This week, a special TVEye reviewing/recapping THE WALKING DEAD, the biggest premiere of 2010!
When news broke in January that Robert Kirkman’s beloved comic series, The Walking Dead was being adapted for Television, comic and horror fans began to shake with anticipation. In July, the massive advertising campaign began, as the Frank Darabont helmed Television series premiered at Comic Con in San Diego. At this point, the shakes turned to heated anticipation as Walking Dead fever began to spread. Anticipation was long mixed with concern, fans generally confident in Darabont’s ability, but filled with questions of how the much-revered comics would translate onto on our small screens. Sunday night, the fever reached its high point, turning an unprecedented number of viewers into TV glued zombies. The Zombie Apocalypse has arrived, and over 6 million viewers, zombie fans, and non-zombie fans alike, were treated to the beginning of something truly special.
The big question going into the pilot was, how would Kirkman’s incredible comics, and the fantastic art of Tony Moore translate from cell to screen? The pacing of the two mediums is generally very different. Comics tend to focus on more visual storytelling, and diluted drama. Kirkman’s series is different than most, holding strong in both departments, and succeeding at being the most human zombie story ever told. The comics are character pieces, and they get very, very dark, and very, very dramatic. Television pacing can vary greatly, and on AMC, home of some of TV’s best, most-originally bold drama’s, Mad Men and Breaking Bad, they tend to thrive on creative freedom. There was no doubt that under AMC, and show-runner Frank Darabont, director of the amazing character driven classic, Shawshank Redemption, The Walking Dead was in the most capable of hands. To my great surprise and admiration, Darabont took the already complex characters of Kirkman’s creation, and drew even more turmoil and despair from them than I thought possible.
A TV audience tends to be less patient than a comic audience, and a much wider demographic at that. That said, there was no better way to begin the series, than a completely new scene that would draw the audience in, and keep them interested. In a foreshadowing glimpse to a later time in the episode, the tiredly cautious Officer Rick Grimes exits his police cruiser, the camera pulling back as he walks down a roadway lined with overturned, burned out cars. Stumbling down a ditch, Grimes walks past rotting corpses, remnants of some horrible event. Looking for gas, he comes to a young girl in her pajamas. The girl turns slowly as Rick calls out to her, her face mauled, soul absent. She charges forward in that slow zombie crawl, as Rick removes his revolver, shooting her square in the head. In slow motion, the girl’s body falls, a plume of blood falling behind her like a massive curtain closing to end a show. And so, this show begins, setting the tone for what will surely become a dark and tangled maze of emotion, violence, and desperation. This folks, is The Walking Dead.
The comic does not start here, and neither does the story of Rick Grimes. This was an entirely new sequence that so perfectly did its job of drawing us into the show. The opening credits followed, and they were pretty dull and non-descript. It may seem trivial, but the opening credits of Dexter and True Blood are so amazing, that I hoped TV’s newest horror series would follow suit. There was actually a fan made sequence that far outshined this one. After the credits, the show added yet another new scene, a more focused introduction to Grimes and his partner Shane Walsh. Touching upon their close friendship, the two discussed their domestic problems, jokingly offering advice with a heavy reliance on sarcasm. These two are obviously close, and we see more clearly than we did in the comics, that Grimes is the more focused, domestic type, while Walsh is more of a recluse. After the short introduction, we are in fact taken right into the opening scene of issue one of The Walking Dead comic. A call comes over the CB, leading to a rather well orchestrated car overturning and subsequent shootout with a trio of desperate criminals. So desperate are they in fact that they go out in a blaze of glory, taking Grimes with them in their hail of bullets. Grimes fades out, awaking in a hospital some weeks later.
