suspicious Michonne fetch up there. ‘Sitting pretty at the end of the world’ as Andrea tells it. But are they guests or prisoners? Andrea is immediately charmed by smooth-talking Governor – Philip Blake (David Morrissey), and begins a sexual affair with him. Less impressed, Michonne calls him a ‘Jim Jones-type’, comparing him to the lethal Guyana cult leader. Of course, she’s right, all is not as perfect as it seems. Brutal redneck Merle – Daryl’s brother is there too, as the Governor’s ‘hammer’. ‘I guess this old world gets a little smaller towards the end’ he comments with grim menace, his amputated hand replaced by a bayonet. Pursuing Michonne through the forest he taunts ‘are we having fun yet?’, most likely quoting Dolph Lundgren’s ironic one-liner from ‘Universal Soldier’ (1992).

In a reprise of Hershel’s dilemma, the Governor brushes zombie-daughter Penny’s hair – ‘Daddy still loves you.’ He fills exercise books with repetitive lines. And – arcing back to Jenner at the CDC, he sponsors Milton’s Research Team experiments with a prostate-cancer victim’s assisted death, using Jo Stafford’s “Long Ago (And Far Away)” on a vinyl record-player as a prompt, to discover if trace-memories remain, if there’s an echo of personality in the Biters. Predictably no, there isn’t. When the military helicopter Rick glimpsed in Atlanta crashes, Lieutenant Wells from the chopper directs Woodbury to its back-up squad of National Guard. But instead of offering alliance, they massacre the soldiers. Why do that, when armed disciplined military could help reinforce Woodbury’s defences? Because the Governor can’t tolerate any threat to his authority. In his private quarters the Governor has an aquarium of severed heads – now including Wells!

And after all, isn’t Rick equally ruthless with outsiders attempting to join his group, as with the unfortunate teenage Randall, or with the convicts hiding out in the prison? They’re convenient only in the sense that ‘Star Trek’ ‘redshirts’ are useful, as shock-value when killed off by prowling zombies or Woodbury snipers without deleting any core cast-members. Episode 12 – ‘Clear’, is a virtual stand-alone where they make a home-town run for weapons. On the way they pass a desperate lone straggler who yells and waves and runs after them. Carl glances at Rick. Will they pick him up? No. Rick ignores him and drives on. On the return journey they pass the smashed remains of the straggler’s body smeared along the roadside. Rick stops only long enough to retrieve his backpack. Outsiders are suspect, a responsibility he resents and no longer needs.

While things are shaping up into a post-apocalypse clash of cultures, replaying the power-wars of Rome and Carthage. Woodbury captures and tortures Glenn, the Governor forces Maggie to strip with implicit rape-threat, as Rick organises a retaliatory raid on Woodbury. And the Governor launches an attack on the prison using Walkers as a weapon. This means war.

There are three main strands to the confrontation. Andrea, who is buffeted between the two groups. She backs down from killing Gov Philip, and tries to find a way of accommodation instead. By Series 3 Episode 13 – ‘Arrow On The Doorpost’, she arranges face-to-face negotiations between Rick and the Governor, over glasses of whiskey. Finally, the Governor kills Milton, and allows him to turn and kill Andrea. As she dies she tells Michonne, ‘I tried’. Then there’s Michonne who ‘mercies’ Penny and blinds the Governor in one eye by stabbing him with a shard of glass from his shattered aquarium of severed heads. ‘In this life you kill or you die. Or you die, and you kill’ he philosophises. And Merle. Why does the Governor denounce the lieutenant who’s killed sixteen men for him? As a distraction from his own fallibility? Or because he’s testing Merle’s loyalty against his sibling bond to Daryl? Yet there’s an unlikely turn-around for Merle before he’s summarily executed by the Governor. Daryl is then left to discover zombie-Merle chomping corpses, and has to finish him. By now well into its third series ‘The Walking Dead’ still packs a mighty gut-wrenching emotional punch. It still springs shocks. 

At series end Woodbury arrives in tooled-up force, to find the prison seemingly deserted. Venturing into the ‘tombs’ they’re scattered by a sudden shock of zombies, and as they emerge they’re gunned down by Rick’s forces. Routed, the incensed Governor turns on his own men, and shoots them down in cold blood.

Carl shoots down a straggler. His father no longer the censuring authority. His talking-back independence increases. In a much later episode Rick reads a Jack London fiction collection, and Carl reads a paperback novel. What relevance are its twentieth-century urban concerns to his life of empty homes and deserted highways? This is virtually the only world he knows. A world with no time. It’s always right now…

The Un-Dead are fun. Even romance has a black-humour edge to it. Glenn severs zombie-fingers to get a wedding ring for Maggie. And already the theme is being twisted into comedy, by Simon Pegg in ‘Shaun Of The Dead’ (2004), while the Brad Pitt action-movie ‘World War Z’ (2013) is pursued by the over-the-top excess of Syfy-TVs ‘Z Nation’, the first series of the horror-comedy premiering 16 June 2016 following another group of post-apocalypse survivors trekking across another zombie-infested America, tipping its gore into laugh-out-loud lunacy. There’s a runaway zombie cheese-wheel, stoned dope Z-weed, Area 51, the Phytos vegetable-zombies, the Z-nado zombie tornado, Talking Zombies controlled by brain-biscuit, and an Elvis Zombie. While ‘The Walking Dead’ itself spins-off its ‘Fear The Walking Dead’ series, which soon generates its own fan advocates. While Rick and the crew continue to hold ratings. We are meat, it tells us. We eat flesh. And we are meat-animals to be eaten. We devour, and we are devoured. Even Rick is brutalised to the extent of ripping out the ‘Claimer’-leader’s throat with his teeth, to save Carl. Things are ‘going Darwin’, survival of those most fitted to survive.

