By Samuel Dent–

To say that zombies are in the current mainstream would be an understatement. The last decade has seen a tremendous cultural increase in zombie-activity–the New York Times bestselling novel “The Zombie Survival Guide” plus the video game franchise “Left 4 Dead” are prime examples. Given the success of cable-network AMC’s apocalyptic phenomenon, “The Walking Dead,” it appears no medium is safe from the growing horde. Inspired by the comic book series penned by Robert Kirkman, “Dead” follows a group of people trying to survive after a plague renders much of what they once loved moot. Averaging over six million viewers in its current second season–an impressive feat for a cable program–AMC’s latest series certainly does thrill even if the human parts have room to grow.

Technically speaking, “Dead” excels on atmosphere; cinematographer David Boyd renders the setting–Georgia–in a de-saturated, rustic beauty and the outstanding makeup effects by Greg Nicotero won an Emmy award earlier this year. Although the zombie encounters are the best part of any episode, constant summer noises lend the show animalistic tension even when zombies are off-screen. Finally, composer Bear McCreary’s haunting cues underscore the action during moments of dread.

Thematically, the show has struggled to find its rhythm. Many characters were painted in broad strokes at the start, the whim of the plot carrying them in and out of Atlanta. As six beginning episodes can only foreshadow so much, the show has thankfully expanded in its second season. Establishing motivation, personality and secrets amongst the characters, the archetypes are beginning to fill with depth. No-longer-a-cop Rick Grimes, the show’s main protagonist, struggles with self-doubt. He strives to protect his wife Lori and son Carl from the chaos around them. Other members in the group of survivors include Rick’s ex-partner Shane Walsh, working–and competing–with Rick for leadership. A heavily distraught woman in the group, Carol Peletier, deals with certain marital issues while providing for her daughter during the end of the world. To be more explicit about the aforementioned character beats would constitute spoilers. Some things, like scares, are best left as surprises.

Regarding characterization as a whole, it’s a shame that many of the female characters lack in development and strength when compared to their male counterparts. One can only hope a better balance will be established as the series heads forward to its already confirmed junior year.

However, there are no gaping flesh wounds concerning overall performances; each cast member competently acts to the best of their ability with what they are given. Moving through one memorable set-piece after another–including a brilliant season-two-opener involving stalled cars on a highway–the writers are finding their way despite the occasional wheel-spinning that happens with serialized dramas. This isn’t a show you can jump into right away and know what’s going on. This one requires a certain level of commitment.

If it seems like a daunting prospect, don’t worry; now is the perfect time to catch up. The second season’s only halfway done and a planned hiatus lasts from Nov. 27 to early 2012. This holiday season, many feasts and stories will be shared between friends and family. However, an oven-roasted turkey or a ginger-bread house might not be the only thing horror-fans or curious onlookers will want to devour before 2011 comes to an end.

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Photos courtesy AMC Televisions