Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Dead Men Walking And Doing A Bunch Of Other Stuff

The Walking Dead is, simply, one of the best new shows I've seen in a long time. Usually, the worst episode of any television series is the very first episode. If that holds true for The Walking Dead, we're in for a treat because it's first episode was excellent.

The Walking Dead takes all the cliches of the zombie movie and makes them work one more time. It's set firmly in a copy of George Romero's universe in which, for some unknown reason, the recently deceased have come back to life to eat the flesh of the living and can only be put down for good by destruction of their brains, either quickly with a bullet or slowly by watching Two and a Half Men. Unlike more recent "zombie" pictures in which the monsters are actually people driven mad by a disease, these creatures have literally died and risen up. Why did this happen? No idea. Why do they eat the living and not each other? Seriously, stop asking questions like that and enjoy it. As in George Romero's "Living Dead" series of films, the zombies are slow and weak creatures made deadly by their numbers and their unending determination to kill us all.

When the show starts, we know all this but the characters don't. This is good because we require very little in the way of general exposition and explanation of why and how society has collapsed. In the opening scene, we know right off the bat why all the cars are crashed and overturned and why we only see one guy walking down what should be a busy highway and gas station. This guy is Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), a sheriff's deputy in what I think is rural Kentucky whose patrol car is low on gas. He can't just pull the cruiser into the gas station though because it's already crammed with idle cars, cars that are either empty or whose drivers are dead. The only other person walking around is a little girl who is anything but a harmless child.

In flashbacks, we see that Rick was shot in a firefight with meth dealers and, in a move skillfully appropriated from 28 Days Later, woke up in the hospital to find that society had collapsed under the weight of a zombie invasion. He was shaky and weak after spending a couple of weeks in a coma and luckily encountered no zombies who could hurt him until he met a man named Morgan and his 10 year old son Duane. Morgan and his family were on their way to a refugee camp in Atlanta run by the military but they holed up in a house near Rick's home when Morgan's wife becomes a zombie. He didn't have the heart to kill her completely but that means he and Duane now watch through cracks in the boarded up windows as she shambles along with other zombies outside the house.

Frank Darabont, director of the wonderful Shawshank Redemption and the horrible The Mist*, helped adapt this from Robert Kirkman's graphic novels and even wrote and directed this first episode. What he created looked more like a movie than a television show. It's often quiet. There isn't much in the way of background music. The quiet often lends low key dread to scenes in which the characters are as safe as they can be. There are very few moments in which you're truly at ease and not in fear that a zombie could drag itself out of nowhere and start killing characters you've come to like. This may be the most frightening television series ever produced yet there's also hope for the future. Not much, mind you, but you do watch as Rick Grimes manages to recover and adapt to this new world.

The Walking Dead is, in a word, brilliant. I can't wait for it to complete its six episode run even though I'm sure I'll want way more than six episodes.

*It was a decent movie until the ending but oh Lord, what an unforgettably horrible ending.


Joe Barlow said...

I agree with most of what you said, but the bleak nihilism of THE MIST's ending is exactly why I liked it. It's one of the most original and daring conclusions in recent horror history, and far exceeds the uninspired non-conclusion of the original King novella.

Michael Clear said...

You may remember Darabont did the same thing in SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. He took King's ambiguous ending and instead showed Red living happily ever after in a tropical paradise with Andy Dufresne. I didn't like that but at least Red didn't shoot Andy in the face for what turned out to be no good reason. Darabont and, apparently, you disagree with me that hope for the future is a powerful way to end a story.