With Season 4 Rick tends his garden using his iPod to drown out zombie-sounds from beyond the mesh-wall. Expanded by Woodbury survivors the prison population prospers, with Carl joining new children attending Carol’s school, while warning them off playing extracurricular games of feeding rats to the Walkers. In minor plot-shifts Rick encounters a mad-woman in the forest, then a doomed survivor couple, with Sam, played by Robin Lord Taylor – ‘Gotham’s Oswald Cobblepot! And Walkers rain down through the collapsing supermarket roof during a foraging trip. Yet the momentum can’t stay still, in a blighted world, human compression itself causes contagion hazards. A pleurisy-like infection jumps species from Rick’s pigs, resulting in death – and the inevitable zombie rampage through the block that results.

With the community in lock-down, Carol becomes ‘changed’, killing victims before they have chance to change… or maybe recover? Rather than seek confrontation, on a trip with Rick, he permits Carol to drive away to seek her own separate future. Inevitably, she will return. As a regular cast-member Carol’s character is allowed to significantly develop away from her portrayal in the source comic-books, emerging from her initial timidity to show a strong resolve and a conflicted moral core that is a hinge in her closeness to Daryl, and later, with Morgan. Where a sense of guilt and right-and-wrong remain, in a transfigured world in which all rules have been removed, every day demands new existential decisions in a fluid situational morality. Her evolving character portrays that stress-within-ambiguity most effectively.

Again, there’s evidence of the series’ character-depth in special self-contained sequences, ‘Live Bait’/ ‘Dead Weight’ (episode 6/ 7) draws material from Robert Kirkman and Jay Bonansinga’s 2011 spin-off novel ‘The Walking Dead: Rise Of The Governor’ (ISBN 0-312-54773-0), charting Philip Blake’s shell-shocked post-Woodbury hobo wandering when ‘I tried to die’. As a vengeful Michonne still hunts him, the Governor assumes the guise of ‘Brian Harriot’ to the holed-up Chamblers family, recognising something of his own lost daughter in their semi-mute Meghan. He’s a powerful multi-layered character with ‘ice in his veins’ and a history of being beaten-on by his mean abusive father. In that he’s humanised by this love for Penny, and his determination to protect ‘Pumpkin’ Meghan in her place, he’s seen as much victim of the apocalypse madness as he is sadistic control-freak. The only way to survive is to control events. And when he reunites with Martinez, he feeds him to the Biters-pit and murders his way into leading the group.

There are shock images – a legless amputee zombie stuck in a bathtub. Mud-zombies stuck up to their waists in marshland. Murdered Pete writhing on the lakebed as the Governor calmly looks down on him. And a relentless zombie who crawls through a blazing fire in order to reach the Governor, with the same relentless hunger that he directs at the Prison, and his personal vendetta against his only real rival Rick. But now he has a new army, with a National Guard tank, and he quickly has Hershel and Michonne as hostages in a new stand-off. It’s only when he learns that Meghan has been killed by a Biter, and when Rick’s persuasive argument seems about to sway his followers, that the Governor peremptorily beheads Hershel with Michnonne’s Samurai sword, exploding the situation into all-out war. As the tank-tracks rip the prison’s defensive barrier aside and devastates the building itself, the Walkers advance on the smashed prison, Rick and the Governor fight hand-to-hand with all the visceral hate-brutality of Rick vs Shane. It’s the classic Clash Of Titans dramatic confrontation, only decided when Michnonne spears him through, leaving his corpse for the Walkers to devour. She also skewers Hershel’s still-mouthing severed head.

So Woodbury, and the Prison community, as well as what had been the Martinez group, are shattered and scattered not by Walkers, but by intractable human antagonisms. They’re travel-grimed, spattered with blood and entrails, yet every day above ground is a win. Subsequent episodes lose focus, and drift, tracking the separate diaspora travels. Every direction is a question. Legitimising individual tales allowing relationships to be explored and deepened with back-story, flashback, backtracking and connections. Although Rick is central, it’s a group-jeopardy thing, and he doesn’t feature in every episode. Beth angles an auto wing-mirror to concentrate sunlight to ignite her campfire. Daryl skins mud-snake ‘jerky’. And there’s the darker tragedy of Tyree and Carol with Judith, Mika and deluded Lizzie. Like Hershel and the Governor before her, Lizzie can’t accept the Walker’s inhumanity, her attempts at befriending them dooms them both. While Michonne, returned to drawing two chained and armless Walkers in her wake, finds herself uncannily alongside a black woman Walker with dreads. The reflection sets off visions of her own pre-Apocalypse life, and to her first two limbless zombies, Terry and boyfriend Mike, the father of her three-year old son Andre. Haunted by images of her own dead past. 

Two threads emerge. Glenn and Tara, daughter of the Chamblers family, find themselves thrown together with Dr Eugene Porter (Josh McDermitt) – not combat-ready or combat-inclined, and his fanatically-protective Sergeant Abraham Ford (Michael Cudlitz) speeding on their way to Washington to ‘save the world’ in the Church bus, then by Firetruck. Claiming to have worked on the Human Genome Project weaponising diseases with pathogenic micro-organisms – as ‘The Murphy’ in ‘Z-Nation’, surly sulky Eugene offers hope of a cure for the zombie plague, to ‘make the dead die’. He wears a mullet hairstyle, which makes him a ‘fun guy’. Yet when he’s forced into an eventual admission that his fraudulent claim is merely a survival strategy, it exposes the interdependent nature of his relationship with Abraham, robbing them both of motivation.

While earlier, Daryl had heard the car-radio directing them to ‘Sanctuary’. Damn right! Now the various groups follow rail-tracks, ‘to the end of the line’ towards the next illusory sanctuary, converging on Terminus – where ‘those who arrive, survive’. Inevitably it’s not what it seems, and they soon find themselves locked into a cannibal abattoir railroad box-car. ‘You’re either the butcher. Or the cattle.’ Season four closes with a defiant Rick, ‘they’re fucking with the wrong people!’

