Kolchak: The Night Stalker stars Darren McGavin as quirky Carl Kolchak, an irrepressible reporter at the seedy little INS (Independent News Service) in Chicago. There, he gulps coffee by the gallon and investigates all the city big-wigs, often clashing with his editor and friend, the long-suffering Tony Vincenzo (the late, great Simon Oakland). Kolchak's cases, however, all end up with an unusual and inevitably terrifying bent. Public or government malfeasance often leads to direct evidence of...the supernatural.
Lest we forget it, Kolchak, The Night Stalker aired in the era of "hero" journalists like Woodward and Bernstein, right after the Watergate Scandal. Embedded in the series' DNA is the then-popular belief that one man can fight City Hall; that one man can make a difference. In the series, Kolchak is always battling corrupt cops or politicians and trying (and often failing...) to get the truth out to the people. This was before the age of a corporate news business and compliant "talking points" media. Kolchak - for all his failures as a human being - is a sterling journalist and a paragon of virtue in the sense that he always follows a story...no matter where it takes him.
"The Zombie" reveals this "man against City Hall" aesthetic in spades. While investigating a gangland "syndicate" killing, Kolchak begins to suspect that a Mamalois, a voodoo priestess, has activated a zombie to kill the mobsters who put out a hit on her grandson, Haitian Francois Edmonds. Kolchak works every angle of the case, which allows him to consult the series' colorful recurring cast members, like John Fiedler's on-the-take "Gordy the Ghoul," an enthusiastic informant who works in City Morgue. The case also puts Kolchak in direct opposition with police captain Leo Winwood (Charles Aidman), who has a dark involvement with the mob case. In voice-over, Kolchak describes his relationship with Winwood as "long and bloody; like the Crusades...only without the chivalry."
One of the episode's best moment involves Kolchak putting Captain Winwood on the spot while he conducts an official press briefing (a ritual Kolchak derides as "a foolish game.") The Helen Thomas or Sam Donaldson of his day, Kolchak pummels the evasive Winwood with facts until the dishonest police captain threatens to have him expelled. Why our White House Press couldn't push Tony Snow or Ari Fleischer this way is beyond me.
Another aspect of the episode involves Kolchak tangling with Monique Marmelstein, the new partner Vincenzo has assigned him. Monique is a pudgy, annoying presence who got her job at INS through what she calls "nespotism" (but she means nepotism.) Just as the Winwood character is found to be corrupt; so does Kolchak here find corruption in his INS office. It turns out Monique's uncle is a powerful figure in local politics, so Vincenzo has no choice but to accommodate her on his staff. At a police shoot-out, however, Kolchak finds an inventive way to keep Monique out of his way: the always loquacious Kolchak jaw-bones Monique into hiding in the trunk of his car; and then locks her in. Not very nice. But undeniably effective.
The political undercurrents of Kolchak and the pervasive context of Watergate are always fascinating elements of the series, but as a horror fan I love "The Zombie" for its spine-tingling denouement. Convinced that a zombie is being resurrected nightly for revenge killings, Kolchak researches the ways to kill it. He discovers that zombies often rest in the "places of the dead" (mortuaries, graveyards, etc.) and that to kill one he must pour salt into the mouth, and then use needle and thread to sew the lips "very tightly" together. However, that mode of execution only works if the zombie is dormant. If awake, the undead can be killed by strangulation. But ever try strangling a zombie before?
Kolchak finds his living-dead quarry at an unconventional "place of the dead," an auto junkyard (where cars go to die...). In particular, Kolchak happens across the zombie in a wrecked funeral hearse. We watch with mounting suspense as Kolchak crawls in through the back of the hearse and methodically pours salt into the zombie's mouth. He slowly takes out the needle and is about to begin sewing the lips shut when...
...the zombie's eyes open and Kolchak - terrified - shrieks like a little girl and hightails it out of the hearse. I have to admit, this is one of the things I absolutely love about this character. So often in horror movies and television lately, characters face extreme situations (like vampires, zombies and werewolves) with a bit too much composure and acceptance for my taste. In keeping with Kolchak's 1970s-vibe and "everyman" nature, the character is foolhardy, but when faced with a monster, pretty damn terrified. I'm reminded (unfortunately) of the recent Bionic Woman pilot episode, wherein Jaime Summers takes in stride the fact that she is trading martial arts fisticuffs with a psychotic superwoman. In fact, she starts trading quips with the evil bionic chick almost immediately. And she's supposed to be a 23-year old bartender!! A little fear; a little anxiety; a little surprise would have been appropriate and would have given the scene the sense of verisimilitude it lacked. I like the Kolchak solution better. Upon seeing the zombie awake, Kolchak turns tail and runs like hell. "Suspension of disbelief" is important in horror and science fiction, and if the characters don't respond in a truthful manner to the strange events around them, I found suspension of disbelief is lost. For me, anyway. A lot of movies and TV shows today can't be bothered to actually generate suspense or have characters react in a realistic way (Supernatural, j'accuse!)
So Kolchak turns tail and runs through the junkyard, the white-eyed zombie hot on his heels. With a degree of ingenuity and on the fly, Kolchak manages to trick the lunging zombie into a noose, hence the necessary strangulation of the creature. But the point is that it all looks very unplanned, very spontaneous and therefore very human. Kolchak: The Night Stalker did things in this fashion all the time, and the audience found itself rooting for the little guy not just as he battled City Hall, but as he battled terrifying monsters too (or more appropriately, a different kind of monster than he found ensconced in the hallways of power). Of course, the very nature of episodic television assures that the protagonist survives his or her travails week-to-week, but the very fallible nature of this particular protagonist actually makes the viewer forget such convention and hold on tight to that critical suspension of disbelief. Carl has heart, but he's hapless and - like most of us - not exactly courageous in the face of the unknown. That's why I love the guy; he's us.
With its roving night-time camera, hand-held moments promoting immediacy, staccato character banter, sharp writing and unforgettably individual protagonist, Kolchak: The Night Stalker is really a shining jewel in genre television's crown. It's a one-of-a-kind production, and "The Zombie" reveals why. It moves effortlessly from comedy to social commentary to monsters-on-the-loose with utter confidence, not to mention an overwhelming sense of charm and fun.