The Walking Dead episode 1

I just finished watching the pilot episode of AMC’s adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s comic book series The Walking Dead and I’m impressed. The previews, played ad nauseam, looked good and even though the series is in color (where the book is black and white) and I had reservations regarding the show being on a basic cable network (due to the graphic violence in the comics), I was not disappointed. Directed by series producer Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile), the pilot episode generally follows the first few issues of Kirkman’s seminal comic book series. Creative liberties were taken with the episode, but the general plotline was kept.

What surprised me the most was the violence. For a basic cable show it’s extremely vicious. When somebody shoots a zombie in the head it’s shown. The opening scene features the show’s protagonist, police officer Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) confronting an adolescent zombie girl, culminating in Grimes blowing her brains out. The show reveals everything – the excessive bloodshed a bullet to the head brings in addition to a television show depicting the gruesome death of a child. This is something I expect from a pay cable show, but AMC’s really pushing the envelope here. I’m not puritanical in any fashion when it comes to gore, but the level of brutality even surprises me. There’s even a scene towards the end of the pilot where a crowd of zombies are tearing at the innards of a horse. The most astonishing thing is the show’s rating: TV-14.

Following the opening scene the show flashes back to an incident involving Grimes and his partner Shane (Joe Bernthal), culminating with a suspect shooting Rick, placing him in a coma. Rick awakens a few weeks later, finding the hospital empty and his hometown in shambles. After a shovel to the head by a young boy, Grimes meets Morgan and his son Duane (Lennie James and Adrian Kali Turner), getting Grimes up to date on the recent living dead epidemic. Grimes learns that survivors left for Atlanta and heads there himself. In the episode’s third act Grimes arrives in Atlanta and confronts a large horde of zombies. He takes refuge in a tank, where he hears a voice on the CB radio offering a humorous and condescending greeting. The episode ends on a cliffhanger, pulling the camera back and revealing an aerial view of the tank and the zombies surrounding it.

I’m not normally frightened by horror film and although a few zombie movies have scared me in the past, The Walking Dead is genuinely bloodcurdling. The zombies look disgusting; the sensation of smell is made apparent by the presence of flies around many of the living dead. The conclusion of the first act, where Rick exits the hospital, is excellent. Although I’m familiar with the comics, knowing Rick’s the lead character and he’s still alive in the books, the use of dark spaces and silence really build tension. Prior to Rick leaving the hospital he descends down a dark stairwell with only a book of matches for light. The camera’s facing Rick and the room’s dark, showing only Rick. The matches only last briefly and the moments between each lighting drags, imparting the sensation that a zombie is going to appear when he strikes the next match. Scenes like this really got me; even though I’m certain Rick will survive for a long time, the depiction of terror waiting around every corner is superb.

The acting so far is quite competent. A few moments seems overtly melodramatic – Rick arriving home and finding his family gone, Morgan trying to shoot his wife with a sniper rifle – but I feel it best to place myself in the character’s position, experiencing their feelings subjectively. How would I react in the same situation? I know it’s farfetched (the chances of a zombie outbreak are nil), but this is necessary for most good fiction. When Morgan, Duane, and Rick take a hot shower at the abandoned police station – hot water a luxury during the apocalypse – the scene conveys authentic glee. Something we take for granted, like hot water, is a luxury to people in their position. I couldn’t help smiling at this scene, wondering how I’d react to the return of something I enjoy on a daily basis.

The show’s visual portion is excellent, although a few moments come across as corny. While the lighting, art direction, and cinematography are stellar, the scene where Rick views Shane from his coma is a little obnoxious. Here we experience Rick’s coma subjectively – a switch since the majority of the show is shot in the third person – but the visual effects, blurring Shane and augmenting his physical appearance, movements, and voice come across as cheap. The show has a cinematic quality to it, but this scene seems out of place, residing in the land of second rate television. I’m fairly certain the show’s shot digitally and for the majority of the episode this isn’t apparent but this one scene is blatantly shot digitally. I’m glad it’s short, since the scene actually messes with the show’s continuity. Luckily it occurs early in the episode and the rest of the show follows Rick from an objective position, only using this representation of sense one other time (after Rick shoots a zombie inside the tank, causing his ears to ring and cause him physical pain). This instance isn’t the same as the hospital visit and not because the perspective is different but because the visual representation is consistent with the rest of the episode.  

One thing I’ve always loved about zombies is their versatility. Not in their abilities, but because what an author or filmmaker can project onto them. Romero used zombies to illustrate social ills (racism, consumerism, bureaucracy, freedom and security, etc.), but the television adaptation of The Walking Dead’s subtext is yet unknown. What I got out of the comic is that Kirkman’s zombies represent our social reality and how fragile it truly is. We’re trained from a young age in the ways of our civilization; how we react when these social constructions disappear is at question in The Walking Dead comics. Adherence to a set of social codes vanishes when facing a new social paradigm and the characters in The Walking Dead exhibit this constantly. I only hope the series embodies this sufficiently and doesn’t become a watered down parody of Kirkman’s fantastic comics.

However, since I’m a cynical and jaded asshole I have to bash something. While I believe The Walking Dead the best comic book series available currently, I’m highly unimpressed with Kirkman’s other ongoing series, Invincible. The plot, characters, and storyline are great, but the editor is horrible. The Walking Dead editor Sina Grace is excellent; she cleans up Kirkman’s juvenile dialogue, removing the unnecessary modifiers and probably changing many adverbs into adverbials and so on – an act lost on Invincible. Kirkman’s characters and stories for Invincible are excellent, but he really needs to tighten up his dialogue, or get an editor along the lines of Grace for that book. I stopped reading Invincible because the dialogue is so jejune.

Here is the trailer for The Walking Dead. I’ll probably write an episode review for next week’s episode also.

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