--- 0 --- 


Very conveniently the Terminians slaughter three non-essential cast-members first, allowing escape-time by an invasion of burning Walkers ignited by Carol’s exploded fuel-tank. NEVER AGAIN. NEVER TRUST. WE FIRST ALWAYS. Then the black humour irony of ‘Pardon My Dust’. Once free the fugitives encounter Gabriel Stokes (Seth Gilliam), the Priest of St Sarah’s Episcopal Church, who protests ‘the word of god is the only protection I need.’ In an echo of Edgar Allen Poe’s story “The Masque Of The Red Death” (1842) he’d barricaded himself in the church as the plague raged beyond. Over the chapel arch there’s a grimly ironic biblical quite, ‘he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life’. Now he frantically scrubs the blasphemous bloodstains from the floor. ‘This is the lord’s house’ he argues, to the response ‘No. Just four walls and a roof.’ Although he – and Eugene, are characterised as cowardly (Eugene partially redeems himself in the episode “Spend” where he lures Walkers away from the Warehouse, allowing Glenn and others to escape), terror is surely not an unreasonable reaction to a world overrun by the flesh-eating Dead! ‘I’ve changed. I’ve adapted. I’ve become a survivor!’ Eugene protests.

‘This is the real world’ emphasises Rick. ‘No. This is a nightmare. And nightmares end’ argues Bob Stookey (Lawrence Gilliard Jr)… just before his leg is amputated and eaten by Terminus survivors. Eugene reads HG Wells’ ‘The Shape Of Things To Come’ (1933)… and wonders? Barricaded in a library, bookshelves form a protective wall. Paper burns in the fire. Classic Literature. Fiction. Art. Cookbooks. Reduced to utility. This is Season five, sixteen episodes, running from 12 October 2014 to 29 March 2015.

In a related strand that recalls a JG Ballard scenario, Beth wakes in the towering modernist Grady Memorial Hospital, where police and medical staff determinedly continue a surreal normality ‘safe enough to be bored.’ There’s even Caravaggio art ‘rescued from the trash.’ But following treatment, patients must work off their debt in a kind of bond-slavery, from which she – and Noah (Tyler James Williams), contrive to escape.

Again, there are stunning images. Weeds grow through a skeleton’s ribcage. The tied-up Walker kidnap-victim eternally locked in a car trunk. A pack of feral dogs that first pose a threat… then provide a campfire meal. The Priest tears pages from the bible, one by one. And tosses his dog-collar into the same consuming flames. Daryl burns a glowing cigarette into the back of his hand in pain at Beth’s death. And a haunted sun-through-the-trees collage of past-and-present spins in hallucinatory soft-focus radio-blur of voices as Tyreese Williams (Chad Coleman) succumbs to a Walker bite.

Having lost Washington as a destination, Michonne insists they continue to DC anyway. Where – through the instigation of the series’ first Gay character, Aaron (Ross Marquand), they arrive at the next illusory sanctuary, the eco-based ‘Start Of Sustainability’ planned community of Alexandria Safe-Zone off north Route 16, run on a democratic basis by former-Congresswoman Deanna Monroe (Tovah Feldshuh). Surrounded by walls constructed from materials intended for the Woodlands Shopping Mall – ‘Big Things Are Coming’, and in an area evacuated at the start of the outbreak, the community lives in protected exclusion – like the Church, and like the Hospital, they continue with a determined pretence of normality. ‘Fight’s over. Got to let it go’ urges Michonne, as she retires her sword, mounting it over the fireplace, ‘we’re catching our breath right now.’ Despite his reservations, hyper-cautious Rick nevertheless allows his ‘family’ to be drawn into the new co-operative shared society, ‘it’s like the communists won after all.’ Shaving off his wild Moses beard, he showers, gets a haircut and gets back into uniform as local policeman. The Bee Gees sing “Spicks And Specks”.

There’s a polite cocktail party in the ruins of the world. Yet, as outsiders, the group begin to be resented as a destabilising element. Is Rick the voice of New Reason? Or are his fears evidence of damaged paranoia? There’s overlong moral soul-searching, some longueur and sensitivity guilt-issues. ‘This is the beginning’ writes Noah in his journal, before he’s ripped apart on a foraging-run. 

THEN. NOW. Everyone has a story. A reason. The reappearance of Morgan (Lennie James) and how he learned the ‘Art Of Peace’ is one of them. How he became the Red Poncho Man with aikido skills. ‘All life is precious.’ But can all humans be redeemed? The image of Morgan riding a horse in his search for Carol echoes back to Rick riding into Atlanta in the early credit sequence. Carol is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Tired, not so much of death, but of killing. Afraid of caring, when caring only turns into the pain of losing. While wanderer Enid (Katelyn Nacon) eats tortoise, spells out JSS with its bones, writes JSS in car window dirt, and on the back of her bloody hand. What JSS stands for kicks up internet dialogue. Until the note she leaves for Carl says ‘Just Survive Somehow’.

The conflicted priest, torn by doubts over his wavering faith, is a standard fictional trope. Given fresh impetus by Gabriel. How can the zombie apocalypse be interpreted and reconciled as part of a benevolent deity’s divine plan? except in terms of Old Testament harshness. ‘Faith Without Works Is Dead’ it says. Hershel had pithily mused, ‘Christ promised a resurrection of the dead, I just thought he had something a little different in mind.’ Although taken in and protected by Rick’s group, Gabriel first denounces them as evil to Deanna Monroe. Then, in a distraught suicidal state, he leaves the gates ajar sufficient for Walkers to get in, vindicating Rick’s viewpoint. It’s a dangerous world outside.

