It’s been a long time since I’ve actually arranged my schedule around a television show. But Frank Darabont’s “The Walking Dead,” based on the graphic novel series of the same name by Robert Kirkman (and drawn by Tony Moore and Charlie Aldard) changed that. As a huge fan of the gripping, heartrending series, the news that Darabont was making it into a televised series seemed terrific. Given the serial nature of the books, television, particularly cable television, is the perfect medium. As such, we’ve been gobbling up every bit of “Walking Dead” news to be found, and with each news item, video clip and trailer, I’ve been filled with a steadily increasing combination of anticipation and dread.
One of those feelings was wholly justified. “The Walking Dead” starts out simply, with two southern cops, Shane and Rick (Jon Bernthal and Andrew Lincoln), talking about random things as friends do. They get pulled into the middle of a high speed chase that devolves into a shootout, and Rick takes a bullet and lapses into a coma. Cut to an undisclosed amount of time later, and Rick wakes up in an empty hospital, its corridors filled with destruction and locked doors that ominously read “Don’t Open. Dead Inside.” Rick, dazed and disoriented, staggers outside to find a town filled with nothing but wrecked infrastructure and dead bodies.
Lost in his own hometown and completely baffled as to the ruination surrounding him, Rick heads home only to find his home abandoned. He’s taken in by Morgan and his son Duane, and eventually learns of the inexplicable and horrifying plague of the undead, and that survivors headed towards Atlanta, a supposed safe haven, and thus Rick’s journey through the new, undead-inf. The pilot episode is essentially the setup for the series, and it’s the perfect introduction to this new world.
The zombie trope is rapidly reaching vampire-like levels of saturation and overuse, but “The Walking Dead” takes it in a somewhat different direction. In fact, if I had to compare it to any of the legion of zombie films that have proliferated over the past 40-odd years, it’s an unlikely pairing that springs to mind. It’s certainly an honest homage and throwback to George Romero’s original Night Of The Living Dead. The undead are mindless shamblers, lurching with a horrific gnawing hunger towards anything that moves, but unexplained and shocking. At the same time, the humanity of the cast immediately brought to mind, oddly enough, Edgar Wright’s Shaun Of The Dead. Not for comedic purposes — humor is the one thing you absolutely won’t find in “The Walking Dead.” Rather, the character-focused plotting, which uses the undead as a vehicle to tell the stories of its players, rather than making the undead the story. It’s a precarious balance between the gore and horror of the zombie genre, and the deep characterization and dramatic elements of the lives and interactions of the characters.
The cast, what little we see of them, are overall perfect. Andrew Lincoln struggles a bit with the Kentucky accent (given that he’s British and all), but he’s a strong lead who conveys a wealth of emotion in the episode, most notably in his first terrified, confused moments after waking up, and in his complete breakdown upon finding his house empty. His keening, stomach-clenching anguish is palpable and that moment served as the perfect connection to the audience. Morgan and Duane are both quite good, particularly the elder as a harried, desolate man trying to simply keep it together for his son (and it’s not made easier by the fact that his undead wife wanders the streets of the house they’ve barricaded themselves inside of).
However, it’s the writing and direction that shines most of all. AMC, most recognized for the renowned “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” really let Darabont off the leash for the production, and as a result his dedication and admiration of the source material is clear. The sets are replete with a sense of ragged grandiosity, filled with numerous wide shots that show a society that completely broke down and dissolved. The zombies themselves are incredible, ranging from a handful of newly dead, tattered “walkers” to mangled, rotted things that are mere husks of what they once were. Yet Darabont (and make up artist Gregory Nicotero — a student of Tom Savini’s and a past collaborator with both Darabont and Romero) have done something different with their creations — made them human. They’re mindless creatures, to be sure, but they’ve somehow managed, through the recognition their eyes show, the movements of their jaws, the gut-roiling moans they emit, to make them seem less monstrous and make you truly understand that these are people. This near-humanizing adds a layer of complexity to the struggle and one can sense the hunger that compels them. Maybe it’s just me, but you also get the sense that they are, brain-dead or not, flesh-eaters or not, suffering. It makes for an interesting interplay between Rick and the first undead that he encounters, but also makes the conflicts, the hunting and killing by both the living and the dead, even more affecting and terrifying.
There’s little to criticize, particularly so early in the series when so few of the characters have manifested. Rick’s acknowledgment and acceptance of Morgan’s zombie outbreak explanation seemed a bit too quick and unquestioning, but otherwise, “The Walking Dead” seems to be set to make another strong run for AMC. Darabont and company have clearly demonstrated a love of the source material, and the changes that they made are all solid, and in some cases, serve to make the story even better. The production, sets and effects are summarily terrific (OK, some of the CGI blood is a little glaring), and the music is especially enjoyable. It’s sparely used and never resorts to cheap, melodramatic crescendos. Instead, it’s used to move us through the film’s quiet moments, or, in the case of their unusual yet brilliant use of Wang Chung’s “Space Junk,” to heighten tension without detracting from the scene.
“The Walking Dead” will run for six episodes, with Darabont stating that a full 13 episode second season is in the works. If it shows strong ratings, AMC may have another unlikely success on their hands. The graphic novels are replete with drama, emotion and unflinching displays of humanity at its best and worst. The stories, set against the backdrop of a world torn asunder as the dead reduce it to chaos and carnage, should captivate not just fans of the genre, but all viewers. The pilot episode, “Days Gone Bye,” is a powerful and unsettling opener that promises great and terrible things to come.
TK writes about music and movies. He enjoys playing with dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.