[Some Spoilers Within]
It took just a little over 7 years from the time the first issue of Robert Kirkman’s zombie apocalypse comic book series was first published to the airing of its tv adaptation’s first episode. Who could’ve thought that a tv show (even one appearing on a channel with very mature and edgy shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad) about a zombie apocalypse would ever make it on the small-screen. When I say make it I mean with all the violence and gore intact in addition to some very smart and emotional storytelling.
Now here we are just a little after Halloween, 2010 and the premiere of Frank Darabont’s The Walking Dead has finally completed airing it’s pilot episode to all of North America (Europe will get it’s own premiere a few days later). The series is the brainchild of Darabont and producer Gale Anne Hurd with Robert Kirkman on-board as executive producer and the source of all that is “The Walking Dead”. To say that the pilot episode was a wonderful piece of filmmaking and storytelling would be an understatement.
The pilot episode begins with a prologue showing a lone sheriff’s deputy with gas can in hand walking amongst the empty and abandoned vehicles parked every which way around a long gas station. We see the detritus of this makeshift camp’s former inhabitants. Every this deputy look he sees torn down tents and ripped blankets and sleeping bags. The camera even does a gradual sweep and pan on abandoned children’s toys and dolls. Before we even start to ask what happened to the people of the camp we finally see the first dead bodies as they molder inside some of the vehicles with flies flitting on and off the rotting corpses.
A sign proclaiming to anyone that the station has “NO GAS” dashes whatever hopes the deputy has of finding any. Before leaving to search the cars themselves a noise behind stops him. He looks down to find where the footsteps he heard might be and sees a pair of small, rabbit-ear slippered feet walking slowly before the figure bends down to pick up a ragged teddy bear off of the ground. One could see on this deputy’s face a sense of relief that he’s not alone and has found another survivor. But his relief doesn’t last as the small figure of the girl turns around to show the ravaged and bloody wound on her face plus the glossed over eyes of the dead. We finally see our first zombie and it happens to be a little blond-haired girl. How he deals with this zombified little girl definitely sets the tone for what coudl be one of the best shows on tv this season and, perhaps, beyond. It’s not the norm to see a little girl (even if she is one of the walking dead) get shot in the head with blood spurting and the back of the head exploding on tv. Darabont’s The Walking Dead will not be pulling any punches and dares the audience to stay and hold on for the ride to come.
The episode flashes back after this great opening to show the sheriff’s deputy in a more mundane time. He’s Rick Grimes (played by British actor Andrew Lincoln) and we learn through a back and forth with his partner Shane Walsh (Jon Bernthal) that he’s an introspective man who seems to love his wife and son, but like most marriages when one parent is a cop the dangerous nature of his job has strained his relationship with his wife. This quite interlude gives way to a shoot-out with some criminals at the end of a car chase and crash where Rick gets seriously wounded and landing him in the hospital. Rick seems aware of whats going, but in fact he’s been under a coma for a month or more and when he finally wakes its not to the mundane world he left behind when he was under but one irrevocably changed for the horrific.
Darabont’s cinematic touches could be seen in the sequence in the hospital where Rick explores the empty and darkened hallways and corridors looking for anyone. This entire sequence tells me that Darabont knows how to milk a scene for tension and horror. His camera doesn’t linger on any particular bloody mess but just enough to convey the realization dawning on Rick’s mind that he just stepped into a nightmare. The decision not to use any sort of music to score this section of the episode just added to tension and built up dread. The part where he finally goes into the lightless exit stairwell has to be one of the scariest sequence on tv or film this year, bar none.
The rest of the episode sees Rick learning more and more of this new world he has woken up in. It’s not a nightmare though it definitely counts for one albeit a real one. His fortuitous run-in with survivors in the father and son duo of Morgan Jones (excellently played by another British actor, Lennie James) and Duane Jones becomes the audiences way of learning the basic rules of this new world. The recently dead are not staying dead but returning to some sort of life with little intelligence but with a voracious need to feed to people (and later we find out even animals).