‘I know this sounds insane’ says Rick, ‘but this is an insane world.’ Opening season six – sixteen parts, 11 October 2015 to 3 April 2016, with a stylishly monochrome episode in which they attempt to lure a vast herd of Walkers penned in a quarry, away from Alexandria. But while they’re gone a ruthless scavenging group who call themselves Wolves and engrave ‘W’ on foreheads, raid Alexandria, taking lives and smashing complacency. Then, to a soundtrack of “Tiptoe Through The Tulips” – an early Nick Lucas, not the Tiny Tim version, a falling clock-tower breaches the security wall, and Walkers inundate the town. The people find common cause in reclaiming Alexandria together. Deanna accepts Rick’s point of view – even though she dies defending the community, but Rick also comes around to accepting her vision of a possible more-hopeful future. Carl has lost one eye, but reads comic-books as Boston’s “More Than A Feeling” plays on the soundtrack.

At Alexandria’s gate it says ‘Mercy For The Lost. Vengeance For The Plunderer’. There’s “Who’s The Boss” on TV, and Jam’s “A Town Called Malice” plays. Rick and Michonne become an item. Finding solace in each other. For her, emerging from her defensive shell to admit the vulnerability of caring. But there are symptoms and premonitions of what is to come. In an almost comic episode (‘The Next World’) they encounter Paul ‘Jesus’ Rovia (Tom Payne), stealing a truckload of store-forage from each other, until the truck itself ends up in the lake. ‘Your world is about to get a whole lot bigger’ Jesus warns them. And it does. A darker, more brutal turn. Unrelentingly grim.

As Season Seven opens they confront the expanded geography of Negan’s New World Order. The Governor was a powerful adversary. But he had human motivations. Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) simply takes advantage of the social collapse to establish his own medieval fiefdom enforced by terror, demanding tithes from scattered survivor communities. The Saviours live a good life in their fortified Sanctuary – built on ‘punishment’ and tribute from their vassal states. All ‘property now belongs to Negan.’ The iron by the smelting fire in the credit-sequence takes on sinister significance, when it’s used as a torture-implement. Negan is genuinely vile. Everything good burned out of him, all that’s left is what he could always have been. A swaggering bully who feeds on the fear he inspires, brandishing his brain-biting ‘Lucille’, his barbed-wire baseball bat (‘Lucille’, named for Negan’s dead wife, was also the name of BB King’s guitar!). ‘I like killing people’ brags Negan, ‘we kill the right people in the wrongest way possible.’ The visceral fear is tangible as Rick is forced to grovel, while Glenn and Abraham are brutally battered to death. Then Daryl is left naked in the cell and fed dog-food. Playing the Collapsible Heart Club “Easy Street” over and over, until Roy Orbison’s “Crying” brings him to tears.

Within the expanded federation, first there’s the nearby Hilltop Community, administered by the vacillating Gregg (Xander Berkeley). Rick’s group become a Seven Samurai, pledged to save Hilltop from the Saviours, launching a pre-emptive attack on their stronghold beneath its big radio dishes. But it soon becomes apparent that the Satellite Station is just an outpost. Their massacre only invites lethal retaliation. ‘Confrontation has never been something we’ve had trouble with’ grits Rick with stubborn determination.

Eugene meets Lucille
Then it’s Morgan and Carol who first encounter the Kingdom, benignly ruled by dreadlocked King Ezekiel (Khary Payton) – a former actor/zoo-keeper, with his prowling tiger Shira. The people need a charismatic leader, so he operates on a ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ principle, and becomes a charismatic leader. A warmly amused, poetically articulate and hugely likeable addition to the regular cast of characters. As persuasively eloquent, in his own way, as Rick is. He quotes from Martin Luther King’s ‘Free at last’ speech, but is initially wary of pacting with Rick’s alliance, fearing the inevitable carnage that will follow. The Kingdom functions on a ‘Drink From The Well, Replenish The Well’ co-operative basis, and has a choir that sings Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright”. They are nevertheless subject to Negan. And eventually come to Alexandria’s aid at the last moment. ‘Move forward’ says Ezekiel, ‘as we move the very world forward.’ 

While Tara Chambler (Alanna Masterson) stumbles upon the hidden Oceanside community, all of its males exterminated by the Saviours. On returning to the Safe-Zone Tara breaks her pledge to keep its secret so that Rick’s group can raid and replenish their arsenal from Oceanside’s weaponry. Tara, in the series second Gay tryst, is in a lesbian relationship with Denise Cloyd (Merritt Wever), the well-meaning Alexandria medic who is shot and killed by Dwight. Then, when Rosita attempts to shoot Negan, her bullet impacts Lucille instead, and Dwight kills Olivia (Ann Mahoney) in random retaliation. While Sasha listens to Donny Hathaway on her iPod in the coffin Negan has placed her within.

While the Scavengers – what Negan calls ‘garbage people’ are led by former-artist Jadis (Pollyanns McIntosh) whose clipped manner of speech seems evidence of further social devolution. To gain their confidence, Rick must face an armoured Walker in their vast auto-graveyard arena. They bind their new alliance when Alexandria supplies the Junkyard Angels with weapons, although in the eventual confrontation with the Saviours they imperil the insurrection by promptly flipping sides and aiding Negan.

Eugene finds a replacement ‘Abraham’ – bizarrely, by accepting Negan’s protection. Taken initially as a hostage his inventiveness soon establishes his value, and with his own survival at a premium, he opts to accept the benefits of the Sanctuary. While the loyalty of Negan’s compromised lieutenant, Dwight (Austin Amelio) – facially disfigured by a Negan punishment-ordeal, depends on the wellbeing of his wife Sherry (Christine Evangelista) who is now one of Negan’s harem of ‘wives’. When she escapes, his allegiances become more fluid.

