Reviving and doing something completely new with the zombie subgenre is not an easy task, in fact it’s one of the hardest things you can do in horror. In the past few decade few people have succeeded in doing something new in film regardless of television, if anyone could be trusted with it, it is Frank Darabont. Most people know Darabont for collaborations with Stephen King, through writing/directing The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile and The Mist. What people may not know is that Darabont cut his teeth through script writing on horror sequels in the 80s, not only is he an accomplished scriptwriter but he knows his horror. A man perfect for the job of breathing new life into the tired genre of zombies.
Based on the graphic novel of the same name by Robert Kirkman, The Walking Dead is an attempt at redefining and reconfiguring the conventions of the zombie narrative but at the same time keeping it very classic, stripped down. The pilot, written and directed by Darabont, sets up the post outbreak world from the point of view of Rick Grimes, an Atlanta sheriff who wakes up in hospital from a coma to find the world completely overrun by the Walking Dead. At first he is taken under the wing of a struggling father and son before going out on his own to find his missing family and eventual salvation. Grimes’ family however is alive, living in a commune somewhere in the wilderness where a new extended family unit has been established.
The episode opens beautifully, Andrew Lincoln’s Frank Grimes walks through a lonely landscape filled with abandoned cars and everything is dead despite no signs of corpses. There is nothing on the soundtrack apart from a low hiss of the heat and a few bugs floating in the air, and for a whole 3 minutes we are left to wonder. Slowly and surely building the tension, Darabont then throws a spanner in the works by presenting us with a lone, child zombie. A young girl, reminding us zombie fans instantly of the zombie child at the end of Night of the Living Dead. However, unlike many protagonists usually do in a zombie situation, Grimes doesn’t hestitate. He knows what he has to do, and he shoots her through the head. From that moment on, you’ve either invested entirely in what Darabont wants to do or you’ve switched off. He then flashbacks or forward to Grimes, as county sheriff going out to do a road block, which results in a shootout from which he is mortally wounded.
From there we move to a hospital and in a very 28 Days Later-esque scene, Grimes wakes up on a hospital bed and staggers around trying to get his bearings on what has happened while he has been comatose. It soon becomes very clear that the dead are now walking and are springing to life. Despite this the action from here is much slower paced, and works all the better for it, that’s not to say not much happens, quite the contrary.
One of the many reasons for taking this to AMC, the home of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, is not only because the quality and standard of the Walking Dead is high but because at its heart, the show sets itself up as a character driven drama. Grimes moves in with a father and son, Morgan and Duane, who are surviving every day as it comes and trying hardest at night where the dead swarm to feed. The characters are initially very suspicious of Grimes, tying him to the bed and holding him against his will. However they soon sympathize with his situation, Morgan has lost his wife to the zombie outbreak and she now still comes round to the house to check at night, in one of the episode’s creepiest moments before we know her true identity, her zombie peers through the look whole on the door. The fishbowl effect of the lens distorting her face and movements which somehow both make it insanely nerve jangling and also quite sad.
Once the new group feels confident, they kit up and decide to go their own separate ways. Grimes heads out on the road to look for other survivors using a police radio and nothing else. His first attempts do strike up a response in a camp somewhere out of town where Grimes fled family are now residing. Despite a lot of very neat and fascinating character development there is no let up on neat zombie effects and violence. My favourite and most bafflingly good make up effect being a halved and very rotted corpse crawling on the floor with the teeth and jaw exposed. All the zombie effects are done by legend Greg Nicotero, who by using proper prosthetics and latex gives some truly wonderful creations that look real. They look authentic and tactile, some of the best in years.
The final scene/set piece of the episode is an intense, very nicely handled suspense moment. Grimes, now using a horse as transport, travels armed and dangerous into a city. All around it is deathly quiet, very much like the opening however all is not well, two zombies appear from a car wreck… which go unnoticed. He then turns a corner and there are a thousands of the walking dead facing him. Escaping into a tank, which he quickly gets into from underneath to escape the zombies who can now crawl. The episode ends wonderfully with the tank’s radio buzzing and Grimes’ horse being torn apart while hords of creatures swarm around the tank.
The pilot opens doors for some more fascinating character drama and more hardcore zombie violence. It’s very well written and Kirkman is very on-board with the project, I’m not familiar with the series but do know that some liberties have been taken. Obviously all in the favour of decent drama, although initially slow paced Darabont handles the material brilliantly keeping it gripping throughout. It is also pretty hardcore. The show also looks superb, shot very stylishly and designed wonderfully. It is different to most other shows on TV, I’ve never seen anything like it in this medium, but it fits in with the very high quality shows of AMC. It will go a long way and I really look forward to more episodes.