The Walking Dead is a comic that I have been reading religiously since it’s debut back in 2003. The whole time I was reading it, I was always thinking, “This would make a kick-ass movie!” Well now this gloriously gory series has done one better – it’s come to TV. Why would that be better than a movie, you ask? When you’re watching a movie, you only get 90-120 minutes to meet your characters, love them, and follow them through their zombie-escapades. With a television series, you get season after season to become fully immersed in terrifying post-apocalyptic storylines and character arcs.
If you haven’t watched this episode yet, I suggest you do so before reading on. I’ll try not to drop too many spoilers, but readers be warned!
AMC’s The Walking Dead (TWD) is anything but your normal TV drama. Obvious point #1 – this show has zombies in it. This is one of the first TV shows to be based around a zombie apocalypse, and AMC isn’t shy in the gore department. That was one of the things that I was most worried about – while TWD is more about the living characters than the dead ones, that the fantastically disgusting and ‘realistic’ look of the zombies would get lost in translation from the comic to TV. Obvious point #2 – Zombies = gore. Put your fears aside, because AMC really pulls out all the stops with some phenomenal make-up art and great effects. This alone has to be pushing so many boundaries that the FCC’s probably fuming at the mouth, and that’s not including the language, violence, and sexuality. Obvious point #3 – This show isn’t for young kids. TWD airs on Sunday nights, and while what you let your kid watch is no concern of mine, it could be pretty intense for kids under 14. So now that all the obvious things are out of the way, lets get on to the first glorious episode of The Walking Dead, “Days Gone Bye.”
“Days Gone Bye” follows pretty close to the first issue or so from the comic series. Our protagonist, Police Officer Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), wakes from a coma to find himself in a deserted Georgian hospital…or so he thinks. He’s not entirely alone, as we can see when he finds that the cafeteria has been boarded and chained shut with a warning scrawled on the doors, “DON”T OPEN, DEAD INSIDE.” On his quest to venture from the hospital to find his family, we are introduced to a whole new world without the burden of tons of back-story. We know as much about this zombie-infested place as Rick does, which adds to the scare factor.
Writer/director/producer Frank Darabont is working closely with The Walking Dead comic writer Robert Kirkman, and it shows. There is a healthy respect for the comics in the TV series, but Darabont has quite a way of elaborating and digging into the wonderful stories that are already laid out for him. One such example is the story of Morgan and Duane, a father and son that Rick happens upon while searching his neighborhood for his wife and boy. In the original story, these guys were nothing more than a simple prop – a way for the audience and Rick to find out what exactly we have gotten ourselves into, and a plot mover to get Rick on his way to Atlanta to look for his family. Darabont created a whole little niche for these two characters to fit into and really rounded out their story. Morgan and Duane let us in on some of the horrors that living in a zombie land can provide; they had to endure their mother/wife’s process of becoming a zombie, and then we watch as she tormentingly roams near the house. What puts it all over the edge is seeing how Morgan struggles to place her in his cross-hairs and pull the trigger. Fantastic.
There were a couple of scenes like that throughout “Days Gone Bye.” People have to remember that it’s not the zombies that are the walking dead, it’s the survivors. This is as much a drama as it is a horror series. The famous screenshot sweeping the web of the zombie girl comes from a moment when Rick runs into her laying near a bicycle. It’s obvious that she’s been dead for a while as she struggles to drag herself toward him. At first this just seems like a moment of horror, but when Rick returns to her later in the show, you see just how sad the whole zombie epidemic really is. These creatures used to be humans, with a life and soul; and now they’re just mindless eating machines doomed to wander until they basically fall apart.
These scenes are a testament to the pace at which Darabont wants to take TWD. God bless him for not wanting to rush, or feeling like the audience will only want to see an action-packed zombie gore-porn of a show. He doesn’t bombard us with more tragedy than we can handle in this first episode; he gives us just enough to keep us interested while not getting turned off. You can tell that he wants us to get comfortable with the characters and build up an audience relationship before he starts bombarding the characters with dubious traumatic trials and tribulations.
There are some truly fantastic shots in TWD, and Darabont isn’t afraid to leave the lights on – a huge portion of this episode takes place in broad daylight! That right there shows you his confidence that his zombies look good enough to be scary at any time of the day, adding another realistic quality to the show. There are some really great scenes, including one where Rick is riding a horse down a deserted highway heading for Atlanta. The outbound lanes are packed with abandoned and wrecked cars, and the city line looks destroyed and deserted. This really adds to the overlaying feeling of despair and paranoia that emanates throughout the episode.
All these factors give The Walking Dead a totally fresh spin on the already overdone zombie genre that will include viewers from across the board, rather than just horror-seekers. If you haven’t seen this first episode, check out AMC OnDemand, or go to http://www.amctv.com/originals/The-Walking-Dead to view the full episode online. The Walking Dead Episode 2, “Guts,” airs Sunday, 11/07/10 on AMC at 10/9c.
I give “Days Gone Bye” 5 zombies out of 5.