By season’s end, all the loose plot-strands are drawing into focus, and the fight-back begins, despite the Junk-yard people’s betrayal, a last-minute intervention by the Kingdom and Hilltop joins with Alexandria to repulse the Saviours. Ezekiel promises that victory, and freedom will follow ‘as sure as the day defeats the night.’ Episode 1 of Season 8 is dedicated ‘In Memory Of George A Romero’, the man who had resurrected the zombie-movie in its modern form, who had died 16 July 2017. And a ‘Mad Max’ convoy of vehicles armoured with corrugated metal-sheets draws the mass Walker-herd in at Negan’s stockade, while other groups strike at Saviour outposts.

There are casualties. Ezekiel defends what he terms their ‘bastion of life in the land of the dead’ by leading his group against ‘a powerful force of bloodthirsty rogues and unrepentant cutthroats bent on nothing short of our pitiless destruction.’ Yet, ambushed and mown down, the king’s slaughtered army begin to reanimate and turn on him. ‘You got ‘em killed, and they’re still following you’ mock the Saviours. Even Shira is devoured by Walkers, and Ezekial retreats to the Kingdom tormented by a loss of confidence.

Has ‘The Walking Dead’ become yet darker and nastier? Or ‘The shit’s getting shittier’ as Saviour Gavin phrases it. Wasn’t the campaign against Woodbury equally gut-wrenchingly visceral? But now it has become a relentless no-mercy shooting war. The personal vendetta between Rick and the Governor was vicious, but the one with Negan seems blunter. Negan trades the Governor’s cultured finesse for a more gratuitous brutality. Maybe a TV-series needs to ratchet up the thrill-factor in order to maintain its initial shock-factor? To keep the viewers on edge? Movie Horror went through its own long evolution in a rising crescendo from the monochrome Universal Films of the Bela Lugosi era through the technicolour shockers of Hammer’s Christopher Lee… until digital technology enables the explicit grotesquery of the ‘Saw’ franchise, with exploding bodies, amputations, beheadings and unravelling gut visualised onscreen. Heir to this ongoing process, ‘The Walking Dead’ has always balanced its gratuitous nastiness with its strongly human core. In this way, alongside ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘Game Of Thrones’, it delivers in the multi-platform media, thriving across channels, formats and devices.

There are still lighter touches at the zombie funfair, with a zombie in the cash-booth. Rick has always been conflicted by the urgent needs for survival against his more humanitarian instincts. There are loop-backs here in his disagreement with Carl over lone straggler Siddiq (Avi Nash), and his confrontation with Daryl over breaking the Sanctuary siege. In another moment of distraught anguish, Rick finds ‘Grace Be God’ tattooed around the nipple of a man he’s just killed. Then finds baby ‘Gracie’ in her cot. While, caught in another moral dilemma, Jesus keeps Saviour prisoners caged at Hilltop, although Maggie ‘The Widow’ doubts its wisdom, and Gregg wheedles.

Saviours convene a crisis confab meeting, with the Sanctuary besieged by the surrounding Walker herd, and Negan missing – presumed dead. He’s holed up in a caravan with Priest Gabriel. They escape only by using the guise Glenn had showed Rick in long-ago Atlanta, of draping themselves in entrails. Eugene’s plan to ‘pied-piper’ the encircling Walkers away with Sasha’s iPod fixed to a radio-controlled model-plane is beaten first by Dwight, ‘the Saviours are finished. Negan is finished. This place, what it’s been, that’s all over,’ then by Daryl’s truck rammed through the Sanctuary doors enabling the Walkers access. But this inadvertently supplies plentiful corpses to allow another of Eugene’s brain-waves. Negan escapes by erecting a ‘Walkers Wall’ to create a clear escape passage through. Then he counter-attacks. Using Walker-infected weaponry against Hillside. Maggie is the Lady With The Lamp in the impromptu hospital, as the wounded begin to turn. Yet ‘alive or dead, or somewhere between,’ increasingly disaffected right-hand man Simon begins to believe that ‘they don’t scare’.

Contrary to Negan’s instructions – that ‘people are a resource’, Simon (Steven Ogg) massacres the Junk-Yard people. When the bodies turn Jadis is forced to pitch them through the waste-shredder, with minced-Walker emerging on the conveyor belt. She emerges to capture Negan in retaliation, and locks him in the same container she’d used to imprison Rick. Carl dies from an infected bite as Alexandria burns around them. To Negan he was Rick’s ‘little one-eyed pride and joy,’ the central moral core and motivation of his life. While – in the struggle for the Kingdom, in a clear metaphor for Carl’s own brutalisation, Saviour lieutenant Gavin (Jayson Warner Smith) is stabbed through the throat and killed by Henry (Macsen Lintz), vengeful younger brother of deceased Benjamin, and tutored in martial arts by Morgan. The image continues to accuse Morgan, much as the phantom-Lori continued to haunt Rick. With first Lori and now Carl gone, Rick’s family loyalties centre around Michonne and Judith, although he acknowledges she’s not his child, but Shane’s.

After the show’s initial ratings-busting debut, sustained through the Prison story-arc, viewing figures tended to hit a plateau, or even decline, with accusations that the plotline had lost its forward thrust and was drifting. The intervention of Negan provokes a new interest-spike, energised by the introduction of strong characters, from King Ezekial and Jesus to Negan’s devious sidekicks Simon and Dwight. It’s an unrelenting nightmare of the dead and the dying, haunted by the deceased, both perambulating, and psychological. ‘Winning just means we get tomorrow’ reasons Carol. Tears of loss. Tears of remorse. Blood and entrails. The human pulse forced back on its rawest essentials of struggle and survival. ‘Karma’s a bitch, right?’ And, it must be admitted – despite Siddiq claiming ‘all I’ve done is things I’ve never done,’ there’s a certain predictable repetition in Rick being captured and trussed up by one set of bad guys after another, rather than them just killing him outright, then there’s dialogue and eventual escape, often involving the bloody chaos of a Walker breakthrough.

