When it was announced that Frank Darabont would be heading up an adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s universally acclaimed comic book series The Walking Dead for AMC, it automatically set the bar unbelievably high. Kirkman’s comic is a lone light of quality in the overexposed zombie genre—bleak and emotionally intense. Darabont directed The Shawshank Redemption, the movie that everyone’s mother just loves, but also won some cult clout with his morbid adaptation of Stephen King’s The Mist. And of course, AMC is the reigning king of the mountain for prime-time drama (and movies you’ve seen a million times). So, this little show about zombies eating characters you grow to love has quite a high pedigree to live up to.
How did it turn out? Well, you know that fan-made credits sequence that went viral about a month back? The series isn't as good as that. While the credits manage to capture the madness, paranoia and mayhem of the comic in about 50 seconds, Darabont's series lacks that electric vibrancy and comes across as slow and dour. Based on the pilot, the first season will be a pretty faithful adaptation of Kirkman’s first Walking Dead book, which is not exactly the most exciting starting off point for a television series, as it mostly just consists of men sitting around a campfire yelling at one another about where to park the Winnebago.
But in spite of that, The Walking Dead is a welcome reprieve from the camp-laden world of zombie culture, a niche that’s been bogged down with late night zombie-themed games of tag, and books inserting the undead into works of literature. You won’t see any silly decapitation machines or vehicles with mounted chainsaw stations here (looking at you, Dawn of the Dead remake); Darabont 's series captures the atmosphere of an actual zombie apocalypse: a serious world driven by fear, sadness and brutality.
The show follows Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), a small-town Sheriff’s deputy who wakes up from a coma to find the world transformed into a zombie infested hellscape. While he eventually goes on to meet with a small group of survivors stationed outside of a ruined Atlanta, the pilot concentrates on Rick’s acclimation to this new world through a chance encounter with Morgan and Duane, an emotionally exhausted father and son (Lennie James and Adrian Kali Turner).
The plot for the series is simple, and likely overly familiar to genre fans (with a few brief but noticeable parallels to 28 Days Later), but for what the series lacks in originality, it makes up for in emotional honesty. While Rick and the rest of the main cast aren’t given much to do in the show’s first hour except wander around, Morgan, a secondary character who may return in, oh, five seasons or so, has a powerful scene involving the fate of his wife and his grizzly attempt to come to terms with his loss. That scene, coupled with some charged performances from James and Jon Bernthal, who plays Rick’s partner Shane, is a solid indicator that the rest of the series could actually live up to the unbelievable hype that swirls around it.
Another concern for fans is the amount of violence that the show would be able to get away with, and very quickly Darabont puts their concerns to rest--a permanent, bullet in the brain kind of rest. The show is extravagantly violent, boasting a level of bloodletting that’s unprecedented on basic cable. While it may be too extreme for some, Darabont and AMC clearly aren’t courting an audience of weak stomached ninnies. Still, the extremity of the gore never feels gratuitous; it simply sets the scene for a world that’s lost its mind, sunk into a chaos so complete that cutting around the violence would seem a travesty.
As it stands The Walking Dead has its moments of seriously well crafted drama, but because it spends so much time setting the mood and wrenching every drop of emotion out of every single scene, it starts to feel a little sluggish. I found myself kind of inching forward in my seat trying to urge the narrative along to a more interesting part of the story. “Move, story! Move!” It goes without saying that horror is a genre of the slow burn, but hopefully The Walking Dead will stop stalling and start laying on the dread.
The Walking Dead premieres Halloween night at 10 on AMC.