When Does Screen Violence Go Too Far? (Or, Why I’m Suing The Walking Dead for Therapy) Ian White October 25, 2016 Editor's Choice, Features 1985 I’ve been reviewing horror movies and horror fiction for quite a few years now. I’ve even written a bit of it myself. And whenever horror haters dredge up that hoary old ‘but horror isn’t entertainment and it makes people do bad things’ argument, I’m one of those annoying people who takes great delight in shooting them down. I’ve watched some pretty extreme movies over the years, will happily avoid torture porn even though I’ll always defend the rights of people who for some inexplicable reason want to watch it, and I’ve been lucky enough to chat with one or two of horror’s most extreme filmmakers who – without exception – have been charming, funny, incredibly erudite and the absolute antithesis of the carnage they put on the screen. For example, a few months ago I spoke with director/writer Meir Zarchi about his classic and still much reviled (in certain quarters) ‘I Spit on your Grave’ and the ISOYG sequel (slated for release next year), and I have never interviewed a nicer, more grounded gentleman. As a reviewer and horror fan, I’m unshockable. At least until this week, when the season opener of The Walking Dead broke me. Now before I get into anything, I’m not exactly a Walking Dead fan. My wife, Kate, watches it while I usually sit beside her ‘working’ on the laptop and bobbing my head up every now and again to say something useful like “Ouch, I bet that’s going to smart in the morning”, which means I generally have a grasp of what’s happening without always being aware of the finer details. I agree that the series is tremendously well put together television, and I can completely understand why so many people around the world cherish its characters and regard the WD universe so highly. It’s just that zombies have never been my thing, except for the Dawn of the Dead remake, which had the first running / sprinting zombies I’d ever seen and that concept alone scares the crap out of me. To put it bluntly, if the walkers in Walking Dead ever move fast enough to be sponsored by Nike, that’s when I’ll be hiding behind the sofa. I’m giving you this background to underline that, as somebody who will remain nameless called Louise (after noticing the shocked looks I was giving Kate while we were watching the episode yesterday) very tactfully pointed out to me, I don’t have an emotional investment in the Walking Dead’s characters so there are points the violence in that opening episode was making about the shift in power and the resonating impact (literally) of new big-bad Negan on the relationships of the main cast, that I just can’t appreciate. I think Louise made a valid comment. The programme makers have already described how the show is taking off in whole new directions with the introduction of this new villain and that when the show is looked back at historically it will be split into two definite halves – Before Negan and After Negan – so obviously his arrival onscreen had to be memorable. I also realise that the real threat in the Walking Dead has never been contained within the walkers themselves but in the human characters, whose complexities and unpredictable dark impulses have always posed the greatest dangers, and in Negan that message has obviously reached its zenith (now The Governor from season ‘I don’t remember but he knew how to work an eye patch’ doesn’t seem quite so bad after all) But why did the violence in this opening episode have to be so unrelenting? Shocking the audience to gain an emotional pay-off further down the line, or to emphasise the obscene nature and finality of violence, is one thing. I completely understand that, in fact I think it’s one of the many ways in which horror as a genre is so psychologically and societally interesting. But when does that violence become so sustained, so graphic, so upsettingly nasty just-because-the-filmmakers-are-enjoying-themselves, that it tips into being unnecessarily gratuitous? The season opener left so many fans shocked, shaken and genuinely traumatised, that it’s finally made me ask myself the question I never thought I would: when is onscreen violence ‘too much’ and when do filmmakers go too far, and hold their camera on the violence and its aftermath for too long? It’s an over-used metaphor but a successful one: well-made horror is a rollercoaster – we love to be scared because it’s a catharsis, a gradual build-up of tension followed by a release. This week’s The Walking Dead had no release – when the brightest spot in the episode involved Rick hanging off the bridge-zombie while his weight gradually separates the zombie’s head from its body, we know we’re in very psychologically fucked up territory. Personally, I think The Walking Dead filmmakers did some brilliant work – the cast were excellent, the writing was on target, the sfx was as gorily ingenious as always – but I can’t shake the feeling that director Greg Nicotero (who is quite brilliant, by the way) and his producers took the violence and darkness a big step too far. And what’s personally most shocking about that realisation? The fact it was a small screen TV show that rocked me and has forced me to re-evaluate my entrenched opinions about onscreen carnage, when all ‘The Driller Killer’, ‘House by the Cemetery’, ‘Cannibal Ferox’, ‘Last House on the Left’, ‘and ‘I Spit on your Grave’ shockers have left me cold. You’ve made me look at myself and question why, Walking Dead. Bravo. I think.