Retrospective Review: THE WALKING DEAD, 1.1 - Days Gone By

To countdown to Season Two of The Walking Dead - the best zombie show on TV bar none - landing in October, and simply because we love it, every Wednesday for the next six weeks we'll be posting retrospective reviews for every episode of ABC's jaw-droppingly good flag-ship series.

To countdown to Season Two of The Walking Dead - the best zombie show on TV bar none - landing in October, and simply because we love it, every Wednesday for the next six weeks we'll be posting retrospective reviews for every episode of AMC's jaw-droppingly good flag-ship series. The art of good zombie-making is a beautiful thing. And it's also far more subtle than you might imagine. Thankfully, Frank Darabont has never had any trouble with subtelty: throughout his career as a writer and director, he has produced works that gently burrow under your skin, leaving few obvious entry wounds, but all the same growing inside from a mild cinematic fever to a full-blown invasion of your consciousness. Movies like The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, even the lowly (but still wonderful) The Majestic are far from spectacular event movies - they have few bells, whistles or frills - yet each should be considered alongside the most expensive box-office hits of their own (or any) year. And if there's one thing Darabont does better than anything else, it's horror. Not the blatant hack and slash, jack-in-the-box jumpfest fare of Wes Craven though: Darabont's vision of horror is as visceral and as slow-burning as his films are engaging. And crucially those characteristics that he values most in his less obviously genre offerings - charm, heart and more than anything else, relationship dynamics - are the self same factors that make his horror work so successful. So to have Mr Darabont turning his hand to one of the most successful, and most loudly heralded of all comic book properties, in the shape of The Walking Dead, and not only that in the episodic format that would allow the director to play to his established strengths wasn't something ever to be taken lightly. But then, after all the hype, and all the promising early looks - could the show ever possibly hope to live up to the enormous expectations built on that huge wave of fan excitement? Too bloody right it could. This first installment follows the events of the first few comics, as we are introduced to Sheriff Deputy Rick Grimes, the apparent lone survivor of a apocalypse that reanimates the dead - an apocalypse that he missed thanks to being in a gun-shot wound induced coma. After encountering some of the zombies, Rick heads home to find his family, discovering they have packed and left, giving our man some hope of their survival and the motivation to set out and hunt for them. Before he gets anywhere he meets some new neighbours , learns how the apocalypse went down, and learns of a possible location for his family - the supposed safe haven of nearby Atlanta. Only when he gets there, it's not exactly as advertised... All in all, episode one was a triumphant welcoming point to the season, beginning with a brilliantly understated, largely silent sequence in which we are introduced to Darabont's zombies in explosively chilling fashion. That first zombie (geniously combining the twin chills of creepiness and childhood) is arguably the most important moment of the whole episode - that point when she is revealed is where Darabont and the art department get to show off their skills and realise their qualifications, while simultaneously announcing the horror manifesto for the coming six episodes. If anyone doubted that AMC were going to play a consciously weakened hand, wary of censors and of alienating their potential cut of mainstream audiences, this was also the moment that put paid to those concerns, with make-up God Greg Nicotero's outstanding, breath-taking work confirming a no-holds-barred approach to the zombies. And that first zombie is merely the first in a long line of exceptional make-up work that just keeps on coming. In a market already saturated with zombie films, it is hugely impressive to see new things being tried, and to be astounded by the new creations on-screen, when the "zombie look" is now an inherent facet of the cinematic vernacular. There has obviously been no scrimping in the creative process behind these dead walkers, from planning stages which obviously heavily referenced the original comics (and rightly so) to the execution, which is so faultless that the show doesn't even have to rely on the usual zombie-film-makers' tool of concealment - darkness - to hide the flaws. Scope isn't exactly something that this first episode needs to worry about though: from the opening titles to the minute the credits roll, we are treated to a completely cinematic experience, one that is lavishly and lovingly shot (suggesting/confirming a huge, committed budget), in the familiar, impressive manner that regular watchers of AMC shows will be accustomed to. The compositions of some shots, particularly- though not limited to - the scene in which Rick rides his horse into Atlanta are hugely impressive, and there is a subtle grandeur to things that screams cinema. Let's face it, The Walking