TV Review: The Walking Dead – Pilot, Days Gone Bye

I’ll be honest with you: I never thought I’d see the day when zombies invaded TV as an honest-to-goodness ongoing TV series. We’re not talking about “shot in someone’s backyard” type product here, either, or cheaply made web-only “webisodes”. “The Walking Dead” is an honest-to-goodness original series from AMC, a cable network that has, over the years, brilliantly nurtured a “quality TV” identity with shows like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad”. Now they’re adding zombies to the stable. Yup, didn’t see that coming, did ya? As a fan of the genre, but one that wishes there could be a little more quality to the offerings, I can safely say that “The Walking Dead” is a Godsend.

The first thing you’ll notice about Frank Darabont’s “The Walking Dead” is just how low-key and understated everything is. Yes, it’s essentially a post-apocalyptic TV show about civilization as we know it being overrun by the living dead, but Darabont (who not only produces the show, but also wrote and directed the pilot) presents it in such a matter-of-fact way that you’re liable to believe the whole thing could actually happen while you slept peacefully in your bed, only to wake up tomorrow and discover that – GASP! – the Jones next door have become flesh-eating ghouls.

Based on the comic book series of the same name by writer Robert Kirkman, “The Walking Dead” follows small-town Georgian sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), who as the pilot opens, has just awaken from a coma in the hospital. Still suffering from the gunshot that induced said coma, Rick discovers that the world has gone totally FUBAR. The undead now walk the streets, and pockets of human survivors hang on for dear life across the country. Rick learns all this after he stumbles across survivors Morgan (Lennie James) and his son Duane (Adrian Kali Turner), the father-and-son team hiding out in Rick’s old neighborhood ever since Morgan’s wife succumbed to “the fever”, the condition that usually precedes complete zombification.

The helpful Morgan quickly gets Rick caught up on what’s happened since he went into his little coma, and exactly why he and his son have been unwilling to abandon Rick’s town. As for Rick, he’s very sure that his wife Lori and son Carl have gotten out of town safely, and may have fled to the relative safe zone of downtown Atlanta, where the Government and military was reported to be making a last stand against the growing undead. That’s where Rick eventually sets out, determined to reunite his family or die trying. Seeing as how the rest of the country (and possibly the world) have been overrun by the living dead, he might just get his wish after all.

Premiering appropriately enough on Halloween night, “The Walking Dead” is unlike anything you’ve seen on TV before. Having a sure hand like Darabont at the helm is a major asset, as the pilot sets the realistic tone for the show and its post-apocalyptic landscape. If you ever wondered if a serious, dramatic story can be done in a genre that is nowadays known primarily for its gross-out flesh-eating scenes, “Dead” certainly answers in the affirmative. Don’t get me wrong, fans of zombies won’t be cheated. Want blood-splattered goodness? You’re set. “The Walking Dead” is blessed with high production values, which means the squib work is first-rate. Want atmosphere? There are oodles of that, too. Frank Darabont knows how to introduce tension and keep it ratcheted up. A fantastic scene in a darken stairwell is guaranteed to induce overwhelming dread.

Much of the pilot is spent with Rick discovering what he’s woken up to, and it’s through his eyes that we are introduced to the horrific aftermath of the zombie outbreak. While Rick (and we) are allowed to adjust to our new reality, the survivor Morgan and his son show us another side of the horror. We see the toll it has taken, not just the loss, but the grieving, the continued life with chunks of your soul missing, a hollowness that cannot be replaced. Veteran actor Lennie James is fantastic as a father who will do anything, just about anything, to keep the last remaining piece of his family alive. Kudos goes to James, easily the heart and soul of “The Walking Dead’s” pilot. If his character doesn’t make a return appearance later in the season, I will be very, very disappointed.

“The Walking Dead” has a large ensemble cast, but for the pilot you’ll have to make do with only a couple of them. Besides Rick, the other main characters include Rick’s wife Lori, played by “Prison Break’s” Sarah Wayne Callies, and Jon Bernthal as Shane, Rick’s partner. The first season of “The Walking Dead” will consist of six episodes, so there will plenty of time to introduce everyone, as well as catch up with other survivors.

Fans of the zombie genre will definitely find a whole lot to like about “The Walking Dead”, and non-fans may be convinced to pick up a zombie movie or two after watching this one. Or perhaps not. The pilot certainly doesn’t skimp on the brutality inherent in a world where life and death have become less simplified, and it should be a blast exploring more of that theme in future episodes.

“The Walking Dead” premieres on AMC October 31 at 10/9c.

Frank Darabont (director) / Frank Darabont (screenplay)
CAST: Andrew Lincoln … Rick Grimes
Sarah Wayne Callies … Lori Grimes
Chandler Riggs … Carl Grimes
Emma Bell … Amy
Jon Bernthal … Shane Walsh
Jeffrey DeMunn … Dale
Linds Edwards … Leon Basset
Lennie James … Morgan Jones
Adrian Kali Turner … Duane
Steven Yeun … Glenn

Buy The Walking Dead on DVD