I’ve been waiting my whole life for something like AMC’s The Walking Dead to appear. I’ll save you the fanatically-laced deluge of excitement over the arrival of finally getting a big-budget zombie series from some of the most respected names in cinematic horror, as the creators behind such films as The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and Terminator match their considerable gifts to one of the best works the genre has ever produced. AMC, in particular, has been on a roll with superb dramas like Breaking Bad and Mad Men. But with The Walking Dead, it’s clear the heads at the cable station have put their faith in helping to reinvent television on a grander, darker scale, and have produced one of the bravest experiments in the medium’s history.
Zombies seem to be everywhere these days, from endless story anthologies, videogames, books, and (of course) movies. The only problem is, most of them stink to high heaven, and seem content to retread a tire that wore out a long time ago. Even the king-daddy of the genre itself, legendary filmmaker George Romero, has been pumping out some of the worst and most poorly-made movies ever about the living dead recently. Survival of the Dead may have been marginally better than its Diary-laced predecessor, but it was a mess, only made worse considering it was from the same man who brought us the iconic trilogy of Night, Dawn, and Day.
But there’s another media that’s also been exploring the narrative treasure trove that might accompany a zombie-apocalypse, and that would be comic books (sorry, graphic novels). And at the summit of that tall mountain is legendary comic writer Robert Kirkman – with artists Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard – and perhaps his greatest achievement, the long-running series The Walking Dead. This is where dreams start coming true.
“Days Gone By” is the 90-minute premiere of a planned six-part series that chronicles the journey of Sheriff’s Deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) as he emerges from a coma to find the world he once knew has been transformed into a living hell. Half-naked and totally confused, he soon joins up with recently-single father Morgan Jones (Lennie James) and his young son, who explain to him that the recently dead have started coming back to life, and hunger for the flesh of the living. One bite from these ‘walkers’ will give you a fever that effectively burns you out, and soon after you’ll arise and take your place among them. None of this is particularly original or ground-breaking, as the series (just like the comic) borrows heavily from every zombie source it can find. But in doing so, it’s able to pick and choose the choicest and (forgive the pun) meatiest bits, keeping things fresh long after lesser attempts have rotted away (there’s those puns again).
Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile), who also co-wrote and produced the series, directs with a visionary eye that more than makes up for his lackluster adaptation of The Mist, although the story that’s set to unfold here remains largely the same. As with many of the best zombie stories, the series will soon introduce us to a disparate group of survivors who must band and learn to live together for their mutual survival. The first episode has the unenviable task of starting this journey, knowing full well that its much later when things get truly interesting (and savage), yet still manages to keep the tension dialed up and the drama raw. It helps that he’s filled the show with terrific actors, all of whom take their roles deadly serious.
British actors Lincoln and James are the real focus of this first episode, and forge a wonderfully authentic relationship as each confront the destruction of their past domesticated lives and push towards the future. James, especially, provides the episode’s single most emotional and heart-wrenching scene as he steadies a sniper rifle into a crowd of the undead, hoping to end the suffering of his beloved wife and mother of his child. Or is it more for the benefit of his young son, who’s continually haunted by her nocturnal ‘visits’? The best horror entertains all possibilities, and it’s clear that The Walking Dead is among them.
Those familiar with Kirkman’s massive comic collection will recognize many of its more famous scenes recreated here, while others have been used as a baseline for things to come. It’s extremely faithful, but not slavishly so and there are several examples when Darabont goes his own way to create entirely new chapters. I counted at least two such moments that, at least for me, easily join the pantheon of the most iconic zombie imagery the genre has produced; there’s probably more in there somewhere, in both this first episode and those yet to come.
Trapped in the home of his former neighbor, when Grimes manages to peek out of covered windows at the growing army of the undead that slowly pace outside, it’s terrifying. When one of their number, a relative of one of the survivors, experiences zombie ‘recall’ and attempts to enter, the ordinary act of simply twisting a doorknob becomes a descent into madness; there’s very little separating “us” from “them”, and an earlier scene that only shows us wriggling fingers through a chained door marked with blood demonstrates this better than any unnecessary monologue ever could. When Grimes later engages in an act of ‘mercy’ on one half-rotten corpse, the moment is so strikingly beautiful that I dare anyone who grew up gorging themselves on zombie films and never stopped believing in their true potential to hold back tears of joy.
In many ways The Walking Dead is really the most revolutionary television experience since HBO’s The Sopranos, as it repositions previously taboo content from mature films and expands their potential narrative into the longer-running space the format provides. If the saga of New Jersey mobster Tony Soprano felt like an expanded version of Goodfellas, than The Walking Dead picks up right where 1979’s Dawn of the Dead left off, taking elements of Romero’s masterpiece and taking them to even greater and more dizzying heights than anything the genre has produced, save Max Brooks’ incredible Zombie Survival Guide/World War Z combo, in years. This is state-of-the-art television, produced on a level that’s rarely been seen, and with the upmost respect for those who seriously love and care about great entertainment…and zombies!
Then there’s the gore, which has always been the single-biggest question mark since it was announced to be an AMC production. If anything, The Walking Dead is probably the goriest television production ever made, and even the most devout zombie fan will be thrilled to see just how far the envelope is pushed here. Within minutes of the first episode’s opening, we see Grimes blow a decaying little girl away, and the much-hyped horse eating scene has been faithfully retained from the original comic book. There’s copious use of digital blood effects, the bane of lesser filmmakers, but here the digital splatter is used so creatively that it never felt exploitative.
The undead themselves are fantastic, and I love being able to say feature the BEST use of zombie make-up and smart mix of practical/CG effects ever seen. This isn’t the cheap blue-tinted paint and rolled-eyed maniacs we’ve seen before, as the creations here are something entirely new. The one half-rotten female zombie, featured in the first promotional materials, is a remarkable achievement, as the true rot and decay of what one of these walkers must look (and sound) like has been so faithfully recreated that it sent chills down my spine. I’ve never seen zombies look this good before, at least since 1985’s Day of the Dead (the tongue-man and Bub come to mind) and that I’m watching them shamble on a cable TV series is beyond remarkable. Their trademark ‘walking’ gait is comfortably somewhere between Romero’s lumbering and Zach Snyder’s fast-paced updates; it’s perfect.
If the rest of the six-part episodes for The Walking Dead are even half as great as Days Gone By, we could be looking at the most sophisticated and best representation of the living dead ever made. With all due respect to George Romero’s original trilogy of zombie films, which were the obvious starting point here, what Frank Darabont and Robert Kirkman have crafted here in almost beyond simple comparisons. With fine performances, great effects, and unapologetic moments of pure horror, AMC’s decision to begin transmitting this incredible new series on Halloween is both appropriate and forward thinking on their part; the monsters remain steadfast and committed, long after the moonlight has faded and the daylight no longer protects.