The Film: 4/5
It didn’t take long for that long-threatened Walking Dead spin-off to happen, but they could have given it a better name. A more appropriate alternate title for AMC’s latest wade into the zombie horror genre Fear the Walking Dead could be While Rick Was Sleeping since this new series essentially details the early days of the viral outbreak that decimated most of the human race and resurrected them as the flesh-hungry “walkers”.
At least the prequel has the good sense to follow a different set of characters in a location that isn’t rural Georgia standing in for some other part of the country, which is refreshing to say the least. Fear takes place primarily in Los Angeles and focuses on Madison Clark (Kim Dickens), a high school guidance counselor with two children - drug addict son named Nick (Frank Dillane) and younger daughter Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey). When we first meet Madison she is in a relationship with English teacher Travis Manawa (Cliff Curtis), and Travis also has a son (Lorenzo James Henrie) whom he barely knows anymore since his parents divorced.
The virus has already been unleashed and horrifying reports from five states are all over the Internet, but the rest of the world is treating the news like yet another medical terror tale the media loves to overhype until every member of their audience is building a fallout shelter and putting their money into gold. We all know how that turns out. Needless to say, our reluctant heroes must unite with friends and strangers to create a functional dysfunctional family unit that can withstand the coming fall of the human race and learn how to survive in a world ruled by the undead.
Prequels are by and large pointless because the resolutions are painfully obvious, but Fear the Walking Dead manages to be an effective horror-drama in the way it portrays how a microcosm of humanity deals with the onset of a global apocalypse. The characters we follow are not weathered, battle-weary badasses like Rick Grimes, Daryl Dixon, and Michonne, but ordinary Americans who see their unexceptional worlds turned upside down virtually overnight. It doesn’t always result in the kind of gut-ripping, limb-lopping excitement we’ve grown accustomed to on The Walking Dead, but this occasionally clever companion series does a fine job of charting its own path. Fear is also a better show often than the one its existence is owed to because of the dedication creators Robert Kirkman and Dave Erickson pay to developing each character into a three-dimensional personality.
Fear the Walking Dead takes a slow burn approach to building tension but benefits from better pacing than in the first season of its inspiration. The main parts are cast terrifically, with the underrated veterans Kim Dickens (Gone Girl) and Cliff Curtis (Training Day) delivering fine performances as the headstrong adults in this world about to go mad alongside young up-and-comers like Frank Dillane (Sense8), Alycia Debnam-Carey (Into the Storm), Mercedes Mason (NCIS: Los Angeles), and Lorenzo James Henrie (Star Trek). Recurring roles are handed off to talented character actors such as Ruben Blades (The Counselor), Shawn Hatosy (Public Enemies), Sandrine Holt (Terminator Genisys), and Scott Lawrence (The Social Network).
Composer Paul Haslinger’s (Crank) original music strikes the right balance between dramatic tension and all-out horror and adds to the visceral impact of the more suspenseful moments in each episode. The gore effects and zombie make-up are not as plentiful as they are on The Walking Dead, but the work of Greg Nicotero and the brilliant KNB EFX crew remains solid and one of the highlights of the franchise.
Each of the eight episodes in this two-disc Blu-ray set is presented in 1:78.1-framed, 1080p high-definition widescreen transfers, and the picture quality is consistently solid and plentiful with balanced grain, detail clarity, and warm colors. The only factor that keeps the transfers from standing out is that the cinematography is very workmanlike and contains no striking imagery, which is one thing you could always expect from The Walking Dead. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtracks are rich with ambience and perform beautifully when the zombie action kicks into high gear as the series progresses. Dialogue is clear and audible and manual volume adjustment is often unnecessary, but if you choose to do so, raising the volume level won’t create problematic distortion. English and Spanish subtitles have also been provided.
Disc 1 opens with an odd promo for AMC’s original programming and an ad for the mobile game The Walking Dead: No Man’s Land. The only supplements can be found on the second disc and are limited to the brief, blandly-titled featurettes “A Look at the Series” (4 minutes) and “Inside the Characters of Fear the Walking Dead” (3 minutes), which both contain basic soundbites from the cast and production crew giving us a surface-level overview of the show. I’m not surprised at the lack of substantial bonus features on this release due to AMC and Anchor Bay Entertainment’s insistence on rushing the first season of Fear into stores. Hopefully the inevitable re-release or second season Blu-ray will serve the show better in the extras department.
Fear the Walking Dead is not completely different from the series that inspired its creation, but its deeper emphasis on character-driven drama and slow-building tension over relentless action scenes seeped in graphic gore allows for the show to stand out as a decent prequel and companion program. The acting and pacing are solid, and this could become an even better series than The Walking Dead over time as long as it doesn’t fall prey to the same narrative flaws that have plagued the original from the beginning. Anchor Bay Entertainment’s Blu-ray presentation of the complete first season is strong on the a/v front, but the bonus features reek like a pile of resurrected corpses. If you like good dramatic horror, I would recommend picking this title up if you can find it discounted.