Few projects have demonstrated a love for visual storytelling as strongly as Genndy Tartakovsky’s 2019-2022 animated epic Primal. The two season, 20-episode prehistoric fantasy-action series is an open love-letter to early Heavy Metal magazine stories and the Sword & Sorcery genre. With immaculate animation, intense and surprisingly heartfelt storytelling, and Tartakovsky’s ever-outstanding directing chops, Primal as a whole is one of the most memorable animated projects of the last decade – and a great example of comic book style made into motion. While every episode of Primal is excellent in its own way, one chapter in particular bore into the eyes and minds of viewers with its uniquely unsettling horror tone. Plague of Madness seamlessly combined several genres of horror with the show’s tight visual pacing and storytelling sensibilities to create an unexpected gem of unsettling terror.
Primal S1 E7, Plague of Madness succeeds as a piece of horror by understanding how to layer multiple genres over each other to create something refreshing. The episode begins, as many horror stories do, benign and peaceful. A herd of sauropods (giant long-neck dinosaurs) is seen nesting and eating together. Tartakovsky takes ample time showing this family group, instilling a sense of harmony for the audience. In a cruel twist he then, quite literally, rips that harmony apart by introducing a virus – a freaking zombie virus. To a massive sauropod. Like George Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead and 28 Days Later, we get to see in terror as this peaceful moment is ground to a bloody pulp by one of their own who has contracted an illness none of them understand. This is an element of zombie horror that often gets overlooked and underappreciated – the rot of the infection and how it affects the victim before they start ripping the ones they care about to shreds. The terror is almost as psychological as it is physical – and this gets worse once Spear and Fang, the show’s protagonists, enter the scene.
As Spear and Fang encounter the mad sauropod, Plage of Madness’s other horror influence kicks in. Typically, giant monster horror isn’t seen as “scary” as most other types of horror. Lumbering monsters are imposing, but tend to lack the intimate thrill of slashers, ghost stories, or zombie flicks. This largely has to do with the scale of disaster in monster films. When a giant monster is wrecking a city and terrorizing thousands instead of just a few, it’s easy to lose the sense of urgency and terror found in most other horror genres. This element is precisely where Primal succeeds. The infected dinosaur has a deadlock on our two protagonists, and its relentless pursuit provides an intensity seldom seen in a horror story where the antagonist is so massive. The infected, crazed sauropod screams and flails wildly as it rushes after Spear and Fang, smashing through massive trees and surviving falls off of cliffs and into lava. Spear and Fang aren’t the kind to run from a fight either. The caveman and T-Rex duo have stood their ground against many-a foe that they shouldn’t have had a chance against. This is unlike anything they’ve been up against though – the rotting corpse of an animal too big to bring down under normal circumstances, now after suddenly hunting them without any kind of provocation. The psychological damage starts to take hold on Spear. He has a nightmare about such a sickness infecting himself and Fang, which demonstrates the horror that even a hardened survivor like himself can feel at being confronted with this fate.
The sauropod’s screams that echo through Spear and Fang’s – and the audience’s – minds aren’t ones of rage or primal fury, but of pain and insanity. It’s mostly impervious to harm because its body is already dead and decaying. The mad herbivore’s entire existence is a swirl of unimaginable torture. This is where the ultimate horror, the element that stays with the audience long after the episode is over, comes in. This once peaceful creature is trapped inside its own body, watching itself kill indiscriminately and be unable to so anything about it except scream. The feeling of being pursued by such a monster is perfectly crafted by Tartakovsky, who blends multiple genres of horror into a perfect 20 minutes of terror. Existential dread, zombification, and giant monster horror all come together as one of the most memorable episodes of an absolutely stellar animated series. If you haven’t seen Primal, by all means go to HBO Max (or buy it on Blu-Ray), and binge the whole thing now. Wait until dark for episode 7, Plague of Madness, though – and remember to run.