Tuesday, November 02, 2010
THE WALKING DEAD Episode 1.01 Review
A group of survivors led by police officer Rick Grimes travel in search of a safe and secure home after a zombie apocalypse.
(With the news over the past day or two that AMC's The Walking Dead was the highest rated show EVER on AMC, and that it beat out just about everything else on TV Halloween night, I figured I'd go ahead and share my take on the pilot episode, as originally presented over on Comicsbulletin.com last week)
If you've ever read anything on this blog (especially around Easter), you know that I consider myself a connoisseur of zombie cinema. My tastes are distinctively my own, I admit, and what I look for in a zombie film may not be what you look for. For instance, gore is appreciated, but not a game-changer for me. A film with fantastic gore but little story, isn't going to make it high up my list.
I look for three things in a good zombie film. A unique approach to the medium and the concept of zombies. This is why Pontypool is one of my favorites. The idea of a zombie virus spread via language is something I'd never seen nor heard of before. It's also what makes Night of the Living Dead an uncontested classic. It changed the game. Hell, it invented the game.
Secondly, I appreciate a sense of humor, but not humor that overpowers the emotional impact of the horrific events going on. This is why Shaun of the Dead beats out every other film on my list as the favorite. And it's why Dead Alive lands in my top three. In both cases, the humor serves to illuminate character and emphasize the absurdity of each film's respective narratives. The humor humanizes the characters. But both films also bring the horror, and that's essential.
Lastly, we need characters and stakes that are presented realistically enough for them to matter. We need to care about these people and we need to believe that the threat is real. This is why the remake of Dawn of the Dead charts so highly for me; That sense of impending doom. When I left the theater after seeing that film for the first time, I could have easily walked right back inside and watched it again. It was invigorating. And oddly enough, it was the same with Shaun of the Dead. I cared about those characters.
They were, quite simply, the most believable characters I've ever seen in a zombie film, reacting in ways that were equally believable. Dead Set had something of that, too, with characters reacting in ways that I could see real people reacting. Any acts of heroism were as equally motivated by self-preservation as they were by any sense of morality. It made the characters hard to like, but fascinating to watch.
Plus, as I mentioned above, Dead Set gave us time to really get to know the people and explore their situation.
All of which brings me to The Walking Dead.
AMC has a pretty good track record when it comes to their original TV series. Mad Men and Breaking Bad are huge hits and both have unique visions, telling stories you can't find anywhere else on television. Rubicon was one of the most intelligent and engrossing espionage thrillers I've ever seen, even if it started off too glacially to grab the mainstream viewer. Hell, their remake of The Prisoner, while failing to really live up to the name and spirit of its source material, was still, when divorced from that expectation, fascinating and well worth the time.
The Walking Dead is just as unique and distinctive as Mad Men or Breaking Bad and just as intelligent as Rubicon, without the pacing problems.
The main reason for this, is that Writer/Director Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, The Mist) lays this story out with a sure hand and there were absolutely no missteps in this first 90 minute episode. Right out of the gate we have characters that are likeable and believable responding in natural and understandable ways to their circumstances. There's a sense of humor, but it's in the characters' personalities, rather than any sense of taking the piss with the story. And if there were any misgivings about how much gore would be allowed on television, remember, this is cable TV. They can get away with whatever their sponsors will support.
And in this case, they're willing to support make-up effects that you would expect to see in a feature film. A big-budget feature film, at that. Seriously. There are some pretty nasty images being shoved into your living rooms with this show.
In fact, before the credits even rise, we are treated to a short scene that sets the stage for everything to come. This is the only instance where I'm going to spoil something for you, both because it's the first minute or two of the show, and because it is essential to capturing the emotional and psychological impact of what's to come.
Our lead character, Rick Grimes, pulls up at a gas station. Well, he pulls up as close as he can get, as there are abandoned cars all around, keeping him from getting too close. So, on foot he carefully approaches the tanks in hopes of getting fuel for his car. Unfortunately, the tanks are dry.
He hears something moving. He drops to his hands and knees and looks under a car, only to see a child's feet stumbling along on the other side. The child reaches down and picks up its ratty, filthy teddy bear.
Rick gets up and calls out to the little girl, who is shuffling away from him, in the hope that she can be saved. She slowly turns, revealing herself to be a zombie, her teeth exposed via a hideous, bloody, torn away mouth. She's horrifying. And then she starts shambling quickly toward Rick, clearly with the intent of feeding on him.
Rick pulls his gun and shoots her in the head. Blood and gore fly and the child falls back into a pool of blood.
Then we've got another 80 minutes (including commercials) of pilot episode to get through. And not a minute is wasted.
If you're familiar with the comics, there won't be many surprises. There will be surprises, just not as many as there are for those virgin viewers. We're introduced to a few familiar characters and except for the ones introduced in the closing minutes of the show, everyone is provided with, and knocks out of the park, extremely emotional and moving performances. The moments of horror have a weight you may not be expecting, and the brief moments of joy are glorious.
All in all, I couldn't have hoped for a better start to The Walking Dead.
If this doesn't become a television phenomenon then there's something wrong with America's TV-watching public.
Of course, they're letting Terriers slip away and refused to give Rubicon the time of day, so I guess it wouldn't be surprising.
The Walking Dead lives up to every expectation I had and after one episode looks to be poised to become one of the great zombie narratives in television and cinema history. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but I'm serious. This is TV writing, acting, and directing of the highest caliber. And considering the source material, it has amazing potential. Because like that material, this isn't about the zombies, or the gore. It's about the people. That's the only way this could work over the long haul.
And I simply trust Frank Darabont.
This is about as good as good could get. No camp. No awkward attempts at humor. No relying on gore to carry the story. Every actor gives it everything they've got. Every zombie is horrifying in its realism. Every moment of tension is palpable, every moment of loss is heartbreaking, and both always move the story forward.
My only complaint is that there's a touch too much CGI blood for my taste. I prefer the old-school mess that comes in buckets.