Zombies. What is there left to say about zombies? We’ve had everything from the classic shambler to the “oh-my-God-it-runs faster-than-us” zombie. We’ve seen the necromantically risen and governmental experiments gone awry. There has been a whole fleet of movies dedicated to the genre, super-heroes converted by their infectious bite and even a book designed to aid in your survival should the undead-led apocalypse ever come knocking on your door. Here at OneMetal, we’ve devoted thousands of words to zombies in general, and The Walking Dead in particular (that’s a lot of links). However, since October 2003, Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead comic seemed to turn the genre into something almost fresh.
I’m not here to fawn over how great this comic book series: read it and you’ll come to this conclusion all by yourself. What I am here to do is reflect on how AMC, the cable network behind great original series like Mad Men and Rubicon, adapted this popular graphic novel to the screen across six bloody episodes. But enough of my appreciation for AMC’s greatness, and on with what you need to know about the TV adaptation of The Walking Dead.
The opening moments of pilot “Days Gone Bye” set itself a high standard in tone, style and atmosphere. A police car slows down to a stop on a desolate highway, a uniformed police officer exits the car, petrol cannister in hand. Birds tweet as he makes his way through burned out wrecks and abandoned vehicles amidst dead bodies and buzzing flies to his destination, a gas station. The silence is suddenly broken by a shuffle, a young girl in slippers appears, seen only from the back. That is until this officer calls out to her, and we see the trademark sunken eyes and mutilated face. Reluctantly, the hand cannon is drawn, and a single bullet placed right between the eyes. Welcome to Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead.
The story centers on police officer Rick Grimes (played by Andrew Lincoln, as some UK readers will fondly remember from school-based drama Teachers), who wakes in a hospital following a shootout with some local bad guys with no knowledge of what has occurred during his slumber. No knowledge, that is, until he is greeted by a chained door on which is written “Don’t open. Dead inside” in what appears to be blood. The tension is further heightened by moans, groans and the shock of a the door being hammered against. Time to move on, Deputy Grimes.
As he finally makes his way to the outside world, Grimes is further distressed to be face to face with what appears to be a military-lead evacuation gone seriously wrong. Bodies wrapped in white sheets, abandoned military vehicles and signs of gunfire all give rise to a feeling of isolation and loneliness. What makes this all the better is that the writer Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) doesn’t fall into the obvious trap of having something lurch out at any quiet moment in an attempt to bite the face off our protagonist. Instead he leaves our own minds to do the dirty work, our own anticipation of what might be out there waiting probably much worse than anything he could write.
Just as its creator Robert Kirkman managed to achieve in the graphic novel, Darabont allows us to feel for the characters in this small-screen adaptation. We have time to empathize with the weight of the tragedy, to care for the survivors, and join them in their hope and their goal of staying alive through these seemingly insurmountable odds. One shining example of this is Grimes taking the time to say “I’m sorry this happened to you” before delivering the killing blow to a lone crawling zombie. Never before have I truly felt for one of the undead like I do for that mutilated and pathetic zombie.
After an excellent pilot from its developer Darabont its only natural that, with a rolling change in directors taking the helm, that the follow-ups would be different. From MacLaren’s (Breaking Bad) second episode feeling a lot more like some high octane action movie, to Dickerson’s (Dexter) handling of our survivors being on the losing side of a pretty gruesome battle in the fifth, the style and content are ever-changing. The substance however is the same: these are people you actually care about.
Sure it deviates from the main story; there are introductions of characters like Merle Dixon, played to perfection by the mighty Michael Rooker – last seen butting heads with zombies in 2006’s Slither, and best known playing the very unappreciated role of Colonel Edwards in SG:1. There are entirely new scenes and subplots, characters from the comic brought kicking and screaming to the foreground – but it always maintains the purity of the original story. Sure, there are slumps in the action, but you’ll come to realise this downtime is important. They are designed by the directors to give you, the extra member of the survival group, a brief respite before the next roadblock raises its rotting head.
When you look past the special effects you realise that the desolation and chaos that this world now finds itself part of is emotionally and visually stunning. On more than a couple of occasions I have found myself unashamedly close to tears, particularly during Amy’s transformation into one of the dead. Thats right, major characters can and do turn into zombies. There: I said it. No keeping a character around just because the actress who plays her might be hot in this series. Why did I nearly bawl my eyes out? Perhaps because it isn’t played for shocks, but rather for drama. There is no sudden flash of the eyes and a frenzied attempt at biting. Instead we are left to watch for quite some time as Amy slowly dies in her sister’s arms, all the while knowing she is infected. Her eyes then slowly open as if realising she’s dozed off in the middle of the day. Her sister Andrea softly embraces her, apologises, and proceeds to hold a gun to her head and blow her brains out.
Clearly, The Walking Dead isn’t just another splatter-fest with our heroes running, jumping and shooting off as many rounds as the Hollywood pistol allows. This is about survival and the emotions that come with it. I’m not saying we don’t get our fair share of action, but I wouldn’t want to give away too many serious spoilers as those spine-chilling moments are some of the best this reviewer has ever seen.
If you’ve read it, watch it. If you’ve never read it, watch it. You won’t be disappointed. Now bring on Season Two.