By Stacey Harrison
The Walking Dead is a zombie show for folks who wouldn’t be caught dead watching a zombie show. AMC, the network of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, isn’t slumming with this handsomely produced, well-written grotesquerie based on the Robert Kirkman comic-book series. On the contrary, they’ve taken the zombie genre — which usually makes its hay with clever social commentary and wry satire — and made it the subject of heartfelt drama and relentless thrills.
With writing and production help from Frank Darabont, who also directed the pilot, the humanity of the characters and the hopelessness of the situation is given prominence over the blood and guts. But gorehounds will get their fix as well, thanks to top-notch effects from Greg Nicotero, who gives each “Walker” (the name by which the survivors call the undead) its own look and character. You don’t forget the woman who has been reduced to her upper torso, or the businessman who looks like he might have retained a bit of comprehension.
The cast is wisely made up of solid character actors, including Andrew Lincoln (Love Actually), Sarah Wayne Callies (Prison Break) and Jon Bernthal (The Pacific), who don’t add to the difficulty in suspending disbelief by overwhelming star power. Darabont uses them well, bringing the same emotional reality he brought to his Stephen King adaptations like The Shawshank Redemption and, more appropriately, The Mist. The man knows how to take horror beyond cheap scares and special effects.
Lincoln plays Rick Grimes, a small-town sheriff’s deputy who is shot in the line of duty. When he wakes up in the hospital an indeterminate time later, he finds the place ransacked and deserted. It’s not long before he comes across his first Walker and he figures out that the world has turned into the bad wing of a Hieronymus Bosch triptych — with piles of dead bodies here and hordes of the undead there. He searches for his wife, Lori (Callies), and young son, Carl (Chandler Riggs), hoping against hope that they’ve survived. In a separate narrative, we follow Lori and Carl, who have taken up with a fellow group of survivors led by Rick’s fellow cop and best friend, Shane (Bernthal).
Those who have read Kirkman’s series — which is nearing its 80th installment — might think they know how everything will play out, but Darabont and company have put their own spin on a few scenes, filling many of the spaces left empty by Kirkman. As Darabont put it, they are “veer[ing] off the path,” with every intention of veering back onto it. Thankfully, the comic’s lack of explanation for why the dead have risen has remained. Throughout the first two episodes, there’s hardly even a mention of a why, because everyone’s focus is on just getting through the day. That’s probably as much realism as you could hope for in a zombie show.
The first season of The Walking Dead is supposed to run a very British-like six episodes, which is probably the right amount when it comes to a weekly dose of apocalyptic horror. But if the series can maintain the suspense and drama of its opening two salvos, there’s every reason to think Season 2 won’t be so bare bones.
The Walking Dead premieres Sunday night at 10pm ET on AMC.
Photo: © TWD productions LLC Credit: Scott Garfield