This column contains spoilers about the seventh season of “The Walking Dead.”
Last Sunday, “The Walking Dead” returned for its seventh season, carrying with it the promise for the resolution of season six’s cliffhanger — who does Negan, the show’s latest murderous villain, kill? There are so many reasons why that’s a bad cliffhanger, but that’s another column.
Negan’s first victim is revealed early on in the episode. Abraham — a middle-tier character on the fan favorite scale — gets a barbed-wire-wrapped baseball bat to the head. It’s gruesome and hard to watch. But it’s nothing compared to the next beat down in which the show returns to its source material and has Negan kill Glenn (who barely escaped death last season) like he does in the comic books. The scene is horrible and unnecessarily so. So much visual time and space is given to Glenn’s bloody head. Even after he is reduced to a pile of essentially meat pulp, the camera continually returns to his corpse.
Intense violence is not new in “The Walking Dead,” or anywhere on screen for that matter. I’ve heard it preached for years that violence on-screen makes kids more violent because it desensitizes them to it. And that’s true, but it’s important to acknowledge different representations of violence and gore on film. The kind shown on the season premiere of “The Walking Dead” is some of the most dangerous.
It’s dangerous because it is both senseless and glorified. The whole plotline hinges on who has power and who is powerless, the person in power being the perpetrator of violence. What’s more telling is that Negan becomes the center point of the episode. The plot exists because of him, waits for him and then follows his actions for the remainder of the episode. Negan is so much the episode’s star that he almost becomes the hero. He’s good looking, smooth-talking and easily mistaken for an actual badass.
He’s the kind of villain that can easily be mistaken — especially by people who get most of their violent imagery through first-person video games and television — as the sort of Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight” antihero. A clear antagonist who steals the show with his charm and complexity, which makes you — if only for a second — almost root for him.
But, there are ways to show violence that are much more intentional, more careful and less problematic. “The Walking Dead” has done it before. But, I’ve already spent enough of this “film” column talking about TV. Coming out of spook season, I’ve seen — and worn — a lot of fake blood in the past week. One direction, and really my favorite direction, that good gore can go is absurd. Slasher films of the 1970s overflow with the cherry-red blood of over-the-top gore.
A standout for its blood to enjoyment ratio is “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” As a kid growing up in Texas, I quickly became familiar with the plot on the slumber party circuit. It has a very classic (duh, because it is a classic) plot. A van full of teenagers runs out of gas in rural Texas and slowly become victims of Leatherface, whose weapon of choice is, you guessed it, a chainsaw. It’s a very violent movie, but the violence is exaggerated to the point of absurdity. The characters are chainsawed, impaled on meat hooks and otherwise hacked to death.
“Scream” pretty much does the same thing. Its opening scene is horrifically bloody, but it monopolizes on its own absurdity — this time in a far more self-aware way — to draw a fine line between whose actions are deemed heroic. It pulls us into the violence only to push us, leaving us disgusted by the brutality and our momentary sympathy with it.
Where “Scream” finds humor, “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” finds moments of real cinematic beauty. The final two shots, of the blood-soaked sole survivor being carried to safety in the back of a pickup truck and Leatherface swinging his chainsaw against the rising sun, are oddly beautiful. They remind the audience why good horror movies are scary — they make us want their characters to live, while shows like “The Walking Dead” tell us we should want to watch them die.
Perhaps “The Walking Dead” has fallen victim to its medium. No matter how gory or gruesome horror movies get, most don’t last longer than two hours. “The Walking Dead” has already run for over 80 hours with no end in sight. There’s no condemnation of the violence and it instills no fear in its audience because after 80 hours of antagonists that are either one-sided or literally brain-dead, the audience has been told “This is the way things have to be.” Good gore tells its audience instead, “This is way things are, but not the way they should be.”