From the opening shot of a solitary survivor traveling a desolate thoroughfare, to the closing scene of that same man trapped in an army tank as the camera pulls back to a bird’s eye view of an entire city of hungry zombies honing in on their prey last night’s premiere of The Walking Dead was a tense, emotional and ghastly depiction of a world gone mad. Zombie apocalypse mad.
The series is an adaptation (and judging from last night’s episode, a faithful one at that) of Robert Kirkman’s black and white monthly graphic novel. The comic book series was launched in 2003 and is still going strong, so as long as they stick to the source material and deliver the same caliber of horrifyingly taut entertainment as last night, I have nothing but the highest of hopes for this program. If Sunday night is any indication of the level of programming we’re in for with this show, this is very good news for genre geeks as well as so-called normal fans of quality television. The writing, acting, art direction, special effects, make-up, stunt work and cinematography were all top notch.
Zombie movies typically make their biggest impact during the attack scenes, and while the sight of our hero Rick crawling underneath an army tank for safety only to realize his zombie predators are pretty good crawlers as well was terrifyingly claustrophobic, some of the tightest moments came from what we weren’t shown.
Imagine the sheer dread of waking up in a hospital bed days later from a severe gunshot wound only to find you’re the only living soul in the entire building. No other people, no electricity, no cell phone, just a half eaten rotting corpse in the hallway and an ominously locked door you instinctively know not to open.
Horror has become almost mainstream on TV in recent years, and as good as shows like True Blood and Supernatural have been, The Walking Dead has the potential to be leagues better. The trick here is the absolute believability in which this story is being told. Sure a campy gay vampire who runs around with the bloody remains of his centuries old lover in a huge glass jar while declaring war on human beings during a live news broadcast is great entertainment. So is the tale a couple of battle weary brothers who fight off different weekly paranormal evils in between clever quips, but what sets The Walking Dead apart from those similarly themed, but altogether differently toned programs is the realism that comes through in the performances and the writing. True Blood and Supernatural are pleasurable pastimes, but you never get the sense that those worlds could become your world. That’s the appalling and pragmatic beauty of The Walking Dead. No detail is too small for this team, and the attention given to the small details presents the viewer a greater appreciation for the larger ones.
The fact that the windshield on Rick’s car is filthy made perfect sense, and allowed the viewer a sense of elapsed time. Not a lot of television shows would have the forethought to make sure a seemingly insignificant detail like that is taken care of, and we the audience may not have complained if the windshield was clear, but that tiny element delicately reminded us of the bleak situation. Similarly, a lesser show would not have taken into consideration the effects on the auditory system of firing a live round inside the cramped quarters of a homogeneous steel box. These guys did.
Another nice detail I noticed was how Rick did not become automatically desensitized to his awful situation. Too often in zombie fare, the main character goes from neophyte to grizzled veteran almost immediately after his first encounter with the undead. Here, we are being taken for a slow and intense descent into hell on earth. In a relatively short span, our hero has now seen some revolting sights, and has had to face the fact that even if his wife and child are still alive, he may never see them again. His will not be an easy journey – but it’s a good bet none of the human survivors are going to be overly joyful.
10 seconds of silence in television terms is widely regarded of as an eternity, but actor Andrew Lincoln (Rick) played many of his scenes without the benefit of a single line of dialogue and the scenes rang true. Undoubtedly he’ll start talking to himself down the line, and of over the course of time Rick will become less and less responsive to the day-to-day agony he will come to endure. For now however, the character has not yet become hardened to his austere surroundings and watching his measured decline/evolution will be one of the more interesting components to this show.
Let me put it this way, I’m a grown man. I’ve seen more than my share of zombie movies, and I’ve hated some, (maybe most) and loved others. You know what I’ve never ever done during a zombie movie before? Cried.
Andrew Lincoln is a fantastic actor and his work was stellar, but it was Lennie James, of Jericho fame, who gave such a moving performance as the husband/father trying to keep himself and his son safe from harm, while he wrestles with the heartbreaking fact that he is incapable of putting the love of his life out of her zombified misery that moved me to tears. It was a powerful scene in an hour and a half of gripping drama.
To put it succinctly, here’s my review of the pilot: If you didn’t completely and utterly love this program then you are a big, fat, stupid douche bag. I give this pilot episode an A+, and I can’t wait for next Sunday.