The Film: 4/5
Ever since it premiered on Halloween night in 2010 The Walking Dead has been one of the most consistently riveting original series on television, as well as being one of the most infuriating. In a new era where DVD and Blu-ray sales and online streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu have made binge watching great shows an essential component of our cultural diet The Walking Dead often fails to yield the pleasurable rewards that you might earn from spending an entire day going through multiple seasons of Breaking Bad or House of Cards. Each season of the series based on Robert Kirkman's best-selling Image comic book since the conclusion of the first has suffered from glacial pacing, obvious budgetary issues, and a lack of forward momentum in the overarching narrative that often compels loyal viewers to throw up their hands in defeat and bow out only to surprisingly discover weeks later that the show suddenly became exciting once more. Then those viewers who thought The Walking Dead's days were numbered halfway through every season have to desperately scramble to track down the episodes they missed in order to get caught up on the staggering new plot developments. I should know.
With the fifth and latest season of The Walking Dead a little over a month from premiering the full 16-episode fourth season has been released to Blu-ray and DVD by Anchor Bay Entertainment, which has distributed the series on home video since the very beginning. As you might have guessed by now, The Walking Dead is set in a world that has been overrun by armies of reanimated, flesh-hungry zombies (or "walkers" if you will). The group of survivors led by former sheriff's deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) has been to Hell and back in recent months, having lost many beloved members of their ragtag family along the way. When last we left them Rick, his son Carl (Chandler Riggs), Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus), Glenn Rhee (Steven Yuen), Michonne (Danai Gurira), Carol Peletier (Melissa McBride), Hershel Greene (Scott Wilson), and Hershel's daughters Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and Beth (Emily Kinney) had managed to successfully defeat the Governor (David Morissey) - the dictatorial ruler of the civilized community Woodbury - and his followers in a violent battle. Though many lives were lost amid the gunfire and ravenous cravings of the undead hordes life at the abandoned prison Rick's group has come to call home has returned to a sense of normalcy.
Along the way the ranks have swelled with the arrival of more of their fellow survivors including several refugees from the ruins of Woodbury, among them Tyreese (Chad Coleman), his sister Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green), and former army medic and recovering alcoholic Bob Stookey (Lawrence Gilliard, Jr.). What was once a few scattered individuals occupying a dilapidated penetentiary is now a thriving mini-community and everyone appears to have found peace and happiness. The core group that took over the prison is now its governing council, and Rick has settled into his role as its leader. Trouble arises quickly when a mysterious virus starts making their pigs deathly ill and soon spreads to the human inhabitants. Even worse, the amount of walkers that arrive daily attracted by the promise of unattainable human flesh is increasing and the prison's once-secured fences are starting to give way. Eventually all hell breaks loose and it wouldn't be spoiler territory to reveal that the Governor is alive and well and has allied himself with a new group preparing to stage another devastating assault.
That's only the first half of the season.
Under the leadership of its latest showrunner Scott M. Gimple, the fourth season of The Walking Dead, though burdened with the same flaws that have prevented previous seasons from achieving true greatness, is possibly the show's finest to date. Each episode packs in a fair amount of character development, action, tension, and graphic special effects gore while continuing to expand the universe of the series in a way that works for television while remaining faithful in tone and execution to Kirkman's comic. It's amazing how much the show is able to get away with in terms of its violent content because apparently what is now perfectly suitable for the 9 p.m. hour on Sunday nights was enough to earn George Romero's Day of the Dead an X rating almost thirty years ago. When these zombies attack their prey the camera captures the flesh tearing and flowing rivers of blood created by the series' scarily gifted effects crew captained by the great Greg Nicotero (who also directed three of this season's episodes, including the premiere "30 Days Without an Accident") with nauseatingly exquisite detail. But that's the way it has to be and needs to be, for this is not the comparatively family-friendly world of Zombieland but a world closer in atmosphere to Cormac McCarthy's classic novel The Road. The planet belongs to the living dead and you have to learn to deal with that and survive or stick an apple in your mouth and wait to be a zombie's next warm meal.