Dead is not treading new ground at all. But what could simply have been an advert for zombie movie cliches instead feels unique, even despite those characteristics that are staples of the genre - the unrealised promise of a distant haven, the close-knit group of survivors (with obligatory "difficult" characters), the familiar gait and appetites of the zombies - there is enough that is innately Darabont, and enough entirely new material and tone that it is being rightly heralded as a groundbreaking show. The rebirth of the undead, if you will. Despite my initial reservations, in Andrew Lincoln AMC found a perfectly appropriate lead - an actor who has developed his career on shows and movies that forefront relationships, and have established in him an unspoken everyman quality and bags of charm (go back and watch Teachers, it's all there). Rather than choosing an established US talent, the decision to go with one whose major recognition over the pond is limited to Love Actually means the element of expectation is taken off the table and he is able to present a performance without baggage. And a damn fine job he does of it too - thanks to that engaging element and the invaluable asset of a not-terrible American accent Rick is very much our guy from the outset, and to not root for him would be unthinkable for anyone who planned to stick with the series beyond the end of episode one. The wider cast at this early stage don't have a great deal to do apart from establishing work designed to prick our interest enough to care to come back, with Jon Bernthal and Sarah Wayne Callies suggesting more than enough to suggest an intriguing dynamic, and their personal histories are the gripping bombshell that the human interest element of the story hinges on. But the real stars, other than Mr Lincoln are Morgan Jones (Lennie James) and his son Duane (Adrian Kali Turner), suburban refugees in their own home who scrabble around to survive without zombie detection. James - another British talent - is a great portrait of a tortured soul, wearing his emotional scars clearly, without the true horror of his revelation ever really landing until we see why he can't bring himself to leave him home, and his son does well to dispel my perpetually repeated mantra that children do not good actors make. Though Rick is our hero, Morgan and his son are the real heart of the episode and Darabont cleverly uses their predicament for some much-needed narrative exposition, ensuring the necessary descriptive work is anchored to a relatable story in a way that adds gravitas to the immediate history of the show's events. Their predicament, and the touching tragedy of their story also crucially forefronts what Darabont will have been throwing around the set all of the time: despite the prowess of the make-up and design work, it is not the gore, but the human dynamics that really matter. As with the comic, the show seems to be concentrating on a genre soap opera approach, and while it is dressed up in zombie Western clothing, the show couldn't work without our attachment to the survivors and their relationships with one another. Crucially, the show's bias towards characters rather than spectacle means it has immediate, invaluable wide appeal - it packs something for everyone, so rather than just being a zombie show, it's a show that happens to feature a zombie apocalypse in the background. That soap opera style format also allows for focus-hopping between characters, so although Rick is billed as the protagonist, his story is never too heavily weighted to the detriment of others, and others can step into focus without it feeling like a betrayal to Rick. So just as Morgan and Duane's story takes precedence as this episode's focus, we immediately get the sense that future episodes will deviate to other characters in the survivor group. For certain members of the audience, the show's reception was always going to be dependent on its fidelity to the original source material, and fans of the comic book series will thankfully have been hugely impressed: the show seems not only to use the comics as a reference point, but rather to bring them to life. The zombie designs seem lifted off the page, even though they are clearly vastly more complex than their inked counterparts, and characters at this early stage match their on-page versions to a tee. And most important of all, the spirit of Kirkman's comics is perfectly preserved across to this adaptation - while there is gore and shock tactics, both versions steer clear of ever being obligatory, so the zombies retain their impact and we are encouraged to grow with the characters. And I remember thinking, first time round that that was a journey I couldn't wait to get involved in. So, there we have it: a near perfect debut to one of the most hotly anticipated TV shows to ever grace trans-Atlantic screens. The final question though - as with anything so grand, and so instantaneously successful - is whether the show could continue the form beyond this astonishingly good first episode. Tune in next week for the next in this series of retrospectives... Further Reading - Dan Owen's original review of the first episode which we published in October.
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