While the word zombies was never uttered audiences know what they are whether they’re called “walkers”, “lurkers” or “roamers”. They could only be killed by destroying the brain (either by bullet or smashing the skull with whatever’s handy). They’re also quite slow and easily avoided when spread out in small singles or two’s but deadly when in a herd-like group and all riled up and hungry. Rick takes all of this in as stoically as possible (something the character in the comic book does as well), but in the end all he wants is to find his wife and son. Which the episode doesn’t answer, but his journey to where they might be leads to one of the best cliffhangers for a pilot episode. A cliffhanger that should hook even the least fan of zombies. All I can say is poor Seabiscuit.
The performances by all the actors we get to see in the pilot episode ranges from excellent (Lennie James) to very good (Andrew Lincoln) to the jury is still out (Sarah Wayne Callies and Jon Bernthal). This episode really hinges on Lincoln’s work as Rick Grimes and he pulls it off despite what some were calling as a very bad Southern accent. I did’t notice and I’ve been around people who spoke with Southern accents and dialects that I think I could tell when one was bad or not. I think fellow blog writer Lisa Marie being from the South would have a better perspective on how good or bad Lincoln’s Southern accent was in this first episode.
It’s Lennie James as Morgan Jones who shined in this pilot episode. He did outshine Lincoln in their scenes together and he added several layers of characterization to a secondary character in the comic book series who only appeared in the first couple issues before disappearing for most of the comic’s current run until recently. It’s his work as Morgan Jones which gives me some hope that Darabont and his writers will deviate from Kirkman’s comic book timeline and bring the character back sooner rather than later. It would benefit the series in the long run (and from the ratings numbers the pilot episode received I’m guessing this show will have legs).
But what would a tv series about zombies be if I didn’t talk about the zombie make-up and gore-effects. When news first filtered in that AMC was where Kirkman’s on-going zombie opus was landing for a live-action adaptation there were some trepidation from the book’s fans and just zombie fans, in general. How can a comic book that was nihilistic to its core and very violent (and gory when it required it to be) be able to truthfully translate to tv when it wasn’t being filmed for one of the two premium cable channels like HBO or Showtime. AMC was the home of very mature series like Mad Men and Breaking Bad. While both shows explored very mature and dark themes it’s only in some episodes of the latter title that very violent scenes were shown. In something like The Walking Dead the show is about violence and how it’s now the primary rule of the land. It’s a kill or be killed world and it’s not even the zombies who would be the most violent encounters Rick and his group would run across.
It’s safe to say that AMC has been true to their word that they would have a hands-off approach to how Darabont and compant will deal with the violence and gore of the series. They seem to understand that this is a zombie story and zombie stories have inherent in their genetic make-up violence and gore. The pilot episode showcases both in plain view with some of the best zombie make-up effects work from Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger of KNB EFX fame. I’ve seen hundreds of zombie films and I will say that the make-up work this pilot episode is some of the best ever done. The so-called zombie bike girl still impresses me everytime I see it on my tv screen. As for the gore well all I can say is poor Seabiscuit.
I would say that the pilot episode of The Walking Dead was a success in more ways than one. It was a success in that for the first time in American tv history we had a genuine zombie show on tv and the kind fans have been wanting to see for years. It was also a success in that fans of Kirkman’s book who were still leery about how well it would translate to live-action should worry no more. Darabont and his writers were true to Kirkman’s vision while still able to deviate here and there from the comics to help strengthen the dialogue and the story as a whole. Critics of Kirkman’s writing style should be loving just how well the series writers have worked out some of the heavy exposition from the comics to create what really is a leaner, but better story.
Here’s to hoping that AMC sees the numbers and general positive reaction from critics and audiences alike and do the right thing by greenlighting a second season with more episodes. The six for this first season is definitely enough to whet the appetites of old and new fans but we want more. The dead have come to to tv and I don’t see them going away anytime soon.