That's pretty much the message conveyed in every episode of The Walking Dead, but what keeps the show from becoming a grim slog through zombie movie cliches its sharply defined characters. By now most of the cast have evolved playing mere archetypes and for a change it's interesting to watch them growing and interacting with each other in between the zombie attacks. Rick has become a much different man than before; having made peace with his late wife's death and stepped up to be a better father to his son and newborn daughter Judith the former lawman has in turn taken a step back from the leadership responsibilities he seemed destined to assume the moment we first met him. The events than transpire throughout the fourth season forever alter Rick Grimes' personality and he goes from being a passive participant in an attempt to rebuild civilization one step at a time to a certified bad motherfucker by the epic final moments of the season finale. Most of the principal cast of characters remain consistent but are still given room to be fleshed out further, but next to Rick the one who undergoes the toughest and often most troubling changes is Carol. Once a devoted wife and doting mother, after losing both her husband (an abusive prick mind you) and daughter in the first two seasons Carol has carefully transformed into a hardened shell of her former self. As the season begins we see her dispassionately teaching the children who live in the prison how to use weapons in order to properly dispatch walkers. In later episodes she makes some difficult choices that result in her being viewed in a much darker light by her makeshift family.
The Walking Dead wouldn't be able to integrate these fascinating arcs into the narrative without the confident performances from its brilliant ensemble cast, the sparse but effective writing that values the development of the characters and their mutual relationships over the gory carnage, and some often impressive and professional direction from an assortment of behind-the-camera talent. Chief among them are Michelle MacLaren, who has also brought her considerable directing gifts to shows such as Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, and Spike Lee's former cinematographer Ernest Dickerson. Having directed his share of harrowing dramas (Juice) and cult favorite horror flicks (Demon Knight, Bones), Dickerson demonstrates a knowledgeable flair for creating well-paced tension and thrills without sacrificing the crucial drama and character development at the show's center. The performances are across the board solid with Andrew Lincoln, Norman Reedus, Melissa McBride, Chad Coleman, Steven Yuen, Lauren Cohan, Danai Gurira, and Emily Kinney all delivering some of the best acting work the series has seen to date.
If I had to choose three standouts from the cast this season they would be Scott Wilson, David Morrissey, and Chandler Riggs. One of the best young actors working in television these dates, Riggs' performance as Carl Grimes gets better every season as the character grows from frightened kid into battle-worn survivor and potential future leader. In the fourth season the chemistry between him and Lincoln has given their on-screen relationship the authentic camaraderie and emotion of a father-son team you wouldn't want to mess with. Morrissey's return to the show after the events of the third season is one of its secret blessings. His first full episode is devoted solely to catching us up on what the Governor has been up to since the fall of Woodbury, and believe it or not you might just start to pity this all-too-human monster once again. The actions he takes are undeniably evil and cruel but like all great villains the Governor is convinced that they are done in the service of accomplishing genuine good, a haunting means to an end Morrissey portrays with tenderness stoic conviction that never degenerates into mustache-twirling camp theatrics and only serves to reminds us that within this irredeemable villain a small glimmer of humanity lies dormant. But it's the great Scott Wilson that without a doubt was the most valuable player of the Walking Dead cast this season as he made Hershel the group's moral center and the conscious of Rick. Wilson is virtually a legend by this point in his career and he imbues the character of Hershel with every single ounce of his many decades of considerable experience as an actor, making it appear as if this wise and eternally optimistic gentleman took root in his own soul.
