A year or two ago I was working on a pilot script for a zombie TV show. Though nothing ever came of it, this was a labor of love born of my longstanding zeal for zombie stories, along with the conspicuous lack of zombie serials in any form, particularly on television. And so it was with great anticipation that I sat down to watch the pilot episode for AMC’s latest, The Walking Dead. After the series hour and a half premiere episode entitled Days Gone Bye, it’s safe to say the network has added yet another remarkably distinctive show to its cache.
The Walking Dead is based on a comic book series of the same name, in which protagonist Rick Grimes wakes up into a hellish world of the undead, and aptly maneuvers his way through it. It’s a story as emotional as it is horrifying, and the series’ first episode doesn’t hesitate in bombarding the viewer with horror and grief. Days Gone Bye essentially begins with Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), bearded and half-dead, awakening from a near fatal gunshot wound and stumbling into the most vivid portrayal of hell on earth as you’re likely to see on cable. And thank goodness no punches are pulled, because writer/director/creator Frank Darabont is interested almost exclusively in the mental toll of this experience. Had Darabont relaxed Grime’s Gauntlet of the Grotesque in any way, he might not have established quite so efficiently the tone of this show. A tone which seems very concerned with the emotional strain on both the individual and his relationships. There’s only one real problem I can see with this setup. So often with zombie films you’re getting a story that deals with either the intensity of the situation (Night of the Living Dead, 28 Days Later) or the complete and total awesome-ness of the situation (Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland). While the former are perhaps the heart and soul of the undead genre, the latter keep audiences coming back for more. As far as The Walking Dead, it seems securely in the camp of the former, with very little in episode one suggesting there will be very much “fun” about the characters’ experiences. This is definitively the dark side of Zombiepocalypse.
Though Days Gone Bye spends very little time with anyone other than Grimes, the casting generally seems to be on point. Andrew Lincoln will make a fine lead, as he seems capable of being both emotionally stripped down and a resilient leader. Rick’s best friend Shane (Jon Bernthal), though really only featured for the first few minutes of the pilot, seems a potential weakness in the cast. He’s certainly not likeable, though this seems intended, but he’s also not a particularly strong actor. Hopefully his role won’t be a pivotal one.
This is a strong first outing, and is sure to snag an audience. AMC seems remarkably capable when it comes to picking new material, with subject matter as vast as it is worthy of the serial treatment. The Walking Dead has the added pressure of beloved source material and an established fan base, but if creator Frank Darabont can maintain the pilot’s intensity and scale, this could be a long-running series worth watching.