Yet episode sixteen of series eight brings a kind of closure. In spite of Negan’s intention of inflicting ‘death by a thousand cuts to the ass-holes.’ Despite Simon’s plots and Gregg’s intrigues. Negan reasserts his alpha-male status in raw-knuckle combat, killing Simon with his bare hands and chaining his zombie-self to the perimeter, then uses Dwight’s duplicity against Hilltop by feeding them misleading plans. Yet in the final battle, Oceanside intervenes at Hilltop, Eugene has built deliberate flaws into the bullets he’s manufactured for the Saviours – following Gabriel’s example, so that Rick’s AK47 and his rabble of ‘pricks, dicks and hicks’ win through. And as with Rick’s dramatically-staged confrontation with Shane, and his intensely personal vendetta against the Governor, Rick and Negan come into hand-to-hand struggle for a blazing Lucille surrounded in stark relief by burning Walkers. Then again, after the Saviours defeat, pleading for Carl’s hope for reconciliation, Negan pauses long enough for Rick to slash his throat with a glass-shard.

The New World Begins. Despite his repeatedly vowed intention of killing Negan, Rick stays his hand. ‘Negan’s alive, but his way of doing things is over.’ The vision of a federation of communities mutually supporting each other, triumphs over the Saviours robber-baron rule of fear because it is an evolution. A better way for all. ‘I forgot who I was’ Rick tells the memory of Carl, ‘you made me remember. You showed me the new world.’ Rather than moving on from one illusory sanctuary to the next, Rick’s group have put down roots, fought to create a community, watering it with their sweat and blood. Post-apocalypse has a long tradition. As in previous such dramas the humanitarian instinct triumphs over disaster, and over the more barbarous impulses that bedevil their efforts, to plant the seeds of a better future. Like the original pioneer colonies that embed and expand to form the United States, these beleaguered communities, including the reformed Saviours, will grow and spread to reclaim what has been lost. Albeit with new funeral rituals. Just as ‘The Day Of The Triffids’ ends with the Isle of Wight community. Or ‘Earth Abides’ finds Isherwood Williams as patriarch of a resurgent San Francisco Bay tribe.

Of course, we all know it’s not exactly going to be quite like that. Morgan recruits ‘Annie’ Jadis to Alexandria, but there are leaked details of season nine to come, and probably more seasons beyond that. While Daryl releases a broken and penitent Dwight to seek lost wife Sherry, he’s also plotting with Maggie to exact a more extreme vengeance against Negan than mere imprisonment. There are threads to be picked up. In a neat marketing synergy the comicbook series, with regular catch-up anthology editions, continue springing further potential plotlines, not only in the specialist comic stores but on the shelves of ‘Waterstones’ and what’s left of ‘WH Smiths’. Although undead, the ‘Walking Dead’ is still very much vigorously alive. Yet this is a convenient point to hop off the ‘Walking Dead’ carousel. At least for the moment.

Wednesday 22 May 2019



(Marquis de Sade)

 Retrospective Album Review of: 
(1970, Transatlantic Records TRA 212) 

Mick Farren knows the grammar and vocabulary of Rock. He knows the punctuation and the manifesto. He knows the language and the poses. He knows the structure and vernacular, the dialectics and the format. The voice isn’t strictly essential. Most of the greatest recordings of the Rock era were made by technically-imperfect artists. And Mick’s savvy enough to realise that an album lacking any pretention to strong melodic song-content needs the framing ramparts of a reliable fallback structure. Hence the opening (a Fragment) and closing (The Whole Trip) book-ends of Bo Diddley’s “Mona”. And the side-two opener of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues”, which – according to Farren, was the first political song in the canon due to its line about ‘I called my Congressman, but he said Whoa, I’d like to help you son, but you’re too young to vote.’ These twin barricades shocked full of heavy myth and legend, surround the two ‘suites’ of found-fragments, spoken-word snapshots, docu-veritè sequences and choppy riffs.

The Who were also doing a bombastic “Summertime Blues”, for their ‘Live At Leeds’ double-album (recorded 14 February 1970). But Malcolm McLaren, who also knew his way around the Rock cartography, would contrive Sid Vicious into the June 1979 Top Ten with “C’Mon Everybody” from that same Eddie Cochran-Jerry Capehart writing team. Because Farren uses his grounding in Rock history to anticipate Punk, aligning with the stripped-down minimalist MC5, Stooges and Dictators against the more fey floral aspects of the hippie revolution. The fact that the Rolling Stones had already done a spine-shivering “Mona” on their debut album, which – it must be said, stands head-and-shoulders above this version, is not strictly relevant either. The titanium-plated Bo Diddley riff is an eternal truth that survives the rasping cello and the ‘c’mon Mona get it on… I’ve come here to ball with you’ that the album inflicts upon it.

When Farren uses the riff as the basis for an extended jam, especially on the side two album-closer – ‘This is the best part!’ he growls, he’s leaning on the improvisational dexterity of Johnny Gustafson on bass (spelled Gustavson), with a history extended back to Mersey-Beat pioneers Big Three and forward into Quatermass where he played alongside Pete Robinson who adds keyboard. Paul Buckmaster scores the cello. Victor ‘Sister George’ Gamm had engineered with Farren on the Deviants albums, so they had a functional working relationship, and lead guitarist/arranger Steve Hammond took and helped nudge Farren’s shambling concept into realisation. Twink is on drums, but there’s also percussionist Shagrat The Vagrant, a guise assumed by Steve Peregrin Took (Tolkien was still a secret code exchanged between initiates), who’d soon be on ‘Top Of The Pops’ as part of T Rex. Took takes vocals on “Observe The Ravens”, while during the brief improvisational “Society Of The Horsemen” he infiltrates the lyric-quote ‘it don’t feel good, ‘cos it was made out of wood’ from his own song “Steel Abortion”, later recorded by his Shagrat (with Farren and Larry Wallis).