Now I know that those unfamiliar with the comic series may criticize the scenes that followed Grimes awakening. Awakened from a coma, he stumbles out into the halls of an empty and ramshackle hospital, confused and alone. This is a lot like the opening of the film 28 Days Later, there’s no doubt, but these scenes are straight out of the comic, and the similarities begin and end there. Don’t worry. It’s still a great scene, and unlike the comic, Grimes leaves the hospital without actually seeing anymore of a zombie than a few fingers reaching out a shuttered doorway. Instead, he exits the hospital to a fly infested outdoor morgue of hundreds of sheet-covered bodies. We all know that there are zombies, and I thought that Darabont’s slower pacing of Grimes true understanding of what’s taken place was a brilliant change from the comics. The slow reveal provides more time for Rick to grapple with the possibilities of what’s happened, and the horrors he’s about to encounter. On his walk home from the hospital, he sees his first zombie, the strikingly horrifying Bicycle Zombie as she’s come to be known. This is not the first zombie you want to come across. It’s not a nice, walking on two legs zombie, but rather, a desperate, malnourished, crawling half-corpse, ending at the waist with her darkened entrails streaking behind her. This was Rick’s first glimpse at the new horrors of a new world.
Coming to his house, Rick collapses to the floor in a gut-wrenchingly emotional scene where he gently touches the floorboards, asking if this is real, pleading with himself to wake up. A scene like this wouldn’t work as well in comic form, and these little added gems propel an already great story even higher. The scenes that followed were my favorite of the episode. Morgan and Duane Jones, a surviving father and son duo taking residence in a house on Grimes block, become the disciples of this new and terrible world. Explaining the ins and outs of the new zombie-infested landscape, Morgan teaches Grimes how to hold his own against their new decaying neighbors. Morgan’s wife has been turned, and the scenes between him and his son are so sad and real, that I couldn’t help but align myself with them above all others. The Joneses are not broadened in the comics to the extent that they have been in this pilot episode. Darabont’s decision to evolve these characters is a wise one. Lennie James, who plays Morgan Jones, is such an incredible talent. When I first read the comics, I was big into the show Jericho, and actually remember thinking that Lennie James, who played Robert Hawkins on that show, would be the perfect choice for Morgan if they ever adapted The Walking Dead. I was shocked when he was actually cast. Scenes where Morgan contemplates putting his zombie wife out of her walking nightmare are so hard to watch, and impossible not to empathize with. The raw emotion Lennie James emits in these scenes, made me honestly contemplate what I would do in his situation. In fact, the whole pilot did this for me, really putting me into the story and leading me to think of how I would handle the unbelievable situations these characters must survive.
The rest of the episode follows Grimes on his journey to find his wife and son, whom he believes are still alive. Some of the best scenes from the first two issues of the comics are perfectly recreated here, as Grimes heads into Atlanta. On his way, he tracks down the tragic Bicycle Zombie and puts her out of her misery, telling her that he’s sorry this happened to her. Darabont intercuts the hard compassion of this scene with Morgan’s inability to go thru with shooting his wife. The pacing, and editing, along with the richly cinematic score made these scenes stand out above all else for me. We are then introduced to a camp of survivors, where we learn that Shane is living along with Rick’s wife and son. Rick communicates briefly with the camp, but loses his signal before anyone can identify themselves. When Rick does make it to Atlanta, on horseback, he is overcome by a swarm of zombies, his horse a welcome dinner for the hungry horde. Climbing into an abandoned tank, Rick finds another zombie, shooting off a round that sends the scene into a deafening pulse of confusion and chaos. A voice comes over the radio inside the tank, help is on the way. The scene slowly zooms out over the city, the zombie horde surrounding the tank in frenzy. This is how the pilot ends.
I expected the pilot to consist of the first four issues of the comic, especially considering its hour-and-a-half length. To my surprise, it only covered the first issue and three quarters of the second. This is mostly because of the greater depths Darabont is willing to take Kirkman’s already deep characters. This story gets dark really quick, and goes to places no other zombie story has ever dared to. What Cormac McCarthy’s incredible novel The Road did for the Post-Apocalyptic genre, Kirkman has done for the zombie genre in terms of bleakness. The sheer number, scope, and greatness of the special effects in this pilot, especially the makeup effects of Greg Nicotero, are stunning. I love practical makeup effects, and my only criticism is the use of CGI blood from time to time, which tends to look fake. I am looking forward to the remaining episodes of The Walking Dead’s short six-season run, and hope that it’s audience sticks around so we all get to go as deep as this story gets. Hopefully, The Walking Dead continues for many seasons to come. Unlike other zombie stories and movies, Kirkman’s continues on and on, with no end in sight. This is about survival for the long haul, which is why this is such a provocative choice for a Television Series.
Until Next Week, more TVEye with the usual crop of shows, and even more The Walking Dead.