AMC is taking a big chance with The Walking Dead. Coming at a time when the risk of zombie fiction over-saturation is very real, the network is betting that the quality of the series—based on a comic book that began before every other book written in the U.S. was about the undead—will overpower the genre burnout that's beginning to take hold. They're also hoping that audiences will take a chance on a largely unfamiliar cast and on a show that will air on one of the richest nights in television. The Walking Dead is an extremely expensive show, with location filming done in striking 16mm, elaborate makeup and effects, and one of the most prominent directors in Hollywood, Frank Darabont, acting as show-runner.
On the other hand, it's possible to overstate the risk. The Walking Dead is already a winning comic book property by celebrated writer Robert Kirkman, Darabont's presence, as well as the imprimatur of Terminator producer Gale Ann Hurd, indicates that the network is hoping for a commercial as well as a critical success, and its place in the Sunday night lineup just means the network is confident in their product. As far as zombie burnout goes, the reason the market is so heavy with undead product is because, for good or ill, people are buying it. So the question becomes: will The Walking Dead succeed on its own merits? That's what we'll find out together over the next six weeks.
I'll be reviewing the first season of The Walking Dead, and I'll tell you up front that the debut episode—written and directed by Darabont—definitely makes me think AMC, a network that's produced high-quality original shows almost without exception, is onto another winner. I also want to touch briefly on the issue of the comic vs. the television series: I'm a fan of the comic, and will refer to it briefly in these reviews as I think it's warranted. I don't think occasional references to the book are unseemly, since creator Robert Kirkman is heavily involved in the television series and will write the fourth episode. The network seems to agree; in the press materials, posed action shots of the cast are presented alongside panels from the comic, and it's a bit eerie how closely the actors resemble their two-dimensional counterparts. However, the show is not the comic. It's been made clear that it will feature new characters that don't appear in the book, eliminate ones that do, and follow the plots and stories of the comic only insofar as it suits the arc of the series. So I'll refrain from making the comparisons too direct.
One place where the comic book and the television series are directly parallel is in their overall tone. It's been endlessly repeated that the reason zombies are such resonant antagonists in horror is that they are simply humans without souls—they are our mirror image, with all the qualities that make us human removed, and thus they can suit almost any story purpose. Zombies can be used for pure terror, for social commentary, for satire, for slapstick, for drama and suspense. The Walking Dead is what's usually termed "survival horror," but as commonly applied to video games, that often just means "kill as many creatures as you can in a creepy environment." What The Walking Dead does is make the horror about surviving, not failing to survive. It places its characters in situations of such hopelessness, of such uncertainty and paranoia, that survival is both the only goal worth pursuing and the very thing that turns you into a monster worse than any zombie. I'm giving away nothing by noting that the real villains in The Walking Dead are the living, and the real horror isn't the death that comes from the teeth and nails of zombies but the moral compromises made to avoid that fate. It's a survival story in the truest and bleakest sense, a story of the triumph of surviving an impossible situation, and the devastation of what that survival does to you.
(Some plot spoilers for tonight's episode follow.)
The Walking Dead is, if nothing else, one of the darkest, most depressing comics ever to rise to any level of success, every bit as emotionally and spiritually dark as Chris Ware's bleakest moments, if in a more artificial way. How much will the TV series maintain that bleakness? Viewers might rebel at the unrelenting despair of the comic; the demands of television drama traditionally necessitate an emotional arc with plenty of highs to match the inevitable lows. The series makes its intentions clear right away: It opens on small-town lawman Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) wandering through a death trap of abandoned and overturned cars in search of fuel for his prowler. His first encounter (and ours) with the undead comes in the form of a little girl he first mistakes for a living human, in a shot reminiscent of the first sighting of the Others on Lost. Once he recognizes her for what she is, there's a moment of uncertain terror, then a gunshot. She lies on the ground with her head split.
Not many shows would open with the hero brutally killing an 8-year-old girl, but hey, she's a zombie, right? That makes it a weird kind of OK and gives us the first of a lot of moral hurdles we'll have to clear over the course of the show. Rick already has the carriage of a man who's gotten used to doing some ugly things over a very short period of time. After this opening scene—which, not incidentally, is beautifully filmed and staged—we cut back to all we're likely to get in terms of an origin story: Rick and his buddy, Shane Walsh (Jon Bernthal), are sitting in their patrol car, shooting the shit, in a perfectly normal world of gyros and smack-talk about women. Shane is all cocky certainty and Rick unsure nobility. Then a showdown with a car full of runaway fugitives, a gunshot, and the world ends for Rick. He slips into a coma, and when he wakes up, the world has ended for the rest of us, too.
It's unclear how long Rick is under and probably doesn't bear much thinking about. The Walking Dead is all about the ineluctability of the situation, and the timeline of the zombie apocalypse is treated as offhandedly as its cause. That's for the best because the series is not telling us a story of how and why. It's telling a story of what next, and in this case, what next is getting our hero out of the hospital. This leads to some terrifying set pieces—the creepy dead room, locked from the outside; hundreds of dead bodies stacked in the sun to rot; a scene in a darkened hospital stairwell where nothing happens, but that's as scary as anything else we see in the pilot. What must Rick think has happened—a war, a plague? Lincoln's southern accent is a bit dodgy, but there's nothing wrong with his acting; his body language and expression here is totally different now than when we saw him before. He's a fast learner. We don't get the impression that he's unaffected by what he sees, but his ability to adjust to a new reality may be his greatest survival skill.