There are many sacrifices made in this season and they are neither dismissed or taken for granted; everything that happens, good or bad, makes an impact on the characters that changes who they are individually and as a group and will very likely influence events to come in the fifth season and beyond. It's that critical evolution that the first two seasons initially appeared to be sorely lacking. When Frank Darabont first brought the Kirkman comic to television the show got off to a rousing start and accomplished much in its first six episodes, but the director's languid sense of pace, perfect for the cinema, proved to be an awkward fit for the smaller screen. His successor Glen Mazzara, brought in to be showrunner in the middle of production on the second season under controversial circumstances that are too exhausting to be documented here even in brief, and an attempt by AMC to impose unnecessary budget cuts on their latest ratings only succeeded in amplifying the first season's near-fatal weaknesses to a degree where viewers started tuning out in anger. Once Gimple took over from Mazzara for the third season things began to improve. Now The Walking Dead is heading into its latest season at full strength; perhaps by the time the fifth season wraps up early next year one of the most audacious and challenging dramatic shows on television will finally attain the classic status that years of behind-the-scenes shenanigans and a crippling uncertainty in its own strongest attributes have kept out its reach. By now it's surely deserving of that privilege.
Every episode of the Walking Dead was filmed in 1080p high-definition and looks superb in its transition to Blu-ray. Framed in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio the crisp, detailed cinematography is presented with rich clarity, smooth skin tones, and artistic texture. The splatter and sinew benefit from the visual upgrade. Complimenting the top-notch picture are English Dolby TrueHD 7.1 audio tracks that are clear and brimming with vibrant sound quality. Volume levels are consistent from one episode to the next and never require manual adjustment, while distortion is nowhere to be found. There's a French Dolby Surround 2.0 in the mix as well, and English and Spanish subtitles have also been included.
Four of the sixteen episodes in this set - "30 Days Without an Accident", "Internment", "After", and "Still" - sport newly-recorded cast and crew audio commentaries, with "Still" the recipient of two such tracks. The episodes "After", "Still", "The Grove", and "A" are also presented here in slightly extended versions, but it was hard to tell what content in each episode was added to these cuts without the original broadcast versions included for comparisons' sake.
The bulk of the extras is housed on the fifth and final disc and start off with two sets of sixteen featurettes, "Inside The Walking Dead" (total running time: 86 minutes) and "The Making of The Walking Dead" (total running time: 75 minutes). The featurettes of "Inside" are devoted to analyzing each episode from the perspective of character and story, while "Making" covers the production side. Each bite-size mini-doc contains brief but informative interviews with various members of the cast and crew and often ventures into spoiler territory, as do the rest of the supplements.
"Drawing Inspiration" (6 minutes) deconstructs how the events of the fourth season's second half compare to how they transpired in the comics and this serves to demonstrate how crucial Kirkman's original creation is even during the physical production of the series. "Hershel" (8 minutes) is solely devoted to Wilson's character and how he affected this season's storyline while also functioning as a tribute to the actor. "The Governor is Back" (9 minutes) unsurprisingly covers the resurrection of the show's signature (so far) baddie and the role he plays in the fourth season.
"Society, Science, & Survival" (5 minutes) is a rather intriguing look at how The Walking Dead's success resulted in a collaboration between AMC and The University of California, Irvine to create an online college course that applies a realistic approach to different aspects of the show, from the zombie outbreak to surviving the aftermath. "Inside KNB Studios" (18 minutes) contains enough behind-the-scenes footage of the zombie make-up and gore effects being created to please the true horror fans out there. Finally, "A Journey Back to Brutality" (8 minutes) examines the internal struggle of Rick Grimes to either live in peace or embrace the violence in his soul in order to lead his group that was the season's emotional spine.
The first disc opens with upfront previews for the upcoming fifth season premiere of The Walking Dead and the geek-pleasuring reality series Comic Book Men.
The Walking Dead: The Complete Fourth Season presents the hit AMC action-horror-drama series' best season to date in a fully-stocked Blu-ray package with outstanding picture and sound quality and terrific supplements. After devouring this set in a zombie-like hunger I am convinced that as long as Scott M. Gimple stays on as showrunner Dead will continue to kick ass. Plus I'm officially pumped for the fifth season. Highly recommended.