Halloween may already be over, but I feel compelled to three different horror-themed pop culture events I experienced over the weekend. Up first is my review of…
The Walking Dead (2010, TV series)
Of all the new series premiering on television this year, AMC’s adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s graphic novel series was the one I was most excited for. I’m a huge fan of zombies, and an ongoing series that focuses on the survivors of a zombiepocalypse sounded like one of the greatest ideas ever conceived. Though since it was on basic cable, I was skeptical that the show would be brave enough to go full zombie, even though Frank Darabont, known more or less as the guy who adapts Stephen King novels into movies and made a particularly gory one called The Mist, was on board as executive producer/director of the pilot. Thankfully, the show excelled on every possible level. It’s gory, scary, dramatic, emotional- it has a perfect balance, and that makes it a near-perfect show.
I’d never read the comic, and decided to avoid it so I wouldn’t be spoiled. When Sin City came out in 2005, I was super excited by its trailer, and decided to read the three volumes of the comic it was adapting. Unfortunately, I was incredibly disappointed by the film, as it seemed less like a cinematic adaptation and more like the comic replicated frame by frame in a different format. The dialogue was identical, as was the plot, and it even had all the cheesily hard-boiled narration, something any screenwriting professor would tell you to avoid at all costs. And since I hear the premiere of The Walking Dead was very close to the source material, I’m glad I didn’t peruse it beforehand. Doing so would likely have diminished much of the suspense, which is largely what made the first episode, entitled “Days Gone By,” so engaging. Though I am curious to compare the book to the show, and to see how many issues constitutes an episode.
Any fears of the series being a toned-down, bloodless zombie yarn were eliminated in the fantastic teaser. Protagonist Rick Grimes is searching an abandoned gas station for fuel when he happens upon a young girl turned zombie. This is a common moral conundrum in a zombiepocalypse- zombie children will eat you, but any sane person would have reservations about blowing their heads off regardless. The scene was great because it immediately set up how dark the show was going to be, as well as what kind of character Grimes is. Since he’s the protagonist, I knew he was going to shoot the girl, but I expected the show to shy away from the violence and cut to black on the gunshot. No way, Jose. The zombie girl is thrown back with a bleeding hole in her forehead, in a display of violence so shocking I actually yelled, “Oh shit!!” when it happened. Grimes, while horrified, only hesitates for a mere second, establishing him as a consummate survivor. If you want to learn about TV teaser writing 101, watch this scene. It’s the definition of a “hook.”
The show then jumps back to prepocalypse. We’re introduced to Grimes’ partner/best bud, Shane Walsh, who after a brief and intriguing discussion on marriage, are thrust into an amazingly choreographed shootout, which is preceded by one of the most ridiculous car crashes I’ve even seen on screen. Grimes is wounded in the battle, and when he wakes up, the dead have already risen and the hospital he was in has been abandoned. This is very similar to the opening of 28 Days Later, in which Cillian Murphy is hurt in a car accident and wakes up after everything’s gone to hell. I imagine Kirkman was inspired by the scene, as the first issue of The Walking Dead came out several months after 28 Days Later’s American release. It didn’t feel like a ripoff though, especially as Grimes encounters zombies almost immediately, whereas it takes Cillian Murphy quite some time before he stumbles upon one. It’s neat how the terror builds and builds- Grimes is immediately aware that something is awry, as the hospital is abandoned and in shambles. His first sign that the shit has really hit the fan is the eviscerated corpse of a woman, clearly eaten alive by zombies. He then discovers a barricaded door with “Don’t Open- Dead Inside” written on it, and gets his first glimpse of a zombie’s clawed hand.
The evidence builds as he exits the hospital- piles of bodies wrapped in white shrouds are littered outside, and as the camera tracked Grimes’ feet as he walked among them I couldn’t help but worry that at any moment one of the corpses would grab him. The show often mines the “are they dead or not?” vibe for scares, but it works well because it isn’t till the end that one of those immobile corpses actually comes to life. Grabbing a bike to head to his suburban home and search for his wife and son, Grimes encounters the episode’s most horrific creature- a largely decomposed female zombie, severed at the waist but still intent on eating the living, trailing intestines and bones as it drags itself after him- really more pathetic and sad than scary. Unlike your average zombie flick, the show doesn’t only use the undead to create fear, but also to generate emotion. A large portion of the episode is spent with a father/son duo who take Grimes in. The mother was bitten and transformed prior to the encounter, and the father, Morgan Jones obsesses over his inability to put down his zombie wife. “I guess I just didn’t have it in me,” he laments. A moment where said zombie wife walks up to the front of the house they’re hiding out in and attempts to open the door is equal parts compelling and creepy. Later, Grimes doesn’t hesitate at all when he finds one of his fellow deputies transformed and wandering outside the Sheriff’s Office. He immediately puts him down, saying he “can’t leave him like this,” even though he knows gunfire will only attract more zombies. It’s a stark contrast to Jones, who knows full well that he should take out his undead bride, if only to help his son move on, but just can’t bring himself to do it, even when he has her head in the sights of his brand new rifle.
The episode culminates in its most zombie-filled and horror-movie sequence. Believing his wife and son to have fled to the military quarantine zone in Atlanta, Grimes commandeers a horse and heads into the city with a duffel bag filled with guns. It’s a tense sequence, as the closer Grimes gets to the city, the more and more it seems like a bad idea. In an amazing wide shot, we see Grimes riding towards the skyscrapers on an empty lane of highway, the other side filled with abandoned cars stuck in a deadly gridlock. It’s the shot the network used the most to promote the show, and it’s easy to see why. Once inside Atlanta, Grimes discovers a tank with the corpse of a soldier splayed across it- bad sign #2. Zombies start to come out of the woodwork, but Grimes isn’t phased- 1-3 zombies are no big deal. As Jones says earlier, “One at a time they might not seem like much. But you run into a group of them- you better watch your ass.” As Grimes rounds a corner he comes face to face with a massive horde of zombies, in the pilot’s biggest shock (eliciting another “Oh shit!” from yours truly). I don’t need to reiterate what follows beat for beat, but it was amazing and amazingly scary. The show also veered from common zombie lore in the scene by having the undead not be exclusively cannibalistic.
The Walking Dead promises to have a rotating ensemble cast. Think LOST, with an even higher death count. Right now there’s two stories going on simultaneously- Grimes searches for his family not knowing that they are safe and sound with Walsh, whose own wife is mysteriously absent, and who Grimes’ wife appears to be having an affair with. As if the show weren’t multilayered enough, the producers decided to throw in a good, old-fashioned soap opera love triangle, and I’m digging it.
With a great pilot, great source material, great actors and the pedigrees of both Frank Darabont and legendary makeup artist Greg Nicotero, the stage is set for one of 2010′s best shows. With only six episodes in its first season, there’s really no reason not to watch it, unless of course you’re a wuss and don’t like zombies. I’m glad that the hype and my own personal excitement was warranted- there’s really nothing worse than having your hopes for a movie or TV show get dashed upon its release. But thankfully, The Walking Dead excels on every possible level. I straight-up loved it.