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Monday, November 1, 2010

The Walking Dead Rises to the Occasion

The Walking Dead
Morgan:  Hey mister, what’s that bandage for?  You tell me, or I will kill you.
I am not normally one to review television, but this is a special case, so I will give it a shot.  The acclaimed graphic novel series, The Walking Dead, which also happens to be one of my favorites, has been adapted into a television series, airing Sunday nights on AMC.  I was stoked to learn of this upon its first announcement.  Not only have I been continually satisfied by AMC’s television series output (Mad Men and Breaking Bad are two of my favorite shows currently on television), I have also been very pleased with all the talent involved in getting this series made.  Having now watched the premiere episode this past Halloween, I can safely say that not only has this series exceeded my expectations in terms of the quality of production and the adaptation process from comic to screen, but it is one that I certainly hope many will check out.  The series’ premise may revolve around zombies, but it is very much focused on providing strong characters and affecting story beats.  Of course there is plenty of thick horror atmosphere and some gory mayhem as well.

The show begins by introducing us to Rick Grimes, played by Andrew Lincoln.  Rick is a police officer from Georgia, who is unfortunately shot in the line of duty.  Rick awakens from a coma a few months later only to find that the hospital he has been staying in has been deserted.  As Rick stumbles through a thoroughly trashed hospital, he begins to learn that more and more is not right with his situation.  Eventually, he makes it outside only to discover deserted streets and dead bodies everywhere.  Rick manages to get back to his home, only to find that his wife, Lori, and son, Carl, have gone.  After freaking out more about his situation, Rick heads outside only to witness a slow moving person get shot in the head, before Rick is knocked out by a young boy. 

Upon waking up, Rick finally learns the true gravity of his situation – some kind of plague has been sweeping the land, and the dead are returning to life.  When these “walkers” attack, if a living person is bitten, then they will soon die from an intense fever, only to return from death as well.  As many should know, the only way to kill these walking dead is by shooting them in the head or destroying the brain.  Rick learns this information from a man, Morgan (guest star Lennie James) and his son, Duane, who have been squatting in a house nearby, and almost mistook Rick for a walker.  Knowing what he knows, Rick tasks himself with a journey to find his wife and son, which means loading up on firepower and heading towards Atlanta, where it is believed that a refuge area may be setup.

As I mentioned, the talent involved in making this series very much put me at ease about having a beloved book collection of mine be adapted into a TV show.  The series showrunners are Frank Darabont, director of The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and The Mist, and Gale Anne Heard, writer/producer of The Terminator and Aliens.  This premiere episode was actually written and directed by Darabont, which certainly sets the bar fairly high for this show to hopefully continue to deliver upon.

From what has been setup, the overall style and tone of this series is going to be both appropriately dramatic and appropriately suspenseful, while also wonderfully cinematic.  A somber mood is definitely held through much of this episode, as Rick wanders through a deserted land, not knowing what to make of things.  The way he must cope with the fact that the world has changed is quite well handled, as are many sequences that show him encountering various members of the walking dead.  The use of scoring was certainly a major factor in this, as it was very subdued, but effective in setting up the state of varying situations.  Composer Bear McCreary, known for his work on Battlestar Galactica and Human Target, does a good job here, but also knows when silence is very appropriate.

The look of the show is great.  While the comic is produced in black and white, that of course would not fly for a major television program.  The solution was to shoot in super 16 mm, which gives the series a fantastic grainy look.  Also fantastic are the zombie makeup effects by Greg Nicataro and his team.  While the zombies themselves do not do a lot of damage in this particular episode, they certainly have the appropriate swagger of the classic undead with human food on the mind.  By the time this episode ended, I can certainly see that the show plans to push some dark humor when dealing with the violence these creatures create.

Lincoln, as lead character Rick, is very good in this episode.  He has a strong presence that registers him very much as a man of action but also as one who cares.  Watching him break down as well as seeing him beginning to deal with the undead around him assures me of his capabilities to capture the essence of this character.  This episode does also feature a few of the other cast members, who will become much larger in focus as the series continues.  While only providing a few bits of information, it is really just a kick to see some of these characters brought to life.

As far as a comic fan watching this series goes, I am pretty sure that any fan of the book will love what has been done so far with this series.  I cannot think of any fan who was worried about this series beforehand, but if that were so, one can be sure that this premiere episode delivers on establishing all of the elements that make writer/creator Robert Kirkmans’s series so compelling to behold.  In addition, the way this show has so far distinguished itself from its comic counterpart is interesting, and I am very excited to see the directions it goes.

This mega-sized opening episode was really wonderful to watch.  It is incredibly well made, strongly acted, and totally engaging.  I did not want this episode to end.  It is something very different for a TV network to take part in and could be potentially very ambitious if it follows some of the patterns of the comic (basically that anyone in the cast is very much expendable).  Only time will tell, but I’ll be watching.

[Rick is about to put a legless zombie out of its misery]
Rick:  I’m very sorry this happened to you.

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