TV Review: THE WALKING DEAD, 1.1 - "Days Gone Bye"

Zombies made a successful comeback at the box-office this past decade, but their prior absence from cinemas was a mere blip. Compare this to television, which in the 42 years since George Romero's Night Of The Living Dead, hasn't even tackled the shuffling undead in an ongoing drama series... until now. AMC, the cable network responsible for award-winning hits like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, have decided to adapt the 2003 comic-book series The Walking Dead, recruiting filmmaker Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) to bring the comic's inked panels to life. The result of this union delivers a beautiful production with excellent tonality, together with a budget to do the post-apocalyptic premise justice, but the actual story and internal logic of premiere "Days Gone Bye" unfortunately hit some snags... Sheriff's Deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) is shot twice by a fleeing criminal at a road block, awakening in hospital to find the building abandoned in the aftermath of extreme violence: there are bullet holes sprayed across walls, blood smears across most surfaces, lights flicker in dark corridors, a half-eaten corpse is decomposing on the floor, and a doorway has been chained closed with dozens of pallid hands poking through the cracks. Rick eventually finds his way outside, only to discover the nightmare extends to the wider world: rows of dead bodies covered in white blankets, abandoned military jeeps and helicopters, the decrepit torso of an old woman struggling on the grass. It's a setup ripped straight from The Day Of The Triffids (or 28 Days Later, if you must) and, while it's certainly a visual treat, a sense of unoriginality slowly begins to infect The Walking Dead. Not to mention the mounting evidence that Rick Grimes is perhaps the world's stupidest character: the type of man who sees a doorway marked "DO NOT OPEN €“ DEAD INSIDE" and immediately heads for the nearest dark stairwell with only a box of matches for light. And I suppose zombie movies don't exist in this universe, as Rick's extremely slow on the uptake. In a post-Shaun Of The Dead world, it's all quite frustrating. The second act of "Days Gone Bye" (having dispensed with its John Wyndham homage) then decided to pay deference to Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, with Rick discovered by Morgan Jones (Lennie James) and his young son Duane (Adrian Kali Turner), before spending the night in their locked-down family home, as "the walkers" (annoyingly, nobody says "zombie") swarm the streets outside. All that's missing from this scenario is a loyal German Shepherd. Morgan's heard talk of a CDC quarantine zone in Atlanta, Georgia, so Rick decides to leave the hospitable Jones's and head into the big city to find his missing wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) and son Carl (Chandler Riggs)... Understandably, the zombie genre doesn't offer too much leeway when it comes to deciding on a storyline. Most of the time it's simple: you pick a location (log cabin, high-rise building, shopping mall, suburbia, pub), throw a ragtag group of characters together, and send hordes of flesh-eating zombies their way. It's just a pity so much of The Walking Dead's premiere felt recycled from old movies, as its occasional flourishes of originality don't come often enough to keep you sated. It's a script written by people who either hope you (a) haven't seen a zombie film before, so you'll be surprised by the storyline, or (b) don't care if you've seen this is all before, because... well, there are zombies! If you like zombies, all you need to see are plenty of rotting zombies shuffling around -- right? Lennie James is marvelous as Morgan Jones, and the tragic nature of his family situation (his beautiful wife has become a "walker" he can't summon the will to shoot dead) was immeasurable more compelling than anything in Rick's storyline. We didn't even know Rick's family before they're introduced as part of a survival camp on the outskirts of town, so there's no emotional bond for the audience at any point. In fact, we were actually given more reason to care about Rick's best-friend Shane Walsh (Jon Bernthal), as those two at least shared a pre-zombies scene discussing the mysteries of women. For me, "Days Gone Bye" felt like a prime example of a visually stunning pilot episode, neatly directed by Darabont, doing everything it can to distract you from the fact the lead character's a numbskull (he rides into Atlanta on a horse, next to an outgoing lane chock-full vehicles, and no alarm bells went off?), and the storyline contains every zombie movie cliché you can think of. Plus there wasn't much internal logic: Morgan tells us the zombies are more active at night, so why was Atlanta's streets literally swarming with them in broad daylight the next day? Why was Rick left at the hospital during the frightening zombie attack there? Why hasn't his family gone there to see if he survived? How did he survive in an unlocked room? I'm of the opinion that a good zombie story needs to find a unique twist or allegory to work with (see the reality TV-skewering Dead Set or the community collapse of The Crazies), but The Walking Dead doesn't seem to have one. It just retools Romero and throws in cool 21st-century moments and visuals. While that's entertaining enough, you end this episode with a curiously hollow feeling inside. Rick Grimes hasn't captured your imagination as a laudable hero beginning a compelling story arc, his missing family were introduced fart too early (eliminating all uncertainty about their fate), and we're supposed to care that Lori may be growing closer to her husband's buddy Shane? We don't know either of them! In fact, we don't really know anyone very well, even after an extended episode of 70-minutes, although James did such a fantastic job with the material he was given that I was hoping Rick might get bitten and Morgan takeover as protagonist. Overall, it's early days, so there's a good chance The Walking Dead can start developing its plot and characters now the exposition's done with. But in this pilot, when you look past the excellent production design, Darabont's assured direction, the great special effects, and infectiously isolated atmospherics... the narrative and characters left a lot to be desired. And for a TV show like this, those things will be the key to continuing success, once the novelty of seeing zombies on weekly primetime TV wears off. There are other pitfalls The Walking Dead must avoid (along with every other post-apocalyptic TV show there's ever been), such as the fact the characters exist in a world past saving. This was an issue I also had with the BBC's remake of Survivors just recently; the goal for the characters there was to build a society from the remnants of civilization after a doomsday plague, with the "villains" being amoral survivors who want to take advantage of the situation. I guess The Walking Dead could have the same goals, by and large, but with the added complication of zombie attacks to fend off. I haven't read the comic-books, but it feels like a big challenge to stretch the typical arc of a zombie film over years, potentially. Hopefully The Walking Dead will surprise us (or, rather, those who haven't read the comics) by embracing the one thing zombie movies rarely have enough time to do: develop multi-faceted characters you really care for, to feel genuine distress when some inevitably get bitten.
WRITER & DIRECTOR: Frank Darabont CAST: Andrew Lincoln, Jon Bernthal, Sarah Wayne Callies, Laurie Holden, Jeffrey DeMunn, Steven Yeun, Chandler Riggs, Lennie James & Emma Bell TRANSMISSION: 5 November 2010, FX/HD, 10PM
Blog: Dan's Media Digest Twitter: @danowen79
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