I’ve been reading Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead series for a couple years now, so I was pretty excited to hear that it was being picked up as a TV show. When I learned that it would be on AMC – home to such outstanding dramas as Mad Men and Breaking Bad – I knew we were in for a treat. After watching the first two episodes a couple times, I’m hooked.
Please note: these reviews will contain spoilers for both the show and the comic, so be forewarned.
The pilot, Days Gone Bye, follows the course of the comic pretty well, with a few nice twists to keep things fresh for the fans. After a suitably creepy cold open, we’re introduced to our protagonist, Rick Grimes, and his partner Shane as they’re eating a quick lunch in their squad car. After griping about the women in their lives (some nice foreshadowing there), they pick up a call and leap into action. A short but brutal gunfight follows, leaving three bad guys dead and our hero bleeding profusely on the pavement.
When Rick comes to in the hospital – we’re never told how long he was out – the world has gone straight to hell. Once he realizes no nurse is going to come to his aid, he shakily rises to his feet and sets out. The hospital looks like a war zone, with bullet holes decorating the walls and blood splattered liberally down the corridor. In one of the pilot’s creepiest scenes, Rick approaches a set of double doors that have been chained and locked shut; pale hands reach through, trying to find a way out.
Understandably horrified, Rick seeks the closest exit: a pitch black stairwell which he has to negotiate with only a couple of matches to light the way. When he finds the exit and cracks the door, light spills in, temporarily blinding him. When he can see again he probably wishes he couldn’t. Behind the hospital is a makeshift cemetery, with dozens upon dozens of corpses wrapped in sheets and forgotten on the loading dock. Just across the street is the remains of a hastily abandoned military camp, but there isn’t a soul to be found.
On his way home Rick finds a bicycle on the side of the road, but when he picks it up he’s greeted by a horribly mutilated zombie. The emaciated woman appears to have been torn in half at the waist; here entrails trailing horribly behind her as she drags herself along on her arms. The effects are amazingly well done, especially considering this is a show on basic cable.
Rick arrives home to find his wife and son gone, as well as most of their clothes and family photos. Distraught, he wanders the neighborhood until he is knocked unconscious by a young boy, Duane. As he’s fading to black, Rick sees the boy’s father, Morgan (played by the always fantastic Lennie James), shoot a man in the head. He comes to tied to a bed with Morgan hovering over him with a knife, demanding to know what his bandages are for. Once it’s established that Rick wasn’t bitten, Morgan lays out the familiar ground rules of the zombie apocalypse, and our trio hunkers down for the night.
In the night, a zombie walks into a vehicle and sets off a car alarm, triggering a minor horde. The moment is appropriately tense, and we get our first true taste of the scale of the zombie outbreak. We also get a nice emotional punch as Morgan’s now-zombified wife shows up in the throng of zombies, sending Duane into a tearful tantrum.
The next morning the three head into the police station, where they’re treated to a hot shower and the chance to arm themselves from an already picked-over gun cabinet. Clean and well-armed, Rick heads for Atlanta, where he hopes to find his family in government-run refuge camp. On his way out of town, he stops to dispatch the pathetic half-zombie he encountered earlier. This scene is juxtaposed against Morgan, who is tearfully attempting to put his wife out of her misery, but just can’t bring himself to do it.
As he drives toward Atlanta Rick broadcasts on the radio. This is picked up by survivors in a camp outside the city, including Rick’s family (Lori and Carl), and Shane. The camp’s radio isn’t powerful enough to respond, and neither his family nor Shane recognize his voice amid the static. Shortly after, Lori and Shane retread to a tent where they share a kiss. Lori and Shane have an affair in the comic, but it’s a one-night experience that’s never repeated. On the show, it appears to be an ongoing relationship. I’m not sure I like this change, as it makes Lori’s character much more unlikeable from the start, but I’m curious to see how it pans out.
After running out of gas, Rick stops at a farm house hoping to refuel. He’s greeted with the grisly results of a family suicide. With no other alternative, Rick commandeers the family’s horse, and rides into the ruins of Atlanta like a post-apocalyptic John Wayne. There he finds no government camp, just streets filled with debris and abandoned vehicles, including a tank. Spotting a helicopter (something that doesn’t happen in the comic and leaves me pondering the possibilities this change will bring to the series), Rick rides excitedly around the corner only to be greeted by a mob of hundreds of zombies.
Rick is swarmed almost immediately, and knocked off his horse, losing his satchel of guns in the process. Seeking any refuge from the quickly growing mob of cannibals, he crawls under the tank and then inside through the belly hatch. Once inside he dispatches an undead soldier – deafening himself in the process – and closes the tank’s exterior hatch. Rick is sealed safely inside, but without any avenue of escape and with hundreds of zombies only a few feet away.
Just as things are looking their most dire, a helpful voice chirps through the radio, admonishing our hero for acting like a “dumbass”. We fade out watching the horde of undead tearing apart what’s left of Rick’s horse.
As a lover of all things zombie, it wouldn’t have taken a lot for me to fall in love with The Walking Dead, but I think even a hardened critic who’s weary of zombie overexposure would have little to complain about with this premier. Instead of giving us nothing but mindless scares or over-the-top action, AMC delivered yet another well written, acted, and directed drama. This one just happens to feature zombies.