The following is a reaction to last week’s season premiere, “Days Gone Bye.” I can’t review the whole series yet but I can’t wait to…
The fact that a TV series called The Walking Dead even exists is a special occurrence and a landmark development all by itself, so to me it’s beyond my simple horror-lovin’ personal perspective how anyone could quibble or gripe. There have been horror TV shows before, but it’s rare to see one get the production value and the promotional treatment that this one is getting.
AMC is a channel currently building itself into a prestige brand to rival HBO and FX for quality programming; between the super-classy Mad Men, the well-received Rubicon (I haven’t had the pleasure yet but I hear good things) and the straight-up genius Breaking Bad, they’re on a hell of a streak. Maybe The Walking Dead wasn’t a sure thing at first, but someone in a hiring position sure seems to understand that if you get together smart talent and you give them enough budget to work with, then the horror genre has real potential in the episodic format. In other words, they were good enough to let Frank Darabont do his damn thing.
Frank Darabont is best known for The Shawshank Redemption, one of the most beloved movies to arrive during my lifetime (IMDB Ranked #1 as I write), but even more interestingly (to me), he started out in horror. He co-wrote 1988’s The Blob (which I wrote about here) and he recently made one of the more underrated horror flicks of the last several years when he made The Mist – an adaptation of a good enough Stephen King novella that is propelled into greatness by one of the most memorable shock endings since The Twilight Zone was on the air and Night Of The Living Dead was a regular midnight screening staple. King didn’t write the ending of The Mist but maybe he could have: The reason why Darabont is the best adapter of Stephen King is that they are kindred talents; they both know how to make scenes of horror all the more effective because you can recognize and relate and care about the people who are threatened in them.
And that’s just what Frank Darabont (with his talented cast and crew, of course) does in the first episode of The Walking Dead, an hour or so of lean and mean zombie horror that doesn’t have much time to get into extensive character development but quickly and efficiently orients you with its main characters and makes you hope for the best for them.
Honestly, we really only get time to know Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), the police officer somewhere in the South who is shot in a highway incident and wakes up from a coma in a world upended by an unexplained zombie outbreak. Sure, the initial set-up recalls 28 Days Later, but The Walking Dead is a project that wears its influences on its sleeve while showing plenty of promise of going in a direction all its own. All Rick wants to do, in the middle of the apocalypse surrounding him, is to find his wife and young son. He gets a reminder of the bonds of fatherhood from the first two non-zombies he meets, Morgan Jones and his young son Duane. (Duane Jones is also the name of the lead actor from the original Night Of The Living Dead, but fellow zombie aficionados already know that.) Rick takes the Joneses to the now-abandoned police station where they stock up on weapons – Morgan needs them because every night his beloved wife, now a zombie, comes for him and his son. Morgan’s struggle to shoot or not to shoot is an emotionally-affecting conundrum that bodes well for the series’ ability to land zombie hysterics in grounded human territory. How does a zombie apocalypse affect the survivors? Who are the true Walking Dead?
This TV series is adapted from the ongoing comic book of the same name from writer Robert Kirkman. I read the first few issues a couple years ago but didn’t go further – it’s been a while so I can’t say how literal the translation is. What matters most in adaptations is not obsession over plot details but fidelity to the spirit of the original work. I have a hunch that Robert Kirkman might agree with the notion that you couldn’t ask for anyone better than Frank Darabont to adapt your stories – it’s good enough for Stephen King, right? – and this speaks well for the comics-to-film trend that has overtaken Hollywood over the past few years. Darabont is so far delivering a zombie tale that has all of the gore and the grue that the genre demands, while conjuring an atmosphere that I don’t think we’ve seen before in a zombie tale. There are Western overtones to this telling, for one thing: Rick Grimes mounts a horse to ride towards fate. Then again, zombies eat horse too.
Another credit to Darabont’s resume are some episodes of one of my favorite-ever shows, The Shield, which means that he also has an idea of how to structure genuine, anxiety-inducing suspense into a program that still has to deal with commercial breaks. “Days Gone Bye” has several tense scenes that escalate in dread as the story develops and Rick experiences the increasing scope of the situation. This growing tension culminates in the final act’s memorable set piece, in which our main character is trapped in a place from which it’s going to be very hard to escape, to say the least. You can bet I’ll be watching to find out.
The Walking Dead is clearly already one of the best new shows in a particularly strong year for television. It features groundbreaking zombie designs from the justifiably-heralded Greg Nicotero – seriously, these are some of the most realistic and effective zombies I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen plenty – and from the production desgn to the bleached-out cinematography to the sparse score, it oozes quality. If you have a strong stomach and a tough heart, you’re going to want to join in with me and millions of others, and see where this all leads.