The Walking Dead

Need a little break from all of those angst-ridden vampires and werewolves? Stiffen your spine and toughen your stomach, because here comes a zombie jamboree.

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In many ways, zombies are the most horrifying of classic monsters. They're not romantic, tragic-hero types. They just are. No explaining them, no containing them; they're the human animal reduced to its most primitive and soulless state, compelled by only one need: to feed. All you can do is run.

As a grisly Halloween treat, two extraordinary — and extraordinarily graphic — series lurch their way into your living room, should you be so adventurous. The visceral British import Dead Set (airing over five midnights, with a Halloween marathon next Sunday at 7:30/6:30c) extends the bloody metaphor to a wickedly profane satire of reality TV, as the last safe haven against a zombie outbreak appears to be a locked-down Big Brother house. (Heaven help us.) The carnage is camp-free on AMC's highly anticipated The Walking Dead, a stark and harrowing survival parable.

In short, Dead Set is a sick joke. And The Walking Dead is no joke.

Vulgar and noisy, and often disgustingly hilarious, Dead Set is the perfect pop-culture poison for those of us convinced the world of Big Brother and its spawn is an endless night of the living dead, turning participants and fans alike into craven zombies. "They're thick as s--t! As long as we're still breathing, we're smarter than them," says one of Dead Set's heroes, dismissing the threat outside. But we know better. In this unforgiving and relentlessly chaotic pitch-black farce, humans are their own worst enemy.

Whereas we actually root for many of the people we find living among The Walking Dead, which packs a raw, emotional punch while delivering the creepy and queasy thrills all genre fans truly crave. Based on an acclaimed comic-book series, Dead is visually stunning (kudos to Frank Darabont, who wrote and directed the gripping 90-minute pilot) and daring in its artful use of silence.

Long stretches of eerie quiet draw us into this shattered world, initially seen through the eyes of lawman Rick Grimes, soulfully played by Andrew Lincoln with a solemn Gary Cooper-like authority and dignity. "I'm sorry this happened to you," he says with stoic sorrow, standing over an especially pathetic creature he is about to put out of its misery. "He used to be like us," he says later over a zombie corpse, acknowledging what has been lost before embarking on a gory task that had me gasping.

There are no cheap shocks, but plenty of full-throttle suspense and terror, in The Walking Dead, from classic moments like an ominously turning doorknob to intensely hair-raising action and attack sequences. "They may not seem like much one at a time, but in a group all riled up and hungry, man, you watch your ass," one survivor warns Grimes.

This isn't TV for the timid. If you doubt it, wait for the moment when Grimes announces, elbow-deep in icky stuff, "We need more guts!"

Dead Set airs Monday through Friday at midnight/11c on IFC (a marathon of all five episodes airs next Sunday, on Halloween, starting at 7:30/6:30c)

The Walking Dead premieres on Halloween, next Sunday, at 10/9c on AMC

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