OCTOBER 18, 2010
One nice thing about being super-busy is that it allows for a few surprises. So when a publicist asked me for my mailing address, I fired it off without even looking into who she was or what I had covered for her in the past, something that I would have done instantly if I wasn’t swamped with a zillion other things. So it was a glorious surprise when it turned out to be the first two episodes of The Walking Dead (plus a book and a little metal gun replica), my anticipation for which was making the wait for Halloween all the more excruciating (the show premieres on Halloween on AMC).
Most of the comics I read are superhero based, but I was in the mood for something different back in 2003, and spied the first issue of "The Walking Dead" amidst all the other stuff. So I picked it up, loved it, and made it one of my monthly “pulls”. In fact, when my money problems forced me to cut back on spending, I cut most comics out, but Walking Dead (now approaching issue #80) remains on my pull-list. Thus, you can imagine how excited I was that it was becoming a TV show at all – friggin Brett Ratner could be directing it and I’d still be pumped. But then they went and hired Frank Darabont, director of two of my all time favorite movies? Jesus.
Well enough of that, is the show good? Hell yes it is. It’s great, in fact, and if subsequent episodes are even half as good then it could easily go down as one of the best horror-based shows in my lifetime. Darabont did an amazing job adapting the first issue while expanding things (the sequence with Morgan and Duane, for example, is much longer) and setting up the plotlines that will become integral to the show, such as Rick and Lori’s marriage troubles. And he did so without sacrificing the book’s most surprising but appealing factor – it’s not a wall to wall zombie gore fest. Some issues don’t have any zombies in them at all, and I wouldn’t be surprised to have episodes take a similar approach down the line once it’s an established hit (and it damn well better be!). It would have been easy to load the premiere up with big setpieces and TV spot-ready chaos, but it’s remarkably faithful to the book’s “character first” tone. Only at the very end of the episode do we really see more than a couple of zombies on-screen.
Don’t get me wrong though – it still delivers plenty of zombie action over the course of its 70 minutes. But it’s SCARY zombie stuff, not Zack Snyder-esque frenetic craziness. The opening scene (which is not in the comic, if I’m remembering correctly – it’s been a while and the issue is buried at the back of my closet with all my other comics from the 80s to 2006 or so) is a perfect example, as Rick makes his way around what looks like a makeshift camp, seeking gas, only to discover a little girl zombie (bunny slippers are a nice touch, Frank). It’s a creepy, suspense-driven scene, the type you rarely get in modern zombie fare, which is usually seemingly designed to impress Michael Bay (or make us laugh).
It’s also got a lot of heart, which is something Darabont excels at (and I hope future episodes are able to retain). Remember the scene in Shawshank Redemption where the prisoners enjoy a beer? There’s something like that here involving a working shower – it’s those little glimmers of hope that make the show so compelling. Without them, it would just be a grim, unpleasant experience. You need those bits of levity and optimism for everything else to work. And without spoiling, there’s a heartbreaking moment involving Morgan (the great Lennie James from Jericho) near the end of the episode, also added for the show per my memory, that packs a wallop never even attempted in the Resident Evils or even Romero Dead films of late.
(P.S. Morgan’s surname is Jones and his son is named Duane – a reference held over from the book that you better understand!)
The cast is pretty spot on, though most of them we don’t meet until the last act. Andrew Lincoln may not have been at the top of many fans’ dream list, but we can probably chalk that up to the fact that most Americans are unfamiliar with him (he’s a big TV star in the UK). It doesn’t take long for him to quickly prove he’s up to the task – he’s a terrific lead. Assuming that the show continues to follow the book, Rick won’t always be making the most “crowd-pleasing” decisions, and so you need an appealing actor in order to keep audiences from turning on him – I doubt this will be a problem for Lincoln. An inspired choice. And Jeffrey DeMunn is pretty much the spitting image of Dale; granted he’s a Darabont regular, but I they would have gone after him even if Darabont had no involvement. Sadly we don’t get to meet Laurie Holden as Andrea yet (though we DO meet her sister Amy, played by Frozen’s Emma Bell), but I appreciate that they didn’t end the pilot on a big moment with everyone coming together – Rick didn’t meet up with them until issue 3 or 4, and thus hopefully they will milk the separation on the show for another episode or two.
Speaking of how it compares to the book, one thing it seems to have a better handle on is dialogue. I love the series, but Robert Kirkman’s dialogue can get pretty bogged down in clunky exposition or pointless descriptions. Characters will literally say things like “This couch is more comfortable than the floor” or whatever. No shit! But I didn’t see any of that here; Lennie James has to explain how zombies work to a very shell-shocked Rick (as with 28 Days Later, Rick is in a coma when everything goes to hell), and even that is stripped down to its essentials – you get bit, you turn. The one scene between Rick and his partner Shane at the beginning of the episode is a bit long and occasionally clunky (Shane tells a long anecdote about his girlfriend leaving a light on), but that’s the only time the comic’s tendency to have their characters talk too long became an issue.
As expected, KNB’s FX work is outstanding, rivaling their feature film output. The legless zombie in particular is incredible, and the makeup is extensive even in the big “crowd” scenes near the end – they didn’t half-ass anything here. I wish they didn’t rely on digital blood so much, but if the time they would spend hooking up squibs is spent on the look of the zombies instead, I won’t complain. The production design is also mighty impressive for a TV show; the scenes of Rick wandering the empty city are appropriately eerie and surprisingly vast.
I really cannot wait for future installments. The DVD had episode two but I need to pace myself, because if I watch it now it will be almost a month until I get the 3rd episode (when it airs on AMC). Plus the screener quality wasn’t exactly demo material – non-anamorphic, low-res, and occasionally watermarked. As much as I want to see what happens next, I’d like to SEE what happens next, if you know what I mean. But if you’re a regular reader of the site, you can probably take that as further proof of the show’s quality – you know how much I hate poor presentation. Anything else I would have just shut off, but I was too engrossed by what was happening. And that’s with having read the comic! Folks who haven’t been introduced to Robert Kirkman’s series yet will be even more blown away.
What say you?