This is an album that reeks of squats and crash-pads and drifts of intoxicating smoke, where revolutions are plotted in endless rambling conversations, and music is played at mind-shattering volume by what he terms ‘alcoholics, dope-fiends and poets’. It teases with intimations that something just might be happening here if only the encryption can be deciphered. As the rear-cover Marquis de Sade quote indicates, Mick Farren jackdawed across all manner of cult and sub-cult touchstones. From bourgeoning counter-culture journalism through to declamatory rabble-rousing contributions to a newly resurgent ‘New Musical Express’, from incendiary Yippie connections, to spin-off books collecting and sparking from his unique connections.

And Mick’s Deviants band were one of the original groups to work outside the capitalist music industry, by pioneering its own Indie releases. Debut album ‘Ptooff!’ (1967), as the Social Deviants, arrived on their own ‘Underground Impresarios’ label – IMP1, available through mail-order via ‘Oz’ and the like, before being picked up and reissued by Decca in 1969 (as LK-R 4993). It was followed in September 1968 by ‘Disposable’ on the equally-obscure Stable label (SLP 7001), even spawning a rare single, “You’ve Got To Hold On” c/w “Let’s Loot The Supermarket” (STA 5601). ‘Deviants 3’ in October 1969 – with its striking sleeve-art of a Nun sucking an ice-lolly, came through a link-up with Transatlantic (TRA 204), for which ‘Mona’ forms the next part of a promised three-album arrangement.

Although the Biker ‘X-spoitation’ movie illusion of the Hells Angels as an autonomous free-spirited outlaw tribe was somewhat dented by their brutal ‘policing’ of the Altamont Festival, it still exerts a fascination. The UK chapter was a pale imitation of its American progenitors, but Farren carried out interviews with London Angels, with one of those tape-voices fliched into “The Whole Thing Starts”. After an electronic surge and a hard electric kick borrowed from Clyde McPhatter’s Drifters hit “Money Honey”, the track is punctuated by ambient street-sounds. And it’s an uneasy mix of bragging anecdote that begins when ‘an Irishman nicked half of Loser’s gear after the police had raided the squat’ so they seek revenge by ‘kicking the shit’ out of him, he admits ‘I don’t know how he managed to run he was so beat-up’ as they pursue him down Shelton Street, at Covent Garden the Angel’s in their ‘colours’ are stopped and frisked by a Fuzz-jag, and restrained for carrying a razor they ‘whipped us in the station’ where the Angels were beaten-up. The album proudly sports the legend and logo ‘This Album Is Approved By Hells Angels M.C., East London’.

The other inexplicable hang-up, with the diametrical opposite to the hippie idyll, in the totalitarian evil of the Third Reich, manifests itself in the soft-focus red front-cover storm-trooper image lifted from Erwin Leiser’s ‘A Pictorial History Of Nazi Germany’ (1962, Pelican Books), overlaid with the silver ‘Mona’ logo designed by the ‘Ink Studios’ – ‘Think Ink’, as in the short-lived underground newspaper. The brooding-dark reverse-side photo of an enthroned Farren in dark-shades is effectively posed by Keith Morris.

Slipped from the inner sleeve, there’s a single vinyl black band across side one, with three clear bands across side two. With the clean white ‘T’ label, black lettering and mauve logo across the spindle-hole. While there’s Hendrix guitar and manic organ written all over the muddy jam “Observe The Ravens”, with what seem to be random chain-of-thought slogans, phrases from different voices, and stoned manic laughter thrown across it – ‘can you, can you, please explain… I don’t understand what’s going on’. Then the track adopts the narrative style of the noir radio power-drama spoofed so effectively by Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s “Big Shot” (on ‘Gorilla’, 1967), with a nod at pulp crime-novels, as the ‘maniac responsible’ for murdering Mrs Sarah Donaldson emerges, checks ‘a small silver tube’ surgically inserted up his nose ‘as a precaution against the dirt and pollution of the city air.’ The tale is not completed, or even developed far beyond this point, instead there’s a debt to Frank Zappa on the repetitive ‘Who Needs The Egg’ chant that closes the track.

Flipping the album over, into the second suite, following the sinister vocal “Don’t Talk To Me Mary”, the central “You Can’t Move Me” starts out acoustic as a Took conversation recounts his experience of time spent in Ashford Remand Centre where they were ‘generally obnoxious to me,’ and ‘if you’re a vegetarian all you get to eat was potatoes’. As a compressed ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ ‘unscrewing the screws’ forms a major distraction. “In My Window Box” starts as a riffing instrumental break leading into radio distortion, cut-up looped-voices in an artful found-sound tape-collage, midpoint between the Beatles “Revolution no.9” and Shadow Morton’s experimental Vanilla Fudge album ‘The Beat Goes On’ (February 1968, Atco SD 33-237), sampling voices from ‘Of The Cause Of Freedom’ to Lord Haw-Haw ‘Germany Calling’. Where the lines ‘his sergeant-major saw him die… when he died, we threw a blanket over him and left him’ came from are anyone’s guess, maybe a Vietnam TV-commentary? The slurred shouted “An Epitaph Can Point The Way” – ‘you don’t scare me, are you listening?’ is cut with an acoustic insert that even recalls the haunting earth-music of the Incredible String Band.

Occupying a central place in the emerging London counter-culture, the Deviants were there playing ‘The Fourteen-Hour Technicolour Dream’ at the Ally Pally, 29 April 1967, sharing the bill with Pink Floyd, Tomorrow, Flies and Soft Machine watched by an acid-stoned John Lennon. Recorded as the Deviants imploded, with its other members continuing in a refocused way as Pink Fairies, the ‘Mona’ album had a certain assurance of support from the underground press, with a positive review from ‘IT: International Times’, although its influence was negligible, and virtually incomprehensible outside of it. To ‘Melody Maker’ it was ‘badly-played rock and roll interspersed with documentary-type interviews with Hells Angels. One for sociologists.’ While a reissue in ‘Record Collector’ magazine comments ‘it’s difficult to know how much to take this album seriously. ‘I don’t understand what’s going on,’ says one of the numbers, to which one is tempted to nod assent.’

