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The Walking Dead: Days Gone Bye (Pilot)

And so it has arrived. The Walking Dead, as written and directed by Frank Darabont, based on the comic books (or “series of graphic novels”) written by Robert Kirkman. Logically, a zombie television show was long overdue – the creatures have been the staple of our pop culture landscape in some form or another for nearly fifty years now, and have seen a huge increase in popularity in recent times. So, with an incredibly strong pedigree behind it, this tale of zombie survival made it to the small screen.

The road less travelled...

Being honest, it felt strange to review this episode. We know, whether from the comic books upon which the series is based or the opening credits or the trailers for upcoming episodes, that the series will follow a large enough (and constantly changing) group of survivors. As such, one might have expected that the director’s cut of the pilot might introduce the ensemble so we could get to know them. Instead, despite short sequences with a merry band of survivors outside of Atlanta, this was very much the Rick Grimes show.

It leant the opening episode a great deal of power and intimacy, as well as giving Darabont the opportunity to show us what Andrew Lincoln could do as an actor. He’s impressive, by the way. It allowed us to view the end of the world through the eyes of one terrified and confused man, trying to piece together what had happened. The comic book opened the same way, and it arguably makes sense to do so.

However, it also means that this pilot perhaps doesn’t offer a fair indication of what to expect from the show – that we may have to tune in next week to get a better idea of how things are actually going to work and what the show itself will actually be like. That’s not to claim that the pilot might be misleading or anything so dramatic – it was a rich piece of television utterly dripping with drama. It’s just odd to see a pilot for an entire series focusing so closely on a single character without really introducing too much of the finer details of what the show will be like. It’s not a complaint so much as an observation.

You have to be kidding me...

The show drips with atmosphere. I was worried that either network standards or special effects budgets would make it difficult for a show like this to ever really pull off the horror that it need to – Romero’s zombie films were made on shoestrings, remember, and it would be impossible to make continuous weekly entertainment on a shoestring without eventually letting it show. Darabont does (naturally) employ CGI for certain shots that he couldn’t get naturally – that epic scene of Rick riding into Atlanta on horseback, for example, or the headshots on the zombies (or even some zombies themselves) – but he also uses a lot of practical effects, like strewn cars and burnt out buses.

His direction is low key – it never seems like he’s screaming “look at the horror!” through his camera lens. He lets the imagery speak for itself. Despite the fact his most famous work as a director is The Shawshank Redemption, Darabont seems to be a natural horror film director (as if The Mist didn’t demonstrate this). Those opening moments with Rick in the hospital – including that scene in the stairwell where his matches keep burning out – are incredibly well staged. There are any number of eerie shots – from an abandoned Atlanta through to bodybags strewn outside the hospital, which create a genuine sense that something is terribly, terribly wrong.

As a writer, Darabont has played around a bit with Kirkman’s story, and I’m quite fine with that. The characters are there and the core motivations and relationships remain, but certain bits – the sequences where Rick spends time with the Jones family who are living out of the house that used to belong to his neighbours, for example – feel expanded up. There just seems to be more depth to them. Whether it’s due to the performances (I really hope to see Morgan Jones again, if only as an excuse to bring back actor Lennie James) or the writing, I’m not sure, but it does seem like Darabont is expanding his story and hitting the key moments.

Undead end...

There are, for instance, a lot more Romero references than I remember from the comic book. Darabont borrows the opening sequence with a young child at a petrol station from the original Dawn of the Dead. When Rick stopped at a farmhouse, it called to mind Night of the Living Dead. The trailers for the next episode tease us with zombies in a shopping mall. None of these intrude on the story (although I haven’t seen the shopping mall yet, so I probably shouldn’t comment), and instead feel like polite nods towards the founder of the genre – reverence well-earned, if you ask me.

However, the series does stay entirely true to Kirkman where it counts. Obviously the notion that “the walking dead” are actually the survivors rather than the “walkers” isn’t one that Kirkman came up with entirely on his own, but he is the first writer I’ve seen to articulate it so well. Darabont instinctively understands that the characters in the show are, pretty much, dead people walking. He draws any number of clear comparisons between the zombies and the lead characters – Rick lumbers like a zombie through the hospital and various character grunt and moan and wheeze in manners not unlike the dead as they do what they have to in order to survive. Zombie movies have always juxtaposed the survivors against the hordes of the undead, daring to ask how they are alike or how they are different.

I am thinking about what has been a bit of a hot topic for me with the books – I’ve found a disturbingly sexist trend among Kirkman’s writing on the title (there’s an interesting discussion to be found here). Sexism is a very serious allegation to make against any work of fiction, and I don’t want to make it lightly or glibly (or reflexively). I do feel that it is far too early for me to comment on the television show – I’ve seen about an hour and a bit of it – but I have spotted some of the same elements which concern me. This is a pilot, so I’ll reserve my comments until I do a year-end wrap up, but several aspects of the episode do have me concerned.

The Walking Dead is off to a fine start. Here’s hoping that it can keep it up.

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8 Responses

  1. The second episode is good (a little too reliant on stereotypes but whatever) and I’m looking forward to how this all plays out.

    • I dug the second episode. Not quite as good, but I have a soft spot for Michael Rooker. I can’t help it, even though I know he’s bad for me.

  2. On the one hand, I hope Lennie James comes back. On the other hand, the second episode last night was fucking awful. So conflicted.

    • Lennie James is deadly – I thought he was better than Lincoln, and Lincoln was great. It’s strange, “Lincoln” seems like one of those surnames where you need to have a first name, just to clarify you aren’t talking about Lincoln Lincoln.

  3. The second episode was a bit average I thought. A whole hour used up for not all that much action and character development. As you hinted above, new characters are introduced and there isn’t nearly as much focus on the main hero.

    • Yep. It wasn’t as stellar as the first hour, but I think I might have liked it more because I had lowered my expectations after reading reviews. I have to admit, I like that it’s branching away from the comic, just because I’m a lot more critical of the comic than most.

  4. Love the Walking Dead so far. The first episode was excellent and vey cinematic. I was sad to see that the second episode had more of a TV feel, but I still enjoyed it. Like Castor was saying, the new characters in Ep 2 are very well developed and I don’t like them nearly as much as I liked the father and son from Ep 1. Hopefully they return at some point.

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