Rick's first full sighting of the undead is almost anticlimactic: a pathetic, naked half-torso crawling in the park. It's played as horrifying but funny, as he tries to cope with seeing it while feebly trying to mount a rickety kid's bicycle in his hospital gown. Arriving home and finding his family gone, he does the most rational thing he can think of: He tries to wake up. To no avail, though, and his next expedition outside ends badly as a kid whacks him in the face with a shovel. Thus he finds the first living humans he's seen since his coma: Morgan Jones (beautifully played by the always welcome Lennie James) and his son, who have been squatting in the house next door since Jones lost his wife to infection.
This is a scene that easily could have been too exposition-heavy, but it keeps things as stripped down as possible: Morgan explains the situation, lays down the zombie rules, and adds a moment of poignancy, as he finds himself actually apologizing for having not killed his now-reanimated wife. After developing mutual trust (and enjoying the simple pleasure of a hot shower at the sheriff's station), the two part: Rick heads to Atlanta, the nearest large city, where he thinks his wife and son may have fled to a refugee center, while Morgan stays behind to decide his next move. In a pair of wrenching scenes, Morgan tries to gather the—strength? resolve? compassion?—to destroy what used to be his wife, while Rick stops at the park to finish off the pitiful half-thing with a strange mixture of sympathy and repulsion.
A radio signal Rick sends out into the void is answered—though not to his knowledge—by a small group of survivors, including his wife, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), and son Carl (Chandler Riggs), as well as Shane, who's taken Rick's place in more ways than one. They know what he will soon learn: Atlanta is a wasteland. Entering the city on horseback in a gorgeously filmed scene (one of many where the 16mm camerawork really delivers), Rick finds it empty of the living, infested with the dead, and with no authority or organization to be seen. Quickly overwhelmed by a swarm of zombies, he hides out first under (what a way to die!) and then inside an abandoned tank. It looks like it will be his tomb, until an unfamiliar voice crackles over the wire.
Overall, I'd say The Walking Dead treated viewers to a stunning debut. Frank Darabont has a talent for wrenching terror out of what start out as ordinary moments and spiral out of control, and for communicating a palpable sense of fear from his leads. Those qualities are on full display here, and the pilot does a tremendous job of being a way-above average genre horror exercise. As the first installment of an ongoing dramatic narrative, it sets its pieces in place (a bit too abruptly at times: the reveal of Rick's family and their group might have waited an episode or two) and readies us for the next move.
The Walking Dead isn't a story with many profound philosophical points to make; its story is a simple and direct one of human survival and the many tragic mistakes we make when pursuing it. From a dramatic standpoint, which is the aspect at which the show must succeed to become something more than a functional shock delivery vehicle, it's not a story of ideas, but a story of emotions. It needs to hit its every emotional pitch, to sell them to to audience, to make us feel what they feel, to make them lively and immediate and not just an interchangeable group of zombie-killers. The pilot does so quite well, buoyed largely by the performances of Lincoln and the outstanding Lennie James. Combined with extremely well-crafted technical filmmaking, it should be considered a success and a promising start to the series. I hope it can continue to deliver at this level.
(A quick word in closing about spoilers: spoilers for episodes that have already aired are inevitable and welcome. But I'd like to request politely that those of you who have read the comic refrain from discussing those spoilers here, for two reasons: first, since the series isn't necessarily following the comic, you might be wrong; and second, if you're right, you'll be giving away major, major developments that could seriously jeopardize the enjoyment of the series for people who haven't read the comics. I'm sure you know what stuff I'm talking about in general, and there are a million other places to discuss it on the internet, so let's be cool for everyone else's sake. Thanks.)
- Aside from looking amazing, with great production design by Greg Melton & Alex Hajdu and skillful cinematography by David Tattersall, the show has sound design that is really well done. The opening scene makes great use of silence and environmental sound, so the first 'real' sounds that we hear make an impact.
- I know everyone got excited over the fan-made credits for this show, but trust me: the real ones are better.
- "The last thing she said to me this morning: 'Sometimes I wonder if you really care about us at all.' She said that in front of our kid before he went to school." The kind of thing everyone has said or heard said after a fight, only given any heft—in drama as in life—when it really is the last thing you remember before some unexpected tragedy. Circumstance elevates it from banality to poignancy.
- I could do without the over-reliance on slow motion in the action scenes. There's enough going on that it's not needed, and the effect is familiar enough to seem a bit trite.
- It may be a zombie apocalypse, but that's no excuse for bad grammar in what's left of the Jones household.
- There's not much difference between the ghouls of The Walking Dead and the typical Romero zombie—they're slow, weak, dumb, and can only be taken down with a headshot—but they can pick things up, manipulate simple objects (like a doorknob), and possibly recognize things from their former life. Whether this is just color or something that will make a plot point in the future remains to be seen.
- "I'm a good mom." Dialogue isn't a strong point of the comic, and doesn't look to be one of the show either, but it's good at capturing emotional tone, and this is just the sort of insistence a woman might cling to in a situation so dire.
- So where did that helicopter flying over downtown Atlanta come from? It's an element not present in the comics (where we never see any evidence that any organized authority has survived), and could be our first hint that the show might be telling a very different story.