So is this a great lost album? Obviously not. What does it mean? Everything and nothing. A state of mind. Stoned games and pseudo-profound ideas that only partially work. But it is an audio collage, a unique artefact of a strange and volatile period of Rock evolution, with its roots firmly embedded in the past, yet voraciously wide open to future experimental forays into tomorrows that oft never happened.

(Transatlantic Records TRA 212) 41:40-minutes Side One: ‘Mona (A Fragment)’ (3:15), ‘Carnivorous Circus Part 1’ (0:30 – total 15:19), ‘The Whole Thing Starts’ (2:32), ‘But Charlie It’s Still Moving’ (0:59), ‘Observe The Ravens’ (10:33), Society Of The Horseman’ (0:49). Side Two: ‘Summertime Blues’ (2:41), ‘Carnivorous Circus Part 2’ (0:53 – total 13:01), ‘Don’t Talk To Me Mary’ (2:26), ‘You Can’t Move Me’ (3:26), ‘In My Window Box’ (1:21), ‘An Epitaph Can Point The Way’ (4:57), ‘Mona (The Whole Trip)’ (7:25) Recorded at Sound Techniques, London, December 1969 Reissued on Psycho Records in 1984 (Psycho 20), and Esoteric Recordings in 2009 (ECLEC 2121)

Book Review of: 
 (New English Libraries, October 1981, 
544-pages ISBN 978-0450053436, £1.75) 

‘Science Fiction, like Jazz, Rock ‘n’ Roll, or good whisky, is a hard thing to define in words’ he wrote in a vintage backdated ‘Fiesta’. Yet even earlier in his strange strange career-path Michael Anthony Farren got inoculated with a worn and rusty stylus by a heady concoction of cheap vinyl and pulp fantasies. And the contagions remain. When he was leading the Deviants, his anarchistic DIY hippie-band, he recorded the celebratory prophetic “Let’s Loot The Supermarket” on the same demented album as “Last Man” which was written – he told me, ‘after reading the Richard Matheson classic fantasy ‘I Am Legend’, and doing a lot of methedrine!!!’ It was the imperfect collision of two trash cultures, and he’s maintained that sleazy Rock/SF oscillation ever since. For every ‘NME’ column he filed on Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley or Nashville, there’s a short SF shot about urban cannibalism for ‘Oz’, or a novel-chapter for his ‘Texts Of Festival’ (1973) or ‘Protectorate’ (1984). For every track on his ‘Mona: The Carnivorous Circus’ (1970) solo album, each song he wrote for Hawkwind, Pink Fairies, Motorhead or Wayne (MC5) Kramer there’s a short SF for ‘Ad Astra’ magazine about a starship crewed by Gays, or a passage in his techno-‘Easy Rider’ ‘The DNA Cowboys’ trilogy (single volume, 2002).

Once he’d relocated to New York for subsequent album ‘Vampires Stole My Lunch Money’ (1978), and production credits for the likes of Vermillion (‘Ripped And Torn’) Sands, so – according to track record, some Science Fiction counterweight was required! Thus are we duly delivered ‘The Song Of Phaid The Gambler’, an elaborate phantasmagoria of a novel that looks to be his strongest commercial blast to date in either of his multiple disciplines. The fiction-format he assembles is neither vastly original or overly complex, hardly the ‘first truly post-twentieth-century Fantasy Epic’ boasted by the blurb. He takes a custom-built lacerated landscape – a post-holocaust Earth zebra-striped with alternating temperature-zones of deep freeze glaciation to furnace-heat deserts. He peoples it with devolved city-states of decadent humans, malfunctioning androids, subhuman Boohooms, telepathic dogs, super-human Elaihim, and mutated animal species… then garnishes it all with a lethal cocktail of odd hallucinogenics, gymnastic kinky sex, and streetwise humour. The catalyst and narrative element is fed in by Phaid himself, a Maverick-style pro gambler who travelogues it all. Bounced between shifting permutations of nasties, dragged through revolution and drugged through copulatory pyrotechnics, harassed across a variety of cinematic scenarios by the often indistinguishable forces of law and organised crime, as well as by a psionic would-be messiah. 

Although the biro-technique is strictly functional, and the plotting tenuous – and even that shot through with an overkill of wild coincidence, it is a rapid-switch novel that carries you effortlessly through its hefty page-length with no lasting damage to the nervous system. The direct Rock references are minimal – unlike ‘The Texts Of Festival’, in which a future-world of radioactive barbarism reveres salvaged Rock records as mystic revelation and the final massacre is enacted to the backdrop soundtrack of the Doors “The End”, or his ‘The Quest Of The DNA Cowboys’ (1976) in which the ‘home of the blue-scaled whores’ is named Dogbreath after an ancient Frank Zappa title, and a Bob Dylan clone called ‘Minstrel Boy’ acts as linkman. The only reference I can pick up clear through Phaid’s directionless ramblings is a gambling den called ‘House Of The Rising Sun’, but the style is imprinted subliminally. The characters range from Street Hoodlums and Youth Gangs spieling ghetto argot, to thinly disguised Groupies, phony Guru’s, hustlers, Western Movie and Rock stereotypes, all scrambled through narcotic vistas and superfast action. To paraphrase the writer himself, ‘Phaid’ is a hard thing to define in words, if it’s not exactly over-endowed with literary kudo’s then you gotta concede that it DOES set the diodes twitching pleasurably. It IS fun, and it does you no harm.